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A HISTORY OF DREAM INTERPRETATION IN WESTERN CIVILIZATION FROM THE


EARLIEST TIMES THROUGH THE MIDDLE AGES

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A HISTORY OF DREAM INTERPRETATION


IN WESTERN CIVILIZATION
FROM THE EARLIEST TIMES THROUGH THE MIDDLE AGES

J. Donald Hughes
Professor of History
University of Denver

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Anyone with an interest in dream interpretation who reads
earlier literature soon discovers a remarkable contrast between the
careful attention given to dreams in past centuries and the
relatively casual attitude of most modern writers, with the exception
of those who are informed by the insights of psychoanalysis and its
allied endeavors. Almost no important work of ancient literature
lacks reference to dreams, their interpretation, and their influence
on human attitudes and actions.

PRIMAL SOCIETIES
Although early human beings had several different ideas
concerning what dreams are, they seem always to have invested dreams
with great significance. That the soul left the body during sleep
and actually experienced the dream events elsewhere, possibly in a
supernatural world, was a widespread belief. In virtually every
primal society investigated by anthropologists, the people treated
dreams as an especially important way of receiving messages from the
world of power and spirit, from the gods and other powerful beings.
In these groups, most probably akin in ways of life and world views
to humans who lived in the palaeolithic and neolithic periods, dream
interpretation was the responsibility of those with experience in
such things: tribal elders, matriarchs and patriarchs, priests and
shamans. Shamans gave especially valued advice, since they were
believed to be able to enter the world of dreams at will through

ecstatic trances, to encounter the souls of humans and other beings,


to fight, to recover lost souls, to heal, and to bring back meaning
from the quest. Among the Siberian Chuckchi, according to an early
twentieth-century explorer, "The shaman's search for the soul was
formerly effected in a shamanistic trance which nowadays is replaced
by the usual sleep over night since dreams are considered by the
Chuckchee one of the best means of communicating with spirits. When
the search is successful the shaman returns bringing the soul."1
.d
1. W. Bogoras, "The Chuckchee," Jesup North Pacific Expedition, VII,
Religion, 19O7, p. II, 333; quoted in Geza Roheim, The Gates of
the Dream (New York: International Universities Press, 1952), pp.
162-163.
.d

In some tribes, certain members were encouraged to seek out


meaningful dreams and visions by sleeping in sacred places, or by
going out into the wilderness alone for several days on a disciplined
fast. No distinction was made between dreams seen in sleep and
waking visions, but both were treated as highly significant and open
to interpretation. After the experience, the tribe encouraged those
who had received a dream or vision to tell those skilled in such
matters what they had seen and heard. Black Elk, the Lakota Sioux
holy man, said that a vision was worth little until it was shared
with the people. In his case, his great vision promised the
restoration of his people's way of life, and was considered to be of
such value that it was literally reenacted by the tribe.2 Those who
had particularly important dreams often received gifts within the
dreams such as songs they could sing afterwards, totems, amulets,
names that might or might not be revealed to others, or promises of
aid. Their relationship to people, animals, and gods seen in their
dreams might well have been changed by the dream experience. They
painted dream scenes on their dwellings, their clothing, and their

weapons, to remind themselves that their dreams had given them power
in hunting, warfare, or healing. For the rest of their lives, they
would be sought out and relied upon, and might have membership in
special societies of those who had experienced dreams with similar
images. The power to become a shaman was commonly first granted in a
dream that included the image of transformation into an animal or a
flight or other journey of the soul.3
.d
2. John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (Lincoln, Neb.: University
of Nebraska Press, 1961), pp. 166-18O.
3. Jackson Steward Lincoln, The Dream in Primitive Cultures (New
York: Cressett Press, 1935. Reprint: Johnson Reprint
Corporation, 197O), pp. 68-73.
.d

