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Perpetua’s Death Dream July 19, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

Beachcombing decided to bring night visions into the day a month ago, opening a new tag on – note the failure to alliterate – Historic Dreams. He offered as a start Lincoln’s prophetic dream of the President’s own death and raised some questions about how prophetic said dream really was. Today, he offers,  instead, a well-attested antique dream from someone else about to die. Our writer’s name is Perpetua and she was an early third-century Christian from Carthage who wrote a prison diary as her trial and then as her time of execution came closer and closer. Of course, c. 200, it was illegal to be a ‘donkey-worshiper’ as Christians were known.

This dream, written out perhaps a day before she ‘suffered’ for her faith, is hardly prophetic: rather it is a very young woman, perhaps in her early twenties, coming to terms with the brutal death that awaits her in the coliseum of Carthage. Most remarkable of all is the way that the place of killing and bloodshed becomes in her dream a place of triumph and glory. For the ‘blood of martyrs’, as another Carthage Christian had it, ‘is the seed of Christians‘.

*‘The day before that on which we were to fight, I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon came hither to the gate of the prison, and knocked vehemently. I went out to him, and opened the gate for him; and he was clothed in a richly ornamented white robe, and he had on manifold calliculae [bronze discs]. And he said to me, ‘Perpetua, we are waiting for you, come!’ And he held his hand to me, and we began to go through rough and winding places. Scarcely at length had we arrived breathless at the amphitheatre, when he led me into the middle of the arena, and said to me, ‘Do not fear, I am here with you, and I am labouring with you’, and he departed.’

Note that the calliculae already mark the Deacon Pomponius as a figure of importance in the dream, perhaps even a games official. One of the curious aspects of this account – but then we are talking about a dream, after all – is how the games officials become Perpetua’s allies.

And I gazed upon an immense assembly in astonishment. And because I knew that I was given to the wild beasts, I marvelled that the wild beasts were not let loose upon me. Then there came forth against me a certain Egyptian, horrible in appearance, with his backers, to fight with me. And there came to me, as my helpers and encouragers, handsome youths; and I was stripped, and became a man. Then my helpers began to rub me with oil, as is the custom for contest; and I beheld that Egyptian on the other hand rolling in the dust. And a certain man came forth, of wondrous height, so that he even over-topped the top of the amphitheatre; and he wore a loose tunic and a purple robe between two bands over the middle of the breast; and he had on calliculae of varied form, made of gold and silver; and he carried a rod, as if he were a trainer of gladiators, and a green branch upon which were apples of gold. And he called for silence, and said, ‘This Egyptian, if he should overcome this woman, shall kill her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch.’ Then he departed.

The Egyptian is a malign force, the devil: in Biblical/Roman terms Egypt is often a place of evil. Which Roman writer called that province ‘the anus of the world’? The gigantic figure dressed in purple must be, on the other hand, Christ: note that not only is he a trainer of gladiators, i.e. a maker of martyrs, but he also carries with him the branch of immortality with its magical apples.

And we [Perpetua and the Egyptian] drew near to one another, and began to deal out blows. He sought to lay hold of my feet, while I struck at his face with my heels; and I was lifted up in the air, and began thus to thrust at him as if spurning the earth. But when I saw that there was some delay I joined my hands so as to twine my fingers with one another; and I took hold upon his head, and he fell on his face, and I trod upon his head. And the people began to shout, and my backers to exult. And I drew near to the trainer and took the branch; and he kissed me, and said to me, ‘Daughter, peace be with you’: and I began to go gloriously to the Sanavivarian gate. Then I awoke, and perceived that I was not to fight with beasts, but against the devil. Still I knew that the victory was awaiting me.

The crowds exult then not in Perpetua’s death but in her triumph and Perpetua knowing that her end is near writes following on from the dream: ‘this, so far, I have completed several days before the exhibition; but what passed at the exhibition itself let who will write.’

It is almost too good to be true but the fragmentary, every-day nature of her account has rarely been called into question by early Christian scholars. More questions are raised about the continuator of her diary, though most accept that this too is genuine. It claims that Perpetua was gored by cows and then put out of her misery by a gladiator’s sword.

Any other genuine antique dreams? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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