Babylonia / Mesopotamia
Accounts of dream analysis in ancient Mesopotamia, dating back more than 5,000 years to 3100 BCE, offer a fascinating glimpse into the early understanding of dreams. Early Mesopotamian texts, especially those concerning royalty, frequently featured accounts of dreams. This rich tradition is analyzed extensively by Curtiss Hoffman in the journal "Dreaming."
The Mesopotamians regarded dream analysis as a form of divination and took the messages within their dreams seriously. For instance, Gudea (2144 to 2124 BCE), the ruler of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash, reconstructed a temple dedicated to the war god Ningirsu following instructions he received in a dream.
Similarly, the ancient poem known as the "Epic of Gilgamesh," dating back to about 2100 BCE, contains various dreams and their interpretations. Most notably, these dreams symbolically foreshadow events in Gilgamesh's life. His friend Enkidu interprets numerous dreams throughout the epic, including one where a mountain falls on them, interpreted as the defeat of Humbaba, the guardian of a forbidden cedar forest through which Gilgamesh and Enkidu are traveling.
Ancient Egyptians also believed that dreams held prophetic insights. An Egyptian papyrus from the 1200s BCE, passed down through generations, is considered an Egyptian dream book. It begins with the phrase, "If a man sees himself in a dream..." and lists various dreams, categorizing them as "good" or "bad" omens. This document describes over 100 different dreams and includes symbols and actions that might appear in dreams, indicating that the Egyptians recognized the symbolic nature of dream content. These dreams focused on commoners, highlighting that dream interpretation was part of everyday life in ancient Egypt.
Ancient Greek mythology featured a pantheon of gods dedicated to sleep and dreams, including Hypnos, the god of sleep; Morpheus, the god of dreams; and Phobetor, the personification of nightmares. They appeared in Ovid's "Metamorphoses," written in the eighth century CE.
The ancient Greeks believed that dream content was significant. Antiphon, a fourth-century BCE Greek, authored the first known book on dream interpretation, offering practical guidance for understanding dreams. In the second century CE, another Greek author named Artemidorus wrote a similar treatise called "Oneirocritica." Artemidorus categorized dreams into two types: those reflecting recent daily activities and prophetic dreams foretelling the future.
Philosophers of the time also shed light on the importance of dreams in ancient Greece. Hippocrates believed that dreams could predict physical illnesses, while Aristotle considered dreams as potential sources of prophecy. Plato suggested that dreamers acted out guilty deeds during sleep that they would not commit while awake.
Ancient Chinese dream interpretation stemmed from Taoist beliefs. Taoists considered dreams to provide valuable life lessons and saw them as an integral part of an individual's existence. Dreams were seen as alternate realities, not hallucinations, that occurred during sleep.