Oneiromancy: An ancient history of dream interpretation

(ORDO NEWS) — Oneiromancy is a form of divination based on dreams, as well as dreams for predicting the future. Oneirogen techniques can also be used to create or enhance dream-like states of consciousness.

Dreams and their ancient interpretations are recorded in modern written sources such as official inscriptions, literature, even special dream books called oneirocritics from the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

They show that dreams played an important role in government, religion and everyday life. Despite the fact that early civilizations had very different ideas about what dreams are, they always attached great importance to them.

Dreams were considered a particularly important means of receiving messages from the world of power and spirit, from gods and other powerful beings.

Dream interpretation was the responsibility of those who were experienced in such things in these groups, such as tribal elders, matriarchs and patriarchs of the family or community, priests and shamans.

Shamans were especially valued for their advice because they could enter the world of dreams through trances at will, meet the souls of people and other beings, fight, bring back lost souls, heal and bring the meaning of sleep into the lives of dreamers.

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 2
Gilgamesh’s Dream Tablet, a 3,600-year-old clay artifact created in present-day Iraq

Dreams of Mesopotamian kings

In the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem The Epic of Gilgamesh (written c. 2100-1200 BC), the hero Gilgamesh has two dreams that foreshadow the arrival of his friend Enkidu. In one of his dreams, Gilgamesh sees an ax falling from the sky.

He then notices the people gathered around the ax in awe. Gilgamesh then throws the ax in front of his mother Ninsun and embraces him. Ninsun interprets the dream as follows: a powerful figure will soon appear.

Gilgamesh will fight him and try to defeat him, but he will not succeed, and in the end they will become close friends and achieve great things together.

Later in the epic, Enkidu also dreams of the meeting of the heroes with the giant Humbaba. In Tablet VII of the epic, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh about a dream in which he saw how the gods Anu (Father of Heaven), Enlil (god of wind, earth and storms) and Shamash (god of truth and justice) sentenced him to death.

In addition, he has a dream in which he travels to the underworld.

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 3
Votive inscription of Gudea, ruler of Lagash, mentioning the construction of a temple to E-ninnu for the god Ningirsu. From Lagash, Iraq. (22nd century BC) Ancient Oriental Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

Gudea, king of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash (reigned c. 2144 – 2124 BC), recorded his own dream on a clay cylinder that still exists today.

The ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia left evidence of dream interpretation dating back to at least 3100 BC.

Throughout the history of Mesopotamia, dreams have always been considered extremely important for divination, and the Mesopotamian kings paid close attention to them.

Gudea, king of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash (reigned c. 2144–2124 BC), rebuilt the temple of Ningirsu as a result of a dream in which he was told to do so.

Standard Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh. contains numerous testimonies about the prophetic power of dreams. First, Gilgamesh himself has two dreams foretelling the arrival of Enkidu. Enkidu later dreams of the heroes meeting with the giant Humbaba.

Dreams were also sometimes seen as a means of peering into other worlds, and it was believed that the soul, or some part of it, came out of the sleeper’s body and actually visited the places and people the dreamer saw in the dream.

In Plate VII of the epic, Enkidu tells Gilgamesh a dream in which he saw the gods Anu, Enlil, and Shamash sentenced him to death. He also has a dream in which he visits the Underworld.

The Assyrian king Ashur-Nazir-apal II (reigned 883–859 BC) built a temple to Mamu, possibly the god of dreams, at Imgur-Enlil, near Kalhu.

The later Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (reigned 668–c. 627 BC) had a dream during a desperate military situation in which his divine patron, the goddess Ishtar, appeared to him and promised that she would lead him to victory.

The Babylonians and Assyrians divided dreams into “good” which were sent by the gods, and “bad” sent by demons.

A surviving collection of dream omens called Iškar Zaqīqu. writes down various dream scenarios as well as predictions of what will happen to the person who experiences each dream, apparently based on previous occurrences.

Some list different possible outcomes based on cases where people have had similar dreams with different results.

Dream scenarios mentioned include various daily work activities, travel to different places, family affairs, sexual intercourse, and encounters with people, animals, and deities.

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 4


The oldest oneirocritical manuscript discovered so far is Ramesside’s Dream Book, now in the British Museum. A unique example of a dream book from pre-Hellenistic Egypt, the surviving fragments were translated into English by Kasia Shpakovskaya.

Between the paws of the Sphinx there is a stele describing how Thutmose IV restored the Sphinx as a result of a dream, promising to become pharaoh.


