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The Oneirocritical alphabet


Silviu Lupaşcu


The history of sacred literature and of the literature conceived in the proximity of the sacred throws into relief the existence of a cultural archetype: the monarch who dreams and the prophet, redeemer or ”man of God” who is called to interpret the dream, to reveal its significance. In most of the ancient narratives where this motif occurs, the very essence of the dream is represented by the conflict between the divine power-authority and the human power-authority. The overwhelming victory of the theocratical principle turns into nothingness all the pride of the earthly realms, the historical continuity of which follows the pattern of involution, irreversible decay or fall into the depths of time. The unknown universe of the dreams is identified as a spiritual borderline between the material world viewed as a religious space and the World of God or World of the Unseen, revealed as the religious space within the boundaries of which resides the supreme truth of religion. The oneirocritical symbols and their meanings seem to constitute an universal language, susceptible to transcend not only the limits of different religions, but also the limits of the conscious psyche, the gates of which are thus opened towards the limitless unification of the unconscious psyche. In the following lines we shall try to restore, through a scaffolding of arguments and hypothesis, a few fragments of the oneirocritical alphabet.

In the Book of Daniel (chapters 2 and 4) are recorded two dreams that Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BCE), the King of Babylon, dreamed, as well as their explanations provided by the young Hebrew prophet on whom God bestowed understanding in all visions and dreams.

The first dream is an epiphany, in the shape of a makros anthropos, of the historical ages that will follow in succession after the decline of Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom: ”This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass. His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.” A stone (”that was cut out without hands”) breaks into pieces the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold. All the constituent substances of the ”great image” became ”like the chaff of the summer threshingfloors”, carried by the wind, while the stone became ”a great mountain” that filled the whole earth.

Daniel exposes before the king ”the sure interpretation” of ”the certain dream”: the head of fine gold is Nebuchadnezzar himself, and the silver, the brass, and the iron mixed with clay represent the kingdoms that will descend from Babylon and will signpost the historical fall or involution (the regress of the human nature from the accomplishment of the golden age into the suffering and evil that prevail in the age of iron had also been described by Hesiod in Works and Days, Acsan, p. 45-48; cf. Plato, The Republic, 546 d – 547 c, Cornea, p. 351). The monarchs who will rule over this world will pass away, like all the illusions of the world, like the nothingness of the human power. The stone thrown by the Divine Wrath will lay the foundation for the everlasting Kingdom of God and will bring again the whole earth under the theocratic rule. The reality of theocracy, remembered by the intervention of the Divine Grace, will redeem all the wandering sons and daughters of the human family from the vanities and the false grandeurs of tyranny: ”And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” (cf. Daniel, 2, 31-45)

The second dream narrates the symbolical metamorphosis of a makros dendron, ”a tree in the midst of the earth, and the height thereof was great”: ”The tree grew, and was strong, and the height thereof reached unto heaven, and the sight thereof to the end of all the earth; the leaves thereof were fair, and the fruit thereof much, and in it was meat for all.” An angel descends from the sky and communicates to all the living beings a stern theocratical verdict: ”... a watcher and an holy one came down from heaven; he cried aloud and said thus, Hew down the tree, and cut off his branches, shake off his leaves, and scatter his fruit; let the beasts get away from under it, and the fowls from his branches; nevertheless leave the stump of his roots in the earth, even with a band of iron and brass, in the tender grass of the field; and let it be wet with the dew of heaven, and let his portion be with the beasts of the grass of the earth; let his heart be changed from man’s, and let a beast’s heart be given unto him; and let seven times pass over him.” The angelic commandment is induced by the willingness of God to make all the human beings acknowledge that ”the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and settleth up over it the basest of men”. The theocratical reality reveals itself simultaneously as the origin of the human powers and as the divine instance foreordained to punish the sins commited by the human powers.

