The world’s oldest nightmare came from Egypt. What hidden meanings did it hold?

The world’s oldest nightmare came from Egypt. What hidden meanings did it hold?

Published August 31, 2023

10 min read

Falling. Being chased by monsters. Showing up to school naked. These may be common common scary dreams today, but the world’s oldest nightmare was a lot less action packed. The 4,000-year-old Egyptian night fright centered on staring. Just staring. 

Around 2100 B.C., a Egyptian man named Heni wrote a letter to his dead father, asking him for help with his nightmares. Heni described how in his dreams Seni, his deceased dad’s servant, keeps staring at him. Perhaps trying to relieve a guilty conscience, Heni alluded to how he mistreated Seni but claimed he was not the first to abuse him. Heni begged his father: “Do not allow him to do me harm.” 

Heni’s letter is one of the earliest references to dreams in ancient Egypt found in the 20 or so non-royal Letters to the Dead. Written on papyrus or pottery and typically left in the tombs of dead relatives, these missives often include requests for favors, such as ending a property dispute or ensuring the birth of a healthy child. Writing letters to departed relatives became a common practice throughout ancient Egyptian history. Occasionally these requests were inscribed on bowls with tasty offerings to coax the deceased into responding to a request.

Awakenings

Egyptians put great value on dreaming as a way to access a world normally hidden from view. They devised history’s first manual of dream interpretation and first recorded humanity’s dreams and nightmares. The most common word for “dream” in ancient Egypt was the noun resut, which means “awakening.” There was no verb for dreaming; it was not active but passive, something to be observed.

Traveling through the portal of sleep, Egyptian dreamers “awakened” in another world that existed between the afterlife and the everyday. In this space, they might receive communications from the gods and the dead. “In contrast to modern understandings of the nature of a dream, Egyptians had no internal psychological explanation for them,” said Kasia Szpakowska, author of Behind Closed Eyes: Dreams and Nightmares in Ancient Egypt. Dreams were not intended to give insight into the dreamer’s psyche as they might be interpreted today. Instead, Egyptians saw them as omens about their present and future.

Prophecy and propaganda

Pharaohs often utilized this Egyptian reverence for the dream state to help popularize their reigns. One of the most famous dream texts is “The Instructions of Amenemhat I,” written in the 20th century B.C. This poem describes a dream of Pharaoh Senusret I who sees the ghost of his murdered father. The dead king reveals the sordid details of his death and passes along advice to his son on how to govern well. Whether the poem is true or not, Senusret wisely chose a dream to convey a message that both eulogized his father and legitimized his claim to the throne.

(Who was Egypt’s first pharaoh?)

In the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.), an epoch of unparalleled wealth and power in Egypt, pharaohs dreamed of the gods who brought them important messages about their reigns. When taken at a distance, these dreams appear to have served propaganda purposes by reinforcing their personal stature. Amenhotep II and Merneptah were visited by gods who gave them fortitude in battle.

(Amenhotep was the first pharaoh found intact in his tomb—but he wasn’t alone.)

The most famous royal dream is perhaps best known because it involved the Great Sphinx. In the late 15th century B.C., young prince Thutmose was hunting in the shadow of the Great Sphinx, constructed around a thousand years before his time and buried in the desert sands. He sat down to rest and fell asleep. He began to dream that the god Re-Horakhty appeared to him and told him to clear the sands from the Sphinx. If he did so, then Thutmose would become pharaoh. After the god’s request was granted, the prophecy was fulfilled.

Thutmose IV commemorated his rise to power by having the dream engraved on a stela—the Dream Stela—and placing it between the Sphinx’s paws. Historians are not sure how Thutmose came to power, so the dream in which the god spoke to him directly may have helped legitimize his right to the throne.

(Who built the Sphinx? Who broke its nose? 4,500 years later, a fresh look.)

Dream interpretations

Pharaohs used the power of dreams to help secure their thrones, but everyday Egyptians were looking to guides to decipher their nightly dreams. Written around 1220 B.C., the Dream Manual, found in the so-called Chester Beatty Papyrus, was one such guide. Pieces of the work are missing, but what survives are lists of dreams and their interpretations—139 dreams that are interpreted as good omens are listed first, followed by 83 bad harbingers.

Each dream is composed of the overarching premise followed by lists of dream images with an evaluation of the dream as “good” or “bad,” and an interpretation. For instance, the manual proclaims: “If a man sees himself dead, this is good; a long life awaits him.”

While the Dream Manual is more likely a catalog of potential dream imagery rather than a record of actual dreams, it reveals what issues were of concern to everyday Egyptians. Not surprisingly, many of them—financial matters, matrimonial problems or personal happiness, social status, health, and divine favor or disfavor—feel similar to modern worries. “They enlighten us on the worries of the ‘average’ Egyptians, since it is clear that dream books were not meant to cater only for the elites,” said Szpakowska.

(Animals dream too—here’s what we know.)

Protection from the night

In the early years of the Third Intermediate Period (1069-664 B.C.), a series of texts featuring protective spells now called “Oracular Amuletic Decrees” came into vogue to ward off nightmares. During this turbulent period, Egypt was struggling and failing to maintain its independence from the powerful Assyrian Empire. Egyptians used these protective spells to keep bad dreams and sleep paralysis away. 

The Chester Beatty Papyrus also includes a cure to drive out the bad dreams using a poultice of bread, herbs, beer, and myrrh rubbed on the dreamer’s face. “In many ways, the ancient Egyptian methods for combating nightmares were not so far off from those of today as we might think,” said Szpakowska.

(What’s in melatonin—and is it giving you nightmares?)

To protect themselves from bad dreams, Egyptians were also advised to decorate their bedposts, headboards, and headrests with the fierce images of protective guardians, such as Taweret, a fertility goddess and protector of children. 

Amulets of Taweret often depicted her as a pregnant hippopotamus and were common nighttime guardians employed by Egyptian mothers. Rearing cobra statuettes were also popular, placed in the corners of rooms to form a defensive perimeter around those sleeping. A god known as Bes, recognizable by his ugly squat form, bowed legs, and leonine hair, also warded off bad dreams.

Headrests were often inscribed with protective prayers. Over the centuries, headrests’ shape and construction remained consistent, whether made for kings or the common people, although most headrests in museums are funerary and therefore were not intended for everyday use. Some New Kingdom headrests are accompanied by hieroglyphic blessings. One reads “A good sleep and a nose full of joy”; others wish for “A good sleep under Amon’s protection.”

(How ancient Egyptians—from kings to commoners—strived for eternal life.)

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