How did the Ancient Civilizations made sense of Dreams


The fascination with dreams is not a recent phenomenon but an ancient one surpassing civilizations. Although there has been no conclusive progress to the study of dreams till date; interpretations and ways to interpret dreams have been found from a time period starting from ancient civilizations. While some interpret it to have some divine meaning from the Gods and also some form of divine connection to one’s own spirit; while some others interpret as the soul leaving the body. Here are interpretations from some of the ancient civilization.

Ancient Greece

Aristotle, 4th century BC and Artemidorus, 2nd century BC; these two men were the chief recorders of dreams in ancient Greece. Artemidorus, in his book “The interpretation of dreams” differentiated between meaningful dreams- Oneiroi and meaningless dreams – Enhypmia. According to him Enhypmia was caused by stressful physical and mental condition such as fear, desires and also indigestion. Oneiroi, on the other hand was considered to be a divine dream that can predict one’s future. But later, Aristotle contested Artmidorus’s theory suggesting that since animal also possess the power to dream, no God could divinely inspire any form lower than human beings. He believed dreams were a figment of one’s imagination; a theory suggested by Sigmund Freud years later.


The earliest forms of writings on dreams were written by the Mesopotamians and the first known dream text was of king Duzumi. They believed that dreams were directly sent by God although nightmares were sent by demons. And also if one were in the ruling class, sleep was also a medium to communicate with the deities.


The quiches of Mayan civilization classified the interpretation of dreams into three parts; prophecies offering a reverse image, metaphoric representation or a literal representation of the future. They also had interpreters known as day keepers; who possessed a trait called body lightning, a feeling of air passing through one’s body which was deciphered as a prophecy.


According to Islamic traditions, dreams are divine connection to one’s true spirit. Mohammed Ibn Sirin, a dream interpreter of the 8th century CE, deciphered meanings of several dream symbols such as doorjambs, oatmeal, rug etc. in his book “Great book of interpretation of dreams”

Ancient India

According to Vedas, the oldest Hindu script; when one falls asleep the soul leaves the body to travel through time and space. And if awakened suddenly the soul might not reach the body in time. Srimad Bhagvatam, another Hindu sacred text states that there are three material state of consciousness – the awakened state, dream state and deep sleep. There is also a non-material fourth state through which one can become aware of the supreme God.

Early aboriginal

According to aboriginal mythology, Gods and mortals made the Earth in a timeless state known as dreamtime. The term “dreaming” meant “tjukurrpa” in aboriginal language; which meant “to see and understand the law”. There is little to no documentation of aboriginal beliefs as to what they interpreted about dreams; but it forms an important part of a collective memory as dreaming is also taken to be a story passed down through generations of a tribal group.

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptians considered dreams to have a divine message; whose interpretation was the work of temple priest known as “Masters of secret things” or “Scribes of the double house of life”. The priests recorded recurring omens and dream images and the Gods; whom they assume to have sent favourable dreams. The god Bes — the only Egyptian god depicted frontally, was often carved into wooden or stone headrests, to have a positive effect on dreams.

It’s fascinating to see that any phenomenon not comprehended by the human mind was feared and given a religious meaning and so happened in the case of dreams. But thanks to the advancement of science and technology, we know that dreams are mostly a figment of one’s imagination.


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