With his thoughts troubled by the inauspicious meaning of the dream, Daniel interprets that the tree in the midst of the earth is Nebuchadnezzar himself. The message brought by the watcher reveals that ”the decree of the Most High hath come upon my lord the king”: the monarch of Babylon will be driven from his fellow men and his dwelling will be with the beasts of the field, he will eat grass as oxen and will be wet with the dew of heaven. After seven years, he will acknowledge that God Most High ”ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will”. Afterwards, when Nebuchadnezzar will repent and will confess the theocratic truth, namely that the authority over the earthly kingdoms belongs to God, his kingdom will be restored to himself, because God commanded that the stump of the tree’s roots should remain in the earth. Once he immersed his own soul in the calvary of self-denial, of understanding the meaninglessness of the earthly power, Nebuchadnezzar becomes identified with the mistery of the belief in the essence of the theocratical truth, he blesses and praises and honours and extols God Most High, Him that liveth for ever: ”Whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation.” (cf. Daniel, 4, 7-34)

Makros anthropos and makros dendron (it must be remembered that the tree has the heart of a man, which turns into the heart of a beast during the septennial expiation, in order to become the heart of a man again at the time when the hymn of praise is addressed to the theocratical principle, cf. Daniel, 4, 13) are likewise revealed, at the level of the oneirocritical symbolism, as hypostasis of Nebuchadnezzar’s power (the head of fine gold, the tree) and as hypostasis of the human power that is illusively governing the world (the tree, the kingdoms of gold, silver, brass, fire and clay). Nevertheless, all those hypostasis of the human power, which are rooted, in their turn, in the theocratical authority, foretell, through their passing away, through their own ephemeral presence in the historical time, the epiphany of the theocratical principle, the advent or the acknowledgement of the Kingdom of God (the stone, the blessing and praising of the One and Holly God). From this perspective, the theocracy of the Holly One is the one and only real reality. The World of the Unseen or the World of Heaven is revealed as a non-space beside the illusive space of the world inhabited by the human beings. Consequently, the Kingdom of God can be understood as a non-space of non-power by comparison with the vain-glorious power that rules the earthly kingdoms. Beyond the veil of creation, the non-time is the only real time, the non-space is the only real space, and the non-power, acknowledged as the theocratical truth of the Holly One, is the only real power.

If it did occur otherwise than in the text of the Sutra (cf. The Sutra of the Ten Dreams of King Prasenajit, in Tripitaka, XII, 4, pp. 43 r° – 44 r°, Chavannes, 498, IV, pp. 317-325), the meeting of King Prasenajit with Budhha Sakya-Muni should be dated between 523 BCE, the year of the awakening, boddhi, and 478 BCE, the year of the entrance in parinirvana (cf. Eugène Burnouf, Introduction à l’histoire du bouddhisme indien). Buddha resided in Sravasti, in Jetavana, in the garden of Anathapindada, at the time when King Prasenajit had a dream composed out of ten different images:

Three jugs set in a row, one put against the other. The first and the last of the jugs are mutually exchanging the vapours of the liquids that are contained in them, vapours which never descend in the empty jug situated in the midst.

A horse that swallows the food concomitantly through the mouth and through the anus.

A tree full of flowers.

A tree full of fruits.

A man who is knitting a rope. Behind the man there is a sheep. The owner of the sheep eats the rope knitted by the first man.

A fox lying down on a bed made of gold, and eating out of golden vessels.

A cow suckling her own calf, against the law of nature.

Four oxen that arrive, bellowing, from the four corners of the horizon. They are rushing upon eachother, in order to start fighting, but all of a sudden they vanish, right before clashing their horns together.

A pond surrounded by slopes. Its water is turbid in the offing, but clear near the shore.

A huge torrent, entirely red.

Overwhelmingly troubled by his dream, King Prasenajit decided to wend his way to the vihara where the Allhappy was to be found. Buddha exhorts him not to torment himself anymore with the recollection of the dream, because the dream is referring to the future, to the generations to come, not to the present generation. In order to soothe the king’s soul, Buddha is imparting to him the meanings of the images that were shown in the dream:

People who are powerful and of a high rank will live exclusively inside the castes they belong to, without bestowing a single glance upon the poor ones.

