The Egyptian Dream Book
Do you believe that dreams can foretell the future? If you do, then you are not alone. The divination of dreams, or oneiromancy as it is also called, has its roots in the ancient world. For instance, in the Book of Genesis, Joseph, the son of the Jewish Patriarch, Jacob, had the ability to divine the future based on dreams. According to the Bible, this ability allowed Joseph to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which foretold a 7-year famine. This enabled Egypt to avoid this disaster and contributed to Joseph’s meteoric rise in the Egyptian hierarchy. The Bible is not the only ancient literary source that records the interpretation of dreams. The Egyptians had a ‘Dream Book’ which set on the meaning of many different types of dreams.
Joseph interpreting the Pharaoh’s Dream. Image source .
The Egyptian ‘Dream Book’ is preserved in the form of a papyrus with a hieratic script. This papyrus was found in the ancient Egyptian workers’ village of Deir el-Medina, near the Valley of the Kings. This papyrus has been dated to the early reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 B.C.). Each page of the papyrus begins with a vertical column of hieratic signs which translates as ‘If a man sees himself in a dream’. In each horizontal line that follows, a dream is described, and the diagnosis ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as well as the interpretation is provided. Thus, as an example: ‘If a man sees himself in a dream looking out of a window, good; it means the hearing of his cry’. The good dreams are listed first, followed by the bad ones (written in red, as it is the colour of bad omens).
Around 108 dreams, which describe 78 activities and emotions, are recorded in the ‘Dream Book’. These activities may be said to be things commonly undertaken by the average person. Most of these activities deal with some form of sight or seeing. The second largest category deals with eating and drinking, and a few more deal with receiving and copulating.
The papyrus probably had several owners before being finally being deposited in Deir el-Medina. Although it is unclear who its original owner was, some of its owners can be traced through their names on the papyrus. For instance, we know that the scribe Qeniherkhepshef once owned this papyrus, since he copied a poem about the Battle of Kadesh which took place during Ramesses II’s reign. Also, the names of this scribe’s wife’s second husband, Khaemamen, and his son, Amennakht, can be found on the papyrus, indicating that the papyrus belonged to them.
Another interesting thing about the ‘Dream Book’ is that it was once part of an archive. In addition to this papyrus, there were a variety of papyri which dealt with literary, magical, and documentary works. As the ‘Dream Book’ has demonstrated, this was an heirloom that was handed down from one generation to the next. It is interesting to consider whether the ‘Dream Book’ was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as a piece of ‘serious’ or a ‘popular’ piece of writing. After all, if archaeologists of the future were to discover newspaper clippings of the ‘daily horoscope’ (without the knowledge of the social context of our age), they would probably be equally unsure as to whether these ‘predictions’ were meant to be taken seriously or not. Obviously, how serious a reader takes these ‘predictions’ would be a whole different matter that could be explored as well. Nevertheless, the Egyptian ‘Dream Book’ is a fascinating piece of work which shows one of the beliefs (be it serious or not) held by the ancient Egyptians. Moreover, the value placed by the ancient Egyptians on knowledge can also be seen, as this papyrus was passed down from one generation to another as an heirloom.
Featured image: The Egyptian ‘Dream Book’ . Photo source: The British Museum .
British Museum, Dept. of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Gardiner, A. H. (ed.), 1935. Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum, Series III, Vol. I . London: British Museum.
Stratos, A., 2013. Egypt: Perchance to Dream: Dreams and Their Meaning in Ancient Egypt. [Online]
Available at: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/dream.htm
[Accessed 29 April 2014].
The Bible : Standard King James Version , 2014. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/
[Accessed 29 April 2014]
The British Museum, 2014. The Dream Book. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/t/the_dream_book.aspx
[Accessed 29 April 2014].