On Dreams and Love in the Ancient Mediterranean

By Resa Alboher

I come from a lineage of dream interpreters. My grandmother on my father’s side could read the future in the grounds at the bottom of a cup of sweet Turkish coffee, and if pressed, would tell you the meaning of the dream you had had the night before. My grandmother on my mother’s side knew a lot about dream symbolism. Both grandmothers were certain provided a window into the future. My mother’s dreams almost always came true, a fact that worried her a lot.

My own dreams puzzle me. Some are recurrent, like the one where I show up for a final exam I haven’t studied for, or the one where my teeth crumble when I try to eat breakfast, or the one where I am running from something scary but can’t seem to get anywhere, or the one where I am suddenly falling endlessly and then wake up with the sensation that still I am falling even though now I am wide awake and safe under the covers. Such dreams invariably leave me wondering what they mean. At times I would tell such dreams to my mother and grandmothers and they would offer various interpretations. All three women told me that dreaming of teeth signifies big changes in our lives.

The desire for our dreams to mean something is not unique to me, or my matrilineal genealogy. Dream interpretation stretches way back in human history. In western culture, it originates in the ancient . One of the earliest examples of dream interpretation comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Akkadian poem, which dates back to 2100 BC, to the third dynasty of Ur, and predates both Homer’s epics and the Book of Genesis.

The epic’s eponymous hero Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third mortal, was a great king who had become too proud and was misusing his power. The gods decide to send the wild man Enkidu to put Gilgamesh in his place and make him more humble. At first the two fight in a battle that neither can win and then at a stalemate, become fast friends and go on numerous adventures together.

Throughout the epic, dreams are told and interpreted. In the very beginning of the tale, Gilgamesh’s mother, the goddess Ninsun, interprets her son’s dreams just like my grandmother and mother interpreted mine. Gilgamesh dreams of a fallen meteor that he cannot lift, though he feels strongly attracted to it as if it were a beautiful woman. Gilgamesh’s mother tells him that the dream is prophetic; the meteor represents, Enkidu, who will become a loyal friend. Then Gilgamesh tells his mother a second dream, this time of an axe that he finds and wears at his side. His mother tells him that this too is a prophesy about Enkidu’s loyalty to Gilgamesh. And as like mothers, his mother is right. Enkidu, like the axe in the dream, stays at Gilgamesh’s side through the entire course of their friendship.

Later on in the epic, Gilgamesh and Enkidu they travel to the Cedar Forest and tell each other dreams along the way and interpret them, as close friends will do. As far as the Epic of Gilgamesh is concerned, the interpreter of your dreams must be someone close to you who knows you very well, a mother, a god, or a beloved friend.

The other day, I received a text from my friend Gisele who I have known for many decades. In the text she shared a dream that puzzled her. We texted back and forth and had a conversation about what her dream might mean. As we texted, I realized that four thousand years later not much has changed. Here we are, my dear friend Gisele and I, just like Gilgamesh and Enkidu on the way to Cedar Forest, two friends who know each other so well, that we believe we are able to crack the codes of each other’s mysterious dreams and render them into meaning.


Tags:  Dreams mediterranean Sleep





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