Dream interpretation is the process of assigning meaning to dreams. In many ancient societies, such as those of Egypt and Greece, dreaming was considered a supernatural communication or a means of divine intervention, whose message could be unraveled by people with certain powers. In modern times, various schools of psychology and neurobiology have offered theories about the meaning and purpose of dreams. Most people currently appear to interpret dream content according to the Freudian theory of dreams. Similarly, Ethiopians have their own way of dream interpretation, writes Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
If you dreamt about flooding or a cloudy sky, would you think about the interpretation or not concern yourself over a “dream.”
Ancient Ethiopian dream interpretation culture advises looking deeper since clouds and floods symbolize atrocities and war, which could result in massacre.
In the past, dreams and the interpretation of symbols changed history’s course. Renowned fortune-tellers and dream interpreters dissected the meaning of dreams, especially around royal families. The symbols in dreams were taken seriously. One of those histories is the tale behind the birth of Emperor Menilek.
According to the book entitled, “Tizita Ze Aleka Lemma,” the advent of the legendary king of kings was forecast in a dream. A woman from Amhara region in North Wollo dreamt about giving birth to ashining moon.
She told this dream to an elderly woman who was close to the royal family during that period. The woman did not ignore the matter. She introduced the woman to the father of Menilek, Hailemelekot, and the woman gave birth to the shining moon, Emperor Menilek. It is not only emperor’s Menilek’s conception that is inspired by a dream; many traditions also hold that the Ethiopian saint Teklehaymanot played a significant role in Yekuno Amlak’s ascension as the restored monarch of the Solomonic Dynasty, following two centuries of rule by the Zagwe Dynasty.
Although historians like Tadesse Tamrat believe these are later fabrications, legends relate how Saint Teklehaymanot influenced royal change inspired by a dream.
Starting from the ancient period, dreams played a big role in human history. Many followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church associate dreams with supernatural forces because the Old Testament includes many stories of dreams with divine intervention. One can mention Jacob’s dream of a ladder, and Joseph’s dream of forecasting famine. This tradition of believing in dreams as oracles, bringing message from God, even continues to this day. Many followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church head to monasteries so they can receive divine revelation through dreams. It is not only the Orthodox, but followers of other sects of Christianity such as Protestantism also hold on to dreams and believe in the divine intervention of dreams. Dreams are one of the ancient and common phenomenona of human beings.
However, dream occurs during certain stages of sleep, and the contents and purposes of dreams are not fully understood. Various scientific speculations as well as religious and philosophical justifications have been sought to try not only to learn why dreams happen, but also on their symbols and interpretations.
Various scientific researches on dream state that dreams mainly occur in the rapid-eye-movement stage of sleep when brain activity is high and resembles that of being awake.
At times, dreams may occur during other stages of sleep. However, these dreams tend to be much less memorable. According to studies, the length of dreams can vary – for some, it lasts a few seconds, and for others it might go on for an hour.
Some people can have from three to five dreams per night while others may have up to seven dreams.
Whether they follow the scientific method or not, people have for generations believed in dreams and gave their own justification of why dreams happen.
The ancient Mesopotamians believed that the soul, or some parts of it, moves out from the body of the sleeping person and actually visits the places and persons the dreamer sees in their sleep. Sometimes the god of dreams is said to carry the dreamer. Babylonians and Assyrians divided dreams into “good,” which were sent by the gods, and the “bad” sent by demons. They believed that their dreams were omens and prophecies.
The way Ethiopians interpret dreams depend on the cultural context and the religious value.
With the intertwining of culture and religion, people like Demeke Belay, 65, divide dreams into spiritual that is again divided into subsections of good, bad and the physical.
The spiritual dream, according to Demeke, is a result of an intervention by the good sprit or demons. So depending on the spirit, a dream will be good or bad.
One of the evil dreams he explains is the dream of Herod, which resulted in the massacre of 144, 000 children. Though he believes in the division of spiritual versus physical, the symbols have the same interpretation.
Demeke believes dreams are the manifestation of conflicts of the four human elements: earth, wind, fire and air.
Demeke believes in dreams strongly, which sometimes might put him in a worrying mood if he saw an injury of a hand that he considers to mean a child is in danger. He also says there were instances where he canceled travel plans because of a dream. According to Demeke, many members of the old generation strongly believe in dreams and they saw dreams frequently.
