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Oneiromancy, dream divination, was very important in ancient Mesopotamia

Oneiromancy: Dream Predictions in Ancient Mesopotamia


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 it 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.

Atrahasis Receives a Nighttime Omen

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)

Oneiromancy for Dumuzid’s Dream

Another instance of dreams bearing ominous messages in ancient Mesopotamia 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.”

Part of Ĝeštin-ana’s interpretation of her brother’s dream is as follows:

“The rushes rising up for you, which kept growing for you, are bandits rising against you from their ambush. The single reed shaking its head at you is your mother who bore you, shaking her head for you. The twin reeds of which one was being separated from you is you and I -- one will be separated from you. The tall trees in the forest rising up together over you are the evil men catching you within the walls. That water was poured over your holy coals means the sheepfold will become a house of silence. That the cover of your holy churn was removed for you means the evil man will bring it inside in his hands.”

The marriage of Inanna and Dumuzid.

The marriage of Inanna and Dumuzid. (Public Domain)

The Importance of Dream Interpreters in Ancient Mesopotamia

Beyond the sphere of literature, one can say that the ancient Mesopotamians took their dreams seriously. This can be seen in the existence of professional dream interpreters. One of the most well-known collections of dream interpretations from ancient Mesopotamia is the so-called Assyrian Dream Book.

This was a group of clay tablets discovered in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, in Nineveh. The inscriptions are said to be a record of how dreams may be interpreted. For example, the interpretation for a dream in which a person flees repeatedly is that he/she will lose all that he/she owns.

Archaeologist Henry Layard's image of Nineveh. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Top Image: Oneiromancy could have had a huge influence on a person’s life (CC0) in ancient Mesopotamia. (Andrea Izzotti /Adobe Stock)

By Wu Mingren


Anon., Atrahasis
[Dalley, S. (trans.), 2008. Atrahasis, in Myths from Mesopotamia, Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Anon., Dumuzid’s Dream [Online]
[The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford (trans.), 2006. Dumuzid’s Dream.]
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Anon., The Epic of Gilgamesh
[Dalley, S. (trans.), 2008. The Epic of Gilgamesh, in Myths from Mesopotamia, Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.]

Crisp, T., 2010. Mesopotamian Dream Beliefs. [Online]
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Mishlove, J., 2016. Ancient Mesopotamia. [Online]
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Moss, R., 2015. Questioning dreams in ancient Mesopotamia. [Online]
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Packer, S., 2002. Dreams in Myth, Medicine, and Movies. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers.

Simons, S., 2016. How 7 Ancient Civilizations Made Sense of Dreams. [Online]
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Gilgamesh in The Epic of the Same Name has several dreams upon approaching the Cedar Forest of Huwawa. These all tell of his impending triumph against the forest guardian and he dreams of Enkidu's coming as well. The texts devolve into fairytale logic however. Though told of his victory, the text (from the fragments we have) imply that Gilgamesh has trouble arraying his couraging as Huwawa did with his auras of fear and Gilgamesh also forgets about the coming of Enkidu despite having sent a priestess of Ishtar to get him

JustSpectre's picture

It's a shame you didn't include Gudea's dream as well. The begining of his famous cylinder describes him having a dream and follows with his journey to Nanshe, goddess, interpreter of dreams. She explains him that it was prophetic dream from god Ninurta who gave him instructions for building temple E-Ninnu. This is also good example of positive result of a dream, not just impending doom.

Epic of Gilgamesh as a whole is very much focused on dreams. First Gilgamesh has a dream of falling meteorite which is interpreted as coming of Enkidu, then there is a series of dreams Giglamesh had on his journey to Cedar Forest. In the text there is also written that Gilgamesh "did not lie down to sleep, but to dream" which suggests that oneiromancy was something done intentionally, not just randomly.

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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