Oneiromancy and Dream Predictions from Ancient Mesopotamia

Oneiromancy and Dream Predictions from Ancient Mesopotamia

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Oneiromancy is a form of divination in which dreams are interpreted in order to predict the future. This form of divination was practiced in many parts of the world, including the ancient civilizations that were based in the region of Mesopotamia, and still continues to this day. The interpretation of dreams in ancient Mesopotamia can be found in its literature, such as the famous Epic of Gilgamesh and the Atrahasis. Additionally, oneiromancy seems to have been practiced in real life as well, as evidenced by a compendium of texts known as the Iškar Zaqīqu (translated as ‘core text of the god Zaqīqu’), or more commonly known as the Assyrian Dream Book .

The Egyptian ‘Dream Book’

The Egyptian ‘Dream Book’. Photo source: The British Museum


In the literature of ancient Mesopotamia, dreams are depicted as serving a number of functions. The most common of these may be the usage of dreams as a means of foretelling an impending doom. In the Atrahasis, the Mesopotamian version of the flood account, the title character, Atrahasis (meaning ‘exceedingly wise’) is warned about the destructive flood in his dream. In this story, it seems that Atrahasis’ dreams were sent to him from the gods. In one part of the text, Atrahasis is shown offering a gift to Ea, so that he might be able to receive a dream from the deity,

“May the irrigation-water take it, may the river carry it,
May the gift be placed in front of Ea my lord.
May Ea see it and think of me!
So may I see a dream in the night.”

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis epic in the British Museum.

Cuneiform tablet with the Atrahasis epic in the British Museum. ( Public Domain )

Enkidu’s Dream

Dreams as a warning of impending doom can be seen in another piece of ancient Mesopotamian literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh . In this epic, Enkidu (Gilgamesh’s friend) has a dream in which the gods decide that he should die as punishment for his involvement in the slaying of the Bull of Heaven and Huwawa. Enkidu also dreams that he was seized, and brought down into the Underworld,

 “He (a man described by Enkidu in the preceding lines) seized me, drove me down to the dark house, dwelling of Erkalla’s god,
To the house which those who enter cannot leave,
On the road where travelling is one way only,
To the house where those who stay are deprived of light,
Where dust is their food, and clay their bread.”

Following the dream that he had, Enkidu falls ill, and eventually dies,

“From the day he saw the dream, his [strength] was finished.
Enkidu lay there the first day, then [a second day.]
[The illness] of Enkidu, as he lay in bed, [grew worse, his flesh weaker.]”

Possible representation of Enkidu.

Possible representation of Enkidu. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Dumuzid’s Dream

Another instance of dreams bearing ominous messages can be found in a text known as Dumuzid’s Dream . In this dream, Dumuzid, a legendary king who lived before the Flood, sees his own demise. Unlike Enkidu, Dumuzid’s dream is filled with more metaphors, and the king had to call his sister, Ĝeštin-ana, to help him interpret it. Dumuzid’s dream is as such,

“In my dream, rushes were rising up for me, rushes kept growing for me; a single reed was shaking its head at me; twin reeds -- one was being separated from me. Tall trees in the forest were rising up together over me. Water was poured over my holy {coals} {(1 ms. has instead:) brazier} for me, the cover of my holy churn was removed, my holy drinking cup was torn down from the peg where it hung, my shepherd's stick disappeared from me. An owl (?) took a lamb from the sheep house, a falcon caught a sparrow on the reed fence, my male goats were dragging their dark beards in the dust for me, and my rams were scratching the earth with their thick legs for me. The churns were lying on their sides, no milk was being poured, the drinking cups were lying on their sides, Dumuzid was dead, and the sheepfold was haunted.”

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