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Invade Greece, Or Else!

Dreamed 480 BC, by Xerxes I and his uncle Artabanus.

SOURCE: Herodotus; quoted in The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams (1865, v.2, ed. Frank Seafield).

Artabanus, the uncle of Xerxes, was the only counsellor of that infatuated monarch who had at once the wisdom and the faithfulness to dissuade him from that expedition into Greece which afterwards terminated so fatally to the Persian rule. The adverse opinion of Artabanus occasioned Xerxes considerable uneasiness; and deliberating with himself during the night, the latter came to the conclusion that it would not be to his interest to make war on Greece. Having thus changed his resolution, he fell asleep; and some time in the night, as is related by the Persians, he saw the following vision.

Xerxes imagined that a tall and handsome man stood by him and said, " Do you then change your mind, O Persian! and resolve not to lead an army against Greece, after having ordered the Persians to assemble their forces? You do not well to change your resolution, nor is there any man who will agree with you. Therefore pursue that course which you resolved upon in the day." Xerxes thought that the man, having pronounced these words, flew away.

When day dawned, he paid no attention to this dream, but having assembled those Persians whom he had before convened, he addressed them as follows--

"Pardon me, O Persians! that I suddenly change my plans; for I have not yet attained to the highest perfection of judgment, and they who persuade me to this enterprise are never absent from me. When, therefore, I heard the opinion of Artabanus, my youth immediately boiled with rage against him, so that I threw out words more unbecoming than I ought to a person of his years. But now, conscious of my error, I will follow his advice. Since, therefore, I have changed my resolution, and determined not to make war against Greece, do you remain quiet."

The Persians, when they heard this, being transported with joy, did him homage.

When night came, the same dream, again standing by Xerxes as he slept, said: "Son of Darius, you have then openly renounced, in the presence of the Persians, the intended expedition, and make no account of my words, as if you had not heard them from any one. Be well assured, however, of this, that unless you immediately undertake this expedition, this will be the consequence to you: as you have become great and powerful in a short time, so you shall become low again in an equally short space."

Xerxes, being alarmed by this vision, rushed from his bed, and sent a messenger to call Artabanus; and when he came, Xerxes spoke to him as follows: "Artabanus, I on the moment was not in my senses when I used hasty words to you in return for your good advice; however, after no long time I repented, and acknowledged that those measures which you suggested ought to be adopted by me. I am not, however, able to perform them, though desirous of doing so; for after I had altered my resolution, and acknowledged my error, a dream frequently presents itself to me by no means approving of my so doing, and it has just now vanished, after threatening me.

"If, then, it is a deity who sends this dream, and it is his pleasure that an expedition against Greece should at all events take place, this same dream will also flit before you, and give the same injunction as to me. This I think will happen, if you should take all my apparel, and having put it on, should afterwards sit on my throne, and then go to sleep in my bed."

Xerxes thus addressed him; but Artabanus not obeying the first order, as he did not think himself worthy to sit on the royal throne, when he was at last compelled did as he was desired, after he had spoken as follows: "I deem it an equal merit, O king! to form good plans and to be willing to yield to one who gives good advice; and though both of these qualities attach to you, the converse of wicked men leads you astray, just as blasts of wind falling on the sea, which of all things is the most useful to mankind, do not suffer it to follow its proper nature. As for me, grief did not so much vex me at hearing your reproaches as that when two opinions were proposed by the Persians, one tending to increase their arrogance, the other to check it, and to show how hurtful it is to teach the mind to be constantly seeking for more than we already possess, that when these two opinions were proposed, you should choose that which is more dangerous both to yourself and the Persians.

"Now, however, after you have changed to the better resolution, you say that since you have given up the expedition against the Greeks, a dream has come to you, sent by some god, which forbids you to abandon the enterprise.

"But these things, my son, are not divine, for dreams, which wander among men, are such as I will explain to you, being many years older than you are. Those visions of dreams most commonly hover around men respecting things which one has thought of during the day; and we, during the preceding days, have been very much busied about this expedition.

"If, therefore, this is not such as I judge, but has something divine in it, you have correctly summed up the whole in few words; then let it appear and give to me the same injunction as to you. And it ought not to appear to me any the more for my having your apparel than my own, nor the more because I go to sleep on your bed than on my own; if, indeed, it will appear at all. For that which has appeared to you in your sleep, whatever it be, can never arrive to such a degree of simplicity as to suppose that when it sees me, it is you, conjecturing from your apparel.

