Oneiromancy: Divination by Dreams

Gwendolyn Taunton


Creep into the earth,  the mother. Into the broad, roomy, most holy earth!

May she guard you on the next lap in the journey.

Hymns of the Rig-Veda 10.18.45, trans. Geldner, Vedismus and Brahmanismus


Since the dawn of time, when the very first tendrils of consciousness began to unfurl in the recesses of the mind, humans have led a seemingly dualistic existence, torn between the world of daylight and the nocturnal world of dreams. Sometimes profoundly beautiful and at other times terrifying, dreams have captivated the minds of some of our greatest thinkers. Dreams have been to many an object of wonder, vibrant and potent with mystery. In the ancient world, they were deeply associated with the religious experience and regarded as messages from gods or demons. It is the prophetic aspect of the divine that makes the dream a powerful divinatory tool to ascertain future events. The connection between dreams and the divinatory arts has even been described in the life of Gautama Buddha, for the Pāli text Anguttaranikāya relates a tale of the five dreams Gautama experienced as premonitory to his full enlightenment.[1] As an aspect of being which has no scientifically verifiable status and which cannot easily be empirically recorded, the phenomenon of the dream sits in a category of consciousness which at the present time cannot be fully analysed or clearly classified. However, when examined carefully through the faculty of discernment, it can be seen that its existence at times appears to be within the body and at other times as separate from the body. One specific example of a oneiromantic text which survives in full can be found within what is collectively known as the “Six Rites”, which is a magico-religious practice sometimes found in Tantrism. The Six Rites is, in essence, a step by step instruction manual for esoteric practitioners. This passage is a perfect instance of the ritual application of oneiromancy, as in this case the rite is performed to determine the success of a future magical endeavour.

[The practitioner] who wishes to perform the worship of a deity should first consider the future. Having taken a bath, performed the twilight [ritual] and so on, [and] having collected the lotus like feet of Hari, he should lie down on a bed of Kuśa [grass and] pray to the bull-bannered Śiva.

“O Lord, Lord of the God of Gods, bearer of the Trident, who rides a bull! Announce, O Eternal One, the good and the bad, while I am asleep. Salutation to the Unborn, Three-eyed, Tawny, Great Souled One. Salutation to the handsome, omnipresent Lord of Dreams. Tell me the truth in the dream regarding all matters completely. O Great Lord, by your grace, I will accomplish success in the ritual.

Having prayed to Śiva with these mantras, he should sleep calmly. In the morning he should tell the preceptor the dream he had at night. The connoisseur of the mantra should himself reflect on the [significance] of the dream [without the preceptor if he is unavailable].[2]

When dreams were employed for the specific goals of prophecy, divination or to produce an epiphany, this act was referred to as oneiromancy. These practices were widely known through the ancient world; in some cases, there is even substantial evidence presented for the existence of the act during the Christian era in medieval Europe. The practice of dream incubation, which entails a direct contact with the nature of the divine, exists as a separate branch within the broader operative of oneiromancy. In dream incubation, a ritual sleep is deliberately induced by the practitioner with the sole purpose of forming deep dreams that would initiate the dreamer into special wisdom, or get the dreamer to serve as an oracle.[3] The usage of the word incubation here is not a technical term in the study of religion or dreams; it also translates into English as a cultic term or phrase in various languages, with very specific associated fields of meaning – one example of this can be seen in the ancient Greek enkamēxis: sleeping in a sanctuary.[4] Likewise, the Latin etymology of ‘incubation’ implies the act of lying down, and its application of the idea is gestating in the dark, characteristically in a small enclosed space.[5] Oneiromantic induction is also known as the ‘message dream’, in which a dream is experienced during the night, after due preparation in the god’s sanctuary.[6] This type of dream frequently appears in texts of the ancient near east as a substitute term for dream incubation. By stressing the importance of the location in which the dream is experienced, the ‘message dream’ is thus closely linked to the incubation dream, as the location is a requirement for both types to successfully induce the dream. Locales in which dream incubation takes place are so closely identified with their respective gods, that they are thought to be physically inhabited by the god’s actual presence. Because the god inhabits the area, the place is the one in which a dream is most likely to be granted by the god – hence incubated dreams are referred to as god-sent.

