Early History

Eastern Mediterranean

One of the earliest written examples of dream interpretation comes from the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh Gilgamesh dreamt that an axe fell from the sky. The people gathered around it in admiration and worship. Gilgamesh threw the axe in front of his mother and then he embraced it like a wife. His mother, Ninsun, interpreted the dream. She said that someone powerful would soon appear. Gilgamesh would struggle with him and try to overpower him, but he would not succeed. Eventually they would become close friends and accomplish great things. She added, “That you embraced him like a wife means he will never forsake you. Thus your dream is solved.” While this example also shows the tendency to see dreams as mantic (as predicting the future), Ninsun’s interpretation also anticipates a contemporary approach. The axe, phallic and aggressive, symbolizes for a male who will start as aggressive but turn into a friend. To embrace an axe is to transform aggression into affection and camaraderie.

In ancient Egypt, priests also acted as dream interpreters. Joseph and Daniel are recorded as having interpreted dreams sent from God, and indeed the Bible describes many incidents of dreams as divine revelation. Hieroglyphics depicting dreams and their interpretations are evident. Dreams have been held in considerable importance through history by most cultures.

The ancient Greeks constructed temples they called Asclepieions, where sick people were sent to be cured. It was believed that cures would be effected through divine grace by incubating dreams within the confines of the temple. Dreams were also considered prophetic or omens of particular significance. Artemidorus of Daldis, who lived in the Second Century AD, wrote a comprehensive text entitled Oneirocritica (The Interpretation of Dreams). Although Artemidorus believed that dreams can predict the future, he also presaged many contemporary approaches to dreams. He thought that the meaning of a dream images could involve puns and could be understood by decoding the image into its component words. For example, Alexander, while waging war against the Tyrians, dreamt that a satyr was dancing on his shield. Artemidorus reports that this dream was interpreted as follows: Satyr = sa tyros (“Tyre will be thine”), predicting that Alexander would be triumphant. Freud acknowledged this example of Artemidorus when he proposed that dreams be interpreted like a rebus.

In medieval Islamic psychology, certain hadiths indicate that dreams consist of three parts, and early Muslim scholars also recognized three different kinds of dreams: false dreams, patho-genetic dreams, and true dreams. Ibn Sirin (654–728) was renowned for his Ta’bir al-Ru’ya and Muntakhab al-Kalam fi Tabir al-Ahlam, a book on dreams. The work is divided into 25 sections on dream interpretation, from the etiquette of interpreting dreams to the interpretation of reciting certain Surahs of the Qur’an in one’s dream. He writes that it is important for a layperson to seek assistance from an Alim (Muslim scholar) who could guide in the interpretation of dreams with a proper understanding of the cultural context and other such causes and interpretations. Al-Kindi (Alkindus) (801–873) also wrote a treatise on dream interpretation entitled On Sleep and Dreams. In consciousness studies, Al-Farabi (872-951) wrote the On the Cause of Dreams, which appeared as chapter 24 of his Book of Opinions of the people of the Ideal City, was a treatise on dreams, in which he was the first to distinguish between dream interpretation and the nature and causes of dreams. In The Canon of Medicine, Avicenna extended the theory of temperaments to encompass “emotional aspects, mental capacity, moral attitudes, self-awareness, movements and dreams.” Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (1377) states that “confused dreams” are “pictures of the imagination that are stored inside by perception and to which the ability to think is applied, after (man) has retired from sense perception.”


A standard traditional Chinese book on dream-interpretation is the Lofty Principles of Dream Interpretation compiled in the 16th century by Chen Shiyuan (particularly the “Inner Chapters” of that opus). Chinese thinkers also raised profound ideas about dream interpretation, such as the question of how we know we are dreaming and how we know we are awake. It is written in the Chuang-tzu: “Once Chuang Chou dreamed that he was a butterfly. He fluttered about happily, quite pleased with the state he was in, and knew nothing about Chuang Chou. Presently he awoke and found that he was very much Chuang Chou again. Now, did Chou dream that he was a butterfly or was the butterfly now dreaming that he was Chou?” This raises the question of reality monitoring in dreams, a topic of intense interest in modern cognitive neuroscience.


Dream interpretation was taken up as part of psychoanalysis at the end of the 19th century; the perceived, manifest content of a dream is analyzed to reveal its latent meaning to the psyche of the dreamer. One of the seminal works on the subject is The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.

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