"But if it shall hold me in contempt, and not deign to appear to me, whether I be clothed in your robes or in my own; and if it shall visit you again, this indeed would deserve consideration; for if it should repeatedly visit you, I should myself confess it to be divine. If, however, you have resolved that so it should be, and it is not possible to avert this, but I must needs sleep in your bed, well, when this has been done, let it appear also to me; but, till that time, I shall persist in my present opinion."

Artabanus having spoken thus, and hoping to show that Xerxes had said nothing of any moment, did what was ordered; and having put on the apparel of Xerxes, and sat in the royal throne. When he afterwards went to bed, the same dream which had appeared to Xerxes came to him when he was asleep, and standing over Artabanis, spoke as follows: "Art thou, then, the man who dissuadeth Xerxes from invading Greece, as if thou wert very anxious for him? But neither hereafter nor at present shalt thou escape unpunished for endeavouring to avert what is fated to be. What Xerxes must suffer if he continues disobedient has been declared to him himself."

Artabanus imagined that the dream uttered these threats, and was about to burn out his eyes with hot irons.

He therefore, having uttered a loud shriek, leaped up, and seating himself by Xerxes, related all the particulars of the vision in the dream, and spoke to him in this manner: "I, O king, being a man who have seen already many and great powers overthrown by inferior ones, would not suffer you to yield entirely to youth, knowing how mischievous it is to desire much, calling to mind the expedition of Cyrus against the Massagetae, how it fared; and calling to mind also that of Cambyses against the Ethiopians; and having accompanied Darius in his invasion of Scythia--knowing all these things, I was of opinion, that if you remained quiet, you must be pronounced happy by all men. But since some divine impulse has sprung up, and, as it seems, some heaven-sent destruction impends over the Greeks, I myself am converted, and change my opinion. Do you then make known to the Persians the intimation sent by the deity, and command them to follow the orders first given by you for the preparations, and act so that, since the deity permits, nothing on your part may be wanting."

When he had thus spoken, both being carried away by the vision, as soon as it was day, Xerxes acquainted the Persians with what had happened; and Artabanus, who before was the only man who greatly opposed the expedition, now as openly promoted it.


This is a Greek account of their great enemy's disastrous decision to attack. Herodotus claims he got it from Persian sources. I believe him, for it doesn't demonize the Persians, nor patronize them as naive or superstitious. Xerxes is not hasty or credulous toward his dreams, and Artabanus is even more sophisticated; he suspects Xerxes' dream-god may be a personification of his own ambition and concerns. But his own dream-visitor is no wish-fulfilling figure, for Artabanus opposes the war and is offered nothing--no temptation, no rationalizations... Quite the opposite: he's flat-out threatened.

Is Herodotus editorializing, showing us patriotic Greek gods luring the Persians into overextending? Unlikely. The Iliad has the gods putting such double-binds on Greeks too, in the Trojan War. They're equal-opportunity bullies.

These dreams, these gods, are treacherous. Even skilled politicians like Xerxes and his uncle are damned if they do, damned if they don't. The moral's not that dreams aren't reliable, but that they are. You can rely on dreams to have their own goals--not yours at all.

Such dreams raise real concerns for modern dreamworkers. Depth psychology and many spiritual traditions assume that dreams, seen rightly, work for one's greater good. Greater, good--both trick words! In the long run, Xerxes' defeat spread Greek science and democracy far to the east. Debatably good for the world, undeniably bad for Xerxes--and the thousands who died in the war.

The monotheistic conception of angelic and demonic meddling in dreams is bad enough--but there, you just have to check your angels' credentials (though even that's not easy--Muhammad, taking angelic dictation, famously slipped and let those Satanic Verses in.) Xerxes and Artabanus are cautious men--and still get horribly burned by the gods. For gods work for Fate, not us.

Don't believe in spooks? Then the linked dreams of Xerxes and Artabanus are evidence that our own minds can elaborately conspire against us, sacrificing us for greater historical goals. Equally disturbing! Such dreams are evidence against Freud's view of powerful but selfish dream-forces more primitive than the conscious. They're equally evidence against sleep research's picture of dreams as just processing one's day (hardly new: Artabanus assumes it at first). Both models see dreams as your brain's private business. Dreams of this sort--and they didn't end with Xerxes--violate that model's simplicity. Profoundly.

Whether you're religious or materialist, however you define "gods" or "dreams" here, they're powerful, intelligent, devious, organized. And with their own agenda.

--Chris Wayan

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