Locales in which dream incubation takes place are so closely identified with their respective gods, that they are thought to be physically inhabited by the god’s actual presence. Because the god inhabits the area, the place is the one in which a dream is most likely to be granted by the god – hence incubated dreams are referred to as god-sent (theopemti).[7] To the Greeks the method of incubation was based on the assumption that the daimon, which was only visible in the higher state achieved by the soul in dreams, had his permanent dwelling at the seat of his oracle.[8] The selection of the space in which to provide dream incubation was of paramount importance. The very act of preparation to sleep in such a place is in itself a ritual act, equivalent to any other ritual preparation or sacrifice in its contribution to the sacred. Dream incubation could not occur anywhere – it had to occur at a specific site. The notion of a geographic location existing as an axis between the two worlds is by no means restricted to the practice of dream incubation – this idea is frequently cited by such authors as Mircea Eliade and other scholars working in the field of the history of religions as the ‘sacred centre’. Furthermore, it can still be seen in sites which are existent today, that are still believed by many to be cosmic foci for sacred rituals. Another example of empowered sites can be found in the Hindu practice of pilgrimage, which dates back in time to the composition of the Mahabharata. Many Tīrthas (pilgrimage areas) are even located at the sites of rare natural phenomenon or unusual geographic features. This aspect of the location itself being sacred is evident in the term Tīrtha, as its literal meaning is ‘ford’ or ‘crossing’ – implying that it is a site where the human and divine realms can be bridged and gods and humans may thus communicate with one another. Such locales where special formations of the earth were connected with specific rites were called kratophanies by Eliade. The idea is especially relevant to the topic of dream incubation as the practice is often connected with chthonic or earth deities – in the case of deities such as Amphiaros and Trophanos, though not exclusively chthonic gods, they receive the same sacrifices as those gods which did dwell within the bowels of the earth, and the effectiveness of aid sought from the two deities was directly linked to their locale.[9] In the case of Amphiaros it was believed that he only revealed the future via dreams to those who slept in his temple and to question Trophonios one first has to pass through a narrow passage into his cave within the earth.[10]

In ancient Greek religion, the earth was sometimes referred to as a goddess, who was also believed to engender dreams. This is amply illustrated in Euripides’ Hecuba when the wife of king Priam addresses the earth at line 70.

O potnia Chthön, melanön pterugön mēter oneirön (O Lady Earth, mother of black-winged dreams)[11]

An important distinction to make here regarding this statement is the usage of the term Chthön instead of the word . Chthön translates as ‘underworld’ whereas Gē translates as ‘underground’ – hence the two words do not necessarily relate to the same world or plane; one lies beneath the earth on which we stand as a physical or corporeal fact, by contrast, Chthön exists literally below this world, referring to a metaphysical concept which alludes to another plane of thought or existence. As such, the term Chthön can neither be easily translated nor understood without direct experience. The archetypal psychologist Hillman renders the difference between the two as:

Chthön with its derivatives refers in origin to the cold, dead depths and has nothing to do with fertility. This kind of deep ground is not the same as the dark earth, and the Great Lady (Potnia Chthön), who sends black- winged dreams and who can also be called Erinyes cannot simply be merged into the single figure of the Great Earth Mother.[12]

Gē herself shows two aspects. On the one hand, she has to do with retributive justice, with the Fates, and she has also mantic oracular powers. (Gē Chthönia was worshipped on Mykonos, together with Zeus Chthönios and Dionysos Leneus, as she was linked with the chthonic Pluto and Hermes and the Erinyes at Athens [Areopagus].) This is the “Great Lady” who sends the black-winged dreams and is appropriately the mother of Themis (“justice”). This spiritual side of her can be distinguished, on the other hand, from the physical Gē to whom fruits and grains were given (Gē-Demeter). Demeter too has a mystery aspect: her daughter Persephone belongs to Hades and has an underworld function.[13]

The connection between these two titles Chthön and Gē is indicative of an association between the earth, dreams, and the underworld – this can also be seen in cases from the Ancient Near East and the Mediterranean region, wherein gods sometimes appeared to their worshippers in theriomorphic form. Two prime examples of this are the Greek healing gods Asklepios and Amphiaros, whom routinely took the form of a great serpent in incubated dreams.[14] Serpents and snakes rank amongst the oldest and most well-known symbols of the earth. The serpent power is associated with the power of the earth and is raised to the solar aspect of divinity routinely in Tantric yoga, as well as being found in other paths of Hinduism. The serpent is likewise recorded in esoteric manuscripts as a symbol for the earth’s rotation around the sun – the coils of the serpent represent the rotations of the earth, which are found depicted not only in common images of the Ouroboros but also in Hindu mysticism. Frequently in myth, the serpent or dragon is also found wrapped around an object such as a tree or pillar which bridges the three worlds (heaven, the mortal realm and the chthonic).

The association between dreams and the underworld or the domain of the dead is well documented and is widespread across many cultural groups – it can even be cited in one of the world’s oldest texts, the Atharva-Veda, wherein it is stated that dreams originate from the domain of Yama, the Lord of the Dead. It is for this reason that the Adbhuta- brāhmaa, requires that the practice of dream divination be performed whilst facing the south.[15] This close association between death and dreams is also prevalent in Greek mythos.

