Mesopotamian Dream Beliefs

In considering the beliefs of another culture, especially in the distant past, we have to remember that individuals and cultures have vastly different mental worlds they live in.

The peoples of Assyria and Mesopotamia were animists-that is, they saw them-selves surrounded by natural forces that represented gods to be propitiated 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.

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.”

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