History of Dream Interpretation


When people think about the history of dream interpretation their thoughts primarily turn toward either Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung. While these individuals certainly influenced the World, they are far from the founding fathers of dream analysis. That is not to say their contributions are pointless. In fact, it is highly likely that Freud and Jung enhanced dream interpretation at the very least by provoking thought in mainstream Western society; they got the masses thinking outside the circle.

The Mystery of Dreaming

Dream History Painting

Nowadays, the “hard science” fraternity see dream interpretation as “quackery”, yet even in today’s world people still have an innate desire to understand dreams, especially when they feel it has some profound connection to their life. Why is this?

I believe the answer is the same today as it was in ancient times. It can be found in the words of the philosopher Descartes: “I think, therefore I am”. In other words, humans think, therefore they are aware of their existence. As such, they have a thirst to “know” about the meaning of that existence.

This quest for meaning is a common theme in the history of dream interpretation and can be found in the texts of people throughout the ages. These writings indicate over and over again that “something” outside of the self, when in a dream state, has the capacity to provoke subconscious stories that are in some way related to one’s “reality”, and as such, afford the dreamer with needed wisdom.

The manner in which this wisdom is acquired may vary between cultures, however one factor remains stable, that is, each culture/civilisation imparted the impression that dreams are of significant worth and should not be ignored.

The sections below provide information about the relevant cultures/civilisations' interpretations and notions about dreams. Whilst reading you may want to consider the following... Why does the Western world currently place less significance on the content of dreams? As stated prior, people nowadays still have a thirst for understanding the meaning of dreams but there appears an underlying reluctance to fully accept the plausibility of their worth. Such doubting, as you will see, was never an option in other cultures, or other civilisations, in other times.

“The dream has for the primitive an incomparably higher value than it has for civilized man. Not only does he talk a great deal about his dreams, he also attributes an extraordinary importance to them, so that it often seems as though he were unable to distinguish between them and reality. To the civilized man dreams as a rule appear valueless, though there are some people who attach great significance to certain dreams on account of their weird and impressive character. This peculiarity lends plausibility to the view that dreams are inspirations”
– Carl Jung

Cultural Notions about Dream Interpretation

History of Dream Interpretation: African Civilisations

* Ancient Egypt

The earliest records of the life of man show that dreams have always been regarded as important. The ancient Egyptians believed that dreams were messages from the gods, and 1300 years before Christ, produced the earliest dream book with over 200 of those messages. Egyptian dream interpreters believed in the theory of opposites: that to dream of death for example, was an omen of long life.

The ancient Egyptians also believed that dreams related to the adventures of the soul when it leaves the body during sleep.

In some African tribes, dream life is held almost as important as waking life. Even today it is believed that dream battles take place, and warriors wake up with sore arm muscles assuming that they have been wielding their clubs during the night. The Zulu people regard dreams as messages from ancestors rather than gods.

History of Dream Interpretation: American Civilisations

* Maya * Native American Indians

The American Indians have always regarded dreams as of the utmost importance. After initiation, a boy with a rich dream life, who could relate it in rich detail, was regarded as particularly wise and valuable to the tribe.

Potent dreamers such as Black Elk of the Sioux people, have recorded their dreams in much detail.

History of Dream Interpretation: Asian Civilisations

* China * Huns * Mongols

History of Dream Interpretation: European Civilisations

* Celts * Germans * Ancient Greeks * Romans * Vikings

The Greeks, with their passion for the rationalisation of knowledge, made use of Egyptian, Assyrian, Jewish, Babylonian and Persian dream theories. Even though the different nations' interpretation of dream symbols differed widely, dream books today still echo some of their beliefs, for example that a dream of a snake signifies sickness, or that if you dream of a black bird, it is an omen of evil.

The Greeks also believed dreams to be divine messages. Many sacred places in Greece were used for dream incubation. Drugs and herbal potions were taken to induce sleep, and dreams were regarded as important prophecies, with special reference to ailments and afflictions.

The modern view of dreams as a revelation of man's true nature also originated with the Greeks. Plato wrote, 'When the gentler part of the soul slumbers and the control of reason is withdrawn; then the wild beast in us, full-fed with meat or drink, becomes rampant and shakes off sleep to go in quest of what will gratify its own instincts. As you know, it will cast away all shame and prudence at such moments and stick at nothing. In fantasy it will not shrink from intercourse with a mother or anyone else, man, god, brute, or from forbidden food or any deed of blood. In a word, it will go to any length of shamelessness or folly.'

Aristotle, on the other hand, attempted to explain dreams as the products of purely physiological functions. He believed that dreams could predict the onset of diseases unobserved in waking life. Hippocrates took the same view.

The first substantial published work on dreams, the Oneirocritica (The Interpretation of Dreams), a five-volume work of the Greek Artemidorus, argued that a dream was individual to the dreamer. This book had a vital influence on subsequent thoughts on dream interpretation. It was published for the first time in English in 1644, and went into 24 editions during the next century.

The Romans, much given to divination of all kinds, looked at dream symbols and dream books flourished at the time. Cicero also accepted the idea of predictive dreams.

In modern historical times, the 18th century Enlightenment began to put a stop to the consideration of dreams simply as predictive symbols. As Jung puts it conclusively: 'No dream symbol can be separated from the individual who dreams it, and there is no definite or straightforward interpretation of any dream.'

In other words, each dream is unique to the individual, and even if someone else dreamed the identical dream, its meaning would be different for them.

History of Dream Interpretation: Near Eastern Civilisations

* Byzantine Empire * Israel/Palestine * Mesopatama * Ottoman Empire * Persia

Ancient dreamers include Jacob, founder of the 12 tribes of Israel, who dreamt he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder; and the Assyrian king, Assurbanipal.

The library of Assurbanipal is believed to be have contained books of dream interpretations dating from 2000BC; and his own personal dream book is said to have been used as one of the chief sources used by the Greek Artemidorus, who wrote the most famous dream book of the ancient world, The Interpretation of Dreams.

History of Dream Interpretation: Oceania Civilisations

* Easter Island * Australian Aboriginals * New Zealand Maori





Related Pages

* Freud Dream Interpretation

* Interesting Dream Facts

* Famous Dreams



(From History of Dream Interpretation back to Dream Interpretation Dictionary Home Page)

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