Daily, or rather nightly dreams, were treated in different ways


among various tribes. Among the Mayas of Central America, for
example, "daily sharing of all dreams, whether evaluated by the
dreamer as 'good' or 'bad,' is the cultural ideal.... [They] insist
that everyone dreams every night; children who have no dream report
after a night's sleep may be told that they did indeed dream and that
they should try to 'catch the dream' since dreams are lucky."4 The
Zuni of New Mexico, however, usually reported only "bad" dreams
promptly, since "good" dreams might lose their power to bring about
good results if told too soon. But in both cases, it was normal to
tell dreams in the family setting. In each tribe, a tradition
existed as to what various dream symbols meant.
.d
4. Barbara Tedlock, "Zuni and Quiche Dream Sharing and
Interpreting," in Dreaming: Anthropological and Psychological
Interpretations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.
12O.
.d
EARLY CIVILIZATIONS
The oldest surviving written evidence of dream interpretation
comes from the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In both
cases, there is a wealth of material because dreams were regarded as
messages from the gods and as oracles of the future. Dreams and
their meanings are attested in official inscriptions, literary

documents, letters, funerary texts, and special dreambooks, whether


carved on stone, impressed in cuneiform writing on clay tablets, or
written in ink on papyri. They show that dreams had a large and
important place in government, religion, and daily life. It is
difficult to say just which mention of dream interpretation is the
oldest, but ancient Sumeria seems to hold precedence. The dreams of
Gilgamesh (c. 27OO-26OO B.C.), king of the Sumerian city of Uruk, are
recorded in the epic that bears his name, but this is a literary work
and our oldest fragments do not go back beyond 2OOO B.C. Gudea of
Lagash (c, 212O B.C.) recorded a dream of his own on a clay cylinder
that still survives. The dream, of several monstrous figures, was
interpreted by the priestess Nanshe as a command to Gudea to build a
temple for the god Ningirsu.4a

Dream interpretation was obtained in a number of ways in the


most ancient civilizations. The dream might be quite clear and not
in need of interpretation, that is, it might consist of a message
delivered in plain language by a dream figure. Symbolic dreams
required interpretation, and judging from the extant texts, were
never analyzed by the dreamer alone. Most commonly, a wise person
was consulted: a god, goddess, priest, priestess, courtier,
physician, professional dream interpreter, relative, or friend.
Dreambooks listing dream images and their interpretation were
popular; a few of these survive and will be described below. They
are valuable mines of information on ancient interpretations of dream
images. Finally, dreams could be interpreted by means of dreams. A
priest or other individual could sleep and dream on behalf of the

dreamer, receiving a dream which helped to explain the original


dream. And in a prevalent method called incubation, the dreamer
could sleep in a sacred place after careful preparation in
expectation of a dream which would explain the first dream or
elucidate the general problem, usually involving the need for
healing, for which the dreamer desired guidance or help. Examples of
some of these methods follow.

Clear Message Dreams


Clear message dreams are relatively common in ancient
literature. They generally consist of an impressive figure, usually
that of a god or human being, although occasionally that of an animal
or object, which speaks a readily understandable message. The
question of the authenticity of some historical examples arises,
particularly since many of them involve rulers whose interests would
have been served by the dream as reported. It has been observed that
cultural expectations have great influence on dream content, and in
societies where the message dream was expected, it doubtless occurred
rather often. An example is the dream of Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.),
last king of Babylon, in which the great god Marduk and Sin, the moon
god, appeared. Marduk spoke: "Nabonidus, King of Babylon, bring
bricks on your own chariot [drawn by your own] horse, [re]build the
temple E.HUL.HUL and let Sin, the Great Lord, take up his dwelling
there!"5 There was no doubt as to the meaning of the dream: the king
must reconstruct a temple. And there was no need to seek an
interpretation, although modern psychologists might be able to offer
one or more.
.d
5. A. Leo Oppenheim, "The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient
Near East: With a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book,"
Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n. s. 46
(1956): 25O.
.d

