The Freud Museum



Hypotheses About Dreams From Ancient Times to the End of the 19th Century

(from Träume, Phantasie und Wirklichkeit by Christfried Toegel)

Human beings have never been indifferent to their dreams. But in different epochs concepts of their essence, origin and significance have varied.

The first data comes from Mesopotamia, from the epic of Gilgamesh. The epic relates the heroic deeds of the ruler of Uruk. It is the oldest known record of a historic person who lived around 2700 B.C. At the same time it contains the most ancient documented dreams. In the epic the dreams serve to announce the plans of the Gods to people, so that they can act accordingly.
Enkidu and Gilgamesh are on their way to kill the "bloodsucker" Humbaba. In order to find out whether they will be successful they pray to the Sun God for a dream. The next night Gilgamesh has a dream, of which Enkidu says:

This dream will make you well.
Brother, that vision you saw is rich
for on that mountain top
we can capture Humbaba and
hurl his earthly form from
towering cliffs through sky to
earth, making his shape
as flat and wide as it is round and high

Not only in Mesopotamia, but also in Babylon, Assyria and Egypt the dream is of heavenly origin and its function is mainly prophetic. This attitude is deeply rooted in the thinking of those times.
One example is the dream of Thutmosis IV: He fell asleep under the Sphinx which was covered to the neck in sand. Thutmosis had a dream that the Sphinx spoke to him and promised that if he would clear the Sphinx, Thutmosis would be destined to become king of Egypt.
Thutmosis cleared the Sphinx, became king of Egypt and
erected a stela between the paws of the Sphinx.

Sphinx and dream stele of Thutmosis IV

Dream of Thutmosis IV

The strong belief in the prophetic power of dreams is also found, for example, in Xerxes. Herodotus recounts his three dreams, which led him to continue the military crusades of his father Darius against the Greeks.

The Temple of Aesculapius on the Isle of Cos

The transition from the religious-transcendental concept of dreams to attempts at scientific explanation takes place in Ancient Greece. For Homer dreams are still "messengers of the Gods", and for Hesiod "children of the night living in the world beyond". Similar ideas are found in Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. But new ideas can be sensed: the priests who interpret the dreams of sick people, who have come for treatment by dreams in the temples of Aesculapius, coordinate the alleged predicitions of the Gods with whatever seems best for the patient from a rational point of view. In this way the priests use religious ritual as a means of applying their medical knowledge.

The transition from myth to logic is best seen in Pythagoras: on the one hand he believes that nightmares are caused by spoiled food, and on the other he still does not exclude the possibility that dreams have a heavenly origin.
The views of Aristotle are the culmination of dream hypotheses in Greece. To this day some of them remain subject to discussion, in the absence of more convincing hypotheses. He considers dreams to be the life of the soul during sleep and interprets them as a psychological phenomenon. Also, he maintains that a person dreams every night, but cannot always remember his dreams. Aristotle is also the first to observe the fast movement of the eyes during dreams. Today this phenomenon is called "Rapid Eye Movement" (REM) and is the basis of physiological sleep research.

Unlike the Ancient East, the differential approach of the Greeks to the problem of "dreams" is a result of the high level of philosophy, for which the mind-body problem occupies an important place and which becomes a premise for a theoretical treatment of phenomena through the discovery of "general ideas" by Socrates.


Like many other sciences, the "science of dreams" is at a relative standstill during the Middle Ages.The examnation of dreams is reduced to symbolic interpretations through analogies. Encyclopedia-type dream-books come into existence. They only show that dreams of those times are similar to today's. There are, however, some exceptions like Saphadi (investigating the dreams of the blind) and Augustinus (discussing the responsibility of the individual for his own dreams).

During the Renaissance the striving toward knowledge is directed toward the immediate reality of things. There is an intense development of methodological problems and the scientia experimentalis is the heart of all science. But centuries have to pass before those principles are applied to the investigation of dreams. Unlike physics, experimental dream research begins in the middle of the XIX century. There are at least three reasons for the comparatively late start of experimental psychology:
1. high complexity of the object of research
2. dominance of concepts abnd images from everyday-life
3. incorrect formulation of the problem (not causal, but symptomatic).

The first attempts at experimental investigations of dreams are carried out by the Frenchmen Louis Alfred Maury. He reports observation on his own self-induced dreams.

1. He was tickled with a feather on his lips and on the tip of his nose. He dreamed of an awful torture, viz., that a mask of pitch was stuck to his face and then forcibly torn off, bringing the skin with it.

2. Scissors were whetted against a pair of tweezers. He heard bells ringing, then sounds of tumult which took him back to the days of the Revolution of 1848.

3. Eau de Cologne was held to his nostrils. He found himself in Cairo, in the shop of Johann Maria Farina. This was followed by fantastic adventures which he was not able to recall.

4. His neck was lightly pinched. He dreamed that a blister was being applied, and thought of a doctor who had treated him in childhood.

5. A hot iron was brought near his face. He dreamed that robbers had broken into the house, and were forcing the occupants to give up their money by thrusting their feet into braziers. The Duchesse d'Abrantes, whose secretary he imagined himself to be then entered the room.

6. A drop of water was allowed to fall on to his forehead. He imagined himself in Italy, perspiring heavily, and drinking the white wine of Orvieto.

7. When the light of a candle screened with red paper was allowed to fall on his face, he dreamed of thunder, of heat, and of a storm at sea which he once witnessed in the English Channel.


Sigmund Freud describes in his book Interpretation of Dreams the famous dream of the Guillotine by Maury:

"The following dream of Maury's has become celebrated: He was ill in bed; his mother was sitting beside him. He
dreamed of the Reign of Terror during the Revolution. He witnessed some terrible scenes of murder, and finally he
himself was summoned before the Tribunal. There he saw Robespierre, Marat, Fouquier-Tinville, and all the sorry heroes of those terrible days; he had to give an account of himself, and after all manner of incidents which did not fix themselves in his memory, he was sentenced to death. Accompanied by an enormous crowd, he was led to the place of execution. He mounted the scaffold; the executioner tied him to the plank, it tipped over, and the knife of the guillotine fell. He felt his head severed from his trunk, and awakened in terrible anxiety, only to find that the head-board of the bed had fallen, and had actually struck the cervical vertebrae just where the knife of the guillotine would have fallen."

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