A Brief History of Dreams

How often do we say to a friend, “I had the strangest dream last night” and how often are we curious enough to really reflect on that dream and wonder what possible meaning it could hold for us? For most of us relating the dream to a friend is as far as our analysis goes and very quickly the dream fades and is soon forgotten.  Yet the often repeated advice to “sleep on your problem” is based on empirical evidence testifying to the natural problem solving nature of dreams.

There are numerous instances of answers to scientific questions and mathematical problems that have been given in dreams. For example, Delaney (1990) states, “After three days and nights of working on his  periodic table without sleep, Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev fell asleep and later said, ‘In my dream I saw the chart where all the elements are placed as they should be. I woke up and immediately wrote it all down on a piece of paper.'” August Kekule described how the molecular structure of the benzene ring came to him in a dream. Numerous musicians, poets and visual artists have received their inspiration from dreams. Among the musicians, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Stravinsky are most notable, while in the world of visual art the Surrealist movement stands out. The literary world likewise is replete with instances of inspiration from dreams, and Milton, Blake, Robert Louis Stevenson, D.H. Lawrence and many others have used them as a source of inspiration.

Western Civilization has an enormously rich tradition in the realm of dreams dating from the Greeks and the early Judeo-Christian era. For the Greeks dreams were a source of healing, for the Jews they were the voice of Yahweh, while for the the early Christians they were  regarded as valuable sources of insight and revelation. In the 4th century, however, despite the many Biblical references attesting to the value of dreams, they became associated with magic and witchcraft and were subsequently censured by the early church fathers. Thus, after the 4th century, dreams fell into disrepute and this state of affairs continued through the Dark Ages until the Renaissance, when there was a revival of interest in dreams.

The major influence furthering interest in dreams occurred just prior to the 20th century when the theory of the unconscious was postulated by Johann Fichte and Frederick Schelling. This theory was expanded by Freud who in 1900  published his ground breaking book, The Interpretation of Dreams, thus heralding in the new age of Depth Psychology, in which the ancient psyche now in modern dress held center stage.

Psyche is essentially what we think of as soul and may be conceptualized as the personal receptacle of the trans-personal spirit,  characterized by  depth and meaning.

To be continued. . .

In my next post, using  Jungian theory, I will address how dreams pertain to the process of individuation and the process of dream tending.