A similar dream was that experienced by the Egyptian prince who


later became the pharaoh Thutmose IV. He had it while taking his
noon nap in the shadow of the Great Sphinx, which spoke to him in the
dream: "Behold me, look at me, my son Thutmose. I am your father
Harmakhis [the Sphinx], Kheper, Ra, Atum. The kingdom [of Egypt]
shall be given to you.... And you shall wear the white crown and the
red crown on the throne of the earth-god Geb.... The earth shall be
yours in its length and in its breadth as far as the light of the eye
of the lord of All shines; plenty and riches shall be yours; the best
from the interior of the land, and rich tributes from all nations;
long years shall be granted you as your term of life. My countenance
is gracious toward you, and my heart clings to you; I will give the
best of all things. The sand of the district in which I have my
existence has covered me up. Promise me that you will do what I in
my heart wish; then will I acknowledge that you are my son [that is,
pharaoh of Egypt], that you are my helper. Come on; let me be united
to you."6 Thutmose kept his promise to clear the sand from
around the gigantic body of the sphinx and set up the stela that
still stands today between its paws, bearing an inscription that
records this dream and the rest of the story, which is that he
actually became pharaoh of Egypt.
.d
6. Henry Brugsch-Bey, "The Dream of King Thutmes IV," translated by
Henry D. Seymour, in The World of Dreams: An Anthology, edited by
Ralph L. Woods (New York: Random House, 1947), pp. 49-5O. The
language and spelling have been modernized and modified.
.d

Symbolic Dreams Interpreted by Wise Ones


Symbolic dreams requiring interpretation were taken to those
reputed to have the wisdom to explain them. Among the oldest dreams ever recorded
are those in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian poem with a
literary tradition that can be traced back to ancient Sumeria in the

Third Milennium B.C. Near the beginning of the epic its semi-divine
hero, Gilgamesh, has two cryptic dreams that he takes to his mother,
Ninsun, "one of the wise gods," for interpretation: "Mother, last
night I had a dream. I was full of joy, the young heroes were round
me and I walked though the night under the stars of the firmament and
one, a meteor of the stuff of Anu [the sky god], fell down from
heaven. I tried to lift it but it proved too heavy. All the people
of [the city of] Uruk came round to see it, the common people jostled
and the nobles thronged to kiss its feet; and to me its attraction
was like the love of woman. They helped me, I braced my forehead and
I raised it with thongs and brought it to you, and you yourself
pronounced it my brother."7 The second dream was very similar, but
the central image was a strange-shaped axe. Ninsun, "who is gifted
with great wisdom," interpreted both dreams in the same way:
Gilgamesh was about to meet his friend and comrade, the recently
captured wild man of great strength, Enkidu. Here the interpretation
is straightforward; the qualities of the dream images are strength
and attraction, which are the qualities that Enkidu will have for
Gilgamesh. Here also the common belief that dreams foretell coming
events is evident. Gilgamesh is a historian's gold mine of dreams of
different types. By the way, in Gilgamesh, as in most Mesopotamian
literature, the successful dream interpreters are always women.
.d
7. The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by N. K. Sandars
(Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 64.
.d

Professional Dream Interpreters


Professional dream interpreters existed in all ancient
civilizations, and in actual practice they were both women and men.
In ancient Babylonia, there were dream interpreter-priests or "seers"

called either sha'il(t)u or baru, who had the ability to tell the
meaning of dreams and to take actions to avert their possible evil
consequences. The first name means "he or she who asks questions [of
the gods]." The second name probably derives from a verb (Sumerian
bur, Akkadian pasharu, Babylonian baru) meaning "to unfold,
explicate, set at ease," or in another sense, "to dissolve, dispel,
destroy consequences."8 The latter was necessary because in
Mesopotamia, a number of gods were associated with dreams, and not
all were kindly. They included the Sumerian Mamu ("God Dream"),
benevolent offspring of the sun god Utu, the Babylonian Makhir,
favorable goddess of dreams, and the Akkadian Zaqu or Zaqiqu, a kind
of nocturnal demon who could produce nightmares. Anum, the Akkadian
sky god, was called "He who dispels [the consequences of evil]
dreams."9 The Mesopotamian societies seem to have held that one who
has had an evil dream is in need of ritual cleansing. The priest
could transfer the consequences of an evil dream to a lump of clay,
and then dissolve it in water. Or a man who had seen a bad dream and
was depressed could tell it to a reed, then burn it and blow on the
fire himself in order to feel relieved.1O But it would be incorrect
to think that ancient dream analysts always operated on a
literalistic, physical level. When they "translated" the dream,
revealing its symbolic message, the enigma of the dream disappeared,
enabling the dreamer to find release through whatever prayer or other
action the interpreter might prescribe, or which might be suggested
by the purported meaning of the dream itself.
.d
8. Oppenheim, "Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East,"
p. 217; and A. H. Sayce, "Dreams and Sleep: Babylonian," in
Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 vols., edited by James
Hastings (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1962), vol. 4, p.
33.
9. Oppenheim, op. cit., p. 218.
1O. Ibid., p. 3O4.
.d