The sovereigns and the ministers will nourish themselves from the public granaries. Following in their steps, the local functionaries will oppress the common folk and will never be satisfied.

Before entering into the thirtieth year of their lives, the men in the generations to come will have white hairs on their heads and in their beards. Their longing for lust and their excessive passions will bring the hoary age upon them even in the years of their youth.

Before entering into the fifteenth year of their lives, the girls in the generations to come will behave like the married women. They will carry their babies in their arms and will dwell in the houses of their lovers, without shame.

When the husband of a woman will leave the house for the sake of trade, behind him the wife will act as the owner of the house. She will commit adultery with another man, who will eat the entire fortune of the absent husband.

In the generations to come, people of a lower and despicable condition will become nobles, will enjoy honours and will rule over riches. The crowd will show them a great deal of respect and will fear them. In the same time, the descendants of the aristocratic families will become humble. They will ocupy the inferior places, eating and drinking after all the others.

People will no longer abide by the rites and by justice. The mothers will serve as procuresses for their daughters. They will thus sell their daughters to foreign men, in order to acquire shamelessly riches by means of which to tend for their own needs.

In the generations to come, sovereigns, princes, prefects, magistrates and common folk will all lose their sincerity and will swindle one another. They will no longer be respectful of the Sky and the Earth: consequently, the fertility caused by the rain will not bring its benefits at the proper time. Then the magistrates and the common folk will raise their voices in prayers to implore the coming of the rain. The Sky will gather the clouds from the four corners of the horizon, and the thunder will be heard. The magistrates and the common people will consider that the falling of rain is imminent, but in a trice all the clouds will vanish.

In the generations to come, disorder will take over the Middle Country, Madhyadesa: the government will be unjust, and the common people will be devoid of filial piety. In that age, the countries near the border will live in calm and purity: the population will live in harmony, and the youths will show deference to their parents.

In the generations to come, the numerous kingdoms will wage war one against the other. They will raise armies and will recrute troops, in order to launch recipocal attacks. To this purpose, they will organize battalions of chariots, battalions of infantrymen and battalions of cavalry, ready to engage in life-and-death struggles. Those killed and wounded in the fights will be without number. The blood of the dead ones lying in the middle of the road will flow like a torrent.

It is interesting to remark the fact that the images incorporated in the dream of King Prasenajit, resembling the first dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, outline the same perspective of involution, of the fall into the depths of the historical time. The tree is no longer mentioned in the hypostasis of a makros dendron, but in the hypostasis of a young tree (in this respect, two out of the four manuscripts used by Chavannes contain the syntagm ”a big tree”, while the other two read ”a small tree”), re-signified in the context of the oneirocritical symbolism: full of flowers it announces the lust and the ageing of men even in the years of their youth; full of fruits it foretells the depraved and concupiscent manner of living of the women, even at the end of their puberty. The relationship between the symbol (tree) and its meaning (man, man / woman) is well established and functions in like manner in the dream of King Prasenajit and in the second dream of King Nebuchadnezzar.

In his turn, Hesiod mentions the progeric offsprings of the Iron Age: ”Zeus will destroy even this speaking kind of people who since their birth will have their templets turned grey.” (cf. Works and Days, Acsan, p. 47) The decay of the morals and manners, the oblivion of the principles that were meant to govern administration and justice, the disappearance of the sincerity and harmony that were instituted among the human beings, the lack of filial piety to which the first two images and images seven – nine in the dream of King Prasenajit are referring, are also brought out in bold relief by Hesiod, in his description of the Iron Age: ”With a great deal of contempt they will look upon their all too soon aged parents, they will reprimand them continually, uttering offensive words, rascals who do not know neither the divine anger, nor their duty to provide nourishment, as it is right to be, to their aged parents. The justice being confined to the arm, one to another they will plunder the city. Abiding neither by their oaths, nor by what is just and holly, they will value only the man who perpetrates wrong deeds and infamies. The justice will be in their hands and the shame will vanish.” (cf. Works and Days, Acsan, p. 47-48)

