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10 Influential Ways Dreaming Shaped The Early World

by Shannon Dell
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Dreaming, the mind’s method of embarking on adventures through the subconscious, has been an influential part of shaping humanity since ancient Mesopotamia. Dreams have expanded the human mind’s comprehension of the spirit, body, and artistic ability, as well as revolutionized medicine, inspired religion, and manipulated human behavior.

In the early world, dreaming was a source of fascination, and understanding one’s dreams was as important as understanding the waking world. Today, dream interpretation is of little significance. However, it is important to note the influence dreaming had on early mankind, which has carried over into today’s society. From cultural importance to biological function, dreams have played a vital role in the shaping of humanity—a role that is typically overlooked.



A common belief is that during sleep, the mind does a scan of the body, and any ailments it discovers are presented in projected images that we call dreams. One of the most influential people popularizing this idea was Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine. He believed that dreams were premonitions of developing diseases within the body; by listening to your dreams, you could prevent these illnesses from ever taking root.

Galen, an ancient physician, also linked medicine to the dream world, focusing on the correlation between temperaments and dreams, which he believed would display imbalances within the body. Having such confidence in dreams and their diagnostic capabilities, he would often perform operations based on dream interpretation. By connecting dreams to a physical reality rather than perpetuating the belief that illness was grounded in superstitions, the theories of Hippocrates and Galen were some of the first steps in getting medicine recognized as a rational practice, further revolutionizing the treatment of diseases.



Many ancient rulers would seek advice from dream interpreters when making important political and military choices. Two notable examples are Alexander the Great, who was led by a dream to conquer the Phoenician city of Tyre, and Hannibal, a Carthaginian military commander from the second century B.C., who is credited as one of the greatest military strategists of all time. Hannibal believed his dreams revealed military tactics as prophetic instructions, revolutionizing warfare strategies for future leaders to come.

Genghis Khan was another ruler who based crucial decision-making on dream interpretation. In one notable case, his shaman, Teb Tengri, came to Genghis and reported two dreams he had been presented with. In the first dream, Genghis Khan ruled over the Mongol nation. In the second, it was his brother, Khasar, who was the ruler. In accordance with Teb Tengri’s urging, Genghis Khan acted swiftly and arrested his brother. Luckily for Khasar, their mother later berated Genghis into releasing him.



A major point of unification among the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is the strong faith in dreams offering guidance in wisdom, inspiration, and divine intervention. Dreams played a vital role in the birth and evolution of these religions. This is made evident by Abraham—the ancestor of the Hebrew nation—being one of the most prolific dreamers in the Hebrew Bible as well as the Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation during a dream. Just like the Torah and Quran, the Bible is rich in dream references, mirroring the early belief about dreams being a medium for sacred intervention and revelation.

It was a common belief in ancient Egypt that the dream state carried the dreamer into a divine realm. Here, interaction with the gods for prophetic visions was made possible through a process called “dream incubation.” During this incubation, the dreamer, following days of fasting, cleansing, and other ritualistic practices, would go to a specific temple dedicated to the god they wished to communicate with in order to obtain advice on worldly and spiritual matters. Following their visions, dream interpreters would elucidate the dream and offer insight into the future of the dreamer as given to them by the gods.



From myths to historical texts to ancient inscriptions, dreams have been a vital motif all throughout early literature. While the first dream dictionary, Oneirocritica, was recorded by Artemidorus Daldianus around A.D. 140 in Greece, the earliest written example of dream interpretation can be found in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh. Here, in the world’s first recorded piece of literature, dreams are incorporated in the text, alluding to metaphorical traits of Gilgamesh’s undiscovered self.

Greek historian Herodotus of the fifth century B.C., who is credited as the father of history, also wrote about dreams. In Book One of Histories, the Lydian King Croesus dreams that his son will die as a result of a spearhead wound. Croesus gets a bodyguard to protect his son during a hunt. However, his efforts are futile, and his son is accidentally speared by the bodyguard himself. Herodotus also describes a dream of King Astyages, where his daughter Mandane urinates all over Asia, flooding the entire continent. Astyages then dreams that she gives birth to a vine that puts Asia under a full shadow. This came to be when Mandane’s son, Cyrus the Great, dethroned his grandfather in the sixth century B.C., becoming king of the Persians.

Many other ancient and classical texts also used dream interpretation as prophetic literature, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, Pausanias’s Description of Greece, and Pindar’s Olympian Odes. Writers during the Middle Ages, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, presented allegorical tales in their work through a narrative framework of a dream. This allowed the writing to incorporate more personifications and symbolism, further inspiring many of the dream visions used in literary works of the Romantic period.



The origins of psychology are deeply rooted in dream interpretation. Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle can be credited as one of the main influences in laying the foundations of psychology. He believed that dreams projected the mental health of the dreamer and could give insight into the mind as a reflection of waking life. According to Aristotle, while awake, we can easily distinguish between reality and imagination, but while we sleep, this ability is no longer present. This is why dreams seem so real at the time we’re experiencing them. Because of this belief, Aristotle claimed that dreams were a product of experiences, thoughts, and emotions we had while awake and were the mind’s way of revealing and sorting out mental anxiety.