In Egypt, those who had the professional competence to interpret


dreams were specially educated temple priests called "Masters of the
Secret Things" or "Scribes of the Double House of Life" ("Learned
Ones of the Magic Library"). As the names indicate, they were in
charge of collections of papyri containing knowledge about omens,
dream images, and the gods who had particular ability to interpret
dreams and send good ones. One of these was ibis-headed Thoth, the
god of scribes and all esoteric lore. But the favorite god of dreams
was Bes, shown in art as a barbarian-looking dwarf with lion's ears,
a full beard, protruding tongue, long phallus, and sometimes a
necklace with a pendant skull, the only god whom Egyptian artists
portrayed fully frontally, looking directly at the beholder. He was
known to love dancing, travel, marriage, and warfare. Egyptian
headrests, carved of wood or stone, often have a figure of Bes as the
support, as if to guarantee propitious dreams.

Dreambooks
Dreambooks, containing lists of images that might be seen in
dreams with their supposed meanings, were used both in Mesopotamia
and Egypt. It is impossible to say where they appeared first, but in
both places it was probably around 2OOO B.C. or somewhat earlier.
Many clay tablets of this type have been found in Mesopotamia in more
or less fragmentary form, notably a series found in the great library
of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668-627 B.C.), but dating from the
second and first milennia B.C. The dream images mentioned cover a
wide variety of topics; apparently an attempt was made to mention
every possible variation that might be seen in a dream. For example,

there is a tablet that deals with dreams of urine. Following are


several dreams from it and their interpretations: "If a man in his
dream [treads?] his urine with his foot: his eldest
son will d[ie].
If he washes his hands in his urine: he will enjoy (lit.: eat)
little.
If he sprinkles (himself) with his urine: his (sheep)-fold will
expand.
If he sprinkles (himself) with his urine and wipes himself (clean):
[he will catch?] (the disease called) "Hand-of-Ishtar."
If he directs his urine towards the sky: the son of this man whom he
will (thereafter) beget will become important (but) his (own) days
will be short.
If he pours his [urine] into a river: his harvest will be
bountiful...
If he drinks the urine of his wife: this man will enjoy (lit.: eat)
abundance."11
Since these dreams violate universal taboos against coming in contact
with human excreta that were especially strong in Mesopotamia, and
yet several of them have good interpretations, they demonstrate that
the interpreters recognized the symbolic nature of dreams and did not
take them literally. A similar observation could be made about other
tablets, including the one dealing with dreams of cannibalism. The
metaphorical associations made between the dream content and the
prediction were either obvious ones (urine means a son because both
issue from the father's penis) or depended on puns (a raven, arbu,
means income, irbu). The end of the Assyrian text contains prayers

to be used against bad dreams: "If a man had a wrong dream he must,
in order that its evil (consequences) may not affect him, say to
himself (in the morning) before he sets his foot upon the floor: 'The
dream I have had is good, good, verily good before Sin and Shamash!'
Thus he shall say. (in this way) he makes a good egirru [omen] for
himself, and the evil of his dream will not come near him."12
.d
11. Ibid., pp. 265-266.
12. Ibid., p. 3OO.
.d

