When we look at the meaning of dreams in today’s society we find a variation of things. Some believe dreams are based on the subconscious desires; an example of such would be getting a kiss from a female you think is beautiful on television. Dreams are a reflection of people’s inner thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings are too secretive to be expressed to the outside world. It seems that dreams were always a portrayal of a twisted reality but dreams were not always expressions of the subconscious. Reading the Bible, it transpires that dreams were used a great deal as communication between God and humans. Gilgamesh makes this theory concrete, as dreams are recurrent in the epic.
In Gilgamesh dreams are used as the largest communication device between the gods and humans. Major events are prophesized through dreams and destinies are foretold. It is evident that dreams play a major role in ancient Mesopotamian cultures. In the novel itself dreams foretold the coming of Enkidu, the death of Enkidu, the protection of Shamash during the battle with Humbaba and much, much more. Gilgamesh was not only a fictional but also a biblical text of ancient Mesopotamian society. Since dreams played such a large and important role in the novel, they must have had a significant place in society.
The first mention of dreams in Gilgamesh was with Enkidu and the harlot in the wilderness. “I tell you, even before you have left the wilderness, Gilgamesh will know in his dreams that you are coming.” (Sanders pp. 15) The purpose of this passage is to let the audience know that dreams tell the future. It is important for Gilgamesh to know Enkidu is coming because he needs to know that Enkidu comes to bring no harm. Enkidu was created to befriend Gilgamesh, not to challenge him. In the next passage Gilgamesh has dreamed but he did not understand his dream so he asks his mother its meaning.
“Mother, last night I had a dream. I was full of joy, the young heroes were round me and I walked through the night under the stars of the firmament, and one, a meteor of the stuff of Anu, fell down from heaven. I tried to lift it but I proved too heavy. All the people of Uruk came round to see it, the common people jostled and the nobles thronged to kiss its feet; and to me its attraction was like the love of woman. They helped me, I braced my forehead and I raised it with thongs and brought it to you, and you yourself pronounced it my brother” (Sanders 16).
This dream is very significant because it foretells the first confrontation of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh symbolizes humans of earlier Mesopotamian society. The introduction to Enkidu in Gilgamesh’s life is symbolic of someone finding a companion or a friend. Enkidu’s influence on Gilgamesh is symbolic of the importance our peers have on decisions we make in everyday life. This dream does not blatantly reveal that Enkidu is coming. This passage makes dreams seem complex, like a puzzle that you must figure out in order to reveal what will happen. In the dream the meteor is symbolic of Enkidu, because Enkidu is strong and came from the heavens. When Gilgamesh tries to lift the meteor it is to heavy, this is symbolic of the strength of Enkidu. This makes reference to the fist confrontation between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Gilgamesh tries testing the power of Enkidu only to make sure that Enkidu is the companion the gods have sent Gilgamesh.
By Gilgamesh not being able to budge the meteor it shows that Enkidu is strong enough to withstand the strength of Gilgamesh, and that Enkidu is the true peer Gilgamesh is looking for. Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s mother, explains to Gilgamesh the meaning of the dream and Gilgamesh tells her of his second dream. His second dream was that he found an axe that was strange in shape. When the people saw the axe they crowded around it as though it was a spectacle of some sort. Gilgamesh said that he loved the axe and wore it at his sides at all times (Sanders 16). This dream complements the first by foretelling the relationship of Enkidu and Gilgamesh. This is symbolic to humans because when we find a true friend we keep that friend around, by our sides most of the time, if not all the time. The axe is strange but Gilgamesh falls in loves with it and carried it along with him all the time just as he did with Enkidu. The purpose of this dream seems to make the idea in the first dream concrete. Later on in the novel it is understood that dreams are a way for the gods to communicate with man. This may be the gods way of making sure Gilgamesh understands what is going to happen in the future.
In Gilgamesh’s third dream, Enlil has determined the future of Gilgamesh. “Enlil of the mountain, the father of the gods, had decreed the destiny of Gilgamesh. So Gilgamesh dreamed and Enkidu said, “The meaning of the dream is this” (Sanders 17). This gives more insight on how dreams function as a communication between Gilgamesh and the gods. When the gods want Gilgamesh to know something they relay most information through his dreams. This dream in particular is very significant because it is the third dream Gilgamesh needs help deciphering. Gilgamesh does not understand his dreams and needs someone to explain what each of them mean. This implies that even though Gilgamesh has insurmountable strength he is not deep in thought.
Enlil knows that Gilgamesh will try to attain everlasting life and fail trying so he is forewarned in his dream. Before this comment Gilgamesh had made no mention of or attempt to attain everlasting life, so there must have been a reason why Enlil includes this ideal in the dream. This is a perfect example of how dreams were used to foretell the future in ancient Mesopotamian culture. Gilgamesh is supposed to be symbolic of mankind in ancient Mesopotamian society. By Gilgamesh needing someone to explain his dreams to him also gives us insight on what society thought about dreams in that culture. They must have believed that their dreams were complex and what happened in your dream was symbolic of something going on in your life. Also what happened in the dream was a revelation of what was going to happen in the future. The gods controlled people’s dreams and what they decreed would be translated into people’s dreams.
In today’s society dreams are not recurrent. Someone might dream one night out of a week if not one night out of a month. In fact, some people claim they never dream when in actuality they dream and forget what they dreamt by the time they woke up. Dreams carry minimal if any value in modern society. Even the term “sweet dreams” has been taken to mean have a good nights rest rather than have “favorable’ dreams. From the above passage we can assume that dreams played a very large role in their society.
The power of dreams is shown here when Enlil is decreed his own destiny by the gods. After the dream he did not once second-guess that he was going to die soon. If someone in today’s society had a dream that they were going to be put to death they would probably wake up and laugh about it. This shows how seriously dreams were taken in ancient Mesopotamian. Enkidu knew he would die after the dream, which is a prime example, how dreams were not just a joke; they were very significant in that culture. Dreams, which were once held as powerful experiences, have diminished into a funny story you can tell to your next-door neighbor. Once used to judge the importance of one’s life dreams have diminished to forgotten visions. Recurrent dreams were used to relay important information in the epic poem Gilgamesh.
Sanders, Nancy K., Trans. “Gilgamesh” In the Norton Anthology: World Masterpieces, Expanded Edition, Volume I: The University of Chicago Press1977.