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The Megara Inn

Dreamed c.200 BC (give or take a century?) by an Arcadian traveler
as reported by Cicero (106-43 BC) & translated by John Aubrey, in Miscellanies upon Various Subjects (1696).

As two certain Arcadians, intimate companions, were travelling together, it so happened, that, when they came to Megara, one of them went to an inn, and the other to a friend's house.

Both had supped at their respective places, and were gone to bed; when lo! he, that was at his friend's house, dreamt, that his companion came to him, and begged of him for Heaven's sake to assist him, for that the inn-keeper had contrived a way to murder him: frightened at first out of his sleep, he rose up; but soon afterward coming a little better to himself, he thought, upon recollection, there was no heed to be given to the vision, and went very quietly to bed again.

But as soon as he was got into his second sleep, the same vision repeated the visit, but the form of his petition was quite altered. He beseeched him, that, since he had not come to his assistance, while he was among the living, he would not suffer his death however, to go unrevenged. Told him that as soon as he was murdered, he was tossed by the innkeeper into a waggon, and had a little straw thrown over his corpse. He entreated him to be ready very early at the door before the waggon was to go out of town.

This dream truly disturbed him it seems very much, and made him get up very early: he nicked the time, and met with the waggoner just at the very door, and asked him what he had in his cart. The fellow run away frightened and confounded. The dead body was pulled out of it, and the whole matter coming plainly to light, the inn-keeper suffered for the crime.

What is there that one can call more divine than a dream like this?


Any readers know where Cicero got this secondhand story?

It's a classic type, of course--the psychic dream in which a ghost outs a murderer. And it's true that such a well-shaped fable as this looks suspiciously neatened-up, if not entirely made-up. But better-documented examples, such as Stockden's Murder, show that they can't be dismissed; such dreams do happen and can solve real crimes.

So let me list some oddities that hint this tale's rooted in fact:

  1. It names its locale--Megara, a midsized town, not a great anonymous city like Athens. A nice juicy murder like this would be remembered there. Also, the story as told discourages travel to Megara, so if it's entirely false, I'd expect indignant debunking from the locals. So this murder is less likely to be pure fiction than embroidered history--and at this date, all history is embroidered history. (Not now, of course.)
  2. In Greece and Rome, recurring dreams were a recognized sign that the dream wasn't "a private letter to the self" but had public import and required action (example: Goblet of Gold). In a fable, we'd expect three or four dreams, perhaps with some escalation but essentially recurring. Not here! It turned out the dreamer had just one chance to save his friend, and failed. But give his friend credit for persistence--and forgiveness. No crying over spilt blood; without reproaches, the victim asks his friend to do what he still can: expose the killer. This pragmatic violation of the archetypal pattern smacks of history not fable.
  3. Dreams of ghosts demanding justice are age-old. But the first dream here is not that; it's a cry for help from his still living friend. And a very peculiar cry, on second look: if he knows he's in danger, why not just get up and leave, or ambush the murderous innkeeper? The only sense I can make of this passage is that the guest in the inn, asleep, somehow senses his peril but cannot get his own conscious mind to pay attention, and so contacts his more receptive sleeping friend's mind. Maybe the victim slept like a log and couldn't wake, or his conscious mind was a narrow, logical sort who disdained his dreams; who knows? But the message to his friend only makes sense if the sender is the inn-guest's unconscious--one dreamer contacting another! And that's a revealing anachronism: the Classical world took ESP in stride, but this notion of an unconscious so dissociated from the ego it could more easily contact a dreaming friend than its own conscious mind... that's alien to the Classical mindset. These dreams make real sense only if you accept both (1) an unconscious mind and (2) telepathy. I'll bet they looked as weird to Roman readers (yes to 2, no to 1) as to modern Americans (yes to 1, no to 2). Jarring to both cultures, but for different reasons!
And that refusal to fit either culture's theory of mind is what gives this, to me, a whiff of authenticity.

--Chris Wayan

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