The history of dreams goes back to the beginning of time. As long as humans have roamed the Earth, we’ve been taking nightly explorations into the Dream World. Since dreaming is a universal experience, with such a long history, it’s no wonder people are fascinated with dreams.
This article explores the history of dreams and the role they play in various cultures throughout time. It is categorized into seven different sections: Ancient Times, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Native Americans, The Bible, Modern Times, and Modern Mystics.
History of Dreams: Ancient Times
The recorded history of dream interpretation dates back over 5,000 years to 3100 B.C. with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. Both gods and kings paid close attention to their dreams and recorded them on clay tablets. Further, they believed that the dreamer would actually leave his body during sleep and travel to another dimension: the dream world. The adventures he had in his dream, his Soul experienced in the dream world.
The Babylonians and Assyrians were the first culture to categorize different types of dreams. In their view, there were two types of dreams: good and bad. Good dreams were thought to be sent from the gods, while bad dreams were from demons. They also saw dreams as having predictive powers – prophesies or omens sent from the dream world about future events.
History of Dreams: Ancient Egypt
Recorded history of dreams in Ancient Egypt dates back to 2000 B.C. when the Egyptians wrote down their dreams on papyrus. Egyptians placed high value on dreams and one’s ability to have particularly vivid or significant dreams. In fact, they placed such high value on dreams that they erected special temples devoted to dreaming. It was believed that if a sick person slept in one of these temples, they would receive messages from the gods to help them heal.
The position of Dream Interpreters was a widely respected and honored position in Ancient Egyptian society. In addition to their other duties, priests also served as dream interpreters. They would stay in the dream temples and help people interpret their dreams. Also, people who had serious emotional or psychological problems would visit the priests to have their dreams interpreted. These interpretations provided valuable insight that helped the “patients.”
The Egyptians were the first culture to create a “dream dictionary.” It was a small volume that contained nearly 200 messages from the gods, sent down through dreams.
History of Dreams: Ancient Greece
The Ancient Greeks drew much of their understanding about dreams from the Egyptians. They believed that dreams were messages from the gods and goddesses or from the dead. They used dreams to predict the future, look for solutions to problems, and to decide which action to take. Further, dream interpreters were consulted when making military and political decisions.
Like the Egyptians, the Greeks also had dream temples where people who needed healing would go hoping to receive a curative message. These temples became so popular they were eventually transformed into a type of healing temple or hospital. First, the person in need of healing would describe his or her dream to the priest, who would give his interpretation. Then, the person spent the next few days in prayer and ceremony in preparation for healing. It was not uncommon for the seeker to experience a profound revelation or complete healing during this time.
In the 5th century B.C., the ideas about dreams and dream interpretation began to change. Rather than believing that dreams came from the gods, or from supernatural forces outside of oneself, the Greeks started to believe that dreams were created entirely in the dreamer’s mind. This idea was first introduced by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Later, Plato added to the theory by proposing that dreams signaled a person’s mental state of mind and that they could show the dreamer how they were supposed to live their life.
Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, thought that dreams carried a diagnostic property that allowed the dreamer access to the root of his ailment.
Aristotle expanded on Plato’s secular view of dreams and suggested that all dreams are related to memories or images from the dreamer’s waking life. He also believed that dream symbols served as metaphors for other images, situations, events, or feelings in the dreamer’s waking life.
History of Dreams: Native Americans
Native Americans had a deep spiritual connection with the natural world. Everything was sacred, divine, and connected. While there are as many dream philosophies as there are tribes, there are a certain commonalities in Native American Philosophy regarding dreams.
The dream world was believed to be an alternate reality and the messages that came through in dreams were regarded as highly valuable. Information, such as rituals and medicine that came from the dream world, was brought to the tribe and applied.
As a rite of initiation, children entering puberty would go on a vision quest. They would stay alone in the forest, without any food or water for days at a time until they had a dream or vision regarding their spiritual identity and their place within the tribe. While this rite of passage was not practiced by all tribes, it was practiced by many.
