Babylonian Dream Beliefs

Babylonian civilisation lasted from 1800 till 600 BC. It was an urban society with twelve or so cities in the nation, resting upon the agricultural land surrounding the cities. The social structure was headed by the king as absolute monarch. Under him were a group of appointed governors and administrators. Beneath this were freemen and then slaves. The culture lasted for about 1200 years.

The world ancient people’s lived in was one filled with spirits and demons, gods and goddesses, good and evil forces. This is understandable when we realise our forebears had no clear conception of how natural forces, illness, the mind, worked. The many intangibles they were surrounded by, the immense uncertainties they faced, were quite usefully called spirits – invisible/mysterious yet potent powers that could act upon one for good or ill. Their beliefs and observations regarding dreams were therefore deeply coloured by their world view.

The peoples of Assyria and Mesopotamia were animists-that is, they saw themselves surrounded by natural forces that represented gods to be propitiated and spirits and devils to be feared. Anxious in the present, fearful for the future, feeling themselves the prey of powerful forces beyond their comprehension or control, they turned to a whole armoury of devices for protection and reassurance-amulets and magic spells, prophecy, divination, and dream interpretation.

But this view should not be seen a superstitious or from ignorance. The words devil and spirit simply meant an unseen and powerful force. Before the invention of the microscope disease was in fact an ‘unseen force’ that could kill you. The devil was a destructive force and spirits could be helpful or destructive. They discovered that people could be helped or even healed by what today we call placebos. The magic rituals and amulets were just that.


There seems to be little doubt that in Assyria, as in Egypt, dreams were used in therapeutic processes. There are many rituals for dispelling the effect of evil dreams: about 1700 BC., a poem from Babylon describes how a noble has been made ill by demons coming from the nether world, and how three dreams lead to his recovery. This is why the interpretation of bad dreams was more important than the deciphering of pleasant or obvious dreams-some thing had to be done about them. Anticipating contemporary psycho-analysis, the Assyrians believed that once the enigma presented by the dreams had been worked out the disturbing symptoms or the affliction would pass. But whereas modern psychoanalysis uses the dream to illuminate the hidden conflicts and repressed anxieties of the patient, the Assyrians believed either that a demon must be exorcised, or that the appropriate deity would reveal the means by which the sufferer could be treated.

The Assyrians certainly depended on dream books for help. This much we know from clay tablets found at Nineveh, in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who reigned between 669 and 626 BC. This library, the oldest directly known to us, was a repository of learning reaching back to the dawn of civilisation-possibly to 5000 BC. The Nineveh tablets, in fact, provide the link in a chain of dream theory that stretches from the most remote past to our own time. It is believed that Ashurbanipal’s dream book was used by the Roman soothsayer Artemidorus (about AD 140), whose work has in turn inspired almost every subsequent compiler of dream books.

 The Ashurbanipal tablets tell us, for example, that if a man flies repeatedly in his dreams, whatever he owns will be lost. In Zolar’s Encyclopaedia and Dictionary of Dreams, published in New York in 1963, we read, “Flying at a low altitude: ruin is ahead for you.” Another idea that persisted is that dreams go by contraries. If an Assyrian dreamed that he was blessed by a god, he expected to experience that god’s wrath; but “if the god utters a curse against the man, his prayer will be accepted.” If you are cursed in a dream, Zolar tells us in 1963, “Ambitions will be realised.” That is of course the use of placebo or suggestion.

Death was a certainty, illness, physical or mental was a possibility, love and reproduction were drives to be satisfied, and so many dreams or myths centred on the way they met these. It must also be remembered that such cultures had, according to recent theories, only recently developed personal self-awreness; only just lost direct perception of subjective gods. See: The Origins of Consciousness by Julian Jaynes.

In the Babylonian culture the attempt to find certainty amid uncertainty, to control or direct the threatening forces of nature, to find ones way through the events of life, led to a wide array of techniques concerned with prophecy, magical control or propitiation, and trying to know the will of the gods. The kings hoped that a god would be on their side in battle, or would give them confidence by telling them in a dream that they would overcome their enemies. In fact the influence of these early Babylonian beliefs is still present in modern religion where each side of an opposing army, even with belief in the same God, prays for support and victory.

The Babylonians believed that an event in one part of the world or cosmos, would cause an occurrence in another part. A comet appearing in the sky for instance, would be seen as presaging great social or personal changes. This link between the cosmos and the individual also suggested to the Babylonians that the cosmos could be influenced by human action – thus the rituals of appeasement or magic.

These beliefs led to an examination of any mysterious event in an attempt to understand its personal or wider significance. Dreams were one of the possible sources of such prophecy or enlightening information. Over a long period of time strange events such as the birth of a two headed calf, or a strange dream, were noted and following events watched. If a barren woman had a child after such an event, then it was thought that the next time the event occurred, a barren woman would again be made fertile. Of course this led to deliberate attempts to obtain or perform the first, to bring about the latter – thus magic. There were in fact magic rituals to prevent bad or evil dreams.

Dreams were classified into several types. Those of rulers and leaders such as priests were seen as one type, and those of common people of another. There was also a division between good dreams and bad dreams. If one goes into any large book-store and looks at dream dictionaries written before the advent of modern psychotherapy, it can easily be seen that most definitions are still written in the same style – that the dream will bring good or bad luck regarding money, romance or health.

