Angels, Anger, and Ants: Decoding "Of Dreams"

By Olivia Mastrosimone

Sometime between 1797-1835, Tom Hazard printed a book by Chloe Russel that apparently could predict the future and decode dreams. 

Little is known about Russel, the “free colored female” living in Massachusetts who wrote the mysterious and often overlooked Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, a helpful guide to the spiritual and supernatural for 19th-century readers. Claiming to hold a great power that allowed her to “determine the most remarkable events” that would befall readers throughout their lives, Russel offers extensive instructions on how to obtain the perfect spouse, read moles, and predict what fortunes and fumbles you’ll encounter on a Tuesday or Wednesday.


But perhaps the most puzzling and mystifying section in this book is Russel’s “Of Dreams,” a 10-page treatise offering explanation and predictions based on dream symbols. Russel offers no introduction for this section and no justification for her readings, leaving the minds of 20th-century readers befuddled, but terrifically intrigued. 

In looking at the context of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book, it seems that the modern American reader is at a stark disadvantage compared to those of the 19th century in terms of understanding the perplexing nature of this text. As peculiar as it may seem to 2020 eyes, especially those of one unfamiliar with folk healing and folk practices, fortune-telling, and dream books were incredibly popular during the 19th century. 

Recall any recent literary fad–vampire novels, dystopian science-fiction, legal thrillers, political expose. It may be helpful to think of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book as an early-1800s Twilight in both fame and demographics (mainly young women). Scholars argue that fortune-telling and dream books are as old as printing itself, and their early modern popularity intrinsically tied to the advent of the printing press.  

From left to right: Dr. Flamstead's and Mr. Patridge's new fortune-book, London, 1730, Real and extraordinary dreams and visions, with their interpretations, London c. 1795, Beadle’s Dime Book of Dreams. New York, 1861. 


The public intrigue surrounding dream reading grew so strong, that many people took to their local papers to have readers decode their dream symbols and predict their future.

This reader-submitted dream was published in the Middlesex Gazette in April 1788. The dreamer addresses the reader, writing: 

"As I am a constant reader of your paper I should be glad if you would insert the following DREAM. It may seem foolish to some, but I should be glad if somebody would give the interpretations, for to me it seems to be of great consequence.”



Submissions like this were published so frequently, and readers were sometimes so engrossed in these dreams that they would then submit their own responses to other readers’ dreams. Take this response by “A Constant Reader” published in the Freemans Journal, or the North American Intelligencer in August of 1782. It reads: 

... only craving to ask those gentlemen a few questions, which I expect they will answer with precision; as, first, Do you know the horse that brought (you say) the grain? Secondly, who is the identical owner of the horse...” 

However, outside of the 19th-century, there exists a deeply rooted belief in dream interpretation from numerous cultures and religions around the world, and Russel’s Fortune Teller was published during one of the many spikes in the practice’s popularity. After careful analysis of historical dream interpretation, as well as the folk healing and practices of early African Americans, it’s clear that Russel takes inspiration from ancient traditions, African American folklore, and then-popular themes present in dream interpretation in her “Of Dreams” section. In doing so, Russel situates herself in the thriving community of early African American spirituality that was born out of slavery and continued to develop and plant roots in primarily Black cities.



Historical Background on Dream Interpretation

Before diving into Russel’s connection with African and African American folklore and dream reading, explore the map below for a brief look into the rich and expansive history of dream interpretation, from Ancient Egypt to Early Modern Britain. Later in this exhibit, you’ll notice Russel’s connections to these Ancient forays into the subconscious. 

While these cultures and religions were exploring their own ideologies surrounding dream interpretation, numerous native peoples in Africa were developing numerous religions and belief systems that held divination and dream interpretation at their core. Explore the map below, which focuses on a few specific belief systems of native African peoples, especially in Western Africa where Russel was born. Again, you may notice some similarities between traditional African folklore and Russel's piece as you make your way through this exhibit.


Deeper Dive into Early African American Dream Reading 

Since enslaved peoples were first brought to the Americas in 1619, African Americans have been practicing religions brought over and adapted from those found in native African communities. As southern slave states began outlawing traditional practices, early African Americans had to adapt in order to keep their culture and religions alive. What developed in the 18th and 19th century was an expansive and rich southern Black folklore, with certain belief systems becoming so grounded in southern culture that they still flourish today. 

Take Hoodoo, for example, which developed primarily in southern Protestant states and spread across the country during the Great Migration. Slave codes restricted drumming (an integral aspect of many African traditional religions) and group religion outside of Christianity for Black slaves. However, Hoodoo survived through a unique covertness due to the fact that it wasn’t a formal religion–its rituals, practice, and divination were so unfamiliar to the white slave owners that their oppressors “did not understand or recognize” (Mitchen 28). One of the main divinations used in Hoodoo is Oneiromancy, or divination based on dreams. Here are some of the most well-known dream-signs used in southern African American Hoodoo and folklore. It’s important to note, however, that dream signs varied from locality to locality, and each community had its own signs and interpretations.

