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By Beverly Cleary
Harper Collins PublishersCopyright © 2003 Beverly Cleary All right reserved. ISBN: 0060534559
Since time immemorial, the human race has regarded dreams as mysterious, significant and powerful. They link the aware mind, seeming to speak directly to it from our unconscious, reflecting our joys, anxieties and hopes. Many people believe that the dream world - through an understanding of its special language - can help us enrich our waking lives and lead to greater self-knowledge.
Dream interpretation has been practiced throughout time by all civilizations. People have claimed that dreams are of the utmost importance, and they have tried to understand or analyze them in the light of their own beliefs and customs.
This chapter describes some of the ways in which dreams have been interpreted in several ancient and modem cultures.
Beliefs in Ancient Cultures
In Mesopotamia, the Babylonians divided ordinary dreams into "good" ones sent by the gods, and "bad" ones sent by demons. Their goddess of dreams, Mamu, was served by priests who tried to prevent bad dreams from coming true.
Later, their conquerors, the Assyrians, believed in dreams as omens. One dream, written on a clay tablet found at Nineveh and dating from the reign of King Ashurbanipal (669-626BC), for example, states that if a man flies repeatedly in his dreams, all that he owns will be lost. They also thought that "bad" dreams demanded action and that if the "demon" could be exorcised, or the dreamer understood advice given in a dream, the problem would go away.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the gods showed themselves in dreams. They also practiced dream interpretation. But they thought dreams were based on real things that could not be seen or heard when the conscious mind was in control. As far back as 2000 BC, the Egyptians wrote down their dreams on papyrus. A collection of records in the British Museum, written around 1350 BC, distinguishes between "good" and "bad" dreams and also includes incantations for warding off the effects of unpleasant or threatening dreams.
Types of dreams. The records list three main types of dreams: those in which the gods would demand some pious act, those that contained warnings (perhaps about illness) or revelations, and those that came about through ritual.
Incubating dreams. Like other Near Eastern people, the Egyptians believed that dreams could serve as oracles, bringing messages from the gods. The best way to get the desired answer, especially in sickness, was to induce or "incubate" dreams. (Incubate comes from the Latin incubare, meaning "to lie down up on.") To incubate dreams, Egyptians would travel to a sanctuary or shrine, such as the famous temple at Memphis. There, they slept overnight on a special "dream bed" in the hope of receiving divine advice, comfort or healing from their dreams. Sick travelers even took potions or fasted to induce dreams.
The distinction between "good" and "bad" dreams passed on to the Greeks, as did the idea of incubating dreams. Votive inscriptions, testifying that help had been given in improving health, for example, can still be found at the Shrine of Apollo at Delphi and at the Temple of Epidaurus, which was dedicated to the cult of Aesculapius, a revered healer. (In the Sacred Orations of about AD 150, the writer Aristides claims that in dreams he was given several strange orders, such as to go barefoot in winter, to use emetics and even to sacrifice one of his fingers.)
Pre-sleep rituals. Before incubation, the Greeks would carry out specific rituals by which they purified and dedicated themselves. For two days before entering the shrine, they had to abstain from sex, avoid eating meat, fish or fowl and drink only water. They also had to make a sacrificial offering of animals to the god whom they wished to invoke through a dream. Some subjects were taken to a statue of the god so they could be imbued with feelings of awe before sleep. The subject then lay down to sleep on the skin of a sacrificed animal, sometimes beside the statue of the deity.
Healing dreams. During the night, it is thought that priests returned to the bedside of a sick dreamer, dressed as gods, to give the patient medical treatment. In the morning, the priest interpreted the subject's dreams and told him how to care for his health.
Dream couriers. According to Greek legend, the god Hypnos brought sleep to mortals by touching them with his magic wand or by fanning them with his wings.
Hypnos's son and the god of dreams, Morpheus, aided by the messenger Hermes - then sent his dreams to the sleepers below. (Morpheus derives from the Greek morphe, meaning "shape," because the god supposedly gave form to the insubstantial phantasms that are dreams.) He also sent warnings and prophecies to those who slept at shrines and temples.
Dream people. The early Greeks thought that the people who inhabited their dreams lived near the Underworld. Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, said that these phantoms entered the dream world by two gates: those entering "true" dreams (ones that come to pass) enter by the Gate of Horn, and those entering "false" dreams (which delude) come through the Gate of Ivory.
This explanation played on two puns: the Greek for horn is keras, and the verb karanoo means "to accomplish"; ivory in Greek is elephas, and the word elephairo means "to cheat with empty hopes."
Prophetic dreams. Aristotle, the ancient Greek thinker, had a rather different approach to dreams, however. He thought premonitory dreams of sickness, for instance, could be caused by the dreamer's unconscious recognition of the symptoms. He also thought the dreamer might act unconsciously to bring about the dreamed event.
Excerpted from Understanding Dreams by Beverly Cleary
Copyright © 2003 by Beverly Cleary
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.