In Homer’s Iliad (14.321; 16:454, 671, 681; 11:241; cf Od. 13.79 f.), Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death) are twin brothers […] These are very vivid, very powerful persons who govern our darkness, are sons of Night (Nyx), and according to Hesiod’s Theogony (211 ff.) they are part of her great brood, which includes Old Age, Envy, Strife, Doom, Lamentation, Destiny, Deceit – and Dreams (Oneirori).[16]

The close relation between sleep and death is also found in some of the highest teachings of the Buddhist Tantras. The Six Yogas of Naropa, which are in essence an accelerated mode of learning with the goal of producing magical powers or enlightenment, teach of an experience known as the “clear light”. This light is not to be merely regarded as a metaphor or an aspect of the Chain of Dependent Origination which awoke the mind of the Buddha. It is unique to Tibetan Buddhism, and it is said that it can only be obtained via direct experience.

There are two ways in which it can be experienced – the lesser manifestation of the Clear Light (called the Son) can be experienced in dreams, by means of a special technique taught to initiates, called Dream Yoga, which is practised at a specific point in the sleep cycle. The other form of the Clear Light is the greater form, known as the Mother. This can only be experienced as part of the dying process, as outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Furthermore, the Six Yogas of Naropa teaches that enlightenment is obtained by all who can merge the experience of the Son Clear Light with that of the Mother Clear Light during the dying process. Another text which links the world of dreams to that of the dead is the Pindar fragment.

In happy fate, all die a death

That frees from care.

And yet there still will linger behind

A living image of life,

For this alone lingers with the gods

It sleeps while the members are active;

But to those who sleep themselves,

It reveals in myriad visions

The fateful approach

Of adversities or delight.[17]

This passage alludes to a dualistic consciousness – the eidolon (image of life) sleeps when the body is active, but when the body is asleep it can reveal the future via dreams. When the body is awake, the eidolon sleeps – when the body sleeps the eidolon is active in the world of dreams. What is important here is the use of the term ‘eidolon’ – the eidolon is a mirror image of the physical body. As such it should be regarded as distinct from the Homeric concept of the soul, in which different types of the soul are named – the free soul, corresponding with the psychē, and bodily souls which cor- respond with thymos, noos, and menos. Though the eidolon appears to be different in terminology to the Greek concept of the soul, there are also textual passages which report the departure of the soul from its mortal vessel in a similar manner to the nocturnal wanderings of the eidolon. In a text by Xenophon, a similar form of behaviour is exhibited by the soul during sleep – “It is in sleep that it enjoys a certain insight into the future, and this apparently, because it is freest in sleep (Xenophon Cyropaedy 8.7.21, trans. Dodds).[18] It has been suggested that this behaviour of the soul during sleep can probably also be found in the Eumenides (104) of Aeschylus where Clytemnestra says “for in sleep the phrēn (mind) is lightened.”[19] Apollonius also relates the following event in the tale of Hermotimos (Mirabilia 3).

They say that the soul of Hermotimos of Clazomenae, wandering apart from the body, as absent for many years, and in different places foretold events such as great floods and droughts and also earthquakes and plagues and the like, while his stiff body was lying inert, and that the soul, after certain periods, re-entering the body as into a sheath, aroused it. As he did this often, and although his wife had orders from him that, whenever he was going to be in trance (lit. to depart) nobody should touch his ‘corpse’, neither one of the citizens nor anybody else, some people went into his house and, having moved his weak wife by entreaty, they gazed at Hermotimos lying on the ground, naked and motionless. They took fire and burned him, thinking that the soul, when it should arrive and have no place to enter, would be completely deprived of being alive – which indeed happened. The inhabitants of Clazomenae honoured Hermotimos til the present day and a sanctuary for him has been founded into which no woman enters for the reason given.[20]

Although this story of Hermotimos does not explicitly relate to the phenomena of oneiromancy, it serves to illustrate the connection between the departures of the soul from the body in trance and states of altered consciousness – because the departure of the soul renders the body into a comatose or cataleptic state which closely resembles death. Another story which describes the departure of the soul from the body can be found in Dutch folklore.

Over a hundred years ago a farmer lived with his two daughters on a farmstead called Blijendaal, in the immediate neighbourhood of St. Annaland. The girls were no beauties but a country lad from Brabant, Jan Marinusse, was courting one of the girls. One Saturday night about eight o’clock he went to the farm to woo the girl. When they had been sitting for a while in a room the girl became so sleepy that the boy said, “Just lean on my shoulder.” So she did and soon she fell asleep. Suddenly he saw a bumble-bee creeping out of her mouth and flying away. He became worried and thought his girlfriend was a witch. He, therefore, took his handkerchief and spread it over her face. After she had been sleeping for twenty minutes the bee returned. The girl then became so short of breath that she got blue in the face, and the boy, afraid that she would suffocate, took the handkerchief off her face. Immediately the bee crept into her mouth, disappeared into her body, and she awoke.[21]

