Dreaming LifeDreaming Life

For thousands of years, people have believed that dreams were created by supernatural beings and could be used to foretell the future. The Bible treats dreams as messages from God. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans also thought that dreams were divinely inspired.

Western Dream Interpretation

The Egyptians produced the earliest known dream dictionary, which is known as the Chester Beatty Papyrus. It was written over 4,000 years ago, and is held by the British Museum. The interpretations in the Chester Betty Papyrus were based on the idea that dreams predict the future. The Egyptians had a system of contrary dream interpretation: If you dreamed about something good happening, it meant something bad would happen to you in waking life. Having a nightmare was therefore a sign of good luck.

Ancient Egyptians seeking the meaning of dreams were inspired by the god Anubis

In ancient Egypt, it was believed that the gods only spoke to people through dreams.  The priests built shrines where people who were found to have special dreaming abilities could sleep and dream, receiving messages from the gods in their dreams.   These shrines were often decorated with statues of Anubis - the Egyptian god of the dead.

The Assyrians believed that you could enter the spiritual world in your dreams. Once you found yourself in the spiritual world, you would be rewarded with a prophecy.

According to the Babylonians, there were two types of dreams: good dreams were caused by harmless spirits, while bad dreams were caused by demons.

The ancient Greeks are thought to have been the first to come up with the idea that dreams are created by the dreamer, rather than by the gods. Plato thought that dreams expressed secret desires. Aristotle believed that dreams were metaphorical, and a good dream interpreter would have to understand the significance of the symbols in a dream. Hippocrates believed that dreams contained symbols that represented the dreamer's physical condition, so that dreams could be used to diagnose illness. For example, a patient who dreamt of a fire would be suffering from indigestion.

Artemidorus, a Roman who lived in Greek Asia Minor in the 2nd Century AD/CE was the first person known to have written a book on dream interpretation that examined the meanings of the symbols in dreams. Artemidorus believed that in order to interpret a dream, you had to understand what the symbols meant to the individual dreamer.

The Celts relied on dreams to tell them whether it was a good time to hunt or to go to war.

Ancient Jews believed that God revealed his will through dreams, and the Old Testament is full of stories about prophecies that are revealed through dreams.

Joseph's interpretation of Pharaoh's dream is an important biblical story. Pharaoh dreams that seven fat cows are eaten by seven thin cows, and of seven healthy ears of corn and seven diseased ears of corn.  Joseph interprets the dream to mean that Egypt will have seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine.

Other prophets of the Old Testament, such as Solomon and Elijah, were also inspired by dreams.

Much of Islam is based on revelations that came to Muhammad in his dreams.

Non-Western Dream Interpretation

Some cultures, including many Native American, African, and Australian aboriginal tribes, have always used dreams as a way to share a collective spirit memory. They still get together in groups in order to interpret each others' dreams.

Aboriginal culture speaks of the Dreamtime, when the sleeping spirits awoke and created the world.  The spirits created all of the animals, plants and rocks in the world by singing their secrets names. The spirits then went back to sleep.

Some aboriginal rock paintings show images from the Dreamtime.

According to Native American culture, dreams reveal secrets about both the physical world and the spiritual world.