Dreams of Humanity

The PsycheFeatures

It happens to all of us.

Each night, when we close our eyes to sleep, something incredible happens. We soar through other worlds, perform miracles, and live lives we never could have consciously imagined. It is therefore understandable that when we wake, it can be difficult to shake the sense of a dream’s importance.

Throughout history, humans have been possessed by the magic of this feeling. The rich have given away their wealth and the faithless have turned to the gods; all because of a belief in the power of dreams. These nighttime visions have been seen as foreshadowing of things to come, as reflections of the dreamer’s inner thoughts, or as messages from the divine. Whatever their actual significance, dreams have mystified and intrigued humans throughout the ancient world, from Egypt to Greece to Mesopotamia. Each of these cultures related to the study of dreams in a different way, but what they shared was a recognition of their importance.

Since the very beginning of recorded history, people have been captivated by dreams and sensed their importance. Some of the very first sophisticated civilizations, including the Babylonians and Assyrians, placed religious and cultural significance on dreams. The Assyrians believed dreams were omens and that the dreamer had no choice but to follow any advice given to them in a dream. The Babylonians believed bad dreams were sent by demons and good dreams sent by the gods. The Babylonian religion even had a minor goddess, Mamu, who the faithful would pray to protect them from undesirable dreams

The practice of ‘solving’ dreams in order to predict the future is known as oneiromancy. It became prevalent in the ancient world and is still used today. One of the first recorded instances of dream interpretation comes to us in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian epic written about 2000-1400 BC. It is one of the first works of literature that survives today. The epic’s hero, Gilgamesh, dreams of an ax falling from the sky. As the people gather around the ax in awe, Gilgamesh seizes the ax and throws it in front of his mother, then runs to “embrace it like a wife.” Confused and alarmed, Gilgamesh asks his mother about the meaning of the dream. She interprets it as a prophecy for her son’s future. The ax symbolizes a powerful man who would soon come. Gilgamesh would fight with him before embracing him as a friend. “Thus your dream is solved,” she tells him. Throughout the rest of the epic, Gilgamesh continues to gather information from his dreams.

Dreams were also used to predict the future in ancient Egypt. Much like in Mesopotamia, dreams were considered a religious matter and the responsibility of their interpretation fell to priests. These priests were very important in Egyptian society and were known as “masters of the secret things.” Dreams were seen as divine messages that could predict either good or bad fortune. However, they were not literal predictions of the future, so Egyptians relied on a complicated system of symbolism and puns to understand the messages of their dreams. Common recorded experiences in dreams ranged from having one’s face turn into a leopard’s, losing teeth, and drinking warm beer.

Much dream interpretation relied on some sort of pun. For example, in ancient Egypt, the words “donkey” and “great” sounded very alike, so if while dreaming you were eating donkey meat, it meant good fortune. These puns and symbols ranged from the simple to the complex. Some of the simpler symbols include a deep well, which meant prison; a shining moon, which meant forgiveness; and a large cat, which meant a good crop. The stranger ones include a mirror, which signified a second wife, and uncovering one’s back meant the dreamer would become an orphan. Eating crocodile meat meant the dreamer would become a village official! The list goes on. Many of these interpretations come from an ancient Egyptian text known as The Dream Book, which includes over 100 dreams and many corresponding symbols and interpretations. While no one knows the exact origins of this text, it can be traced back to the reign of Ramesses II, around 1275 BC. The text is one of the most important resources scholars have for understanding ancient attitudes towards dreams. The variety and detail of the symbols, as well as the skill it must have taken to “correctly” interpret a dream, demonstrate the importance of dream interpretation in ancient Egyptian society.

The Greeks also saw dreams as messages from gods. However, while they saw dreams as omens, they also assigned other powers to them. The Greeks constructed special temples, called Asklepieion, where people could go to receive healing dreams. It was believed that sick people could receive a divine cure by “incubating” their dreams in such a place. The two major Greek philosophers studying dreams were Artemidorus and Aristotle. While Artemidorus believed that dreams could predict the future, he pioneered a kind of dream interpretation, much like the Egyptian’s, that involved puns and language to describe images. A famous example of Artemidorus’s dream interpretation is when he was called to interpret a dream of Alexander the Great. While at war Alexander dreamed of a satyr, a mythological creature with the body of a man and the legs of a goat. Artemidorus interpreted this by taking the word satyr (σατυρος) and splitting it into sa tyros, which translates to: Tyre will be thine. Artemidorus interpreted the dream to mean that Alexander would win Tyre, a city he was battling and hoping to overtake. While the Artemidorus system was popular, it wasn’t universally accepted. Aristotle contradicted Artemidorus with his own dream theory. Aristotle argued that dreams were not sent from the gods but were instead an extension of human imagination that occurred during sleep. For example, if a man dreamed of falling ill it was simply his body’s unconscious warning him he was about to fall ill. This system of interpretation foreshadowed more modern approaches to the study of dreams. But despite these contradicting theories, the Greeks, just like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians before them, concluded that dreams held significant power in human life.

When looking back through history it seems incredible that, despite the vast differences between human cultures, the belief in the power of dreams has taken a primary place in so many of them. Yet even from a modern perspective, it is not difficult to see why so many people have craved to understand the nature of dreams. Even now, with all our knowledge of psychological processes and consciousness, it is often difficult to shake the feeling of a dream’s significance.

When I wake suddenly from a vivid dream I often find I need a moment to get a handle on the fact that what I just saw was not reality. This feeling is a uniquely human experience. While disorienting it is one people have felt since the beginning of human history. It’s not hard to understand why in ancient times, with hardly any knowledge of the nature of the brain, it would be natural to assign radical supernatural powers to dreams. As human knowledge progresses we continue to learn more and more about the nature of dreams. Yet, to a certain extent, our dreams will always remain indecipherable. That moment of questioning reality in the middle of the night will always be with us, just as it was with ancient Egyptians. It is this shared fascination that is almost as beautiful as the dreams themselves.

Zachary Kligler attends Saint Ann’s School. He was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Aside from writing, he enjoys rock climbing, and dancing.

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