In fact they are derivations of the ancient Babylonian dream books. These speculations, observations and collection of folk beliefs were put into book form by the Babylonians, and are thought to have contained texts on dreams dating back to 5000 BC. These ancient Babylonian dream dictionaries were copied and taken to the library at Nineveh by king Assurbanipal. The great dream encyclopaedist Artemidorus later drew on these records for his own learning. The part of the Jewish/Hebrew Talmud which was written during the Babylonian captivity is also full of dream interpretations and ways of dealing with dreams, and undoubtedly drew on the Babylonian library.

These dream dictionaries contained beliefs and observations took note of any belief however bizarre. As an example of some of the ideas presented in this collection of works, we can read – ‘If a date appears on a man’s head, it means woe. If a fish appears on his head, that man will be strong. If a mountain appears on his head, it means that he will have no rival. If salt appears on his head, it means that he will apply himself to bald his house….If a man dreams that he goes to a pleasure garden, it means that he will gain his freedom. If he goes to a market garden, his dwelling will be uncomfortable. If he goes to kindle a firebrand he will see woe during his days. If he goes to sow a field, he will escape from a ruined place. If he goes to hunt in the country, he will be eminent. If he goes to an oxstall, (he will have) safety. If he goes to the sheepfold, he will rise to the first rank.’

Babylonian culture also produced one of the great, and certainly the oldest literary work which included a series of dreams. This is the Epic Of Gilgamesh which dates from about 2000 BC, and is the oldest hero account. It is the story of how the king, Gilgamesh, searches for immortality having lost his friend Enkidu. See: The mention of Gilgamesh in analysis of dreams.

If one had a dream, the practice in Babylonia was to have it interpreted by a priest. From descriptions of such interpretations, such as we find in the Epic of Gilgamesh, this may have been principally a form of social psychology to help reduce anxiety in people who lived in a world peopled by demons and spirits. If the dream was seen as evil, or sent by a demon, some form of cleansing ritual was often used. But dream interpretation had other aspects as can been seen in Daniel’s dream interpretations for king Nebuchadnezzar. In his interpretation there are elements showing a drive for personal survival, political insight, and psychological knowledge of what would be relevant to the king and his concerns. The priesthood and dream interpreters such as Daniel, were therefore most likely skilled in a level of counselling relevant to their times and social environment. They were healers in allaying anxiety. They were shrewd assessors and perhaps manipulators. They performed the function of helping people to deal with their concerns and fears.

Because Daniel’s interpretation is such an interesting statement in regard to dreams and how they were used in the past, the biblical verses are given here in full.

As for thee, O king, thy thoughts came into thy mind upon thy bed, what should come to pass hereafter: and he that revealeth secrets maketh known to thee what shall come to pass. 002:030 But as for me, this secret is not revealed to me for any wisdom that I have more than any living, but for their sakes that shall make known the interpretation to the king, and that thou mightest know the thoughts of thy heart. 002:031 Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. 002:032 This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, 002:033 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. 002:034 Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces.

002:035 Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth. 002:036 This is the dream; and we will tell the interpretation thereof before the king. 002:037 Thou, O king, art a king of kings: for the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power, and strength, and glory. 002:038 And wheresoever the children of men dwell, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the heaven hath he given into thine hand, and hath made thee ruler over them all. Thou art this head of gold. 002:039 And after thee shall arise another kingdom inferior to thee, and another third kingdom of brass, which shall bear rule over all the earth.

002:040 And the fourth kingdom shall be strong as iron: forasmuch as iron breaketh in pieces and subdueth all things: and as iron that breaketh all these, shall it break in pieces and bruise. 002:041 And whereas thou sawest the feet and toes, part of potters’ clay, and part of iron, the kingdom shall be divided; but there shall be in it of the strength of the iron, forasmuch as thou sawest the iron mixed with miry clay. 002:042 And as the toes of the feet were part of iron, and part of clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong, and partly broken. 002:043 And whereas thou sawest iron mixed with miry clay, they shall mingle themselves with the seed of men: but they shall not cleave one to another, even as iron is not mixed with clay. 002:044 And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.

002:045 Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure. 002:046 Then the king Nebuchadnezzar fell upon his face, and worshipped Daniel, and commanded that they should offer an oblation and sweet odours unto him. 002:047 The king answered unto Daniel, and said, Of a truth it is, that your God is a God of gods, and a Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou couldest reveal this secret. 002:048 Then the king made Daniel a great man, and gave him many great gifts, and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon, and chief of the governors over all the wise men of Babylon.

Considering that all present societies and the practices we find in them have emerged and evolved from previous societies and practices, we can be sure that Daniel’s method of dream interpretation was a tradition passed on from long previous ages. So it is likely he used what today we associate with ancient shamans. If this is so, Daniel would not have consciously thought about the dream, but in his terms would have prayed for insight into it. This means that he would have entered a state of mind in which his thinking was quietened and he allowed his unconscious intuitions, guided by his image of his God and his knowledge of the times and the people he lived amongst, to emerge and throw light on Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. See: LSD Hypnosis and dreams; history of dream beliefs.

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