In Artemidorus’s dream interpretation book, Oneirocritica, he divided dreams into two basic types—one direct and the other allegorical. The latter type was believed to signify what the soul was trying to convey to the mind and body. Both Aristotle’s and Artemidorus’s interest in dream interpretation to explore the deep corners of the mind in terms of psychology would later pave the way for Freud’s foundation of psychoanalysis, giving the world more information on the science and nature of dreams than it had ever received in history.



While the true function of dreaming is still under debate, modern Finnish philosopher Antti Revonsuo developed a theory that ancient dreaming actually contributed to the evolutionary fitness of mankind by simulating threatening events and allowing man to rehearse and develop survival instincts during dangerous and hostile situations. During the dream process, our minds can’t distinguish between reality and mental imagery. In ancient times, dreams were also regarded as reality, so dreaming of threatening situations gave humanity a survival advantage, improving the way threats were handled. Our ancestors’ dream production would have been highly active, allowing them to develop a better response to constant threats (environment, starvation, predators, and so on). Through dreams, our ancestors were able to develop better life and survival skills, which not only increased the chance of offspring production but also paved the way for those skills to be passed down to future generations.



In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, researches explored the effect dreams have on people’s waking behavior. After surveying 182 commuters at a Boston train station, they concluded that people would be more likely to let a dream of a plane crash affect their travel plans than either thinking about a crash or a government warning. The reasoning behind this is that during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, the limbic system and the amygdala—two sections of the brain that are responsible for emotional response—are intensely active, leaving the dreamer with a heightened emotional reaction upon awakening.

In the modern day, our dreams affect our daily lives on a more subconscious level, while for our ancestors, dreams were an important guide for adjusting their lives and activities. When our ancestors would dream, their emotional response would be carried over into the next day. For example, had they experienced a positive dream about someone, it may have strengthened an emotional bond between them and that person. On the other hand, a negative dream may have induced contrary emotions within a relationship. Dreams, therefore, had a significant impact in shaping ancient cultures, as humans would project their dreams onto their waking life, influencing behavior, social interaction, and inspiration for new ideas.

3Respect And Recognition


In early times, dreams were often a way for people to obtain a higher status of respect and recognition. As an ancient rite of initiation, Native American children, upon entering puberty, would go on a vision quest to find spiritual and life direction. Alone in the forest, with no food or water for days at a time, the adolescents on their vision quest would fast in solitude until they were presented with a dream about their spiritual identity and place within the tribe.

Also during early times, the Heb-Sed festival was held during a pharaoh’s 30th year to prove his worthiness in continuing to rule over Egypt. During this celebration, the king was expected to transcend beyond his body and death through a dream, descend to the Underworld, become Osiris (god of the afterlife), and return spiritually transformed to the human realm.

In addition, shamans of the ancient world—those who specialized in mediating between the life of their tribe and the spirit world—had to experience this transcendence through a dream before obtaining the title of shaman. Those who received these dream visions were treated with the utmost respect, as tribes would grant their shamans power to preside over all rites of passage—such as births, vision quests, marriages, and deaths—as well as put them in charge of studying the mythology, genealogy, belief system, and language of their tribe.

2Memory Strengthening


According to some theorists, humans and animals gather information during the day, which is then replayed during the REM phase of sleep. This results in improved performance of the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for memory storage. In other words, the brain uses dreams to process and fully commit to memory new information received throughout the day.

During the early evolution of culture and mankind, our ancestors were constantly obtaining new information on anything from survival to social interaction to ancient technology to agriculture. But how could these societies and cultures continue to have thrived if the information learned wasn’t committed to the mind? One theory of why humans evolved dreaming is that this allowed mankind to develop the art of memory. Our ancestors’ minds were like unorganized file cabinets of facts. Through the use of dreams, they were able to store all their new information to help them remember key elements to their survival, such as which berries were poisonous or the location of the cave that provided the best shelter.



A common idea in philosophy is that what we think of the real world could be an illusion or a figment of our imagination. The first recorded mention of this concept is in the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou’s famous dream: “The Butterfly Dream.” In this vision, Zhou is a butterfly that is ignorant of his identity as Zhou. Upon awakening from the dream, he is confused; is he actually Zhou, who had just dreamed of being a butterfly, or is he a butterfly that is now dreaming that he is Zhou? In conclusion, what Zhou is conveying is that there is the possibility that reality is a dream, and by accepting this idea, one should separate absolute representations from objects and people we perceive to be “real.” Through dreams, our ancestors developed a curiosity for what was outside of their own physical existence, sparking an interest in philosophy and the nature of reality.

This idea would later shape the famous phrase coined by the French philosopher of the 17th century, Rene Descartes: cogito, ergo sum, or “I think, therefore I am.”

fact checked by Jamie Frater