Dreams pp 29-43 | Cite as

Through the Looking Glass

Dreams in Ancient Egypt
  • Kasia Szpakowska


The image of Egyptian magicians, dream interpreters, incubation temples, and the dreams of pharaohs have become so much a part of popular Western culture that it may come as a surprise to learn that, until quite recently, there has been no comprehensive treatment of ancient Egyptian dreams.1 This chapter presents a summary of that research and offers a historically based model for studying the dreams of a long-lasting culture with no living witnesses.


Intermediate Period American Philosophical Society Night Terror Dream Report Middle Kingdom 
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  1. 1.
    K. Szpakowska, The Perception of Dreams and Nightmares in Ancient Egypt: Old Kingdom to Third Intermediate Period, Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2000, UMI Microform 9973224. This work is currently being revised for publication and includes an appendix with the author’s transcription and translation of all the known texts mentioning dreams, including those cited in this chapter.Google Scholar
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    The dream portion can be found on lines 20–22 of Amenhotep II’s Memphis Stela. The hieroglyphic text can be found in W. Helck, Urkunden der 18. Dynastie (Urkunden des ägyptischen Altertums IV, Heft 19; Berlin: 1957), IV, 1306, 11–1307, 2. An English translation of the campaign can be found inGoogle Scholar
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    In certain other cultures, the oneiric call to office seems to have been much more prevalent and to have served a clearly political purpose. Modern examples seem to express a much stronger political sentiment than that expressed in the New Kingdom royal dream accounts, which did not play such a prominent role in the pharaoh’s kingship. See, for example, K. Ray, “Dreams of Grandeur: The Call to Office in North-Central Igbo Religious Leadership,” in Dreaming, Religion and Society in Africa, ed. M. C. Jedrej and R. Shaw (Studies on Religion in Africa; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992), 61, andGoogle Scholar
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    Due to the idiosyncrasies of ancient Egyptian, an Egyptian pun could consist of a play based on sounds, meaning, and signs (A. Loprieno, “Puns and Word Play in Ancient Egyptian,” in Puns and Pundits: Wordplay in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Literature, ed. S. B. Noegel [Bethesda: CDL Press, 2000], 3–20). See also S. B. Noegel, chapter 3 of this volume, and K. Szpakowska, The Perception of Dreams and Nightmares in Ancient Egypt.Google Scholar
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    Oracles in general are latecomers to the Egyptian world (J. D. Ray, “Ancient Egypt,” in Divination and Oracles, ed. M. Loewe and C. Blacker [London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981], pp. 174–190).Google Scholar
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    Maxim 18 of the Teaching of Ptahhotep. English translations of this popular text can easily be found in compilations of Egyptian literature, such as R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940–1640 BC (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).Google Scholar
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    The phrase is found in New Kingdom Harper’s Songs and was literally “As for a lifetime done on earth, it is the time of a dream.” Two versions of this song have been found—one in the tomb of Neferhotep published in R. Hari, La tombe thébaine du père divin Neferhotep (TT50), (Collection Epigraphica Geneva: Editions de Belles-Lettres, 1985), and one in the tomb of Djehutimes published inGoogle Scholar
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  35. Some of the most accessible translations of this text can be found in M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, (I: The Old and Middle Kingdoms; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 222–235 and inGoogle Scholar
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    Originally published in I. E. S. Edwards, Oracular Amuletic Decrees, (Hieratic Papyri in the British Museum 4th Series, II volumes; London: 1960).Google Scholar
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    Found on the Dream Stela of Tanutamani in N. C. Grimai, Quatre Stèles Napatéennes au Musée du Caire: JE 48863–4866, Textes et Indices (Mémoires publiés par les membres de l’Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire 106; Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale du Caire, 1981).Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 94. See also A. Loprieno, “Le Pharaon reconstruit. La figure du roi dans la littérature égyptienne au 1er millénaire avant J.C.,” Bulletin de l’institut français d’archéologie orientale 142 (June 1998): 20–21, for the differences between the Libyan and the Ethiopian responses to the problem of legitimation in the Third Intermediate Period.Google Scholar
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    K. Bulkeley, Visions of the Night: Dreams, Religion, and Psychology (Albany: State University of New York, 1999), pp. 77–91.Google Scholar
  47. 51.
    E. Hartmann, The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 41–44. Emotion, including guilt, can be a motivating force behind a dream (States, Seeing in the Dark, 235–250). For dreams as a venue for working out troubles, see H. Fiss, “Experimental Strategies for the Study of the Function of Dreaming,” in The Mind in Sleep, ed. Ellman and Antrobus, 311.Google Scholar
  48. 53.
    This determinative is the little sparrow (Gardiner G37). A detailed analysis of this passage can be found in Szpakowska, The Perception of Dreams and Nightmares in Ancient Egypt, 314–316 and K. Szpakowska, “A Sign of the Times,” Lingua Aegyptia 6 (1999), 163–166.Google Scholar
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    For a historical approach to dreams see P. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), 23–42.Google Scholar

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© Kelly Bulkeley 2001

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  • Kasia Szpakowska

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