Analysis of Dreams
All analysis of dreams rests upon concepts of what a dream is, what the events or images in the dream represent, and what we feel about them. Analysing dreams has a very long history, and this history shows the various concepts different cultures had about dreams and dreaming. But the analysis of a dream must not be confused with exploring a dream or using something like active imagination or the amplification method. Analysis is largely an intellectual approach while the other methods tend to encourage the dreamer toward direct personal experience, or allow unconscious content to emerge. See: Greece (ancient) dream beliefs; history of dream beliefs; religion and dreams; spiritual life in dreams; peer dream work.
Most societies, ancient and modern, have had professional dream interpreters. India had its Brahmin oneirocritics; in Japan the om myoshi; the Hasidic rabbis in Europe fulfilled this role; in ancient Egypt the pa-hery-tep; ancient Greece had the priesthood within the Asclepian temples given to dreams; among the Aztecs, dream interpretation and divination were the prerogative of the priestly class teopexqui, the Masters of Secret Things; in today’s world the Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysts fulfil this role – the author has worked as resident analyst for television’s channel four Teletext in the UK, New Zealand Teletext, London Broadcasting Company, as well as a major national newspaper.
Some of the most ancient written documents are about dream interpretation and are direct expressions of the attempt to understand or interpret dreams. The Chester Beatty papyrus on dreams for instance, dates from 1250 BC, from Egypt. This contains records of 200 dreams and their interpretations according to the priests of Horus.
Most social roles that survive for such long periods of time fulfil some useful purpose. The most fundamental purpose of dream analysis is probably that of reducing tension and anxiety in the dreamer. In skilful use of dream interpretation there may also be a powerful shift in the dreamer towards greater understanding of their life situation, or their internal process. With such understanding they find themselves in greater accord with themselves and their social and general environment. As with any role however, there is also the aspect of manipulation and control of ideas and behaviour that can occur when a lay person seeks the advice of priest or professional. Some such analysis of dreams, in the past and today, have most likely been ways of influencing the individual to fit present social or political norms or expectations, or to serve in some measure to maintain the role of the interpreter socially and economically.
Different cultures and ages approached dream interpretation in different ways. But one of the fundamental early ideas concerning what a dream meant has become folk philosophy. It has influenced thinking in regard to the mind and spirit to this day. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is that because many dreams place the dreamer in surroundings different to those in which they sleep, early thinkers were convinced this meant the human awareness or spirit left the body during sleep and travelled to far regions, or perhaps even to other worlds of the spirit. The idea of the personal awareness being able to leave the body gave rise to much speculation about the nature of human life. It became a fundamental belief that the mind or consciousness and the body were quite separate, but during life joined together in some way, perhaps like a letter in an envelope, or water within a tree. This view dominated the way personal awareness or consciousness was thought about for millennia, and was undoubtedly influenced by observation of such phenomena as out of body or near death experiences. In many people’s mind this duality is still a prime way of thinking about such phenomena of the mind as out of OBE’s and NDE’s. In fact, even with a much wider base of cultural viewpoints and philosophical and scientific debate and experiment with which to approach such phenomena, they are still not easily explained. There are however, completely different standpoints to approach the phenomena from. See: out of body experience; consciousness – the body mind split.
The Kalapalo Indians of central Brazil are a Carib-speaking community of fewer than 200 people. To the Kalapalo, dreaming represents an experience of life that frees the imagination and memory, and dreams must be interpreted with reference to the future of the dreamer.
The interpretation of dreams requires special linguistic resources that might be different from those appropriate for speaking about the ordinary waking life. Dreaming is believed to occur when, during sleep, an individual’s “interactive self” awakens and wanders until it achieves an experience. The dream experience begins when the interactive self stops wandering and starts to participate actively in some event.
