We all have dreams; dreaming is necessary for our survival. But some of our dreams are really amazing. If you’ve ever wondered why you dream and what those dreams mean, you’re not alone. People have been recording and studying their dreams for almost 3,000 years.
The earliest dream records still in existence are from the story of Gilgamesh, which was written on clay tablets in about the seventh century BCE. It’s not known whether Gilgamesh actually lived or was just a myth, but there are enough fragments of the tablets left to get a good idea of his story. And a large part of the story involves his dreams, and how they influenced his actions.
The story of Gilgamesh seems to indicate that the people of the time – or at least the writers of the story – believed that dreams could predict the future. According to other stone tablet records, this belief seems to have been common among the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians.
If dreams could predict the future, then it followed that they must come from someone – or something – that was all-knowing, like a divine presence or deity. This idea was not shared by the ancient Greeks, who took a more logical approach. Aristotle, who lived about the fourth century BCE, believed that our dreams come from experiences we have while awake. Anyone who’s ever had someone they met during the day show up in that night’s dreams would probably agree with Aristotle that this definitely happens.
But is that all dreams are – recycled experiences? Many people today don’t think so. The Greeks actually had a variety of ideas about why we dream and what our dreams mean.
For example, Hippocrates, a physician living in the fifth century BCE, believed that there were three different kinds of dreams. He said that some dreams could tell us about our ailments and possibly even provide a way to diagnose mystery illnesses. Other dreams were “revealing” – they provided information about something we were concerned about. Also, like the writers of the Gilgamesh story, Hippocrates believed that there were prophetic dreams.
Galen, a physician who lived about four centuries after Hippocrates, took the idea of diagnostic dreams one step further. He used his patients’ dreams to help him decide how to treat them – even to the point of performing surgery based on dream “recommendations.”
The Greeks took a logical approach to dream analysis, but they did not completely separate dreaming from religion. Their temples honoring the god Aesculapius, who was their patron of medicine, were places where the sick could go to find out what was wrong with them and how their illnesses could be treated. A complex ritual was performed before sleep, and any dreams the sick person had while they were sleeping in the temple were treated with great respect by the physicians of the time – because they were considered to be messages from Aesculapius.
Dreams are messages from the divine, or they’re reflections of our everyday experiences. Dreams can help us understand ourselves and our world, or they can explain our sicknesses and tell us how to become well again. Dreams can help us prepare for, or maybe even predict, the future.
It’s interesting that these ideas, all of which are accepted by people today, existed in ancient times as well. Perhaps we’re simply refining age-old beliefs to fit modern sensibilities.