A freshly dug grave: Indicates the suffering for the wrongdoings of others, while looking into an empty grave signifies unpleasant tidings. 

Dirt: Indicates trouble or sickness.

Eggs: Indicates good luck

Fresh Meat: Indicates death

Funeral: Indicates a wedding


Snakes: Indicate the presence of an enemy. If you fail to kill the dream snake your enemies are very powerful, if you kill it, you will “conquer.” CITE 

The Sun: Indicates your mother’s death

The Moon: Indicates your father’s death

Vegetables: Well behaved children

Wedding: Indicates a funeral

Worms: Indicate losing your mind

Russel’s “Of Dreams” not only takes inspiration and meaning from Southern African American folklore but ancient dream lore as well. Below are excerpts from “Of Dreams” with interactive annotations shedding light on the connections Russel has to ancient dream lore, African and African American tradition, and 19th-century popular culture. 


Decoding "Of Dreams"

Excerpts from "Of Dreams," a section in The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book. Hover over footnotes for analysis of Russel's interpretations.

Adversity-To dream you are engaged in a dispute with a person shows that you will meet with trouble.

Air-To dream you see the air clear, blue, calm and serene, shews that the point you aim at will be prosperous; if with thick and dark clouds, you will meet with disappointment 1

Angels-If you dream of angels, it is a proof that there is one then  near you, and that the rest of your dreams shall prove true; therefore be mindful of it 2

Anger-To dream you see another in a passion with you, denote some very unpleasant circumstance that is to happen.

Ants-When you dream of ants, if you see them busy in making their provision, it is a sign your industry will be crowned with success; if they appear to be injured you may be certain that some secret enemy is trying your ruin 3

Apparel-Should you chance to dream that you are very genteely drest, and in good company, it declares that you will be advanced considerably higher in rank than you have been hitherto


Bees-If you see bees at work in your dream, it signifies that your industry will be prosperous 4

Cards-If you dream you are playing at cards, it denotes you will soon be married 5

Cattle-To dream of driving cattle, is a sign that you will be prosperous through life.

Cat-Should you dream of a cat, you must expect trouble 6

Children-To see children in your dream, promises peace and happiness in this life.

Church-To dream you are in a church, you will be disappointed in your expectations. 7

Climbing-To dream you are ascending a very steep place, and find great difficulty, denotes sickness.8

Combat-To dream of combatting, signifies that you have enemies who will strive to injure you.


Death-To dream you see a corpse, is a sign that you will either be married or assist at a wedding; if you dream you are dead yourself, is sign of success in all your undertaking 9

Feast-To dream that you are at a feast denotes extraordinary satisfaction.

Fields-To dream you are crossing ploughed fields it denotes misfortune; if green grass appears, it denotes prosperity.

Finger-If you dream you cut your finger and it bleeds, you will get money where you least expect it.

Fire-If you dream of eating fire, you will have a connexion that will ruin you.

Fish-To dream you are a [sic] fishing and catch none; you will never be married to the person you court, if you catch them you will be successful in love, and enjoy many happy days 10


Fruit-The gathering of green fruit denotes sickness; ripe, mellow and red, is a token of peace, health, and prosperity.

Funeral-A funeral with a relation on, or attending it, imports that the person so seen will lose a near friend; if there is no friend with the funeral, you will be married yourself or assist at the wedding of some kinsman 11

Grave-To dream you see a grave, denotes sickness or disappointment if you go into the grave, you will suffer; if you come out, you will rise to enjoy a prosperous state of life


Serpents-To dream of serpents, signifies private enemies. 12

Sores-If you dream you are troubled with bad sores you will rise by patronage or legacy. 13

Sea-If you dream of walking on the sea, or swimming without danger, you will enjoy the person you love.

Sheep-To dream of sheep denotes respect being paid to you.

Silver-Should you dream of picking up small pieces of silver, fore- shows distress for money.

Soldiers-To see armed soldiers, foreshews you will be persecuted.

Teeth-To dream your teeth drop out, is a token of losing some near relation.

Treasure-Should you find a treasure in your dream you will be exposed to the treachery of a person you confide in.

Wedding-To dream you are at a wedding, portends sickness, or the death of a near relation.


Works Cited

"Advertisement." Middlesex Gazette, vol. III, no. 127, 7 Apr. 1788, p. [3]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers, Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

A.H. Gardiner, 'Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, 3rd Series: Chester Beatty Gift' I (London, 1935), 9-27, pls. 5-12

Artemidorus, Daldianus.The interpretation of dreams digested into five books by that ancient and excellent philosopher, Artimedorus. London: Printed by Bernard Alsop, 1644. Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, 2011.

