When you ask “What does my dream mean?,” you’re echoing a question that has been asked since the beginning of time. In nearly every culture on every continent, the stories that play out in sleep have special meaning and significance. Many cultures built practices around their beliefs about what dreams mean, where they come from and what they can tell about people’s connection to the world and everything around them. Here’s what these ancient cultures from many different parts of the world believed about dreams.
The Meaning of Dreams in Ancient Egypt
In ancient Egyptian times, the dream world existed between the land of the living and the world on the other side, a world inhabited by deities and the spirits of the dead. Dreams were communications from those entities. Some of those dreams were straightforward and easy to understand. For example, the story goes, when Thutmose IV was a young man, he fell asleep in the shadow of the Sphinx. In his dream, the Sphinx told him to clear away the sand that was covering it, and in return, he would rule the land as a great Pharaoh. This message was clear and unequivocal.
The meanings of other dreams, however, were more obscure, and required the specialized understanding of a professional dream “interpreter.” The Ancient Egyptians believed so strongly about the power of dreams to foretell the future and offer advice, that they had rituals to incubate their dreams. In some cases, they would actually bring their dreams to a special oracle who would study it and then … go to sleep and have a dream about their dream.
Because they felt that dreams were so significant, many Egyptians were also meticulous about recording their dreams and their interpretations. That’s how we know that dreaming of the moon was a good thing, meaning the gods are forgiving you, but if a man or woman sees himself in the mirror in a dream, it’s a bad sign that means he will have to find another wife or husband.
Dream Incubation in the Ancient World
Dream incubation was a widespread practice across the Near Eastern civilizations of the ancient world. Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek and Hebrew texts all refer to some form of inviting the other world to send prophetic dreams. The process was similar across the region: a person who wanted advice or a message from the gods would come to a temple or other holy place and offer a payment to the keepers of the temple. Most often, they would follow a ritual that might include offering a sacrifice, eating certain foods or drinks and/or fasting. This was followed by sleeping in the “presence of the gods” in the temple, usually in rooms set aside specifically for that purpose. In some places, the actual dreaming was done by an oracle or prophet. In others, the person seeking advice slept and dreamed beside the oracle, who would then interpret both of their dreams together.
Dreaming in the Old Testament
The Old Testament contains many stories about God speaking to leaders, seers and prophets through dreams. Like many other cultures in the region, the ancient Hebrews believed that sleep thinned the veil between the living world and the world of demons, angels and spirits, and that sometimes, God himself spoke to humans through their dreams. One of the most famous stories of dream interpretation from the Bible is that of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers because he told them his dreams — and then became one of Egypt’s most powerful men because he interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh and saved the land from famine. Jean-Marie Husser, a professor of religious history at the University of Strasbourg, notes that the people of the Old Testament world viewed dreams as a “recognized means of access to divine wisdom,” and cites the stories of Joseph, Samuel, Daniel and Balaam as examples.
What Dreams Meant in Native American Cultures
In his 1994 book, “Walking the Sky: Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains,” Lee Irwin delved deep into the spiritual significance of dreams and visions among the cultures of Native American nations of the American Midwest.
Like many other ancient peoples, many Native American cultures viewed the dream space as a sacred place, one where a person could step outside the bonds of mundane existence and connect with a more universal consciousness. Each tribe and culture had (or has) its own way of accessing this dimension along with the knowledge to be learned from the animal and ancestral spirits that inhabit it. Irwin is careful to point out that there are distinct and important differences in the spiritual practices and beliefs of various nations, but also that they share many similarities. Most specifically, there is a shared appreciation of the dream space as a sacred, holy place to be attained through ritual activities; the messages received there, whether personal or universal, are messages from the world ecology itself.
Dreaming in Aboriginal Australian Cultures
In Australian aboriginal mythology, the ancestral spirits dreamed the world, including their own forms, into existence. The aboriginal name for this period of creation—common across many dialects and languages—loosely translates as Dreamtime, or The Dreaming. While many western cultures talk about the birth of the world as something that happened in the past, in these indigenous Australian cultures, the Dreaming exists as a continuing reality, another plane of existence that some people could visit in their “night dreams,” a term used by anthropologists to differentiate dreams while sleeping from the Dreaming. In these special dreams, they could meet and talk with ancestral spirits, or witness creation as it happened. Dreaming was a way of connecting with the ancestral spirits of the land, of learning about the world and of keeping the Dreamtime alive.
While the specifics vary from culture to culture, many ancient cultures shared the belief that dreams are important, that they occupy a space outside our everyday life and offer a window into a deeper understanding of ourselves and our connection to the world and everything in it. While science may have trouble explaining exactly how these connections happen, the latest research into genetics, trauma and shared cultural history seems to suggest that there may just be something to it. If the memories of trauma can be carried from generation to generation in genes, who’s to say that people don’t also share a cultural connection to each other through the dream space, where healing and understanding can take place?
By Deb Powers
Deb Powers is a freelance writer who writes frequently about metaphysical topics. She has incorporated the language of dreams into several self-published decks of tarot and oracle cards meant for self-reflection, connection and empowerment.
Dr. Stephen Aizenstat
Stephen Aizenstat, Ph.D., is the Founder of Dream Tending, Pacifica Graduate Institute, and The Academy of Imaginal Arts and Sciences. He is a world renowned Professor of Depth Psychology, an imagination specialist and innovator. He has served as an organizational consultant to major companies, institutions, Hollywood films, and has lectured extensively in the U.S., Asia and Europe.
He is affiliated with the Earth Charter International project through the United Nations where he has spoken. Professor Aizenstat is the Chancellor Emeritus and Founding President of Pacifica Graduate Institute. He has collaborated with many notable masters in the field including Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, Marion Woodman and Robert Johnson.