The History and Meaning of Dreams in Ancient Cultures

“(…) Science of understanding our dreams is like learning a language of our hearts.”

– Ann Faraday

The meaning of dreams has been one the most fascinating topics of discussion around the world. The answer to the question “Where do dreams come from?” depends on who you ask. Some people believe dreams are just a byproduct of brain wave activity, and that they don’t have any psychologically significant meaning at all, some argue that our dreams are a reflection of our deepest desires, and others believe that dreams connect us to God. People have been fascinated by dreams for thousands of years and cultures around the world have developed their own traditions for interpreting dreams.


Early information about the analysis of dreams comes from Mesopotamia (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates – part of what is now Iraq). The civilization that existed there around 5,000 BC left behind what is believed to be the world’s first book of dreams — a compilation of dream symbols and their meanings. Sumerians viewed their dreams as signs sent from gods. People had their dreams translated by “dream priests” who foretold the dreamer’s future. It is speculated that the process of incubating dreams and summoning them by means of special rituals was invented during this period. These practices then spread throughout the ancient world and survived in various forms until the twentieth century. Some believe that the Mesopotamian model of dream interpretation had an impact on the cultural beliefs of the Egyptians and gave rise to the Hebrew, Arabic and Greek traditions of dream interpretation.

Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians took many ideas from the Sumerians; they also viewed dreams as messages from gods and created their own Dream Book (currently part of the archives at the British Museum in London). In temples dedicated to Serapis (a Hellenistic-Egyptian god), where special dream interpreters lived, Egyptians celebrated rituals, gave sacrifices and recited prayers in hopes that their dreams would reveal fragments of the future. The dreams of the Pharaohs attracted the most attention, because they were seen as gods themselves. Given their status, it seemed perfectly natural that the gods wanted to deliver important messages in the Pharaohs’ dreams.

Ancient Greece

Around 335 BC Greek philosopher Aristotle said that human beings are capable of achieving the pure form of wisdom only during sleep, when our minds are liberated. At that time Greece was the most powerful civilization on earth. The source of the wisdom of Greeks was the oracle at Delphi, who had an impact on even the most important decisions in the country. Not everyone realized that the oracle’s prophecies were created based on dreams. Dreams played a significant role in military decisions as well as family life and impacted the development of the ancient world. The Greek system of dream interpretation wasn’t concerned only with predicting the future; it was also used to ensure prosperity in one’s life.

Hippocrates (regarded by many as the father of modern medicine) saw dreams as important indicators of physical and mental health. Perhaps this was the first time a man came to realize that dreams do not have a divine source, and may come from human thoughts. The ancient Greeks created one of the most significant books about dreams that have ever been written. Oneirocritica (Interpretation of Dreams), was written by Artemidorus in ancient Greece; today, this book is the basis for many contemporary books about dreams.

Ancient Rome

The Roman tradition of dream interpretation was largely drawn from the Greeks. It has been said that Augustus, the successor of Julius Cesar, believed so strongly in the prophetic nature of dreams that he created a law requiring every citizen who had a dream about the empire, to talk about it on the market in their town.

Moreover, the existence of unfair or unpopular laws was justified by the fact that they were suggested in dreams. In Rome, the importance of dreams was a topic widely discussed among scholars who openly proclaimed that dreams are inspired by our own passions, emotions and experiences of everyday life and do not come from gods.

Closing Thoughts

For millennia, people have sought help with understanding and interpreting dreams; it is believed that by doing so we could gain wisdom and find solutions to our problems.

Where do you think dreams come from? Do they have any significant meaning to you?

Share your comments below.

The Sleep Blog does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Instead, this website provides general information for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of a qualified health care provider if you have questions or concerns regarding any medical condition or treatment.

17 thoughts on “The History and Meaning of Dreams in Ancient Cultures”

  1. doesnt it seem the tinest bit strange that we have no clear explanation for something that happenes to each and everyone of us every single night!! talk about deep…..and prehaps a bit disturbing even…….kinda like jello….hmmmmm

  2. I remember I always used to like native American dream catchers ever since I was a child. Can’t remember if I ever used to really believe in it though, but they were quite a fun idea and I’d usually have one or two in my room. They made quite interesting gifts as well.

    As for the comment about us still not understanding dreams, I don’t think that’s quite true. There’s a lot of promising research into this area, and the leading theory seems to be that dreams are our experience of a memory sorting and storage process that our brain goes through whilst we sleep.

  3. This is very similar to Simon William’s Sleep and Society. It’s worth taking a look at if anyone wants to read further or is looking for sources for a project.

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