The angelic commandment in Daniel, 4, 17, reveals the theocratical-oneirocritical truth (”the Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men”), and remembers the fact that God has the power to bestow on whomsoever He wants the reign over the kingdom of men and can ”give it to whomsoever He will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” (a paradox well known, from direct historical experience, by the contemporaries of Cromwell, Danton or Trotsky). This detail, integrated in the second dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, is paralleled by the sixth image recorded in the dream of King Prasenajit: the fox lying down on a bed made of gold. The oneirocritical symbol foretells the overthrown of the hierarchy of castes: people of a lower and despicable condition become nobles, the labyrinth of the karmic equations invests them with the power over the world, in the respectful awe of the mob, while the descendants of the aristocratic clans d’antan are constrained to accept inferior positions.

The tenth image in the dream of King Prasenajit (the red torrent) symbolizes a historical background comparable to the epoch of the kingdoms of gold, silver, brass and iron-clay (makros anthropos) referred to in the first dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. Both oneirocritical symbols signify the traumas of the human power, the powerless and absurd cruelty of the vainglorious and ephemeral power that dominates the earth, doomed to miscarry in all its attempts to eternize its own dominion over the unreal space, before the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Sutra of King Prasenajit describes the bloody encounters between the earthly kingdoms in the broad perspective of a martial apocalypse. Even if the text of the Book of Daniel (2, 36-45) does not mention the war as the motory principle of the rise and fall of the earthly kingdoms, the history of Babylon and Persia under the rules of Belshazzar, Darius and Cyrus, as the entire history of the Iron Age, proves that the governing of the states cannot be alien to bloodshed, and also that the blood of the human victims sacrificed on the altar of the political aberrations of the nothingness new under the sun can be likened to a red torrent of overwhelming proportions (in the XXth century only, according to the statistics, the armed conflicts made a hundred million human victims all over the world). The ”red torrent” and ”makros anthropos” seem to outline a certain consubstantiality of the oneirocritical meaning, at the level of the hematic treasure wasted along the ways of the unreal space by the madness of the vainglorious powers.

On the foundation of the theological notions of real reality and unreal reality, the Sufism built a quadrivalent model of the religious space-non-space. Al-Jabarut is the world of the pure intelligences, of the archangelic lights viewed as cherubimic intelligences and as archetypal intelligences. It is the world of the real reality and of the real power, which receives its reality or haqiqa from the irradiation of the Divine Sun or Al-Haqq. It is followed by Malakut, the world of the celestial souls and of the human souls. Molk or the double barzakh represents the world of darkness, constituted by the celestial spheres and the world of the elements situated under the moon. Molk is equivalent to ’alam al-shahada, the sensible or corporeal world. Between Al-Jabarut and Malakut, on one side, and Molk or ’alam al-shahada, on the other side, is situated ’alam al-mithal or ’alam al-latif: the intermediary world, mundus imaginalis. It is the world of the forms and images, which are manifested in the so-called ”epiphanic places” or mazahir, comparable to the configurations suspended in the waters of the mirrors. As Henri Corbin puts it, within the borders of this world is to be found the whole richness and variety of the sensible world, but metamorphosed into a subtle state, of the subsistent or autonomous forms and images, characteristic to the threshold towards Malkut. ’Alam al-latif transmutes the corporeal into a subtle nature (lattafa al-khatif) and invests the intelligible with a subtle corporeality (tajsim al-ma’ani). The intermediary world, ’alam al-mithal or ’alam al-latif, is at the same time the realm of the dreams, which apparels the ideas with images and symbols, by virtue of the correspondences existing between the different levels of the existence (cf. Shihab-ud-din Yahya Suhrawardi, Hikmat al-Ishraq, in Henri Corbin, Histoire de la philosophie islamique, I, p. 295-296; Muhammad Ibn Sirin, L’interprétation des rêves, Penot, p. 6).

