The Secret Language of Dreams A Visual Key to Dreams and Their Meanings
By David Fontana
Chronicle Books Copyright © 1994 David Fontana
All right reserved. ISBN: 0811807282
Dreaming Through History
All through history we have sought to fathom the meanings of our dreams. Intrigued by their strange images, and their apparent cargo of symbolism, we have searched them energetically for insights into our present lives and for predictions of our future. The most ancient civilizations believed that dreams carried messages from the gods. Cuneiform tablets from Assyria and Babylon dating from the end of the fourth millennium BC depict a society whose priests and kings received warnings in their dreams from the deity Zaqar. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the great tale of a Mesopotamian hero-king written in the Akkadian language during the first millennium BC, is full of dream accounts, many replete with divine omens of danger or victory; in one a nightmare creature leads the hero Enkidu to the "Land of Dust" where the souls of the dead live in perpetual darkness.
Ancient Jewish tradition anticipated modern dream theory by recognizing that the life-circumstances of the dreamer are as important in interpretation as the dream content itself. The Babylonians revered the Jews as dream interpreters, and in the sixth century BC they summoned the Israelite prophet Daniel to interpret one of King Nebuchadnezzar's dreams, whereupon he correctly predicted the king's imminent seven years of madness (Daniel 4: 535). The Egyptians also prized the Israelites as dream interpreters. Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, was able to rise from poverty to a position of considerable power by correctly interpreting the Pharaoh's dream that foretold seven plentiful and seven lean years in the ancient kingdom (Genesis 41: 138).
The Egyptians themselves did much to systematize dream interpretation during the years of the Middle Kingdom (2040-1786 BC), and their methods (as recorded in the Chester Beatty papyrus) have echoes in present-day dream directories. Dreams were understood in terms of meaningful opposites: thus, apparently happy dreams presaged disaster, while the worst nightmare could stand for better times to come. Individual dream symbols were fathomed either through rhyming similarities between word sounds, or through the modern method of association. It was believed that dreams contained messages from both good and evil spirits. By ingesting herbal potions or reciting spells, a dreamer would attempt to induce the good spirits and deter the bad. Thus prepared, the subject would sleep in the temple, and on awakening would submit his or her dreams to the temple priest for interpretation.
The ancient Greeks borrowed extensively from the Egyptians, and built more than three hundred shrines to serve as dream oracles. Mortals in these shrines were subjected to the soporific power of Hypnos, god of sleep, as he fanned them with his wings. Once they had passed into slumber, the god Morpheus could communicate with his adepts, passing warnings and prophecies to them in their dreams. Many of these shrines became famous as centres of healing. The sick would sleep there, hoping for a visitation from Aesculapius, the god of healing, who provided remedies for physical ills, sometimes effecting immediate cures, while the dreamer lay asleep surrounded by harmless yellow snakes. Aesculapius is also said to have summoned sacred snakes to the shrines to lick the wounds of the afflicted in their sleep, and so heal them. The caduceus -- a device consisting of two snakes entwined around a rod -- is still used to represent healing in Western symbolism.
Plato, writing in the fourth century BC, took a less mystical view, believing the liver to be the seat of dreams. He attributed some dreams to the gods, but others to what in the Republic he called the "lawless wild beast nature which peers out in sleep", even in the sleep of the virtuous. While Plato thus anticipated Freud by more than 2,000 years, his pupil Aristotle foreshadowed twentieth-century scientific rationalism by arguing that dreams were triggered by purely sensory causes. Despite such cautionary voices, popular belief in the divinatory power of dreams remained widespread, and allegedly affected the course of Roman history: both Hannibal's epic journey across the Alps and Caesar's invasion of Rome were prompted by divine dream encouragement.
In the second century AD the Sophist philosopher Artemidorus of Daldis (who makes two brief and enigmatic appearances in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) drew together the wisdom of earlier centuries, much of it already collected in the great library of the Babylonian King Asurna at Nineveh. His researches appeared in five highly influential dream books, the Oneirocritica (from the Greek oneiros, "a dream"). Although many of his interpretations sound quaint to present-day ears, Artemidorus was surprisingly modern in some respects. He identified the importance of the dreamer's personality in dream analysis, and observed the nature and frequency of sexual symbols. In his formulation that a mirror represents the feminine to men and the masculine to women, he even anticipated the Jungian concepts of the Anima and Animus (see page 38).
Oriental dream traditions also offer many rewarding perspectives. Generally they are more philosophical and contemplative than Western traditions, and lay more emphasis upon the dreamer's state of mind than upon the predictive power of the dream itself. Chinese sages recognized that consciousness has different levels, and when interpreting dreams they took account of the physical condition and horoscope of the dreamer as well as of the time of year. They believed that consciousness leaves the body during sleep, and travels in various otherworldly realms: to arouse the dreamer abruptly, before mind and body are reunited, could be highly dangerous.
Indian rsis, or seers, also believed in the multi-layered nature of consciousness, recognizing the discrete states of waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and samadhi, the bliss that follows enlightenment. A passage on dream interpretation in the Atharva Veda, a philosophical text dating from c.1,500-1,000 BC, teaches that in a series of dreams only the last is important: the suggestion is that dreams work progressively in solving problems or revealing wisdom. Hindu tradition also emphasizes the importance of individual dream images, relating them to a wider symbolic system incorporating the symbolic attributes of gods and demons. The Hindu belief that some symbols are universal while some are personal to the dreamer foreshadows the work of both Freud and Jung.
