Oneiromancy: Dream Interpretation in the Ancient World
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Oneiromancy (from the Greek όνειροϛ oneiros, dream, and μαντείαmanteia, prophecy) is a form of divination based upon dreams, and also uses dreams to predict the future. Oneirogen drugs may also be used to produce or enhance dream-like states of consciousness. It is dismissed by the scientific community and skeptics as being superstition; experiments do not support the idea that dreams predict the future beyond the expectations of the person dreaming. Occasionally, the dreamer feels as if he or she is transported to another time or place, and this is offered as evidence they are in fact providing divine information upon their return.
Dreams occur throughout the Bible as omens or messages from God;
- God speaks to Abram while he is in a deep sleep (Genesis 15);
- God speaks to Abimelech, the king of Gerar, concerning his intentions regarding 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 of Egypt’s cupbearer and baker while imprisoned (Genesis 40) and interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh of Egypt (Genesis 41);
- Solomon conversed with God in his dreams (1 Kings 3);
- Daniel interpreted dreams (in the Book of Daniel 2 and 4);
- the Magi are told in a dream to avoid Herod on their journey home (Matthew 2);
- Joseph, when betrothed to Mary, was told not to fear taking Mary as his wife (Matthew 1);
- Joseph, now husband of Mary, was directed 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 out poured, “…your old men will dream dreams.”
The ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia have left evidence of dream interpretation dating back to at least 3100 BC. Throughout Mesopotamian history, dreams were always held to be extremely important for divination and Mesopotamian kings paid close attention to them. Gudea, the king of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash (reigned c. 2144–2124 BC), rebuilt the temple of Ningirsu as the result of a dream in which he was told to do so. The standard Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh contains numerous accounts of the prophetic power of dreams. First, Gilgamesh himself has two dreams foretelling the arrival of Enkidu. Later, Enkidu dreams about the heroes’ encounter with the giant Humbaba. Dreams were also sometimes seen as a means of seeing into other worlds and it was thought that the soul, or some part of it, moved out of the body of the sleeping person and actually visited the places and persons the dreamer saw in his or her sleep. In Tablet VII of the epic, Enkidu recounts to Gilgamesh a dream in which he saw the gods Anu, Enlil, and Shamash condemn him to death. He also has a dream in which he visits the Underworld.
The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal 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 entitled Iškar Zaqīqu records various dream scenarios as well as prognostications of what will happen to the person who experiences each dream, apparently based on previous cases. Some list different possible outcomes, based on occasions in which people experienced similar dreams with different results. Dream scenarios mentioned include a variety of daily work events, journeys to different locations, family matters, sex acts, and encounters with human individuals, animals, and deities.
The oldest oneirocritic manuscript hitherto discovered is the “Ramesside dream-book” now in the British Museum. A unique exemplar of a book of dream-interpretation from pre-Hellenistic Egypt, the surviving fragments were translated into English by Kasia Szpakowska.
Between the paws of the Sphinx, there is a stele describing how Thutmose IV restored the Sphinx as a result of a dream, on the promise of becoming a pharaoh.
Dream divination was a common feature of Greek and Roman religion and literature of all genres. Aristotle and Plato discuss dreams in various works. The only surviving Greco-Roman dreambook, the Oneirocritica, was written by Artemidorus. Artemidorus cites a large number of previous authors, all of whom are now lost. These include Artemidoros, Astrampsychos, Nikephoros, Germanos, and Manuel Palaiologos.
- In Book XIX of the Odyssey, Penelopē said that “dreams … which issue forth from the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.” (Here, there may be a pun of /KRainō/ ‘I fulfill’ with /KeRas/ ‘horn’.)
- Likewise, Herodotos distinguished /oneiros/ (or /enar/) as “the prophetic, God-sent dream” from /en-upnion/ “the non-predictive dream”.
- In the scheme of Artemidoros, the “oneiros was subdivided into two great categories: … allēgorikos, which corresponds to the Platonic theory of the predictive dream operating in the impure soul, and the … theōrēmatikos, which is the dream represented in the pure state of the soul.”
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- Black, Jeremy; Green, Anthony (1992). Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. pp. 71–72, 89–90.
- Oppenheim, L.A. (1966). Mantic Dreams in the Ancient Near East in G. E. Von Grunebaum & R. Caillois (Eds.), The Dream and Human Societies (pp. 341–350). London, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Caillois, R. (1966). Logical and Philosophical Problems of the Dream. In G.E. Von Grunebaum & R. Caillos (Eds.), The Dream and Human Societies(pp. 23–52). London, England: Cambridge University Press.
- Nils P. Heessel : Divinatorische Texte I : … oneiromantische Omina. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007.
- “The Dream Book – Google Arts & Culture”. Google Cultural Institute. Retrieved 2016-10-16.
- Szpakowska, Kasia : Behind Closed Eyes : Dreams and Nightmares in Ancient Egypt. The Classical Press of Wales, Swansea, 2003. http://texts.00.gs/Behind_Closed_Eyes.htm
- Oberhelman 1981, p. 3
- Oberhelman 1981, p. 4
- Oberhelman 1981, p. 8
- Keene, Donald (1999) . A History of Japanese Literature, Vol. 1: Seeds in the Heart – Japanese Literature from Earliest Times to the Late Sixteenth Century (paperback ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
- American Oriental Series, Vol. 89 = Noegel, Scott B. : Nocturnal Ciphers : the Allusive Language of Dreams in the Ancient Near East. New Haven, 2007.
- Oberhelman, Steven Michael : The Oneirocritic Literature of the Late Roman and Byzantine Eras of Greece. PhD dissertation, University of Minnesota, 1981.
- Yehia Gouda : Dreams and Their Meanings in the Old Arab Tradition. Vantage Pr, NY, 1991.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 07.11.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.