In his treatise on oneiromancy, Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Sirin (34 / 634 –110 / 728) states the relationship between the tree as an oneirocritical symbol and the man as the meaning of the symbol: ”The trees are men, and their status varies according to the species viewed in the dream.” (cf. Penot, 7, p. 55) In the same context, a stone the size of a projectile (oneirocritical symbol) represents ”a discourse based on assumptions or a prediction” (meaning), and the mountains, the hillocks and the rocks, viewed in the dream, symbolize ”people of great worth” or ”elevated spiritual ranks”: to climb over high mountains, in the subtle relief of the dream, is synonymous with obtaining the grace of the spiritual elevation (cf. Penot, 6, p. 49). The translation of this oneirocritical system of symbols and meanings on the biblical narrative containing the first dream of King Nebuchadnezzar allows the establishing of a semeiotic equivalence between the stone as a symbol of the Kingdom of God and the stone as a symbol of the prophetic discourse of Daniel, between the mountain as a theocratical symbol and the mountain as a symbol of the spiritual elevation characteristic to the rank of the prophets. Concerning the metals that constitute the substance of ”the great image”, makros anthropos, Ibn Sirin reveals the fact that a crown made of gold or silver (oneirocritical symbol) is a sign ”of material success and great power, but in the detriment of religion”. The golden ingots and the golden vessels symbolize a loss (of money), but the semeiotic area of the loss can be extended, through extrapolation, to the loss of the kingdom by Nebuchadnezzar himself, as a consequence of the rise of the silver kingdom and of the hewing down of the ”tree in the midst of the earth”, makros dendron. The ingots of brass and iron symbolize, according to Ibn Sirin, ”the goods of this world”, the earthly kingdoms as hypostasis of the vanity of the human power (cf. Penot, 13, p. 101, 104).

If the images revealed in the dream of King Prasenajit had been interpreted by Muhammad Ibn Sirin, the imam would have disclosed to the monarch that a horse, viewed in a dream, represents the human power, the honours and the glory. To mount on a horse that is advancing at a walking pace (oneirocritical symbol) signifies the access to honours and to human power (meaning), according to the hadith that states: ”Mount, since the saddles of horses are to you a sign of power, and their bellies are treasures!” The interpretation provided by the Arab oneirocritic (cf. Penot, 16, p. 115) coincides with the explanation given by Sakya-Muni: sovereigns, ministers and local functionaries, officials of the central and of the local authority. According to the same exegetical pattern, Ibn Sirin states that a sheep symbolizes ”a noble and generous woman”. If the sheep leaves the sheepfold or is stolen, the woman will cause troubles to her husband, like the adulterous woman described in the dream of King Prasenajit (cf. Penot, 17, p. 125). Regarding the fox pictured in the sixth image, oneirocritical symbol meant to express the overthrowing of the hierarchy of the castes, Ibn Sirin informs that the milk of a she-fox signifies boon, joy and richness (cf. Penot, 8, p. 62)... usurped by the people of a lower and despicable condition from the lawful possession of the aristocratic families, if the hermeneutical collision is accepted between the first dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Sutra of King Prasenajit and the treatise of oneiromancy attributed to Ibn Sirin. From the same standpoint, it must be recalled that ”the torrent” (oneirocritical symbol) foretells ”the attack of the enemy” (meaning), a complex relationship that reflects, in the text of Ibn Sirin, the bloody wars waged between the kingdoms of this world (cf. Penot, 5, p. 39).

