The dream is the hidden door in the deepest and most intimate sanctum of the soul. ~ Carl Jung
Accounts of dreams are as old as human history. People have always been fascinated by their own dreams, and have always looked for significance· in them. From the most ancient civilisations of Assyrians and Babylonians through to Biblical times it was believed that dreams brought messages from the gods in the form of warnings, omens and portents.
In ancient Greece they were seen as prophecies, or instructions from Zeus.
Wherever dreams are taken seriously, regarded as meaningful and revelatory, interpreters of dreams are valued. In early cultures people relied on shamans, priests and wise men to tell them the meaning of their dreams. There are countless examples of dreams and dream interpretations in the Bible - in fact dreams seem to have been the preferred medium through which the Almighty conveyed his intentions, instructions or displeasure to his chosen people. In Biblical times the Jews were revered as dream interpreters by both the Egyptians and the Babylonians. Although Joseph’s meteoric rise to power was clearly due not only to his talent for dream interpretation, but also the native wit that allowed him to turn matters to his own advantage (‘Now therefore let Pharaoh look out for a man discreet and wise and set him over the land of Egypt … ‘), he had already earned the respect of his peers as a dream analyst.
Other notable Jewish dream analysts followed. When King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that troubled him, all the wise men of Babylon - the magicians, the astrologers, the Chaldeans and the soothsayers - failed to interpret it. It was left to the Israelite prophet Daniel to interpret the dream as predicting the king’s imminent seven years of madness: ‘They shall drive thee from men and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field; they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen and they shall wet thee with the dew of heaven.’ A sense of delicacy may have stopped him adding to the good news by pointing out that the mad king was also to have, as it transpired, ‘hairs grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws’.
Throughout the ages certain places have been associated with dreams that have special properties or give prophetic information. The Celtic seer would wrap himself in an animal skin and sleep beside a waterfall in order to have a prophetic dream. Dream oracles were used by the Greeks to facilitate dream communication with the gods. ‘Temple dreaming’, or incubation – the practice of sleeping at one of these holy places in order to encourage significant dreams - was a well-recognised and highly organised activity. Over 400 of these temples existed in Ancient Greece, many dedicated to Aesculapius, the god of healing. Here the sick would come, first of all to undergo rites of purification (including abstention from eating meat or fish and having sex), then to sleep in a special cell in the belief that Aesculapius himself might be induced to visit them in their dreams and prescribe a treatment or even perform a surgical operation upon their sleeping body.
The philosopher Aristides, seeking such a cure in the middle of winter and in extremely cold weather, was told by the god to bathe outdoors. He was, it is said, filled with well-being after taking the advice.
It is possible that some of the dreams that were dreamed at these sacred sites were drug-induced. It has been suggested that during some of the religious ceremonies held at the sites, psychedelic drugs might have been used to induce altered states of consciousness as part of the ritual. Our current understanding of altered states of consciousness, particularly from studying such drugs as LSD, psylocibin and mescalin, shows that characteristic patterns are seen under the influence of such drugs, which take the form of circles, spirals and expanding geometric forms, and seem to be independent of culture and person. Freelance researcher and writer Paul Devereux and his colleagues have found that patterns carved on the walls of caves in sacred sites are very similar to the patterns induced by psychedelic drugs.
The Egyptians were probably the first to try to develop a system of dream interpretation and to incorporate individual dream symbols. They believed that dreams could be interpreted paradoxically: apparently happy dreams were omens of disaster; nightmares presaged good times to come. They also believed that dreams came from good and evil spirits, and used herbal remedies and spells to encourage the good and deter the bad.
