March 21

Anthropology of Dreams, Part 2: special place of dreams in the Ancient World.

As we delve deeper into the anthropology of dreams, our journey takes us into the ancient world, a time when dreams held deep cultural, religious, and spiritual significance. In this part of the “Anthropology of Dreams” series, we will explore how various ancient civilisations interpreted and understood the phenomenon of dreaming, and how these interpretations continue to influence our understanding of dreams today.

The Ancient Egyptians and the Dreamworld

The most ancient known guide to interpreting dreams, the Book of Dreams from Ancient Egypt, dates back 3,000 years and has now been made accessible to the general public in a modern translation.

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to document their dreams and develop a comprehensive system for understanding and interpreting them. They believed that dreams were messages from the gods, containing divine guidance and prophetic visions. Dreams were thought to be a means of communication between the mortal realm and the divine, allowing individuals to gain insight into the will of the gods and their own destinies.

In Egyptian culture, dreams were considered so important that they were recorded on papyrus and stored in temples for future reference. Priests were trained in the art of dream interpretation, offering their services to those seeking to understand the messages and insights contained within their dreams. This led to the creation of comprehensive dream dictionaries, which detailed common symbols and their meanings, providing a framework for interpreting the complex imagery of dreams.

Notable examples of dreams and their significance in ancient Egypt include the story of Pharaoh’s dreams in the biblical account of Joseph, who interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams as a prophecy of seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. This story highlights the importance of dreams in the decision-making process of rulers and the impact they could have on entire civilizations.

Dreams in Ancient Mesopotamia

In the mystical realms of ancient civilisations, gifted individuals known as professional dream interpreters held esteemed positions in society. Both men and women, they were called upon to decipher the complex symbolism of dreams and protect dreamers from potential harm. In ancient Babylonia, dream interpreter-priests or “seers”, called either as sha’ilu or baru, possessed unique talents that enabled them to consult with the gods and unravel the intricate meanings of dreams.

The title sha’ilu translates to “he or she who asks questions [of the gods],” while baru is derived from a Sumerian and Akkadian verb that signifies “to unfold, explicate, set at ease,” or alternatively, “to dissolve, dispel, destroy consequences.” This dual meaning highlights their essential role in mitigating the effects of unfavourable dreams. Mesopotamian societies were deeply entwined with the divine, and their pantheon of gods included those specifically associated with dreams. Among them were the benevolent Sumerian Mamu, the offspring of sun god Utu, the gracious Babylonian Makhir, and the Akkadian Zaqu or Zaqiqu, a nocturnal demon responsible for inducing nightmares.

Individuals who experienced troubling dreams often sought ritual purification to cleanse themselves of any lingering negativity. The dream interpreter held the power to transfer the consequences of a menacing dream to a lump of clay, which was then dissolved in water to symbolically wash away the ill effects. Another practice involved recounting a distressing dream to a reed, which was subsequently burned, allowing the dreamer to blow on the fire and feel a sense of relief.

But to assume that these ancient dream interpreters focused solely on the literal aspects of dreams would be a gross simplification. Their true artistry lay in unveiling the dream’s symbolic message, thus dissolving its enigma and setting the dreamer’s mind at ease. Through their counsel, they would prescribe prayers or other actions informed by the dream’s significance, allowing the dreamer to find solace and understanding in the wisdom of their guidance. The cultural importance of dreams for is reflected in the Mesopotamian folklore.

Oneiromancy, the art of divination through dream interpretation, has deep roots in the ancient Mesopotamian world. This practice is evident in Mesopotamian literature such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis. Image Credit:

The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known literary works, contains several references to dreams and their importance in guiding the actions of the story’s characters. In the epic, the hero Gilgamesh is guided by a series of dreams that foreshadow his encounters with the divine and provide him with valuable insights into his fate. These dreams play a critical role in shaping Gilgamesh’s actions and decisions throughout the story, highlighting the centrality of dreams in ancient Mesopotamian culture.

In the ancient Mesopotamian tale of Atrahasis, a story about the great flood, the protagonist Atrahasis, the one of surpassing wisdom, is forewarned of the impending deluge through a prophetic dream. In this captivating saga, it appears that Atrahasis’ dreams are divine messages delivered straight from the gods themselves. At one point in the tale, Atrahasis presents a gift to the deity Ea, imploring the god to bestow upon him a dream filled with insight:

May the irrigation-water take it, may the river carry it,
May the gift be placed in front of Ea my lord.
May Ea see it and think of me!
So may I see a dream in the night.

Dreaming in Ancient Greece

Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, governed the realm of dreams alongside his family. His fascinating tales reveal his significant influence on both gods and mortals through the power of slumber.

The ancient Greeks had a complex and multifaceted understanding of dreams, incorporating both religious and philosophical perspectives. They believed that dreams were sent by the gods, particularly the god of dreams, Morpheus, who was responsible for shaping the dreamworld and sending prophetic visions to mortals.