History of Dreams: The Bible
The history of dreams continues with the Bible. The Bible is full of dream references, where God communicates with people through dreams. The first reference is found in Genesis 20:3-7, where God warns Abimelech that he has taken Abraham’s wife, Sarah, although he was told it was Abraham’s sister. Abimelech heeds the warning and return’s Sarah to Abraham.
There is also Jacob’s famous ladder dream, in which Jacob climbs up a ladder from Earth to Heaven. God reveals to Jacob in the dream that He is giving the land where Jacob lies to him and his descendants (Gen. 28: 11-19).
Joseph had a predictive dream in which his father and brother bowed down to him as the ruler. The event did not occur for several years, but it did eventually prove to be a prophetic dream (Gen. 37:5-11). According to the Bible, Joseph also had the ability to interpret dreams.
There was also the Pharaoh’s prophetic dream, in which it was foretold that seven years of abundance would be followed by seven years of famine. Through this dream, Egypt was able to prepare for the upcoming famine (Gen. 41:15-44).
In the New Testament, Joseph receives a message from God that Mary is pregnant through a dream. Later, God also tells Joseph to leave Egypt with Mary and Jesus in a dream.
Although there are many instances where God communicates through dreams, not all dreams are presented as messages from God. It also says that some dreams arise from one’s own anxieties as in Ecclesiastes 5:3 – For a dream cometh through the multitude of business; and a fool’s voice is known by multitude of words.
History of Dreams: Modern Times
Dreams and dream interpretation was largely ignored or written off as nonsense for most of our recent history. However, there are two notable psychologists, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, who revived Western society’s interest in dreams and dream interpretation.
Sigmund Freud is considered the Father of modern dream interpretation. His psychological research revived the importance of dreams in mainstream culture. He used dream work to help his patients recover from psychological problems and repressed childhood traumas.
His main theory was that dreams served the purpose of sexual or aggressive wish fulfillment. In our waking lives, it is not safe to express some of our deepest sexual or aggressive desires. So we repress these desires and act them out in our dreams, which is a safe place for self-expression. By analyzing a person’s dreams, Freud believed he could gain insight into their emotional life. From this he added to his theory by stating that dreams could also lead to insight into previous emotional trauma.
Jung, interested in dreams and dreaming, expanded on Freud’s theories. He travelled throughout the world collecting dreams from people from all walks of life. Additionally he studied his own dreams and the dreams and hallucinations of his schizophrenic patients. Jung discovered there are common themes throughout many dreams – even from people in vastly different cultures.
This was the basis of Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious and of Archetypes. He noted two different types of dreams, Big and Little. The Big dreams represented universal archetypes and the Little dreams revealed personal insights, concerns, and history. Jung was most interested in the Big dreams as they were more vivid and spoke to a universal audience.
He also believed that dreams reminded us of our unconscious desires, wishes, and pieces of ourselves we have long forgotten. He believed that dreams were messages and that if we want to live our most fulfilling lives, we had better pay attention to them and act on the information being communicated to us from our subconscious minds.
History of Dreams: Modern Mystics
In our Modern Western Society much of the magic and spirituality of dreams and the Dream World has been lost. We live in a culture where Science is king and if it can’t be measured with our current technologies, it doesn’t exist. Regardless of the prevailing culture, people are intrinsically drawn to their dreams and seek understanding of their meanings and origins.
Modern dream interpretation is a mix of all the various dream philosophies – taking into account new information and new discoveries and adding it to our collective understanding. Dreams originate from within the dreamer’s mind, but that doesn’t mean that dreams ALSO aren’t messages from our Higher Self, God, or the Universe.
We hold multiple views at once – realizing that holding one idea doesn’t mean that the opposite can’t be true as well. We use all the tools available to us and understand that dreams do carry meanings and that they can indeed have a profound effect on our waking lives.