According to the Kalapalo, the process of remembering is responsible for the experience of particular images, which can be associated with the memory of recent events. Dreaming is claimed to be a means of communication with powerful beings who visit the sleeper and are drawn to the interactive self when it detaches itself from a person’s physical body and begins to wander about. The appearance of powerful beings in their dreams allows the Kalapalo to acquire direct knowledge about them and about their properties, which can be subsequently used in waking life (in the event that the vision is not fatal). A person who experiences frequent and successful contacts with a powerful being becomes a shaman, after a period of apprenticeship. Quoted from Dream Enclopedia by R. Lewis James and Evelyne Dorothy Oliver.
The mental and spiritual world the ancients lived in can fairly easily be understood by our own present day dreams. This is because some of our dreams emerge from the primordial in us, such as ancient psychological and cultural patterns laid down over millennia. Therefore in our dreams we may meet with a rock, a tree or an animal that can speak to us. We face and have to deal with evil or benign spirits. We talk with our dead parents. We have warning or problem solving dreams. We are told by wise beings what will be the outcome of a situation. We experience landscapes or events that are awful or wonderful. All that has changed over the ages is the explanations given to such dreams, and the personal feelings involved.
We learn from this that we have an innate tendency in our dreams to portray the world around us, even if it is a rock, as having consciousness and intention. Other ways of putting it are that we project meaning onto the world around us, or that we have powerful emotional and thought associations with all that we experience. Of immense importance also is that we create an image of things we sense ‘out of the corner of our eye’ but cannot or do not have a clear concept of. In our dreams these obscure perceptions appear as definite images or beings with which or with whom we have a relationship. Therefore such things as social pressure, the collective or cultural character, are given form, as we find in cartoon characters such as John Bull representing the British, and Uncle Sam representing the Americans collectively.
A great preoccupation of humans has always been ‘What intention does the world have in regard to ME?’ And also, ‘What do I want in regard to the world?’ If we understand that the sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’ includes all one holds dear, such as family, ‘tribe’, reproduction, hunting or business and general survival, then we have in a nutshell the essence of many dreams. We seek to deal in our dreams with the things that threaten these interests, whether they emerge from within us as urges or emotions, or from an external source. Dreams allow us to explore these difficulties of meeting our inner and outer worlds, and perhaps to find courage, resources or wisdom in facing them. The fact that the dreams of many ancient peoples included confronting gods or demons need not seem strange to us considering our present day dreams – see examples below. Whether the wisdom comes out of the mouth of a god or computer in our dream, the result is much the same. Whether fear arises out of the image of a ghost or an alien, it is still our own emotion we are meeting. See dream yoga.
Example: My toddler was on the landing and he had red silk shorts on with plastic pants half pulled up over the shorts. I ask him how he got like that as he is too small to do it himself. Then behind him my husband just appeared and said he had dressed him, but I knew my husband was out and this must be an apparition or something really evil. I was extremely frightened and ran into our bedroom and saw my husband floating over the bed head. Then I woke. Mrs. H. C.
Example: There were a few strangers in a chemistry laboratory, with myself – one at each table all waiting for something. Suddenly we all looked at a large house spider on the wall. At the same time one of us, it seemed to be me, turned into some sort of evil monster-man. We all ran away terrified, while he rampaged round the building. Mrs. K.L.S.
Example: I was in an ancient room. It had the feeling of it being an old church. Then my wife and I were in bed in the room. A middle aged woman was in the room. She was a ghost. I felt afraid of her, but to confront the fear I reached out my hand to her. I was crying out in my sleep from fear. As she took my hand I was amazed and shocked to feel it as physically real. I cried out ‘I can feel you – I can feel you!’ She was also surprised. I had the impression this level or dimension was recognised by ‘them’. She said to companions I do not see, ‘He is from the fourth level.’ I then said I wanted to understand. A.T.
Example: I was with a young boy and went to his house. I believe his mother was there and a cat. The vivid part was that the cat spoke to me. It spoke in a rather female voice, very clearly. As it spoke I felt great amazement. I had lots of thoughts about how it had learned language – that it could speak because of human language – what did language do to its mind – and so on. I didn’t reach any conclusions. I noticed as it spoke that it had tiny lips, but they were perfectly formed like a woman’s. They had lipstick on – or at least were red and attractive. I cannot remember what the cat said, but this didn’t seem to be important. It was the fact it spoke that was so wonderful. I left the house and was asking people whether they had ever heard a cat talking – still full of wonder. A.T.
