Opinions about the meaning of dreams have varied and shifted through time and culture. The earliest recorded dreams were acquired from materials dating back approximately 5,000 years, in Mesopotamia, where they were documented on clay tablets. In the Greek and Roman periods, people believed that dreams were direct messages from the gods or from the dead, and that they predicted the future. In modern times, dreams have been seen as a connection to the unconscious. Sigmund Freud wrote extensively about dream theories and interpretations, while his colleague and rival Carl Jung formed theories, experiments, and terminology around Oneiromancy, a form of divination based upon dreams. This term comes from Greek mythology, where the Oneiroi were, according to Hesiod, sons of Nyx (Night) and brothers of Hypnos (Sleep), Thanatos (Death) and Geras (Old Age). Homer’s Odyssey speaks of the land of dreams as past the streams of Oceanus, close to Hades, where the spirits of the dead are led. In Classical mythology dreams are spoken of as coming through the Gates of Ivory and Horn. Again, this was a phrase that originated in the Greek language, in which the word for “horn” is similar to that for “fulfil” and the word for “ivory” is similar to that for “deceive”. On the basis of this play on words, true dreams are spoken of as coming through the gates of horn, false dreams as coming through those of ivory. Dreams have played as important a part in literature as they have in mythology. In Robert Holdstock’s novel Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn, the main character grapples with a traumatic event that has two very different manifestations, one true and one false. The titular character in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series is drawn directly from Greek mythology – he is Morpheus, god of dreams, able to take whatever form he wishes. One question that has seemingly plagued mankind from the dawn of time is this: what truth can be found in dreams?
Oneiromancy is a system of dream interpretation that uses dreams to predict the future. Derived from the Greek words oneiros which means dream and manteia which means prophecy, oneiromancy has a long and distinguished history. A unique example of a book of dream-interpretation survives from pre-Hellenistic Egypt, the so-called Ramesside Dream-Book. Each page of this ancient tome begins with the phrase “If a man sees himself in a dream…” written vertically in columns. Then, horizontally from that column follows the description of the dream, a “diagnosis” of the dream being good or bad, and finally the meaning of that dream image. The book is curiously divided into sections for two distinct personality types: the follower of Horus and the follower of Seth. This is symptomatic of the apparently common belief in the ancient world that dreams somehow come from the gods – they are believed to be messages to mortals from the divine. The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, retold countless times, reflects heavily on the belief that our ancestors looked to dreams to predict the future, by the hero’s persistence to sleep on things and gather information from his dreams before making decisions. Dream divination was a common feature of Greek and Roman religion and literature, and survived into the Christian era. Dreams occur throughout the Bible as omens or messages from God: In the Book of Genesis, Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven; The Book of Deuteronomy offers instruction about those who claim to have inspired but false dreams; and God spoke to Abraham, Solomon and Daniel in their dreams.
In the modern era, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud explained dreams as manifestations of our deepest desires and anxieties, often relating to repressed childhood memories or obsessions. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud developed a psychological technique to interpret dreams and devised a series of guidelines to understand the symbols and motifs that appear in our dreams. Although Carl Jung rejected many of Freud’s theories, he expanded on Freud’s idea that dream content relates to the dreamer’s unconscious desires. He described dreams as messages to the dreamer and argued that dreamers should pay attention for their own good. Jung wrote that recurring dreams show up repeatedly to demand attention, suggesting that the dreamer may be neglecting an issue related to the dream. It may surprise some people to learn that scientific studies have observed dreaming in animals – not only in mammals such as monkeys, dogs, cats, rats, elephants and shrews but also even in birds and reptiles. It seems that almost all living species have a biological imperative to dream – indeed there is clear evidence linking poor health with the inability to dream.
Moving away from the world of science to that of science fiction, dreams have also featured in fantasy and speculative fiction since the 19th century. One of the best-known dream worlds is Wonderland from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as well as Looking-Glass Land from its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. Unlike many dream worlds, Carroll’s logic is like that of actual dreams, with transitions and flexible causality. Other fictional dream worlds include the Dreamlands of H. P. Lovecraft’s Dream Cycle and The Neverending Story‘s world of Fantasia, which includes places like the Desert of Lost Dreams, the Sea of Possibilities and the Swamps of Sadness. Dreamworlds, shared hallucinations and other alternate realities feature in a number of works by Phillip K. Dick, such as The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and Ubik. Similar themes were explored by Jorge Luis Borges, for instance in The Circular Ruins. Modern popular culture often conceives of dreams, like Freud, as expressions of the dreamer’s deepest fears and desires. In films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Spellbound (1945), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Field of Dreams (1989), and Inception (2010), the protagonists must extract vital clues from surreal dreams. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s book, The Lathe of Heaven (1971), the protagonist finds that his “effective” dreams can retroactively change reality. Peter Weir’s 1977 Australian film The Last Wave, meanwhile makes a simple and straightforward postulate about the premonitory nature of dreams that “… dreams are the shadow of something real”.
There are, in short, many hypotheses about the function of dreams. Dreams, it is thought, allow the repressed parts of the mind to be satisfied through fantasy while keeping the conscious mind from thoughts that would suddenly cause one to awaken from shock. Freud suggested that bad dreams let the brain learn to gain control over emotions resulting from distressing experiences, while Jung suggested that dreams may compensate for one-sided attitudes held in waking consciousness. Books are devoted to oneiromancy, oneirology (the scientific study of dreams), lucid dreaming and other related phenomena. There are people today who keep extensive dream journals and spend vast sums of money paying ‘experts’ to interpret their dreams. Even the most eminent psychiatrist or ‘oneiromancer’ who has devoted a lifetime to the study of dreams cannot, however, say for certain what any particular dream means (if it means anything at all of course). It is a subject that has baffled and fascinated us for thousands of years. Seeking truth in dreams may not be wise, or even safe, but the desire to do so seems almost impossible to resist. Sweet dreams!