Tuesday, 30 June 2009

THE EGYPTIAN MIND: The Book of Dreams

The deceased were not only visitors to the realm of the dead. At night sleepers could, through their dreams, enter the world beyond and commune with the gods. A dream was believed to be a revelation of truth, an omen of good or bad, though its meaning was not always clear. To help, people known to be gifted at interpreting dreams could be consulted, whether priests attached to temples or a local “wise person” who had built up a reputation in the field. The scribe Kenherkhopshef of Deir el-Medina owned his own “Book of Dreams”, the only work of its kind to have survived to modern times, though one imagines there must have been others like it. It is a handy compendium listing many different types of dream, in each case with an explanation of how it was to be interpreted, though it must be said that some are rather vague and hedging, very much like modern horoscopes:

“If a man sees himself in a dream dead –
Good. If means a long life.”
“If a man sees himself in a dream, his bed catching fire-
Bad. It means driving away his wife.”
“If a man sees himself in a dream drinking warm beer-
Bad. It means suffering.”
“If a man sees himself in a dream looking out of a window-
Good. It means the gods hear his cries.”
“If a man sees himself falling off a wall-
Good. It means the issuing of a favourable edict.”
“If a man sees himself looking after monkeys-
Bad. It means change awaits.”

Section of the Book of Dreams. Written in the hieratic script on papyrus. From Deir el-Medina. Nineteenth Dynasty, thirteenth century BC.

Kenherkhopsehf himself was one of the great characters of Deir el-Medina, much mentioned in the records and not always to his credit. An assertive and self-confident man, he held the influential position of scribe of the workforce for over forty years during the Nineteenth Dynasty. When already well into his fifties, Kenherkhopshef married a girl, Naunakhte, over forty years his junior. The marriage was childless, and after his dead, the dream-book passed to his wife.

In the following centuries, dreams, as communicative and revelatory experiences, came to play an increasingly prominent role, at all levels of society, in the practice of people´s religion and in the ordering of their lives. By the Ptolemaic period (305-30 BC), when Egypt was under Greek rule, dreams and their interpretation had become a lucrative industry, and dreaming a professional calling. People regularly paid specialists to interpret their dreams or even to dream for them.

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