In the West, little progress was made in the study of dreams in the centuries after Artemidorus, as it was thought that he had made their mysteries plain. The Arabs, however, influenced by Eastern wisdom, continued to explore the dream world, producing dream dictionaries and a wealth of interpretations. Muhammad rose from obscurity to found Islam after a dream in which he received his prophetic call, and dreams afterwards came to the forefront of religious orthodoxy. In the Koran, the angel Gabriel comes to Muhammad in a dream, leading him on a silvery mare to Jerusalem and then up to heaven, where he meets Christ, Adam and the four apostles, enters the Garden of Delight and receives instructions from God.
The belief that dreams could be divinely inspired persisted during the early centuries of Christendom, and in the 4th century AD was part of the teaching of Church fathers such as St John Chrysostom, St Augustine and St Jerome. However, Christian orthodoxy was moving away from dream interpretation and prophecy. The dreams of the New Testament were seen as straightforward messages from God to the disciples and other founders of Christianity. Prediction also was redundant, because the future was believed to be in God's hands. By the Middle Ages, the Church even discounted the possibility of divine messages to the average believer, because God's revelation was only in and through the Church itself. The Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas summed up the orthodox position of the thirteenth century when he advised that dreams should be ignored altogether. Martin Luther, who broke from the Roman Catholic Church to initiate the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, taught that dreams, at most, simply showed us our sins.
However, dream interpretation was too strongly rooted in popular consciousness to be so readily dismissed. With the increasing availability of printed books in Europe from the fifteenth century onward, dream dictionaries proliferated, mostly based on the works of Artemidorus. Despite their naivety, such dictionaries filled a useful role in taking dream interpretation away from the seers and priests and placing it in the hands of the individual. And even though the scientific rationalists of the eighteenth century believed that dreams were of little consequence, and that their interpretation was a form of primitive superstition, at a popular level the interest in dreams gathered strength. Moreover, dreams began to feature as prominent themes in literature and art, as the new Romanticism, led by visionaries such as William Blake and Goethe, rejected the claims of the rationalists and placed a new emphasis on the importance of the individual and the creative power of the imagination.
In nineteenth-century Europe even philosophers such as Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841) began to regard dreams as worthy of serious psychological study, and thus the way was prepared for the revolution in dream theory that began at the end of the century with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). In 1899, in his mid-forties, Freud published his monumental work The Interpretation of Dreams. His studies as a neurologist had led him to search for the causes of neuroses in the unconscious mind, and after a lengthy course of self-analysis he became convinced of the role that dreams could play in providing access to these inner depths. For Freud the unconscious, or id, was primarily the seat of desires and impulses, mostly of a sexual nature, that are usually repressed by the conscious mind. Most dreams, he believed, are simple wish-fulfilments, or expressions of repressed ideas that force their way into our consciousness when our egos relax control during sleep. He argued that the function of dreaming is to preserve our sleep by preventing our wishes and desires from waking us up. Transformed into dream images and symbols, our deepest urges lose immediacy and so become more easily manageable. In Freud's terminology, these symbolic transformations are the manifest content of dreams, and he developed techniques in psychoanalysis to interpret the coded symbolism of this material to reveal what he called the latent content, which served as a key to the unconscious mind.
The Swiss-born psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) worked closely with Freud between 1909 and 1913, but found himself increasingly distanced by Freud's emphasis upon the underlying sexual content of dream symbols. Jung's views on dreams and on the operations of the mind in general form an important counterpoint (and, many psychologists would say, corrective) to those of Freud. More and more, Jung allowed the non-rational side of his nature (which had been powerfully expressed in his childhood fantasies and dreams) to emerge, and through a process of self-discovery, recorded by detailed note-taking, he came to develop his highly influential theory of the "collective unconscious" -- the belief that the mind contains a vast internal reservoir of symbolism drawn upon by men and women, across all cultures, in their dreams and their deepest imaginings. Stored in the collective unconscious are the "archetypes" (see page 34), the profoundly resonating images and themes that inform the world's myths and religious and symbolic systems, as well as populating our most universally meaningful dreams.
Although many new techniques of dream interpretation have sprung up in recent times to supplement those pioneered by Freud and Jung, most draw heavily upon the work of the two masters whose theories of the unconscious and collective unconscious remain central to the most commonly held beliefs about the sources of our dreams. Psychoanalysis and Jungian analysis continue to be at the core of psychological investigation into dreams and their symbolic meaning.
The greatest breakthrough in dream research in the second half of the century was the discovery in 1953 of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when the most vivid episodes of dreaming occur (see page 14). By waking sleepers up during REM periods, dream recall is greatly enhanced, enabling us to work more accurately with the images, symbols and other psychic events that punctuate our sleep.
However, much work remains to be done before we can construct a fully fledged science of dreaming. In the meantime, through dream workshops and other forms of analysis, we are building up a corpus of case studies that will, it is hoped, form an invaluable body of evidence for the dream scientists of the future.
Excerpted from The Secret Language of Dreams by David Fontana Copyright © 1994 by David Fontana. Excerpted by permission.
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