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Dream Interpretation in the Ancient World

July 20, 2020

In the New Age, dreams have been examined and pored over to gain psychological understanding of ourselves, receive messages from Spirit, and to divine the future. The art of dream interpretation has a long history and can be traced back to our ancient Pagan ancestors.

The Greeks believed that dream-visions were messages from gods and ghosts; dreams were said to “stand over” the dreamer as though brought by an entity. These altered states link those experiencing them to the spirit world and enable them to receive messages.

In the Greek view dream visions are objective fact and are interpreted by complicated symbolism. Prophetic dreams were categorized in the following way:

1. Symbolic dream: metaphors that must be interpreted.

2. Horama/vision: straightforward, pre-enactment of a future event.

3. Chrematismos/oracle: parent, priest, God, or esteemed elder reveals without symbolism what will or will not happen or should or should not be done. An apport, or token, might be left behind in the dream and later found on the physical plane as a sign.

If we go even further back to Mesopotamia, we find references in the ancient Sumerian texts to how this dead culture viewed dreams.

In the epic “Gilgamesh,” Gilgamesh’s best friend Enkidu dreams of his death in very specific terms that come true exactly. The Goddess Ishtar, also known as Inanna, tells her father Anu, God of the Sky, what will happen if she does not get her way with Gilgamesh. She sends the Bull of Heaven against Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and they overcome it. Cleansing themselves again, they parade through the streets of Uruk, and Gilgamesh announces his fame. However, Enkidu dreams of his death and renounces his former great deeds as being nothing when set against his coming death.6 Enkidu curses his having killed Humbaba, his bringing the cedars of Lebanon to the city, and his encounter with the harlot. (He takes this last curse back, however, and gives her a blessing.) Enkidu dreams again, this time a long dream of the House of Death, and falls ill. In the Greek view, this can be described as horama.

Gilgamesh himself has two important dreams. In the first a meteorite falls to earth that is so great that Gilgamesh can neither lift it nor turn it. The people gather and celebrate around the meteorite, and Gilgamesh embraces it as he would a wife, but his mother, the goddess Rimat-Ninsun, forces him to compete with the meteorite. In the second, Gilgamesh dreams that an axe appears at his door, so great that he can neither lift it nor turn it. The people gather and celebrate around the axe, and Gilgamesh embraces it as he would a wife, but his mother, again, forces him to compete with the axe. Gilgamesh asks his mother what these dreams might mean; she tells him a man of great force and strength will come into Uruk. Gilgamesh will embrace this man as he would a wife, and this man will help Gilgamesh perform great deeds. That man turns out to be Enkidu. The Greeks would have called this a symbolic dream.

Another symbolic dream is that of Dumuzi (Tammuz), the king-consort of Inanna (Ishtar). Dumuzi dreams that rushes envelop him, one reed trembles and two reeds growing together are removed. In the next scene of his dream, he is terrified by the forest, and then water is poured on his holy hearth. Amidst other symbols of death and decay, predatory animals catch their prey and agriculture grinds to a halt. His sister Geshtinanna interprets his dream for him, thus earning her the epithet of “the old woman, interpreter of dreams.” She concludes that Dumuzi’s demons pursue and attack him. She says the single reed is their mother, who mourns for him, and the two reeds are herself and Dumuzi, who will each be taken away. The remainder of her analysis prophesies death and destruction for Dumuzi.

Finally, in a dream, the god Ea tells Utnapishtim to make a boat with very precise measurements and to take in the boat “the seed of all living creatures” to save them from a coming flood. This is an example of chrematismos. It is also the precursor to the Noah story in the bible.

From the time of Gilgamesh, a historical Mesopotamian king living around 2700 B.C. to the Greeks in the last centuries before the Common Era, the rich tradition of dream interpretation continued to be practiced in a very similar way.

If you would like to learn more about ancient influences on our modern day Paganism, we invite you to out annual Ishtarfest celebration, currently schedule the second weekend in October.

-Rev. Amara Willey

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