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A History Of Dreaming - From Ancient Egypt To Modern Day

Author: Dawn Firewolf


Dreams have been an important part of the human experince since time immemorial. Fragments of the earliest books come from Egypt, where dreams were considered to be the messages sent from the gods. The Egyptians divided their dreams into three categories:


1. Pious: A deity would appear and either demand or plead to their worshipper to perform some kind of an act of devotion or piety. One example of this is a dream of Thutmose IV, who fell asleep at the base of the Sphinx. In his dream, the god Hamarkis appeared and told Thutmose that if he would dig out the Sphinx from all the accumulated sand and re-established Harmarkus' temple then Thutmose would be pharoah. This dream was recorded on a plaque between the Sphinx's paws after he indeed became pharoah.


2. 'Relevatory': Dreams that foretold future events; told the location of hidden objects or revealed a new medicine.


3. Informational: These dreams simply gave information. One example tells of a dream where the goddess Hathor appeared to a man in his dream to tell him where the best place would be to place his tomb.


Dreams were so important to the Egyptians that some people made their living by interpreting dreams. One engraved tablet that has been found says, "I interpret dreams, having the gods' mandate to do so." Temples were also set up specifically for incubating dreams - especially the relevatory ones. There wasn't a specific Egyptian deity for dreams. Isis; Imhotep, Seti I, Thoth, Serapis, Ptah Sotmu, and Amon - Ra all had dream temples. These temples were open to everyone, regardless of age, status, health or gender. The only requirements were the absolute faith in the deity's influence and the 'purity' of the supplicant, probably meaning that the dreamer has been chaste in the days before arriving at the temple. It is thought that offerings and prayers were offered to the representational statues of the deity before the dreamer went to sleep.


Originally, it is thought that the function of Egyptian dream incubation was to gain a method of healing, such as a medicine or a prayer, or to get healed directly by a deity. Isis was especially popular in this respect - she has long been described as the 'healer of all diseases'. One papyrus has been found also states that Isis created magic was to arm humans with an effective weapon against the dangers that can abound both in sleep and wakefulness.


Dream interpretation was seen as being as important as incubation. One book that still partially exists, called _Instructions for Merikare_ , was written sometime between 2070 and 2100 BCE. It tells that the true interpretation of the dream lies in the exact opposite of the symbols. Therefore, a dream depicting happiness was really a portent of future disaster. There was also a special class of clergy, called Masters of Secret Things, that were specifically for interpreting dreams.


The Egyptians were influential the Greek ways of looking at dreams - especially with incubating dreams and the dream temples. Most dream temples were open to any - and every - one but there were a few, such as the temple of Isis, who would only admit those who were invited in a dream by Isis Herself. Other temples, Asklepios' especially, allowed no deaths or birth in the boundaries of the temple.


Most Greek dream temples were set in the country where they were surrounded by natural beauty and the people seeking a dream could forget the cares of everyday life. Like the Egyptians, Greek supplicants were required to be 'pure' when asking for a dream. In addition, certain foods considered to inhibit dreams were avoided, such as alcohol and broad beans. Offerings to the deities depended on the wealth of the suppicant and often ranged from small, flat cakes dipped in honey to sacrificial animals.


Originally, only Zeus was thought to send divine dreams but as time went on, other gods were recognized to also send dreams: Athena, Hera, Artemis, Asklepios, Hermes, and Pan (who was known as the 'conductor of dreams'). There were two gods who specifically ruled in this area - Hypnos ruled sleep and his son, Morpheus, ruled dreams.


The Greeks also believed that dreams were actual events and the gods were capable of punishing wrongdoers by sending them a false dream. These dreams would be very uplifting and often contain advice to perform certain acts. One famous false dream is from King Agamemnon - Zeus sent him the dream because Agamemnon had stolen a slave girl from the warrior, Achilles. In the dream, the king's trusted counselor appeared to him and told him to march on Troy - assuring that victory was imminent. The king followed dream's advice and was defeated. The Greeks also believed in the reality of negative dreams and took measures to avert the misfortune foretold in these dreams. Remedies included bathing in cold water to telling the dream to the sun and performing sacrifices to protective deities.


Quite a few writings on Greek dream interpretation still exist today. In fact, the 'father' of modern medicine - Hippocrates - used his patients' dreams as diagnostic tools. He believed that while some dreams could be divinely inspired, most were a result of things going on inside the body. In interpreting these dreams, he along with many other greek interpretators, used a standardized method of interpretation. It wasn't until Artemidorus wrote his 5 volumed _Oneirocritica_ around 140 BCE that each individual was taken into account when their dreams were interpreted.


Artemidorus was the first person to insist on knowing a little background about a person before interpreting their dreams - their name; occupation, birthdate, health, marital status and wealth were all taken into consideration. From this standpoint, could be more intimately and accurately interpreted.


Greece and Egypt dream lore were also major influences in Rome - so much so that Rome practically adopted everything they could get their hands on and claimed it as their own. Dreams and dream divination were considered to be so important, emperor Augustus proclaimed that anyone dreaming of Rome must describe it publically in the market lest some prophecy of the wellbeing of Rome be hidden within it. There were some who claimed the dreams were nothing more than a reply of the day's events but most who held these ideas were philosophers who rejected everything that was religious in nature.