The major difference between the way ancient people interpreted their dreams and the way we generally approach them today is that ancient people were certain the dream was real, whereas we have a certainty of its illusionary quality. This enormous difference meant that ancient peoples generally approached their dreams with a conviction they could find help, healing or information from them. See what we need to remember about dreams.
In many cases in the past, dreams were looked to for signs of prophecy about important issues such as ones health, long life, fertility, wealth or victory in a battle. For instance an ancient Babylonian prayer reads: ‘Either let me see it in a dream, or let it be discovered by divination, or let a divinely inspired man declare it, or let all the priests find out by incubation whatever I demand of them.’
In the oldest known book, the story of Gilgamesh, it is told how Enkidu, the king’s great friend, dreamt an awful prediction of his own death. ‘There is the house whose people sit in darkness; dust is their food and clay their meat. They are clothed like birds with wings for covering, they see no light, they sit in darkness. I entered the house of dust and I saw the kings of the earth, their crowns put away forever; rulers and princes, all those who once wore kingly crowns and ruled the world in the days of old. And there was Ereshkigal the Queen of the Underworld; and Belit-Sheri squatted in front of her, she who is recorder of the gods and keeps the book of death. She held a tablet from which she read. She raised her head, she saw me and spoke: ‘Who has brought this one here?’ Then I awoke like a man drained of blood who wanders alone in a waste of rushes; like one whom the bailiff has seized and his heart pounds with terror.’
Enkidu goes on to say – ‘The dream was marvellous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of life is sorrow.’ Following the dream Enkidu became increasingly ill and died twelve days later.
The dreams that have come down to us in such written form are of course greatly memorable. The following is another example of this – The night before (the parents of Alexander the Great) lay in wedded bed, the bride dreamed that lightning fell into her belly, and that withal, there was a great light fire that dispersed itself all about into divers flames. King Philip her husband also, shortly after he was married, dreamed that he did seal his wife’s belly, and that the seal wherewith he sealed, left behind the print of a lion. Certain wizards and soothsayers, told Philip that this dream gave him warning to look straightly to his wife. But Aristander Telmesian answered again, that it signified his wife was conceived with child, for that they do not seal a vessel that hath nothing in it: and that she was with child with a boy, which should have a lion’s heart. From Plutarch’s ‘The Life of Alexander the Great’, AD 100.
A dream such as this is also reported by the mother of Buddha prior to his birth. (See Buddhism and dreams.) It is also much the same as Mary’s vision prior to her conception of Jesus. In fact in the Jewish and Moslem traditions regarding dreams, an encounter with God in a dream was regarded of very great importance, and was not seen as different to a vision or waking encounter with God or an angel. For more everyday dreams however, we must read those collected by anthropologists from present day tribal people. See: Native American dream beliefs; Babylonian dream beliefs; Hebrew dream beliefs; Iroquoian dream cult; Islamic dream traditions; Chinese Dream Beliefs; Mesopotamian Dream Beliefs; Australian Aborigine Dream Beliefs.
We can generalise and say that Babylonian dream interpreters tended to see dreams as being either good or bad. The good were sent by supportive gods, and the bad by demons. The Babylonians had a goddess of dreams named Mamu. The function of the priests of Mamu was to prevent bad dreams.