Dream divination was a common feature of Greek and Roman religion and literature of all genres. Aristotle and Plato discuss dreams in various writings. The only surviving Greco-Roman dream book, Oneirocritica, was written by Artemidorus.

Artemidorus quotes from a large number of previous authors, all of which are now lost. These include Artemidoros, Astrampsychos, Nikephoros, Germanos, and Manuel Palaiologos.

  • In Book XIX of The Odyssey , Penelope said that “dreams … which flow from the gate of a polished horn bring true troubles to pass when any mortal sees them.” (There may be a pun here from /KRainō/ “I perform” with /keRas/ “horn”.)
  • Likewise, Herodotus distinguished /oneiros/ (or /enar/) as “a prophetic, God-sent dream” from /en-upnion/ “an unpredictable dream”.
  • In Artemidorus’ schema, “oneiros” was divided into two broad categories: … allēgorikos , which corresponds to the Platonic theory of a predictive dream operating in an impure soul, and … theōrēmatikos , which is a dream presented to a pure state of mind.”

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 5

Biblical oneiromancy

Dreams are found in the Bible as omens or messages from God; God speaks to Abram when he sleeps (Genesis 15); God tells Abimelech, king of Gerar, about his intentions for Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20); Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven ( Genesis 28); his son Joseph dreamed of his future success (Genesis 37), interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh the cupbearer and baker of Egypt while in prison (Genesis 40) and interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 41); Solomon talked to God in dream (1 Kings 3); Daniel interpreted dreams (in Daniel 2 and 4); that the Magi speak in their sleep to avoid Herod on their way home (Mt 2); When Joseph was betrothed to Mary, he was told not to be afraid to take Mary to wife (Matthew 1); Joseph, now the husband of Mary, was instructed to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt (Matthew 2); Pilate’s wife suffered in a dream because of Jesus (Matthew 27);Paul was told to go to Macedonia (Acts 16). In Acts 2:17, the apostle Peter quotes Joel 2:28, saying that because of the Spirit now poured out, “… your old men will dream dreams.”

Development of ideas about dreams

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 6

To answer these questions, it will be useful to start with a brief historical overview. The development of views on dreams can be compared to how, moving through the centuries, a person becomes more and more able to realize himself as an individual, as a separate and responsible being.

People of primitive cultures identify themselves as part of a tribe, but not as an autonomous individual. Being a person is the privilege of just two figures: the leader, who takes care of the physical well-being of the members of the tribe, and the shaman, who is responsible for their mental state.

The shaman plays an important role, since illnesses and strong emotional disturbances are considered the machinations of evil spirits, and not something related to the person himself.

Over time, society becomes more complex, offering more and more new social roles. Identification with them helps a person to realize himself as separate from the group and having his own will and desires.

With the retreat of traditional culture into the background, these roles themselves cease to be obligatory, and society reduces the degree of control over the behavior of its members.

Previously, a person walked along the path trodden by fathers and grandfathers, and taught children to walk the same way, but many old paths turned out to be unsuitable, and now it is not known how and where to go.

This uncertainty gives freedom of choice, but also imposes responsibility for it. We see how, from dissolution in the collective, a person has reached the joys and anxieties of an individual path. Now he stands in front of the mirror and peers intensely into it, hoping to see who appeared before him.

Over its long history, the relationship to dreams has gone through a similar path. The ancient Greeks believed that Hypnos (sleep) and his twin brother Thanatos (death) were born from the union of Night and Kronos.

The same couple produced Eris (discord), Apata (deceit) and Nemesis (vengeance). It is not surprising that with such a pedigree, dreams were alarming and associated with something dangerous. It was believed that they were sent by Gaia and associated with the forces of the underworld.

A few centuries later, in the 5th c. BC e., Euripides rehabilitated some of the dreams, pointing out that in addition to the terrible dreams sent by Gaia, there are also bright Apollonian dreams.

Later, Plato (428 BC – 348 BC) took the next step: in his opinion, not all dreams are associated with the gods, many of them are born in the confrontation of the three parts of the human soul.

If the rational part of the soul fails to cope with the lustful and furious parts, then the person will see in a dream the fulfillment of his reprehensible desires.

A significant contribution to the development of the initial ideas about dreams was the five-volume work on the art of interpreting dreams, Oneirocritica. It was written by Artemidor of Daldian, who lived in the second half of the 2nd century BC. n. e.

