For as long as human beings have sought answers to their dreams, there have probably been dream interpreters who delved into their meanings. Although most contemporary resources on dream interpretations give dreamers the tools to decide what the elements of their dream might mean to them, in the past people would often consult dream interpreters to unravel the significance of their dreams. The profession of dream interpretation has changed over time, from an aspect of prophecy and religious practice (where it still remains in many cultures) to a part of Western psychology and exploration of the self. Most contemporary approaches combine a spiritual and self-exploratory approach to dream interpretations.
The Sumerian poem Gilgamesh includes one of the oldest recorded examples of dream interpretation, performed by a dream interpreter of divine origin: the king Gilgamesh dreams of an axe falling from the sky, which he grabs and throws away from himself before walking back to it and embracing it “like a wife”. His goddess-mother Ninsun concludes that the dream presages the appearance of a rival with whom Gilgamesh will struggle before they eventually become friends and allies. This interpretation reveals how dream interpreters in the ancient Near East combined the use of dream symbolism and prophecy to assign meaning to dreams.
In ancient Greece, temple priests specialized in dream interpretation to diagnose and cure illness. Sick people could visit special temples called asclepieions— after the Greek physician Asclepius— where they would sleep and pray for a dream that would reveal the cause of their illness and its cure. Greece also produced its share of treatises on the nature of dreams: in the 2nd century AD, Artemidorus of Daldis wrote Oneirocritica (which translates roughly as “the interpretation of dreams”) in which he argued that dreams could incorporate puns and that visual elements in dreams could be interpreted like rebus writing to reveal their meaning. Alongside these two very modern approaches to dream interpretation, Artemidorus also believed that dreams could be prophetic.
With the advent of psychoanalysis, dream interpretations became the province of psychiatrists, most famously Sigmund Freud: he believed that dreams provided the interpreter with a window onto his patient’s subconscious wishes and desires. He believed that the surface objects and actions of a dream actually masked its meaning, which the conscious mind of the patient didn’t want to confront. In Freud’s method of dream interpretation, you disregard the apparent connections between objects in the dream and have the patient describe each one individually using the first words that come to mind (a technique called free association). Free association and other psychoanalytic techniques were meant to peel back the devices a patient’s subconscious mind uses to obscure the latent meaning of a dream.
While Freud dismissed dreams’ manifest content as nothing more than a cloaking device, his one-time disciple Carl Jung theorized that manifest content could be just as useful for coding a dream’s meaning. He believed dreams contained messages about a person’s whole subconscious, beyond just his or her unfulfilled desires. Jung suggested dream interpreters use both objective and subjective approaches to interpret dream symbols: in the objective approach, every object or person is what they appear to be— a mother is a mother, a snake is a snake, etc. In the subjective approach, you assume that the dream symbol represents an unacknowledged aspect of the dreamer themselves, such as their sexuality or suppressed fears. Frederick Perls widely expanded on the subjective approach in his Gestalt method of therapy, claiming that all the elements of dreams were actually part of the self.
Although Jung believed in universal archetypes, or symbols that have meaning in all human cultures, he believed your personal history influences how you interpret archetypes. Jung used a two-fold interpretation, first identifying the archetype a dream symbol represents and then asking the dreamer “Why this symbol and not another?” (to express the same archetype). For instance, a person might dream of either a sword or a snake, and both of these objects could represent a penis. Yet these two symbols have very different attributes: swords are hard, sharp, inanimate and dangerous; snakes are alive, potentially poisonous and scary (unless you like snakes). In this method, the dreamer’s attitude toward the surface elements of his or her dream reveals their attitude toward what those elements represent.
In contemporary times, online and printed resources allow people to interpret dreams outside of the psychologist’s office, either on their own or with the aid of professional dream interpreters. Ann Faraday is one interpreter who brought the practice into the mainstream: in the 1970’s, she published do-it-yourself books on interpretation and established dream interpretation groups where people could share their experiences. She focused on interpreting dreams in the context of the dreamer’s life: if you have a dream of failing a test, for instance, it could be a subconscious warning that you haven’t prepared for something, or maybe you feel that you’ve failed in some area of your life. Interpreters Wallace Clift and Jean Dalby-Clift used dream work to help dreamers heal and integrate the different parts of themselves. Their work identified patterns in dreaming and ways the dreamer could analyze them in order to make positive life changes. Robert Moss, author of Conscious Dreaming, is probably one of the most famous modern advocates of dream work: his active dreaming technique combines modern dream interpretation with shamanistic techniques of dream exploration and group lucid dreaming.
While dream interpretation used to be reserved for priests, doctors and psychologists, these days the tools are out there for anyone who’s interested in interpreting their dreams. As Robert Moss states in Conscious Dreaming, the final interpretation of a dream rests with the dreamer: we are all our own best dream interpreters!