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Ancient Ages & Dream Sages
We have a regrettably short span of written history, perhaps five or six thousand years at best. It is hardly surprising that the few texts that survive from the beginning of recorded time deal with themes spiritual and religious. The oldest texts we have from various Middle Eastern and Eastern cultures are concerned with dreams, dream images, and stories about dreaming. Humankind seems inextricably intertwined with the history of dreams and their impact on culture.
Detail, Dream Sele of Thutmose IV of Egypt (From the Sphynx)
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Dream Temples, the Originals
The original “Dream Temples” may have operated in Egypt as much as five thousand years back. Today, when we think of the roots of dream temples, we contemplate the physical buildings dedicated for that purpose spread throughout Ancient Greece. The first and most notable perhaps was the temple at Epidauros, built around 430 BCE. These temples were early hospitals, the only congregate places for healing at that time. Snakes were introduced into the temples; the early patients underwent purification rituals, and the dreams themselves ere incubated or cultivated to invoke a revealing and healing message from the gods. Later, there were scored of such temples in the second and third centuries before Christ. In such temples lie the roots of modern Western medicine, the Hippocratic oath, and the symbol of the caduceus. Today, we have largely lost touch with the healing connection offered by dreams and their images. While we are better today for the many advances of medicine, there remain opportunities for use to blend the ancient traditions of diagnosis, prognosis, and healing that lie within the dreamworld with our own modern technological discoveries and applications.
So in those ancient times, dreams held – as they do for some cultures and individuals now – healing power. 2500 years ago, it was very nearly all the medicine they had. The fact we have more options today does not invalidate the benefit of dream healing.
Dreams and the Hindu Tradition
Dreams and rarely just one thing; similarly it would be unlikely that a religious tradition as wide and as scholarly as the Hindu tradition would have just one view of dreamtime. To some, Dream Mind is universal mind. To others, dreams are foolishness inspired by foolishness. In most Hindu Traditions, Dreams are Mara, things of the world rather than Brahman Mind.
Because the state of dream and the waking state exclude each other the Self is not connected with those states; that, as the soul in deep sleep leaves the phenomenal world behind and becomes one with that whose self is pure Being, it has for itself pure Being apart from the phenomenal world: that as the world springs from Brahman it cannot be separate from Brahman.
— Vedânta Sûtras Sacred Books of the East, Vol XXXIV, p. 307
So the above point of view holds that dreams are a spiritual event; that the soul travels to the heavens, so to speak, and communes with the divine. Pretty good reason not to stay up and watch Late Night, don’t you think?
Dreams and Islamic Tradition
Western minds often view Islam as a rigid and punitive tradition. In truth, there is much art, poetry, and imagery in the Islamic tradition, and at times that tradition has been quite friendly to dreamwork. In fact, it is an Islamic axiom that says, “A dream left uninterpreted is like a letter unopened.” In a fourteenth century Muslim introduction to history by Ibn Khaldun known as the Muqaddimah, the writer addresses dreams in various ways as layers of divine dialogue.
According to (the sound tradition of) the Sahih, the Prophet said, “There are
three kinds of dream visions. There are dream visions from God, dream visions from the angels, and dream visions from Satan.
- Clear dream visions are from God.
- Allegorical dream visions, which call for interpretation, are from the angels.
- And “confused dreams” are from Satan, because they are altogether futile, as Satanis the source of futility.
This is what “dream vision” really is, and how it is caused and encouraged by sleep. It is a particular quality of the human soul common to all mankind. Nobody is free from it. Every human being has, more than once, seen something in his sleep that turned out to be true when he awakened. He knows for certain that the soul must necessarily have supernatural perception in sleep.
Dreams and Christian Tradition
For Quiet Confidence (From the Book of Common Prayer)
O God of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength: By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
As Dandy Don Meredith was known to say on Monday Night Football, “If it’s true, you ain’t braggin’!” In Genesis, where nearly a third of all biblical references to dreams exist, dreams were revealed to Joseph in which his superiority to his brothers was made clear. His father and brothers could not stand hearing him relate his dreams. But the Torah goes on to show these dreams were prophetic and that Joesph’s skill at interpretation would serve him and his people. In the Old Testament account, Joseph’s ability to interpret the dream of the Pharaoh of seven fat cattle and seven lean cattle set him into a position of power. The point of these stories in Genesis appears to be that Yahweh could and would reveal secrets in dreams to those who held his favor. Later, Daniel (the book with the 2nd most dream references) had similar powers to Joseph, gifted not only in the interpretation of dreams, but also serving the King in his time. To the Jewish people and to the early Christians, later to the early Muslims, dreams were known to be alive. They were clad in a divine shimmer. But as knowledge, resources, and power increasingly crystallized in the hands of a few, dream understanding was blacklisted from the general populace. By the fifth century, dreams had moved in the church from a form of spirituality to a form of superstition.
The Medieval Church became a very heavy censor of dreamwork and dream interpretation. This may have been in part because gaining compliance from the masses (en masse?, in mass?) meant having authority clearly defined through church hierarchy. Knowledge of spiritual and religious matters was so closely held, that publication of the bible for the common man was an offense at times punishable by death. In similar fashion, any hint that divine will might be revealed through dreaming was a threat to the established order of things.
Native Americans and the Dreamtime
A converted Native American, George Conway, formerly known as an Ojibwe Chief Kah ge-ga-bowh, wrte in 1850 his account of a dream when he was a young man. At the point he was retelling the dream, it was important for him to be recognized in his conversion, but he also seems to honor the sacred nature of his heritage as he relates this dream:
Myself and others were sleeping far from the wigwam, near a large pine. I saw, in my dream, a person coming from the east; he approached, walking on the air: he looked down upon me, and said, “Is this where you are?” I said “yes.” ‘Do you see this pine?” ‘Yes, I see it.” “It is a great and high tree.” I observed that the tree was lofty, reaching towards the heavens. Its branches extended overland and water, and its roots were very deep. “Look on it while I sing, yes, gaze upon the tree.” He sang, and pointed to the tree; it commenced waving its top; the earth about its roots was heaved up, and the waters roared and tossed from one side of their beds to the other. As soon as he stopped singing, and let fall his hands, everything became perfectly still and quiet. “Now,” said he, “sing the words which I have sung.” I commenced as follows:—
“It is I who travel in the winds,
It is I who whisper in the breeze,
I shake the trees.
I shake the earth,
I trouble the waters on every land.”
While singing, I heard the winds whistle, saw the tree waving its top, the earth heaving, heard the waters roaring, because they were all troubled and agitated. Then said he, “I am from the rising of the sun, I will come and see you again. You will not see me often: but you will hear me speak.” Thus spoke the spirit, and then turned away towards the road from which he had come. I told my father of my dream, and after hearing all, he said, “My son, the god of the winds is kind to you: the aged tree, I hope, may indicate long life; the wind may indicate that you will travel much ; the water which you saw, and the winds, will carry your canoe safely through the waves.”
I relied much on my dream, for then I knew no better. But, however, little reliance can be placed in dreams, yet may not the Great Spirit take this method, sometimes, to bring about some good result?
Today, the topic of working with dreams as a spiritual event inspired by the Lord is accepted in some – but not all Christian churches. I am grateful my 25 year old daughter calls a dream group home on Sunday nights in her Presbyterian Church. It concerns me when I hear other Christians calling each other into account for this. Would it make sense that God spoke in dreams to the Hebrews of two to three thousand years ago, and not to practicing Christians today?
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