Chireau, Yvonne Patricia. Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition. University of California Press, 2003.

Lerner, Gerda. Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women's Rights and Abolition. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press. HeinOnline,

Middleton, Laura. Dreams and their Interpretations: Compilation of dream interpretations contributed by African Americans of Edisto Island, South Carolina. 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project Papers. USC South Caroliniana Lib., Columbia, SC. <>

Mitchem, Stephanie. African American Folk Healing. NYU Press, 2007.

"[Mr. Bailey; Dream]." The Freeman's Journal: or, The North-American Intelligencer, vol. II, no. LXIX, 14 Aug. 1782, p. [1]. Readex: America's Historical Newspapers, Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.

Partridge and Flamstead. Dr. Flamstead's and Mr. Patridge's new fortune-book: containing, I. Their new-invented method of knowing one's fortune by a pack of cards; ... V. A treatise of moles, .... London, 1730.

Pick, Daniel, and Roper, Lyndal, ed. Dreams and History: The Interpretation of Dreams from Ancient Greece to Modern Psychoanalysis. Taylor & Francis Group. 2004 ProQuest Ebook Central,

Puckett, Newbury Niles. Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro. New York, Negro Universities Press. 1975, c1926.

Real and extraordinary dreams and visions, with their interpretations; tending to shew that the great and wonderful events of the present crisis, will usher in the glorious revolution spoken of by the prophets. With a preparatory address and solemn call To Methodists, Quakers, Dissenters, Catholics, Churchmen, Jews, Deists, And The Preachers In Particular; Also to kings, orators, patriots, judges, nobles, politicians, and the public in general. London,  [1795?]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Northeastern University. 9 Dec. 2020 


The Golden Dreamer, or Dreamer’s Interpreter, clearly showing how all things Past, Present and to come may be ascertained by means of Dreams , Newcastle upon Tyne, no date (British Library catalogue suggests 1850).

  1. This interpretation can be traced back to Artemidorus. He writes this about dreams of air in his 2nd-century Oneirocritica: "The Ayre cléere and pure is good to all, chiefly to those which have lost goods, and which would make voyages. The ayre troubled and cloudy, on the contrary signifyeth hinderance and anger."
  2. A common interpretation for angels in dreams was the presence of some type of truth the dreamer will find. For example, in Dr Flamstead and Mr. Partridge's New Fortune Book, it reads, of dreams about angels: "To speak with an angel is to reveal some secret to which the party does not understand 
  3. Connects to Artemidorus. He writes of dreams about ants: "To sée Ants with wings is not good, for it argues hurt or a dangerous voy∣age, other Ants which are diligent and in∣dustrious, are good for plough-men"
  4. Similar to the historic interpretation about ants, Russel also connects bees to industriousness. However, other early African American folklore treats bees as signs of danger if stinging you, or symbols of honor if making honey.
  5. Historically, dreams of cards, dice, and general play are interpreted as positive and symbolic of a good fortune in the future, from Ancient Greece to southern Hoodoo.
  6. In many dream books, cats represent sneakiness and promiscuity. Russel definitely takes some inspiration from this historical interpretation." "the Cat signifies the Adulterer or Harlot" (Artemidorus)
  7. Russel's interpretation of church symbolism is at odds with the African American folklore at the time. In most Southern Black spirituality, dreams of church represent good fortune and success. Russel's interpretation bears more resemblance to the popular beliefs in Early Modern England: "to dream that you are in a church, or do somewhat in a church, is a very ill dream. (Flamstead and Partridge).
  8. This interpretation can be traced back to a number of beliefs and cultures. Climbing and height seem to commonly be regarded as bad omens.
  9. Death is a peculiar symbol in dream interpretations. Some cultures believe dreams of death to symbolize success and happiness, while others take it more literally as symbolizing bad omens. Generally speaking, Southern Hoodoo regards dreams of death as symbols of future prosperity, which is clearly referenced in Russel's interpretation.
  10. Dreams of fish have been interpreted in various ways by different cultures and belief systems. Generally, the quality of the water affects the outcome of the dreamer's future–if it's clear and the fish are caught, good things will come your way. If it's murkey, dreamers beware.
  11. Similarly to dreams of death, dreams of funerals often symbolize the quite the opposite–weddings! This is an interpretation very popular among practitioners of Hoodoo and early African Americans living in Southern Protestant states.
  12. Dreams of serpents and snakes have a long history of interpretation. Most cultures and belief systems regard snakes and serpents as bad omens, signifying death, betrayal, and loss.
  13. This symbol is incredibly interesting in its interpretation and longevity. In 200 AD, Artemidorus wrote of dreams about scab, sores, and leprosy: "signes of Honour and Riches to the poore, to the rich and mighty they are Offices and Dignities."