The Assyrians believed dreams to be mostly omens of good or ill luck. Like the Babylonians they tried to deal with the possible fate following from bad dreams. In fact this sense of an ill fate being presaged by bad dreams was common to most ancient cultures. But this was gradually extended in Egyptian, Greek and Roman culture. This development of what people expected to find in their dreams probably arose from folk wisdom arising from observation of actual events. Diodorus for instance said that ‘in Egypt, dreams are regarded with religious reverence, especially as means of indicating remedies in illnesses’; and that ‘the prayers of worshipers are often rewarded by the indication of a remedy in a dream.’ An Egyptian prayer to this effect reads ‘Turn thy face to-wards me. Tis thou who dost accomplish miracles and art benevolent in all thy doings; ‘tis thou who givest children to him that hath none. Tis thou who hast created magic, and established the heavens and the earth and the lower world; ‘tis thou who canst – grant me the means of saving all.’
This idea of dreams being a source of information that can help heal a physical illness, or as a source of inspiration in making difficult decisions is widespread in ancient cultures. The Egyptian story of Satni tells of Mahituukhit going to the temple of Imuthes in ancient Memphis, praying to the god, then falling asleep in the temple. She then received a dream from the god showing a cure for her infertility. The god said to her ‘When tomorrow morning breaks, go thou to the fountain of Satni, thy husband; there thou shalt find growing a plant of colocasia; pull it up, leaves and all, and with it make a potion which thou shalt give to thy husband: then shalt thou sleep with him, and that very night shalt thou conceive.’ It was common in seeking such dreams as the above to prepare by ritual fasting and bathing as a means of purification and then to sleep in the temple.
These early forms of dream analysis arose then out of a quite limited set of values. A dream was either good or bad. A dream either prognosticated good or ill fortune. It illuminated the way to death or to regained health. Lastly the dream may be a message from a god showing a wise decision in life, battle or politics. Therefore early analysis was limited to such views, as is show in the account of Pharaoh’s dream of the seven fat kine and the seven thin kine who ate the fat cattle. The dream and its interpretation, showing the future of the nation’s fortune, was both a dream about a dire fate, and about a political or state decision.
The Huron and Seneca Indians of America had a view of the dreams which stands in the balance between the ancient world and the modern psychological concept of dreams. They saw dreams as expressing psychological tension and unexpressed desires. This was a definite forerunner of modern understanding. Nevertheless the main sources of modern dream interpretation lie in the ancient dream interpreters such as Artemidorus who wrote the Oneirocriticus – Interpretation of Dreams – in AD 200; in the commentaries on dreams of Aristotle which so influenced Western thinking; and in the early criticisms such as we find in Cicero, in which he says – ‘Even if true interpretations of dreams could exist, it is certainly not in the possession of those who profess it, for these people are the lowest and most ignorant of the people.’ He reached this view by observing that dreams were infinitely variable, and one could observe that different people having the same dream did not experience the same results. One could not therefore base any conclusive conclusion upon them. He ended by saying ‘Let us reject, therefore, this divination of dreams, as well as all other kinds. For, to speak truly, that superstition has extended itself through all nations, and has oppressed the intellectual energies of all men, and has betrayed them into endless imbecilities.’ However it is apparent in what Cicero says that he is talking about the interpretation of dreams which sees them all as divinatory.
Aristotle moved beyond this viewpoint and was perhaps the first to leave a record of careful and analytical thought about dreams and sleep that link with today’s approach in which information is gathered and sifted. His suggestions in regard to how one might analyse dreams are summed up in three short essays: On Sleep and Dreams, On Sleep, and On Divination Through Sleep. See: Aristotle on dreams.
Strangely, European history appears to have been a slide into the deeps of superstitious imaginations regarding dreams and dreaming. It was a state of mind which appears to have had no links with the clarity of past cultures, or observations of collective experience. During this period all manner of fantastic explanations of dreams arose. The ancient dream dictionaries, the first of which was written by Artemidorus, and was published in the second century BC – were slowly degraded into statements of good luck or bad luck unconnected with cultural symbolism such as was found in Artemidorus original work. The influence of these European dream dictionaries are still found on sale in book shops today. Raphael’s Dictionary of Dreams, and the like are still purchased and read, and are modern expressions of this dark period of European psychological learning regarding dreams.