Once upon a time, he dreamed of guns being taken forcefully away from three people he knew; and after a couple of days, they died. According to Demeke, snatching of guns in dreams symbolizes dying. Some of the other symbols, according to Demeke, include a falling tooth for someone close to death and a flock of bees for wealth.
Cutting tree symbolizes a prominent or an elder person might die; a pair of shoes, symbolizes a new marriage; washing ones body in a dream means the wealth of a person might vanish; nakedness symbolizes disease. Though dream interpretation differs culturally, Demeke says some of the symbols have common understanding among Ethiopians.
For example, going on a journey on horse-back means one will get rich or promotion; eating food symbolizes wealth; a black cat and snake represent demon; a chicken and dog represent disease.
Still the symbols play a decisive role among the old generation who still see the role of interpreting dreams as an enlightened one. Especially older women still interpret dreams in addition to telling fortunes using a traditional coffee cup.
However, Maritu Belete, 60, does not tell fortunes using a coffee cup. Rather, she strongly believes in dreams, and interprets them for others. Maritu says before her son’s birth, she dreamed of her former husband giving her a gun and that year she gave birth to her son.
According to Maritu, the Ethiopian spindle (enzirt) represents children. In addition to that, she says that dreaming of the hot Ethiopian spice berbere means there will be clashes among family members.
Honey and injera represent something good happening in ones life. According to Maritu, every dream is a symbol and that symbol has an explanation. For instance, unground teff means one is deeply lost in thought; ground teff on the other hand means one is free from worry.
However, there is a saying “hilm ende fechiw new” (dreams can be interpreted according to the interpreter) which makes symbols different among cultures. Many Ethiopian symbols are interpreted in reverse: a wedding symbolizes funeral, and vice versa.
Nevertheless, for Maritu dreams are a direct translation. A while ago, she dreamed vividly about her grandmother passing away and being in her funeral. The scene was repeated after three days without any change.
Maritu without a doubt takes her dreams seriously since she had also experiences of some of the dreams coming true. According to Maritu, dreams also reveal the hidden identity of people. For example, if a person dreams of another person with spider web, it means that person is unforgiving.
In addition to that, dreams are also used to warn people — if a person walks in the dark, they might be in a danger. Maritu says that the symbols have passed down from one generation to the next orally. According to Maritu, among many Orthodox Christians, a mother represents Saint Mary.
In modern times, dreams have been seen in connection with the unconscious mind and Sigmund Freud’s theory is highly influential in that respect. According to Freud’s theory, the content of dreams is driven by an unconscious wish fulfillment.
Though many psychoanalysts rejected Freud’s theory, the latter argues that important unconscious desires often relate to early childhood memories and experiences.
Compiling the psychological, spiritual, and religious aspects of dreams, Bethlehem Legesse published a book entitled “Yehilm Fich” (Dream Interpretation). In addition to that, she also tried to relate some of the ancient dream interpretations from other cultures such as India and the Middle East.
She took various symbols and tried to see their interpretations. For example, a dog might symbolize loyalty or suppressed sexual feelings in its psychological representation. In its religious interpretation, if a dog chases one, it is considered an evil chasing. Culturally, if a dog barks, it means humiliation, and a dog drinking milk is war.
On Bisrat FM, they had a morning program on dream interpretation. With her experience of dream interpretation, one of the most common dreams is that of flying. Bethlehem says that flying is psychologically highly associated with freedom.
On the other hand, in religion flying can be interpreted according to the situation. Bethlehem says that if the weather is gloomy, it means one is trapped between the physical and spiritual world.
Bethlehem, who considers herself a spiritual being, believes in the religious interpretation of dream symbols. According to the religious interpretation, human beings live in two worlds (the physical and the spiritual) and dreams are interpretations of the two conflicting worlds.
While the Ethiopian culture for generations tried to give a symbol for everything, with the ever changing world, some technological elements are not represented.
Regarding this situation, Bethlehem says these will be interpreted according to the context and experience of the person.
Bethlehem gained this knowledge from her great grandmother and grandmothers, and always updates herself on the current state of affairs. When she interprets dreams on the show, she tries to see the background of the person. If they are religious, she tries to give the religious interpretation of dreams; or else the psychological and the cultural interpretation of dreams apply. For her, the symbols in dreams are not static; rather they change according to one’s reality.