The purpose of this essay is to attempt to reconstitute one page of the oneirocritical alphabet, an infinitesimal fragment of the oneirocritical encyclopaedia, a virtually unlimited thesaurus waiting in an occult state in the intermediary world, ’alam al-mithal or ’alam al-latif. The content of this page discloses the temporal continuity of creation as an involution, as a fall into the depths of the historical time through the concatenation of the kingdoms of gold, silver, brass and iron-clay. The theocratical truth reveals the reality of power, subtends the vanity and ephemeral existence of the human powers. The Kingdom of God, symbolized by the stone, by the mountain, will wipe off all the iotas of the earthly kingdoms, in order to establish the Messianic Age, the apocalyptical age of the Divine Sun, of the real reality or haqiqa, of the reality emanating eternally from Al-Haqq. During the tragic interlude of the Adamic Age, the numberless victims of the wars waged between the earthly kingdoms will set aflow ”the red torrent” of innocent blood. A blood equally shed from the makros anthropos and the makros dendron, from the forests seduced by lust and immorality, by insincerity, political corruption, lack of filial piety and premature ageing.

The act of yielding up the self to this all too human temptation of the fall into time is punished by the Almighty God by the hewing and the humbling of the tyrannical tree, within the septennial cycle of the remembering of the theocratical truth. The tragic saga of the overthrowing of the hierarchy of the castes and the rise of the basest of men above the Adamic Kingdom testifies about the impermanence of the unreal reality when confronted with the everlastingness of the real reality. On this side of these huis clos of the human welfare, ”the horse”, ”the sheep” and ”the fox” as oneirocritical symbols settle the boundaries of an illusory inferno, a prelude to the immersion in the courts of damnation or in the beatitude of the theandrical rose.

The misunderstanding of the strange periplus of the illusory powers is helping us, may be, not to commit, in reality, the damnable acts symbolized, sometimes, by the subtle arabesques of the dreams: ”Let us recapitulate what we know about the tyrannical man: he is the one who, while being awake, is as we saw that the man is in his dream.” (cf. Plato, The Republic, 576 b, Cornea, p. 387) The intermediary world of the oneiros annihilates the entire labyrinth of the spatial and temporal continuities. The thanatological threshold, intuited by every man who is awake, by every man who is asleep, is separating the real living from the unreal living, delimits the realm of sleep from the realm of wakefulness, according to the famous aphorism formulated by Sayyidna ’Ali, quoted by ’Abd Al-Ghani Al-Nabalusi in The Book of the Dreams: ”People are asleep, and when they die, they wake up.” (cf. Penot, 29, p. 197)





Burnouf, Eugène, Introduction à l’histoire du bouddhisme indien, Paris, 1844.

Collins, Steven, Nirvana and Other Buddhist Felicities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

Corbin, Henri, Histoire de la philosophie islamique, I-II, Gallimard, Paris, 1964.

Hesiod, Munci ºi zile / Works and Days, in Hesiod-Orfeu, Poeme / Poems. Trans. Ion Acsan, Editura Minerva, Bucuresti, 1987.

Plato, Republica / The Republic. Trans. Andrei Cornea, Editura ştiinţifică şi enciclopedică, Bucureşti, 1986.

Von Rad, Gerhard, Old Testament Theology, II, Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1965.

Ibn Sirin, L’interprétation des rêves. Trans. Dominique Penot, Alif, Penot, 1996.

Tripitaka Chinois, I-IV. Trans. Édouard de Chavannes, Librairie de l’Amérique et de l’Orient, Adrien-Maisonneuve, Paris, 1962.



Silviu Lupaşcu holds a B.A. in Law from the Al. I. Cuza University of Iasi, a post-graduate degree in Hebrew studies from the Oxford Center for Post-graduate Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a Ph.D. in the History of Culture from the Al. I. Cuza University of Iasi. He was also a Fulbright Fellow at Yale University, a relink fellow at the New Europe College in Bucharest. He is currently a Ph. D. Candidate at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris (Études Juives) and he teaches Jewish philosophy within the M.A. program in Jewish Studies organized by the University of Bucharest.



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