Dream interpretation was a respected and essential skill in ancient Greece, with specialised individuals known as “oneirocritics” interpreting dreams for those seeking guidance. The importance of dreams in ancient Greek culture is illustrated by the famous story of King Croesus, who consulted the oracle at Delphi to interpret his dream of a mule conquering his empire. The oracle’s interpretation led to Croesus’ ill-fated invasion of Persia, which ultimately resulted in the fall of his kingdom.

In addition to their religious significance, dreams also played a central role in Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Plato viewed dreams as a window into the soul, revealing an individual’s innermost desires and fears. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that dreams were the result of sensory impressions experienced during waking life, which were then recombined and processed during sleep.

Roman Dream Traditions

Much like the Greeks, the Romans viewed dreams as a means of communication with the divine, particularly through the god of dreams, Somnus. Dreams were considered to be prophetic, offering insights into future events and individual destinies. The Roman Senate even went so far as to consult dream interpreters before making important decisions, illustrating the vital role dreams played in Roman society.

Ancient Roman elegists intricately wove vivid first-person dream accounts into their poetry, creating visually striking textual dreamscapes. Emma Scioli’s analysis in “Dream, Fantasy, and Visual Art in Roman Elegy” explores the concept of “seeing” dreams and reveals the dreamer as a unique creator, akin to an artist or poet.

Roman dream interpreters, known as “oneiromancers,” were highly skilled and respected for their ability to decipher the complex symbolism of dreams. They relied on comprehensive dream dictionaries and their own intuition to provide accurate and insightful interpretations. The Roman poet Ovid wrote extensively about dreams in his work “Metamorphoses,” highlighting the importance of dreams in Roman mythology and culture.

Dreaming in the Ancient Indian Subcontinent

In ancient Indian civilisations, dreams were believed to be reflections of an individual’s inner spiritual state and a way to access knowledge from the divine. The Vedas, ancient Hindu scriptures, contain numerous references to dreams and their significance in both religious and philosophical contexts.

Under a full moon, Queen Maya (mother of Buddha) dreams of a white elephant entering her side, symbolising the miraculous conception of the future Buddha. In Buddhism, dreams like the ‘Bodhisattva dreams’ hold significance, as they foretell the approach of Enlightenment.

Hinduism posits that dreams are a reflection of the individual’s karma, offering insights into their past lives and the lessons they must learn in their current incarnation. Dreams were considered essential to understanding one’s spiritual progress and the nature of the cosmos. Buddhism, which also emerged in the ancient Indian subcontinent, offers a different perspective on dreams. According to Buddhist teachings, dreams are a manifestation of the mind and its attachments to the material world. By interpreting dreams, individuals can gain insight into the nature of their minds and develop a deeper understanding of the concept of “non-self.”

Dreaming in Ancient China

In the ancient Chinese text Zhuangzi (476–221 BC), Daoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou recounts a dream where he becomes a butterfly, blurring the line between reality and illusion. This enigmatic tale has inspired various interpretations, from the optimistic image of a carefree butterfly to the melancholic notion that life is merely a dream.

In ancient China, dreams were seen as a means of communication between the living and the spirit world, with ancestors and deities often appearing in dreams to offer guidance and wisdom. Dreams were considered an essential aspect of Chinese culture, playing a significant role in religion, philosophy, and literature.

Confucianism, one of the major philosophical traditions in ancient China, emphasized the importance of dreams as a means of self-cultivation and understanding the nature of reality. Confucius himself was known to pay close attention to his dreams and their significance, using them as a tool for personal growth and introspection.

In Taoist traditions, dreams were believed to offer insights into the workings of the universe and the nature of the Tao, the fundamental force that governs all existence. Dream interpretation was a highly respected skill in ancient China, with numerous texts and manuals dedicated to understanding the complex symbolism of dreams.

As we have seen, the anthropology of dreams in the ancient world reveals a rich tapestry of cultural, religious, and philosophical perspectives on the nature and significance of dreams. From ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to Greece, Rome, India, and China, dreams have been revered as a vital means of communication with the divine, a window into the human soul, and a tool for personal and spiritual growth. The study of dreams in the ancient world offers us valuable insights into the beliefs and values of these ancient civilisations, as well as the enduring human fascination with this mysterious and enigmatic world. As our exploration of the anthropology of dreams continues, we will delve further into the fascinating story of psychoanalysis and how it shook the society of the 20th century, providing a new framework for understanding the human mind and the role of dreams in our lives.

@Dreamseer Team


ancient, ancient China, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient India, ancient Mesopotamia, ancient world, culture, dream interpretation, dream symbolism, dreams, history, human history, Rome, science of dreams, sociology

Dr. Alexander Lebedev (MD PhD) is a psychiatrist, data scientist and a co-founder of Dreamseer.
With over 15 years of experience in healthcare, applied data science, combined with extensive academic research in socionomics and non-ordinary states of consciousness, he brings a unique perspective to address global mental health challenges and foster personal and societal resilience. At Dreamseer, Dr. Lebedev's vision extends beyond individual mental health to a broader societal perspective. By mapping and analysing global dream trends, we aim to raise awareness of shared experiences that unite all of us, ultimately contributing to a healthier, more connected, and empathetic world. Dr. Lebedev is dedicated to fulfilling his mission to leverage technology in the service of mental health and resilient living.

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