Like in the earlier tale of Hermotimos, this piece of Dutch folklore draws a parallel between sleep and/or trance states, and the departure of the soul, here symbolised by the bumble-bee – for while the bumble-bee is absent the girl enjoys a restful sleep. However, when the bumble-bee finds its reentry to the body barred, the girl is in danger of dying. The association between dreams and the world of the dead could not be clearer; all instances of dream and death occur separate from the corporeal world – the soul is free in dream and in death. It is because both of these involve similar states that the Atharva-Veda says that dreams originate from Yama’s domain, the realm of the dead. It also explains the portrayal of Hypnos and Thanatos as siblings in the Iliad. The earlier cited depiction of the Great Lady (Potnia Chthön) who sends ‘black winged dreams’ also serves to strengthen the association between dreams and death, for Tartaros and Hades were originally likened to air and kingdoms of immaterial void and darkness – for these descriptions refer to a subterranean hypogeios or ‘below’ Gē, which refers to a whole celestial hemisphere, curved below the earth.[22] Tartaros was a region of dense cold air without light – Hades was often spoken of as having wings, just as in the Gilgamesh epic, Enkidu dreams of his death as having a transformation into a bird, his arms covered with feathers; the dead are clad like birds, their element evidently air.[23] The relationship between birds and the dead is found in many cultures, for birds are often regarded as psychopomps or emissaries of the dead. Thus when the Great Lady is evoked, she is referred to as the mother of a domain beneath the ground, who sends dreams from within the earth, just as the dead are buried within the earth, gestating to awaken in the next world.

It seems evident that there is a connection between the domain of dreams and the chthonic or subterranean realm, and that both concepts are related to the transmigration or projection of the soul during sleep. This correspondence is however complicated by the fact that there seems to be some confusion in mythological records between what is chthonic (below ground) and what is, in fact, the earth itself (ground). The most logical explanation for this juxtaposition is that somehow myths relating to the underworld became associated with that of the earth. Because of the earth’s location above the chthonic world, it is an obvious choice for a gateway into the subterranean depths. Due to the fact that both the process of dying and the state of sleep (also trance) produce altered mind states, it seems more than reasonable to associate dreams with the chthonic world than with the physical and fertile earth above. The relations between Yama and dreams and the pairing of Hypnos and Thanatos likewise point to this association. It is also important to note that in the case of the deities associated with the earth and the dreams, they are often located within the earth, such as caves. This is indicative of the fact that these places are chosen because they represent natural gateways to the chthonic world. The overlap between earth and chthonic deities occurs because of this. In the cases where dream incubation is performed in a temple, the chthonic elements are still present because of the state of mind of the practitioner – by effectively loosening the free soul or eidolon from the body, the practitioner enters into a state of voluntary ‘death’; the mysterious lost art of ‘dying whilst alive’. The practice of oneiromancy and the chthonic world deal with the same currency – the human soul; and this is the common element that binds the forces of death and dream together.


[1] A. Wayman, Significance of Dreams in India and Tibet (History of Religions, VOL 7, No 1. (Aug 1967), University of Chicago Press), p.  7
[2] G. Bühneman, The Six Rites
[3] K. C. Pattern, “A Great and Strange Correction:” Intentionality, Locality, and Epiphany in the Category of Dream Incubation, History of Religions, p. 197
[4] Ibid., p. 201
[5] Ibid., p. 196
[6] J. Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (New Jersey: Princeton University, 1983), 20
[7] K. C. Pattern, “A Great and Strange Correction:” Intentionality, Locality, and Epiphany in the Category of Dream Incubation, History of Religions, p. 205
[8] E. Rohde, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and Belief in Immortality Among the Greeks vol. 1 (New York: Harper Torch- books, 1996), p. 92
[9] Ibid., p. 92
[10] Ibid., p. 92
[11] K. C. Pattern, “A Great and Strange Correction:” Intentionality, Locality, and Epiphany in the Category of Dream Incubation, History of Religions, p. 205
[12] J. Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979), p. 35
[13] Ibid., p. 37
[14] K. C. Pattern, “A Great and Strange Correction:” Intentionality, Locality, and Epiphany in the Category of Dream Incubation, History of Religions, p. 207
[15] A. Wayman, Significance of Dreams in India and Tibet, p. 6
[16] J. Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, p. 32.
[17] J.  Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (New Jersey: Princeton University, 1983), p. 7
[18] Ibid., p. 51
[19] Ibid., p. 51
[20] Ibid, p. 27
[21 ] J.  Bremmer, The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (New Jersey: Princeton University, 1983), p. 154
[22] Ibid., p. 156
[23] J. Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979), p. 38

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