We have been dreaming since the dawn of civilization. The oldest existing dream records were found on clay tablets dated at around 3000 BC, over 5,000 years ago.
But what do dreams mean, and how can we interpret those meanings ourselves for our own dreams?
In this article, we’ll take a look at the theories behind the meaning of dreams, from early civilizations to modern day. Then we’ll cover the most effective dream interpretation techniques that you can use to discover the meaning of your dreams.
What’s the meaning behind dreams?
King Gilgamesh of Uruk (modern day Iraq and Kuwait) is the first known person to seek what his dreams mean in the year 2500 BC.
The legend goes that Gilgamesh was confused by the content of his dreams, so he told them to his mother who is said to have correctly predicted from the dreams that someone new and powerful was to enter his life that will help him to achieve great things. In another dream Gilgamesh is told that his new friend would die. Both of these premonitions were said to have become true.
How much of this story is actually true is not fully known, but it shows us that even in the year 2500 BC, a lot of thought was given into discovering the meaning of dreams, and those interpretations were taken seriously.
Ancient Civilizations and Dreams
Since this very first record, almost every great civilization in history has had their own views on the meaning of dreams.
- The civilization of Babylon had huge temples dedicated to Mamu, the goddess of dreams. The art of dream interpretation was reserved only for the most holy of people.
- The Egyptians saw dreams as a portal to another world where they could visit distant places, talk to Gods and meet with the dead.
- Homer and the Greeks thought humans have both true and false dreams. Ones that came from the gods and ones that came from the self. They believed acting on false dreams or not acting on true dreams could lead to disaster. The Greeks later used dreams for medical purposes to diagnose illnesses.
- The Romans thought dreams could foretell the future. Julius Caesar’s wife dreamt of his assassination the night before it happened. His heir Augustus made it law that anyone who had a dream about the emperor’s state of health to make it known.
Sigmund Freud, who published his work in 1900, believed that dreams are the result of the subconscious mind freely expressing itself. He believed our conscious mind was only the tip of the iceberg and that it’s the subconscious that holds the majority of information about ourselves and the world around us.
When we are awake, the subconscious gets censored by the conscious mind. So it waits until we are asleep and expresses itself in the form of symbols to slip past the internal censor. These symbols come in the form of dreams.
Cloaked in symbolism, the subconscious can express itself without being too bold as to wake the dreamer. Freud believe many of these symbols represent sexual desires. For example a doorway or keyhole would represent a vagina while a pencil or lamppost would represent a penis.
Jung and modern day theories
Carl Jung (1875-1961) was once a pupil of Jung and while he agreed that the subconscious created the dreams, he disagreed that the mind was expressing mostly sexual desires with no apparent meaning.
He created his own theory where dreams were a way for your subconscious to alert you to areas in your life that may need extra attention. An idea that dreams provide important suggestions for your life with the ultimate role of restoring harmony.
He expressed the importance of being able to understand your dreams so they can be used to alert you to any pitfalls or opportunities in life that require your attention.
Jung summarizes the importance of dream interpretation in this quote:
“An uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter.”
Jung’s work is the keystone to which modern dream theories are based upon.
How to find the meaning of your dream
Using Jung’s theory, we can use dream interpretation to unlock the power of our vast subconscious mind and receive its hidden messages.
There’s a number of dream interpretation methods. We’ll go through the most popular and effective dream interpretation techniques you can use yourself.
Method 1: Free Association
Freud encouraged the use of what he called Free Association to deduce the meaning behind the symbols in the dream.
To do this, pick out a symbol from the dream and either write down or say out loud what you associate in your mind with the symbol without allowing your conscious mind to censor itself.
For example a chair may mean support and stability. It may also mean laziness and inactivity.
The symbol may have a dark meaning so you need to be completely comfortable and non judgemental about yourself before trying this.
Freud believed your subconscious uses symbols as shorthand for expressing itself so your symbol may have multiple meanings.
Method 2: Direct Association or Amplification
Direct Association is a technique used by Jung to determine the meaning of dreams. It’s similar to free association but with key differences. Instead of just examining the symbols of the dream individually, you also examine the context in which they appeared in your dream.
So for example, say you had a dream about seeing a coin float down a river. Free association would lead to ask yourself what you associate coins with. This may be money, wealth and abundance. Then you would then do the same for the river, such as purity or flow of thoughts.
With direct association, you would examine how you associate the coin and the river as a collective. Maybe you feel your money is being swept away from you. Or maybe your money is leading the way to a new destination in life. With direct association, you would check back with the dream to see if the association is correct.
How you felt in the dream is important. If the feeling was excitement and happiness, it’s unlikely the message is about losing money.
Direct association helps you to create an interpretation that considers the whole dream and one that’s unique to you.
Method 3: Gestalt Theory
Gestalt Theory is a dream interpretation technique developed by Fritz Perls. He believed dreams were a message from your subconscious mind to your conscious mind.
Everything in the dream comes from your subconscious. So if you dream you’re in a car being chased by the police, you are both the driver of that car and also the police, since your mind created the police to chase you.
Gestalt theory encourages you to deeply interact with and understand each part of your dream to gain its message. One technique for this is to give each member of your dream a voice and interview them in your mind.
So first we could interview the driver. Why are you being chased? Why aren’t you stopping? Do you think you will escape? What would happen if you did pull over? Where are you planning on going?
Next to interview could be the police. We could even give the car a voice or even the road about how it feels about you travelling down this path and why it’s so bumpy, windy or narrow.
By thoroughly investigating each element of the dream as yourself, you can start to get a full picture of what the dream is trying to tell you.
Method 4: Dream Dictionaries
Dream dictionaries attempt to offer a complete one for all solution for each symbol in your dream. The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow you to consider the symbol’s relationship to the other symbols in the dream, a similar weakness to Free Association.
For many symbols, how a person associates them is unique to themselves. However Jung believed that there are some symbols that contain similar meaning for people of a certain culture. He called these symbols archetypes.
So for example if your country had the widespread belief that black cats are associated with black magic, you could predict for example that dreaming of one could mean you a feeling under the influence of someone who is trying to take advantage.
A good dream dictionary is the Watkins Dictionary of Dreams. Unlike most dream dictionaries, this one uses Jung’s archetypes to provide suggestions (not all in one definitions) to the meanings behind your dreams and provides cross references to help you interpret the dream based around its context.
On the whole, use dream dictionaries with a pinch of salt. Use them for inspiration but never allow them to interpret the whole dream for you. Dream dictionaries that provide a single definition to a symbol are next to useless and can be misleading
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No one knows yourself better than you do, so the very best person to interpret your dreams will naturally be you. With the techniques above, I hope you’ll find the true meaning behind your dreams and that you’ll find dream interpretation interesting, fun and an incredibly useful skill.