He was one of the first to talk about the importance of knowing the dreamer’s personality and his emotional state during sleep for a correct interpretation.

And it would be useful for the one who saw the dream and the interpreter, and not only useful, but necessary, that the dream interpreter knows who the dreamer is, what he does, how he was born, what he owns, what is his health and how old he is [2].

Centuries later, Freud explained how his technique of interpreting dreams differed from that adopted in antiquity.

If earlier the dream interpreter could work with a certain degree of arbitrariness, because completely different associations could come to his mind than the dreamer himself, now a significant part of the work was entrusted to the dreamer.

Lying on the couch, he had to tell what comes to mind about the individual symbols of the dream.

Starting from that time, not only the personality traits of the dreamer, but also his inner world, his own associative chains and the meanings that they can discover began to be taken into account.

It has become the duty of the psychoanalyst to see possible connections and prepare an accurate and understandable interpretation.

If you take a little time and consider Freud’s ideas about dreams in more detail, you can see how close the world of night dreams is to the very core of a person’s personality.

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 7

Dream as wish fulfillment

In 1900, the first edition of The Interpretation of Dreams was published. In it, Freud argues that, with due attention, the satisfaction of a repressed desire can be found in every dream. How can this be understood?

Freud cites many dreams of children in which they saw the fulfillment of what they could not get during the day.

For example, his one and a half year old daughter Anna, after being poisoned, was forced to starve all day, and at night in a dream she excitedly said: “strawberries, strawberries, scrambled eggs, porridge.” Adults are less likely than children to see dreams in which a wish is explicitly fulfilled.

This can be explained by the following feature of the development of the psyche. It takes a long time for a child to “absorb” the demands of his parents, to make himself the way they would like him to be. Only by the age of 5-6 does he form a mental structure within himself that evaluates him.

Parental influence is now required to a lesser extent, as there is an internal censor. Following its precepts instills in the child a sense of pride in conformity with the norms, and deviation from them can turn into a painful experience of shame or guilt.

Not all human desires are as harmless as little Anna Freud’s. Many of them are related to our aggressiveness and sexuality, which we must curb in order not to lose self-respect and not come into conflict with our conscience.

Awareness of unacceptable desires can hurt self-esteem, and therefore, according to Freud, they are forced into the unconscious and seek indirect ways of satisfaction from the depths of the psyche.

One of the indirect ways of satisfaction is provided by the dream, hiding from the inner censor the true desire of the dreamer.

Freud talks about a patient’s dream, which, it would seem, cannot be the fulfillment of a wish, since it contains disappointment from unfulfilled expectations.

I dreamed the following: I want to arrange a dinner for the guests, but I have nothing prepared, except for smoked salmon.

I think about going shopping, but I remember that today is Sunday and all the shops are closed. I want to call the providers, but the phone is not working. As a result, I have to give up the desire to arrange dinner.

In the process of analysis, the patient recalls that one of her friends asked when she and her husband would invite her to dinner, because they always feed so well at home.

Further, it turns out that this friend wants to get a little better, and the patient’s husband is a curvaceous lover. This involuntarily causes a feeling of jealousy in the dreamer. Freud summarizes: “Now the meaning of the dream is clear.

I can say to the patient: “It’s the same as if you thought at her words:“ Well, of course, I will invite you – so that you can eat with me, get better and be able to please my husband even more! I’d rather not host any more dinners!”

After this interpretation, the patient remembers that the smoked salmon that was in her dream is this friend’s favorite dish. It can be unpleasant to be aware of your jealous or vindictive impulses.

In the dream of a dinner party, there is neither husband nor girlfriend, but zealous feelings were satisfied: everything prevents organizing a dinner at which the girlfriend could get her favorite dish, get better and attract the patient’s husband even more.

If we agree with Freud’s ideas, then dreams become not only their own creations of the human psyche, which reflect his personal characteristics.

Their connection with the realm of desires is manifested. The spiritual area, perhaps the closest to the essence of a person, to what prompts him to choose something and strive for it.

Dream Functions

Now, just as in Freud’s time, one may come across the notion that dreams serve only as an automatic disposal of the impressions of the past day.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, dreams are hailed as wish-fulfillers, and a year before death, Freud comes to realize that they can also serve to resolve a conflict, remove a doubt, or form an intention.

In my opinion, during sleep, the last impressions can be processed, and physiological processes can be depicted in a symbolic form, but – perhaps more importantly – often a dream and its symbolism contains a semantic load.