Before the adoption of foreign deities, Romans attributed two deities to rule over dreaming. Fauna, later also called Bona Dea - the Good Goddess, was worshipped by women who considered her to send oracular dreams. Her brother, or husband, Faunus was also ruler of dreams. He was worshipped by men who also asked Him to bless their crops. Once Greek and Egyptian deities began to be worshipped, Isis and Serapis proved to be very popular. Dream incubation and interpretation continued until Rome embraced yet another foreign deity and converted to christianity. Anything considered 'pagan' was forbidden.


Christianity wasn't exempt from dreaming, however. The bible contains quite a few references to divine dreams and of people interpreting them. In fact, the Isrealites had one word for both 'to dream' and 'to see'. The book of Genesis contains the story of Joseph, who was sold into Egyptian slavery by his eleven brothers when he told them of his dream of 'the sun, the moon and eleven stars bowing down' to him. He gained his freedom by interpreting a dream that the pharoah's own council could not decipher. Later, when Joseph's parents and eleven brothers came to Egypt to buy grain, the dream that got him sold into slavery came true since he now had higher status than any of them.


Despite these records, however, the idea of dreaming being evil florished throughout the Christian world. St. John Chrysostom declared that people were not responsible for their dreams but they should be ashamed for anything that was dreamed throughout the night. Martin Luther considered dreams to be of the devil because the Church only interpreted God's word and anything that came from dreams could not possibly have anything to do with Him.


Before Christianity came to North America, many tribes placed great significance to dreams. Many tribes held that teaching from the deities or ancestors often occurred during sleep and to a great extent, dreams influenced everyday life. Many sacred songs, tools, dances and medicines came from dreams and often times, they were seen as a source of power. Because of this, it was sometimes necessary for candidates for certain roles - such as shaman or midwife - to have certain dreams before they could gain the position.


Many tribes had their own beliefs about dreams. The Navajo believed there were only positive and negative dreams while the Ojibwa held that there are good; bad, beautiful, impure, ominous, unlucky and painful dreams. The Iroquois believed that dreaming was more important than waking while the Maricopa believed that one's success in life was because of what happened during sleep. The Cherokee, if one dreamed of being bitten by a rattlesnake, treated the person as if they had been bitten in waking life.


A very important time in a Native child's life was the vision quest - which marked the child's passage into adulthood. Part of the goal of the vision quest was to induce power dreams, in which they could seek the deities' favor and gain spiritual power. Boys and girls both participated, although many girls quit at puberty because they gained the power to bear children.


One of the most famous dream - inspired events in Native America was the Ghost Dance. Wovoka dreamed of a great dance that would revive the Native Nations, banish the Wasichu (the whites) and bring back the buffalo. His dream dance swept the plains. Many warriors also had dream - inspired Ghost Shirts at this time, which they thought made them invulnerable to rifle bullets.


Europeans and visitors to the New World had a great interest in dreams. During the 18th century, many books were being published on the subject, although a great many recycled the material in the _Oneirocritica_. Some of the books include fantasic titles: _The Royal Dream Book_; _The Old Egyptian Fortune-Teller's Last Legacy_ and _three Witches_.


The first American dream dictionary was published in 1767 Boston. It was called the _The New Book of Knowledge_. It seemed to set the stage for modern interest in dreamsand by the 1800's, books on dreams and their interpretation proliferated. It's said that many homes had only two books - a bible and a dream dictionary. At one point during the 1850's, many dictionaries only had numbers beside the entries - having dispensed with the meanings and put lucky gambling picks there instead.


In 1900, a new way of looking at dreams, and psychiatry for that matter, was brought about by Sigmund Freud when his book, _The Interpretation of Dreams_ hit the market. It was Freud's theory that dreams were a product of wish fulfillment and they were a reflection of our deepest desires that often went back to childhood. In Freud's view, there was no such thing as 'just a dream'.


Freud's theory came about from a dream he had himself. He had a patient who in waking life suffered from hysteria and had recently stalled in her recovery and returned to her estate in the country. When a colleague mentioned that he had recently seen the lady and that she was 'better but not well', Freud took it as a personal affront to his competence. That night, he dreamed that his patient had come back to him, complaining of pain in her throat and abdomen. After scolding the lady for leaving treatment, he found many strange growths in her mouth and throat. Freud then called in several colleagues, including the one who had insulted him. The dream ended when it was discovered that the offending colleague had given the patient a shot with a dirty needle and that was the cause of the growths. Upon reflection, he later wrote that the dream represented the situation as he wished it to be - a type of revenge.


Carl Jung was a student of Freud's who later disagreed with many of his teacher's theories. Where Freud thought that dreams represented those wishes that we could not accept on a conscious level; signs of psychic illness, or sexual trauma, Jung believed that dreams were messages to ourselves that helped deal with past and present dilemmas; resolve inner conflicts and perhaps even try to solve the most basic mysteries of life.


After many years, interest in dreams is once again beginning to run high. Nowadays, instead of blindly consulting dream dictionaries and applying the meanings to each and every dream, many people apply their own experience and knowledge to the symbols they find in their dreams. Along with interpretation, there has also been renewed interest in dream incubation and lucid dreaming - many many books can be found in just about any bookstore on the subject. Dreams and dreaming have finally come out of the darkness and into the light of day.


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