Egypt: Perchance to Dream: Dreams and Their Meaning in Ancient Egypt

Perchance to Dream

by Anita Stratos

The "New Age" subject of dream interpretation isnt new at all. Thousands of years ago, ancient Egyptians used the messages in their dreams in order to cure illnesses, make important State decisions, and even to decide where to build a temple or when to wage a battle. Dreams were considered to be divine predictions of the future. They were messages from the gods that could be foretelling of impending disasters or, conversely, of good fortune; therefore, understanding the significance of ones dreams was an important part of the culture.

sDream Books were kept throughout the ages, and these writings give us a glimpse into the thoughts and concerns of the common people of ancient Egypt. Through these writings, we know that some of the most prevalent images in ancient dreams included breaking stones, having ones teeth fall out, drowning in the Nile, having ones face turn into a leopard, climbing to the top of a mast at sea, drinking warm beer, and eating white bread.

Some dream interpretations were based on punning, or verbal connections between similar words, something that fascinated Egyptians. For example, the words for "donkey" and "great" were homonyms, therefore a dream about eating donkey meat meant good luck. This may sound lighthearted, but in fact dream interpretation had definite and serious religious significance. In their simplest form, dreams were deemed to be either good or bad. Since dream interpretation was not an exact science, some interpreters based the meaning of a persons dream on whether he was a follower of Horus (in which case he was considered an equable person) or whether he was a Seth worshipper (short tempered). Here are some examples of dreams and their meanings:

Dreaming of.

a deep well meant prison
a mirror indicated a second wife
a shining moon represented forgiveness
a large cat symbolized a bumper crop

Dream interpretation became so important that sometimes people took specific measures to encourage the help of a god through a dream that would resolve a problem or make a decision. This moved the dream state from a private experience at home to the dream temple of the god, and it was referred to as dream incubation. Many gods had dream temples, indicating that no one god was responsible for influencing peoples dreams. The temples were open to everyone of every social level, with the only requirements being faith in the god whose temple you selected, and purity, which could mean that a ritual of cleansing, fasting, or abstinence may have taken place in the days prior to entering the temple.

In order to understand a dream Egyptians consulted a "specialist", who could have been a priest or a professional dream interpreter, as indicated by a tablet which reads "I interpret dreams, having the gods mandate to do so". Certain members of the elite class could also look up dreams in a dream book to help with interpretation; these included the scribes of Deir el-Medina. New Kingdom texts from Deir el-Medina refer to an advisor called "the wise woman", who could be consulted in addition to or instead of an oracle.

The library of Scribe Kenhirkhopeshef also contained a Dream Book papyrus. This Dream Book was written long before Kenhirkhopeshefs time even then the text was considered ancient but the content remained relevant. The Dream Book contains approximately 108 ancient dreams, within which it describes about 78 activities and emotions. These include carving, pounding, brewing, weaving, sightseeing, stirring, and plastering, among many others. Of these activities and emotions, the majority deal with some form of sight or seeing, the second largest category deals with eating and drinking, and the fewest entries relate to receiving and copulating. Even though dream interpretation was important to the culture, the ancient dream texts were not very precise and similar dreams were sometimes given different interpretations, leaving a lot of room for personal interpretation. Here are a few examples of dreams and their meanings as written in Kenhirkhopeshefs Dream Book:

If a man sees himself in a dream -

..dead good omen, meaning long life
..eating crocodile flesh good omen, meaning he will become a village official
..bringing in cattle good omen, dreamer will evangelize the spirit of the community
..plunging into cold waters good omen, indicating absolution of all ills
..with his face in a mirror bad omen, meaning a new life
..uncovering his own backside bad omen, he will become an orphan
..putting ones face to the ground bad omen, meaning the dead want something
..making love to his wife in daylight bad omen, his god will discover his misdeeds

Of the predictions covered in the Dream Book, over one-third deal with the dreamers gains or losses: gains such as receiving an inheritance, or a new wife; losses include being robbed or taxed. One quarter of the dreams listed in the book predict physical events that will happen to the dreamer, including overeating, starving or being cured of an illness. Fifteen percent of the dreams predict the dreamer will be in a situation in which the gods make ethical judgements about him, either forgiving his sins or doling out retribution. Another fifteen percent center around feelings such as pleasure, anger, deceit, or stopping gossip about the dreamer, and ten percent foretell a change in the dreamers position in his village, from becoming an important official to having his fellow villagers recognize the importance of the dreamers words.

Kenhirkhopeshefs papyrus is divided into the two categories of "good" and "bad", with the word "bad" always written in red ink. The belief that the gods were not only judging the peoples behavior but also seeing right into their hearts could cause quite a scare for villagers who would awaken after a particularly disturbing dream. But not to fear: the Dream Book contained a special spell that the dreamer could recite while eating fresh bread and green herbs moistened with beer. This spell "Come to me, come to me, my mother Isis; behold I am seeing what is far from my city" would eliminate any evil omens or demons predicted by the dream.

Other sources of dream interpretation in ancient Egypt divided dreams into three categories: pious, revelatory, and informational. In a pious dream, a god appeared to demand or request the performance of an act of devotion. A "Dream Stele" near the Giza Sphinx records this type of dream experienced by Tuthmosis IV. According to the record, Tuthmosis IV fell asleep at the base of the Sphinx and dreamed that the god Hamarkis told him that if he would clear away the accumulated sand from the Sphinx and re-establish the gods temple, Tuthmosis would become pharaoh. He followed these instructions and indeed became pharaoh. The foretelling of future events came through revelatory dreams. These dreams also revealed locations of hidden things as well as new medicines. Many times, Egyptian physicians instructed their patients to seek cures for their ailments in their dreams. Much as the name implies, informational dreams gave general information.

Thutmose IV Dream Stele

Thutmose IV Dream Stele

Herakleopolitan King Kheti, who wrote a book called "Teachings for Merikare" sometime between 2070 and 2100 BC, took another approach. In this book of lessons, or instructions, for his son Merikare, Kheti advises him that the true key to the interpretation of dreams lies in the fact that the dream means the exact opposite of its symbols. Therefore, according to Kheti, a joyous dream indicated upcoming adversity. Dreams could also serve as windows through which the living could see the activities of the deceased. However, since the dreamer had no control while dreaming, there was a pervading fear that he could be accessible to malicious spirits, opening a disturbing portal to unwanted beings in the afterlife.