With the Greeks a whole literature of dream interpretation developed, based on symbols and on the belief in the prophetic nature of dreams. The Greeks regarded as meaningless any dream that clearly had its origins in events or desires in the dreamer’s daily life. However, some dreams that we would see as obvious candidates for psychoiogical interpretation - for example, a dream (common, according to Sophocles) of sleeping with one’s mother, the Greeks usually interpreted symbolically, and regarded as auspicious. Only Plato and Artemidorus anticipated the twentieth century and Freud by suggesting that wish-fulfilment might play a part in such dreams. Artemidorus, a soothsayer of Ephesus during the second century AD, deserves a special mention in the annals of dream research and interpretation. His four-volume work Oneirocritica (‘The Interpretation of Dreams’) is a compendium of ancient superstitions and draws together the works of earlier authors. He was one of the first to recognise the importance of the dreamer’s personality in dream interpretation.
Early stirrings of scepticism about the divine nature of dreams are seen as early as the fifth century BC, when the first scientific theory of dreams proposed telepathy as a mechanism. Democritus suggested that dreams are images and thoughts emanating from distant people or objects, distorted in transmission before being received by the dreamer.
Aristotle, a century later, proposed a modified version of this theory. He attributed clairvoyant powers to the soul, which he suggested was liberated from the body’s constraints during sleep. He was also one of the first people to recognise that dreams can incorporate bodily sensations.
Whatever the doubts cast upon them by reason, logic or the inexorable march of science, dreams prophesying doom and disaster (or, less often, fame and fortune) continue to be dreamed, some by seemingly impeccable sources. A bishop, no less, dreamed of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, on the very morning it took place, and sent an account of the dream, together with a drawing of the assassination scene he had seen in it, to his brother, a Jesuit priest. Abraham Lincoln dreamed of his own assassination two weeks before it actually occurred.
The writer Mark Twain (who was, one has to remember, one of the world’s greatest storytellers) had a remarkable premonitory dream of the death of his younger brother. At the time Twain, then still known by his real name, Sam Clemens, was working as an apprentice pilot on the steamboat, the Pennsylvania, which plied the Mississippi river. His brother Henry worked as a clerk on the same boat. Sam’s dream was that he saw a metal coffin resting on two chairs. In it was his brother and resting on his chest was a bunch of white flowers with a single red flower in the middle.
Some days later, Sam had an argument with the chief pilot and was transferred to another boat. The Pennsylvania continued down the river, but just outside Memphis it blew up with the loss of 150 lives. Henry was badly burned, and Sam sat with him for several days and nights until he died. Then, exhausted, he fell asleep. When he woke up, his brother’s body had been taken from the room. He found it, as he had seen it in his dream, in a metal coffin resting on two chairs. And as he watched, a woman entered the room carrying a bunch of white flowers, at the centre of which was a single red rose.
When people allow their dreams to influence their actions, one has to suspect that an element of wish-fulfilment or self-justification may be involved. The conquest of Mecca and the spread of Islam were set in motion on the instructions of the Angel Gabriel, who appeared to Mohammed in a dream.
Genghis Khan was told in a dream that he was destined to rule over the Mongols. Once he had conquered the Mongols, another dream gave him to understand that his destiny was to conquer yet more kingdoms. Bismarck is said to have made his final decision to invade Austria after a dream in which he had seen Prussian troops with banners moving forwards. Can we regard these as prophetic dreams? Or is it more likely that they are simply the product of a lust for power?
The most unexpected people have been influenced by their dreams. General George Patton, the brilliant military tactician and colourful World War II soldier known to his troops as ‘Old Blood and Guts’, apparently regularly drew military inspiration from his dreams and was in the habit of summoning his personal secretary in the middle of the night to dictate dream-derived battle plans. It seems to be less common for a dream to initiate a search for peace, but a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson by Doris Kearns, an aide to whom the President was in the habit of recounting his dreams, claims that his decision to withdraw from the Vietnam War was influenced by a dream that clarified for him the impossible no-win situation he was in.
Dreams have influenced almost every culture and every age. Although ‘Dreamtime’ is a modern European term to describe the creation of the world by the mythical giant ancestors of the Australian Aborigines, the Aborigines say it is a fair approximation of what the Dreaming means to them. For centuries the Aborigines have followed in the footsteps of their ancestors. As part of their seasonal tribal migration, or as a personal spiritual journey, they have traced the paths trodden by the giant beings who walked the flat, featureless land, creating the landscape as it is today. Every feature of the land, each rock or waterhole, has meaning for the Aboriginals, is the creation of their ancestors, marked by song and ritual and legend, and an essential part of their consciousness.