From Egypt we possess a very early dreambook in the form of a


hieratic papyrus, a copy made in the Nineteenth Dynasty (about 13OO
B.C.), from an original which may go back as far as the Twelfth
Dynasty (2OOO-18OO B.C.). It is divided into two main sections, each
of which lists dreams experienced by one of two categories of human
beings, the Followers of Horus (whose description is missing, but are
presumably admirable and upright folk) and the Followers of Set, who
are said to possess red hair, bad manners, great attractiveness for
the opposite sex, and a rowdy, aggressive personality. In each
section, the good dreams and bad dreams were listed separately. To
give the flavor of these, here are some of each type from the dreams
listed for the Followers of Horus (for those of Set, only four dreams
survive):
"If a man see himself in a dream...
his penis becoming large, (it is) good; it means his possessions
will multiply.
a bow in his hand, good; his important office will be given him.
dying violently, good; it means living after his father dies.
seeing the god who is above, good; it means much food.
seeing a serpent... good; it means food....

eating notched sycamore figs, BAD; it means pangs [stomach pains].


copulating with a female jerboa, BAD; the passing of a judgment
against him.
drinking warm beer, BAD; it means suffering will come upon him...
munching a cucumber, BAD; it means words will arise with him on his
being met...
removing one of his legs, BAD; judgement upon him by those in the
beyond."13
The word "BAD" is written in red ink, contrasting with "good," which
is written in black. As in the Assyrian tablets, the book contains
rituals to avert the consequences of bad dreams, such as rubbing the
face with bread and herbs dipped in beer and myrrh, along with
prayers for aid from the mother goddess Isis and her hero son, Horus.
.d
13. Naphtali Lewis, ed., The Interpretation of Dreams and Portents
(Toronto: Samuel Stevens Hakkert and Co., 1976), pp. 7, 11.
From the translation of Papyrus Chester Beatty III, British
Museum No. 1O683, by Alan H. Gardiner, Hieratic Papyri in the
British Museum. Third Series. Chester Beatty Gift (London:
British Museum, 1935) I, 9-23; II, Pls. 5-8.
.d

As for the deliberate seeking of a dream to explain another


dream, the vocabularies of both the Sumerian and Akkadian languages,
as spoken in the third melennium B.C., contain a term
(LU.SAG.SHE.NA.A = mu-pa-shir) that means "one who sleeps beside (or
at the head of) another person" = "one who does the interpretation of
dreams." This was in all probability a priest or priestess whose
purpose was to have a dream that would help the inquirer to
understand his or her own dreams.14 Incubation is the practice of
sleeping in a temple chamber in order to obtain oracular or healing
dreams. Often, the incubant would sleep in the presence of an image
of a god or goddess. These rituals were commonly practiced in both
Egypt and Mesopotamia, and doubt constituted major uses of the
temples, which were otherwise not open to visitors, but only to

priests, priestesses, and on official occasions, the rulers. The


priests, both in Mesopotamia and Egypt, were available for
consultation as to the meaning of the dreams. Most incubation dreams
recorded in ancient literature are those of kings and pharaohs, and
deal with wars or dynastic politics, but there are are a number that
concern other people and their problems, medical ones in particular.
For example, a papyrus of Greco-Roman date contains a story that
seems to have originated around 12OO B.C. In it, a woman named
Mahituaskhit is unable to bear a child to her husband, Satni, the
high priest of Ptah at Memphis. In desperation, she went to the
temple of Imhotep, a talented physician of earlier times who had been
exalted to the status of a god of healing, and slept overnight. In
her dream, the god appeared to her and said, "Aren't you
Mahituaskhit, the wife of Satni, who are sleeping in the temple to
receive a remedy for your sterility from the hands of the god? When
tomorrow morning comes, go to the place where Satni your husband
usually bathes, and you will find a colocasia [a water-plant] that is
growing there. The colocasia root that you find you shall gather
together with its leaves, you shall make a medicine from it that you
shall give to your husband, then you shall lie by his side, and you
will conceive by him during the same night."15 Mahituaskhit was
overjoyed to realize that her barrenness was not her own fault. She
followed the dream's advice and was successful in becoming pregnant
and bearing a child.
.d
14. Oppenheim, "Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East,"
pp. 223-224. While Oppenheim does not think this person was a
dream interpreter in our sense, it is hard to imagine what else
he or she could be.
15. Gaston Maspero, Popular Stories of Ancient Egypt, translated by
A. S. Johns (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1967), p. 147.
The language and spelling have been modernized and modified, and
other changes have been made in the interest of clarity. The
papyrus is British Museum No. 6O4, translated by F. Ll.
Griffith, Stories of the High Priests of Memphis, the Sethon of
Herodotus, and the Demotic Tales of Khamuas (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 19O9).
.d