Trying to discern the meanings veiled by internal censorship, you can better understand yourself, your current conflicts and desires, as well as emerging ways to resolve difficulties.

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 8

Principles of Interpretation

What can help you get closer to the hidden meaning of dreams? To understand how the analysis of dreams is built, it is necessary to briefly talk about the rules of interpretation of Artemidorus, as well as about the mental mechanisms of dreams described by Freud.

For example, Artemidorus said that it was important not only to look at the entire dream as a whole, but also to find the meaning of individual symbols. For example, in a dream, one person lost his head and subsequently his father, who was the head of the family, died.

According to Artemidorus, the interpretation of symbols can be based on their similarity to something, and can also show the whole through its part (“for example, one person dreamed that he owns his sister’s clothes and he puts them on. He inherited his sister’s property”).

In examining his own dreams and those of his patients, Freud identified two mechanisms by which the true content of a dream is processed into what the dreamer will see – condensation and displacement. Condensation can be seen in the fact that one and the same image is associated with a variety of thoughts.

The result of the work of this mental mechanism can be easily seen if one imagines one of the dream images for a while and observes the thoughts that arise.

Reflections on each image will cause several associative chains, when one thought smoothly flows into another. In each symbol of a dream, different meanings will necessarily be condensed.

The second mechanism – displacement – manifests itself in the fact that instead of an image associated with something significant, but disturbing for a person, another image appears, remotely connected with it. Psychic energy shifted from a meaningful image to an emotionally indifferent one.

Something important and disturbing can be discovered in the same way by observing the flow of thoughts that have pushed off from the symbol of a dream. The more we are tolerant of the thoughts that arise in the head, the more likely the associative chain will lead to the original image from which the shift occurred.

In the process of “creating” a dream, the psyche uses another important tool – the transformation of images into their opposite. There are no contradictions in the unconscious and at the same time absolutely opposite ideas can coexist.

Freud mentions how he learned from K. Abel’s 1884 work “The Opposite Meaning of the First Words” that in ancient languages ​​one word was used to denote opposite actions or qualities (“very weak, old young, far close, bind-separate”) .

At this point, the question may arise: “Well, if all of the above is true, then is it necessary to try to get to the bottom of the hidden meaning of sleep if it was carefully hidden by the psyche, which protects us from unpleasant experiences?”.

Oneiromancy An ancient history of dream interpretation 9

Why think about your dreams?

If desires and conflicts can be expressed in symbolic form in a dream, if it can “push” to a decision or action, then by understanding this hidden content, you can learn more about your inner reality.

What is the use of this? Increasing knowledge of one’s own personality contributes to the acceptance of character traits that seem unacceptable, which, in turn, helps to come to terms with oneself and become more tolerant of other people.

Let us recall Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: the respect of colleagues for Stepan Arkadyevich was based on his “extreme indulgence towards people, based in him on the consciousness of his shortcomings.” Surprisingly, one’s own merits, traits, the realization of which can provide a sense of pride, can also be rejected.

Knowing ourselves better, we begin to better understand the motives of other people’s actions and become more prone to empathy – the ability to put ourselves in the place of another person.

There are three features of working with dreams as a way of knowing oneself. Firstly, you can choose your own pace and, analyzing the dream, stop where mental discomfort will overcome the need for knowledge.

Secondly, you can start thinking about a dream at any time; over time, it will not lose its hidden meanings, and associative chains will still lead in the right direction.

Thirdly, it is easy to completely shift the responsibility for what is happening to yourself to the other side – to people, life circumstances, diseases, but it is more difficult to do this with a dream, because it is felt to a much greater extent as one’s own, as something generated in the depths of the psyche.

Formats of work with dreams can be different. Freud was engaged in the analysis of his own dreams and helped his patients to connect their dreaming experience with difficulties in everyday life. You can enlist the support of another person or group of people, or you can use the diary practices of working with dreams.

Intuition is our internal tuning fork, allowing us to evaluate the correctness of the interpretation.

When the words of another person (or our own assumptions) turn out to be consonant with what is happening inside us, this responds with a sense of emerging meaning that connects previously incomprehensible dream fragments.

Practice helps develop intuition, paving new paths to consciousness for it. As the Italian psychoanalyst Antonino Ferro said, “… night dreams are a kind of visual poetics of the mind, communication that should be comprehended by intuition, and not deciphered.”


Contact us: [email protected]

Our Standards, Terms of Use: Standard Terms And Conditions.