Sometimes new information on dreaming tracks is given to a tribal member through the medium of a dream, resulting in new rituals and songs.
It is through some of the more extraordinary phenomena of dreams that myths and legends often arise: astral travel, the terror of night visitations by the legendary ‘Old Hag’, even abductions by far-flung extra-terrestrial visitors may all be byproducts of our sleep and dreams.
Dreams can be inspirational, a source of creativity, too. Plato describes Socrates, in prison and awaiting execution, composing poetry in obedience to a dream; tradition has it that Coleridge composed ‘Kubla Khan’ as a result of a dream. The city of Puebla, in Mexico, was even founded on a dream- the dream of Julian Garces, Bishop of Tlaxcala. Garces dreamed of two angels descending from the heavens, each holding a measuring rod in one hand and a long tape measure between them. Gliding down into the valley between the volcanoes, they marked out an enormous square on the ground before dissolving in the haze. The day after his dream, a crowd accompanied the bishop in a search for the site the angels had indicated. When they came to an uninhabited area called Cuetlaxcuopen, which was intersected by three rivers, Garces ordered the procession to halt and said, ‘This is the place the Lord showed me and where He wants the new City to be built.’ And here indeed the city was immediately built and named Puebla de los Angeles after its heavenly town In more modem times, dreams have come to symbolise ideals (‘I have a dream … ‘), to be the tool of the psychoanalyst, or the terror (according to Max Beerbohm) of the breakfast table. They have an established niche as a neat fictional device too. Dreams enable a writer to intertwine reality with illusion, as in Alice in Wonderland, or to overlay serious intent with fantasy, as in The Wizard of Oz. They may even serve as a lifeline to be grasped by a writer who has written himself into too tight a corner. ‘Bobby, I dreamed you were dead,’ gasped Pam Ewing, brought face to face with the husband too hastily written out by the Dallas scriptwriters several episodes earlier. Which (for older readers), as a fictional cop-out is on a par with Dick Barton’s famed escape from the stake to which cannibals had bound him over a roasting fire: ‘With one bound, Dick was free.’
We still look for meaning in our dreams, but when we manage to interpret their meaning correctly, we are likely to find that the messages they bring come not from the gods, nor indeed from any external source, but from ourselves. ‘If people would recount their dreams truthfully,’ Lichtenberg said, ‘one might divine character more correctly from dreams than from faces.’ In dreams our imagination is unfettered and anything is possible. But they can be unforgiving too, forcing self-knowledge upon us. We can ignore our dreams, or we can learn from them, choosing to go through Jung’s ‘hidden door’ and gain insights and resolutions which we might not have the courage to seek in waking life.
The writer and mystic P. D. Ouspensky regarded dreams as having different levels. The lowest category was the simple dream which took place on the same level as our ordinary waking life, and was of little significance. At a higher level were dreams which gave us insights and perceptions which we could not achieve in our ordinary waking life. In this category he included dreams of portents and predictions. His final category was of dreams which, in his words, ‘disclose to us the mysteries of being, show the laws governing life, bring us into contact with higher forces’.
Once in a while, perhaps once in a lifetime, we may be given one of Ouspensky’s ‘third-level’ dreams, a dream that has the capacity to change our life. Jung called these ‘great dreams’, and believed they could reveal some fundamental aspect of the dreamer and his life and spiritual development.
Such dreams are remembered or recalled for years, and seem to extend our knowledge not only of ourselves, but of the very creation of which we are a part. These are the dreams which truly seem to be a gift, coming from some source beyond the boundaries of our limited selves and carrying a message that is revelatory.
The Hidden Door: Understanding and Controlling Dreams by Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick is published by White Crow Books