Before concluding with ancient Egypt, it is important to mention


the renowned Book of the Dead, more accurately entitled the Book of

the Coming Forth by Day. Not a book in the usual sense of the word,
it is a variable collection of chapters or spells taken from a
repertoire of just under 2OO known spells which date from the long
period, 25OO-8OO B.C. Placed in the coffin along with the mummy as a
guide to the deceased in the next world, it also had daily uses in
the temples. Some of its chapters, such as those describing the
passage through corridors and doors like those in a temple, can be
read as instructions for parts of the incubation ritual. Others
contain dream images such as transformations into the forms of
animals, plants, or gods and goddesses. Still others provide prayers
for the banishment of nightmare figures. The soul is often depicted
as the Ba, a human-headed bird that has the power to travel between
the world of ordinary experience and the netherworld, very much like
the ego figure in dreams.15a

ORIENTAL SOCIETIES
It is impossible in a work of this length to give the extended
consideration demanded by the immensely varied and important dream
interpretation theories and practices of China, Japan, India, and the
other Asiatic cultures. Oriental literature and art are rich in
dream material. It was Chuang Tzu (369-286 B.C.), a Taoist sage, who
wrote the famous story of his paradoxical dream; he dreamed he was a
butterfly, and upon awakening, did not know whether he was a man who
had dreamed of being a butterfly, or was then a butterfly dreaming he
was a man. In southern China there were Taoist temples to which
people went in order to sleep and receive important and helpful

dreams. A few of these survived at least as late as the Great


Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

The Vedas, sacred books of India, contain the idea that in sleep
the soul leaves the body and creates scenes and adventures for
itself. There is a warning against awakening a sleeper too suddenly,
for fear the soul will not be able to get back into the body in time.
But the Brahmin scholar, Sankara Acharya (early 19OO's), disagreed,
saying that although they are capable of foretelling the future,
dreams themselves are mere illusions and do not contain a single
particle of reality. Of course, Hinduism and many Buddhist sects
teach that the waking world is also illusion. Elsewhere the idea is
set forth that dreams occur in the state halfway between sleep and
waking. Early Indian medical texts speak of dreams as symptoms in
advance of various illnesses, or of death. The yogis taught that one
should use the dream state as a means of improvement of the moral and
spiritual life. What could be more reasonable, since the waking
state is also, in a higher sense, a dream?15b
.d
15a. Ralph L. Woods, The World of Dreams (New York: Random House,
1947), pp. 41-96.
.d

HEBREW AND JEWISH SOURCES


The Hebrew Bible is a valuable source of ancient dreams and
their interpretations. The dominant idea in it concerning dreams is
that they are messages from God which, if necessary, can be
interpreted by the inspiration of God. Most of the dreams reported
as experienced by one or another of God's chosen people are literal
message dreams, requiring no interpretation, but this is not always
the case. Symbolic dreams came to Joseph, son of Jacob, for example.

