Dreams in Mesopotamian Culture

Dreams in Mesopotamian Culture

People always had dreams, falling asleep either in a cave by the fire on the skins or on the feather beds. Therefore, humans permanently had various questions connected with the dreams. Similar to other ancient cultures, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia also tried to understand the meaning of their dreams, as evidenced by the numerous texts found on clay tablets. They took their dreams seriously. Evidence of the importance of dreams is Assyrian Dream Book, one of the most famous ancient books, which was written on clay tablets and found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. There was even a special profession called the interpreter of dreams or ensi in Sumerian (Noegel 47). Interpreters of dreams were clairvoyants. Moreover, as any other significant phenomenon, dreams are reflected in the mythology, which is the mirror of human notions of the world. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a vivid example of people’s impression of the world in Mesopotamian culture. Dreams are a recurring motif in this epic poem and have a very important meaning, since they reveal the way Mesopotamian civilization evaluated dreams as the prophetic signs of gods.

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The scientists attribute the Mesopotamian practice of interpreting dreams to the field of early scientific knowledge. The inhabitants of Mesopotamia understood dreams as the most direct way of communication between the ruler and the gods, which means that people considered them vital for the whole society, since the gods controlled the war, peace, new laws, and customs. Therefore, in the cultures of the ancient Near East, dreams had an important political significance as a channel of communication with the gods (Bulkeley 11). Despite the fact that by definition, dreams were personal experiences from the moment people told, wrote down, distributed, and addressed them to others, they acquired collective value and social significance.

In the Mesopotamian traditional community, people gave dreams a sacred character. Ideas about their prophetic properties and the possibility to interact with the gods, spirits, and souls of the deceased through the state of sleep were widely distributed. Written evidence suggests that in Mesopotamia, people maintained the idea that the soul or some part of it leaves the body during sleep and actually visits those places and people that the sleeper sees (Mouton 1). For instance, the ancient kings and heroes spent some nights inside the sanctuary of some deity. Usually, it was a temple in the form of a stepped tower, which was a very impressive sight (Bulkeley 51). After a special ritual ceremony, the sleeper saw the god who gave proper advice or specific instructions.

Furthermore, ancient people used dreams as a means of predicting the impending fate. They understood them as some cues the gods sent to humans. People also believed that in a dream, a person could see an answer to an important question or a hint (Mouton 1). In particular, the Sumerian god of dreams and netherworld was called Sisig. His name could be translated as a wind, a breeze, or a ghost Mouton. Even though these concepts seem unrelated, for the Sumerians, they belonged to one associative series. The descriptions of dreams are very common in the epic about the legendary Sumerian hero Gilgamesh. Almost every turn of the story is accompanied by someone’s dream. For example, the first tablet tells of a dream in which Gilgamesh saw a meteorite that fell on him from the sky as well as an axe endowed with a great power. In the dreams, Gilgamesh managed to raise the meteorite with thongs and brought it to his mother Ninsun, one of the wisest goddess, and she pronounced it his brother (Gale 3). When Gilgamesh told these dreams to his mother, she interpreted the images of the meteorite and the axe as his future friend and companion Enkidu, created as equal to Gilgamesh.

As written on the fourth tablet, when Gilgamesh and Enkidu made a journey to the Cedar Forest to slay evil Humbaba, Gilgamesh climbed the mountain and asked Shamash, the god of sun, to send him a dream as a hint (Gale 5). In this regard, Enkidu had performed some rituals before Gilgamesh fell asleep. The first dream was about the mountain that crashed both Enkidu and Gilgamesh (Gale 6). Enkidu interpreted this dream as auspicious, meaning that they would defeat Humbaba. Thus, Enkidu became the interpreter of Gilgamesh’s dreams. The next night, he had the second dream about a mighty bull that gave food and water to him (Gale 6). Enkidu explained the image of the bull as the god of sun Shamash, who supported the heroes in their endeavors. He also thought that the figure who gave Gilgamesh water was Lugulbanda, Gilgamesh’s deceased father, who became his guardian (Gale 8). This is an example of associating the world of dreams with the world of the dead, which made it possible to communicate with the spirits of dead people in dreams.

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In general, Gilgamesh had true divine messages and allegorical prophetic dreams. The third night he had a nightmare with thunder, lightning, earthquake, and death (Gale 7). This dream made the heroes retreat, but then they continued their trip. It is unclear why they decided to go further, since the next section of the fourth tablet is damaged and some text is missing. Anyway, in confusion and with the support of Shamash, they continued. Essentially, all these dreams were the messages from gods that guided two friends in their risky adventures.

The seventh tablet, though badly preserved, shows that Enkidu also had a prophetic dream. It happened right after the heroes defeated Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar in revenge to Gilgamesh. In this dream, the gods discussed the fate of the heroes. Anu believed that heroes should die for stealing cedars from the mountains, Enlil defended Gilgamesh, and Shamash protected both (Gale 11). Gilgamesh tried to reassure his friend that dream was nothing but vain fears. However, Shamash, who had a dialogue with Gilgamesh, confirmed that Enkidu’s fate was decided, so he would die (Gale 12). Afterwards, Enkidu had a dream showing that someone gloomy took him to the dark and cold netherworld and that his fate has already been written down in the book of destinies as a foregone. A few days later, Enkidu died, so the dream was prophetic.

It seems that people considered dreams almost the only way to contact gods. The eleventh tablet of the epic describes Gilgamesh in despair, as his best friend and companion died. Wanting to gain immortality, Gilgmesh came to another legendary hero — Utnapishtim, who survived the flood and became deathless. He tested Gilgamesh to find out whether the latter could overcome sleep, so he plunged him into a sleep for seven days (Gale 14). When Gilgamesh woke up, he realized that he did not pass the test. He also understood clearly that it would be impossible for him to overcome death if he could not even overcome sleep. It means that in Mesopotamian culture, the parallel between dreams and death existed.

To sum up, The Epic of Gilgamesh helps understand the role played by dreams in the culture of Mesopotamia, the attitude to dreams, and their function. People understood dreams as signs that gods sent to people, or even as a direct contact with higher powers. Dreams could be prophetic or allegorically transmitting information about the future. Therefore, people treated dreams with respect, trusting their interpretation to professionals who interpreted them according to their own Sumerian ideas about the world.

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