During this time dreams were also linked with numerology. In 1654 The Palace of the Curious was published in France. It explained how algebra and the laws of chance are means by which we can interpret the most puzzling of dreams. This became a tradition and many dream dictionaries published today still explain dreams in this way. Alongside these there were many claiming to explain dreams according to ancient Egyptian wisdom. As Norman Mackenzie says in his excellent review of these books in his Dreams and Dreaming, these ‘modern dream books represent the most degenerate form of what was once regarded as a divine art; they lack any real religious or magical sanction, and are simply an expression of popular superstition, like the belief in lucky numbers, lucky colours or birthstones. Whatever meaning may once have lain behind the symbols and the interpretation has long been lost.’
There were however lights within this gloom. Amidst the darkness created by a repression of any attempt to explore fresh understanding, there were still groups and individuals who attempted to discover and protect what was good of ancient thought, and what might be uncovered by personal observation. An illustration is this quote of Paracelsus rediscovered by Jung. ‘That which the dream shows is the shadow of such wisdom as exists in the man, even if during his waking state he may know nothing about it; for we ought to know that God has given us our own wisdom and knowledge, reason, and the power to perceive the past and the future; but we do not know it, because we are fooling away our time with outward and perishing things, and are asleep in regard to that which is real within ourselves.’
Although Sigmund Freud is popularly thought of as the founder of modern therapeutic analysis of dreams, many other people set the scene for him by careful observation and experiment. Freud encouraged clients to relax on a couch and allow free association of ideas arise in connection with aspects of their dream. In this way he helped the person move from the surface images – manifest content – of the dream, to the underlying emotions, fantasies and wishes – latent content – often connected with early childhood. Because dreams use condensation – a mass of different ideas or experiences all represented by one dream image or event – Freud stated that the manifest content was ‘meagre’ compared with the ‘richness and variety’ of latent content. If one succeeds in touching the feelings and memories usually connected with a dream image, this becomes apparent because of the depth of insight and experience that arise. Although ideally the Freudian analyst helps the client discover their own experience of their dream, it can occur that the analyst puts to the client ready made views of the dream. Out of this has occurred the idea of someone else ‘analysing’ or telling us about our dream. See: Freud, Sigmund; latent content; manifest content.
Carl Jung used a different approach. He applied amplification, helped the client explore their associations, used active imagination, and stuck to the structure of the dream. Because what arises for the dreamer is frequently still shaped and presented according to the information and experience of the therapist, again the dream work might still be largely verbal and intellectual, rather than experiential. See: amplification; active imagination; association of ideas with dream; Jung, Carl.
In the approach of Fritz Perls Gestalt Therapy and Moreno’s Psychodrama the approach to dream analysis is almost entirely experiential. The person exploring the dream acts out or verbalises each role or aspect of the dream. If one dreamt of a house, in using the Gestalt approach, one might start by saying, ‘I am a house’ and then go on to describe oneself just as one is as the particular house in the dream. It is important, even if the house were one existing externally, not to attempt a description of the external house, but to stay with the house as it was in the dream. This is like amplification, except the client gives all the information. This can be a very dramatic and emotional because we begin to consciously reveal the immense realms of experience usually hidden behind the image. When successful this leads to personal insights into behaviour and creativity. So this is experiential rather than analytical. See: gestalt dream work.
Modern dream analysis, if not limited to the approach of one clinical school such as Freudian or Jungian, is a very rich technique. It spans the best of the ancient cultures such as the use of dreams for help in decision making or healing of physical health. It incorporates techniques that enable dreams to be accessed by any intelligent person in order to be enriched by them. Many tools are available in this modern eclectic approach, tools that enable one to mine the various treasures from ones inner life of dreams. But foremost among the additions to the jewels of understanding garnered in the past, is that of insight into ones personal psychological history and personal traumas. This I believe is unique to our times, and not fully appreciated generally. From this new skill a way is being developed to integrate the many aspects of ones own multifaceted being. See: amplification; gestalt dream work; processing dreams; psychodrama and dreams.