He saw one in which he and his brothers were binding sheaves, and his
brothers' sheaves bowed down to his sheaf. Later he dreamed that the
sun, moon, and eleven stars (the number of his brothers) bowed down
to him.16 While the meaning of these dreams was perfectly
transparent to his brothers, and presumably to Joseph himself, they
were nonetheless symbolic dreams. Joseph became one of the most
famous dream interpreters in the Bible, gaining his freedom from
prison in Egypt by explaining correctly the meanings of the dreams of
Pharaoh' chief butler and baker. The butler recommended him to
Pharaoh, who had seen two dreams he could not understand. The first
was of seven fat cows coming out of the Nile, and seven thin cows
coming up after them and devouring them. The second was very
similar, but the images were ears of grain.17 It is interesting to
note how often in ancient literature symbolic dreams occur in pairs.
Joseph's interpretation, that seven years of plenty will be followed
by seven of famine, closely follows the dream images, but it is
interesting to note that he assigned the interpretation of dreams to
God, not himself: "Do not interpretations belong to God?"18 Daniel,
the other noted dream interpreter in the Hebrew Bible, also
attributed his interpretations to God, and showed himself capable of
a unique feat; he supplied King Nebuchadnezzar not only with an
interpretation, but with the very dream the king himself had
forgotten!19
.d
16. Genesis 37:5-11.
17. Genesis 4O:5-41:36.
18. Genesis 4O:8.
19. Daniel 2.
.d

Non-Israelites were sometimes able to interpret dreams correctly


also; when the leader Gideon spied on the Midianites, he heard one
enemy soldier telling his dream of a huge cake of barley bread

tumbling into camp and upsetting a tent. His comrade immediately saw
the meaning: "This is no other than the sword of Gideon the son of
Joash, a man of Israel; into his hand God has given Midian and all
the host." Of course, it is evident from the context that God had
put this interpretation into the Midianite's mouth.2O
.d
2O. Judges 7:13-14.
.d

The Biblical prophets had great visions which sound very much
like dreams, but it is often impossible to tell whether they were
seen when the prophet was asleep, or in a waking vision. Zechariah
explicitly says that he saw his vision of the four horses "in the
night," a formula that indicates a dream.21 The two kinds of
experience are not strictly differentiated. Sometimes a vision is
highly symbolic and dreamlike, as for example Ezekiel's of the wheels
and the four creatures, which strangely enough never received an
interpretation, at least not in the Bible.22 Jeremiah had visions
resembling symbolic dreams, with a punning interpretation supplied by
an accompanying voice: "'Jeremiah, what do you see?' And I said, 'I
see a rod of almond (Hebrew shaqed).' Then the Lord said to me, 'You
have seen well, for I am watching (Hebrew shoqed) over my word to
perform it.'"23
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21. Zechariah 1:8. The dream, though symbolic, supplied its own
interpretation.
22. Ezekiel 1.
23. Jeremiah 1:11-12.
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Granted the importance of dreams and their interpretation in the


Bible, it is no wonder that there was great reverence for dreams in
later Jewish tradition. There were expert rabbinic interpreters of
dreams, twenty-four of them in Jerusalem alone, and also books on
dreams. The Babylonian Talmud has four chapters on dreams. Philo,
the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria, wrote five books on dreams, of

which two survive. In his work, On Dreams Sent by God, he maintained


that God could speak to people in dreams either directly, through
angels, or by means of the soul's own power of divination. Josephus
filled his history with many dreams, including an incident in which
Alexander the Great and the High Priest Jaddua dreamed of each
other.23a Josephus also recorded his own dreams, which he followed
as guides in important decisions. Although they gave much advice on
how to interpret specific dream images, the rabbis had divided
opinions on how seriously one ought to take one's own dreams: when
Rabbi Shemu'el (d. 254 C.E.) had a bad dream, he used to say, "Dreams
speak vanity" (Zechariah 1O:2); but after a good dream he would say,
"Do dreams speak vanity?" (no, according to Numbers 12:6).23b
Interpretation by means of Hebrew puns is common. Means of turning
aside the evil predictions of dreams are recommended, including
fasting, reciting scripture, prayer, almsgiving, and penitence.
According to tradition, a man who passes seven nights without a dream
is an ungodly man. Rabbi Hisda said that an uninterpreted dream is
like an unread letter.24
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23a. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 11. 8. 4-5.
23b. Albrecht Oepke, "Onar," in Theological Dictionary of the New
Testament, edited by Gerhard Friedrich, translated by Geoffrey
W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,
1963), vol. 5, p. 233. Reference: bBer.,55b; Str.-B., I, 53.
24. Morton T. Kelsey, God, Dreams, and Revelation (Minneapolis:
Augsburg Publishing House, 1974), pp. 42-43.
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