The cultural elucidation of dream interpretation 1
Dreaming is a universal aspect of being human. It appears to be the most private and hidden activity which is usually perceived as being both unpredictable and often incomprehensible. Yet most human societies have sought to understand dream imagery and many have accorded such imagery and its interpretations high, even prophetic, significance. The paradoxical and ambivalent position of the dream is well illustrated in western industrialised societies where, on the one hand, ‘interpreting dreams’ is seen as a highly specialised task reserved for psychoanalysts and needing a long and challenging training. On the other hand, dreaming is denigrated as being wholly illusory, as being just a ‘dream’ and of no consequence.
Tedlock (1987a) has traced the origin of western disregard of the value of dreaming back to Aristotelian scholasticism. The development of Cartesian dualism in the seventeenth century set the seal on the relegation of dream imagery to the realm of the unreal. The ‘oppositional dichotomy’ (Tedlock, 1987a:2) thus erected between subjective and objective reality, reality and unreality, meant the exclusion of dreaming from serious consideration in the west until the twentieth century. Freud’s development of psychoanalysis, his use of dream imagery and his conceptualisation of the unconscious clearly started a new era in terms of the evaluation of the dream. Such a historical and negative evaluation of the dream is not however universal. In the Indian Hindu tradition dreaming is placed above waking reality in the hierarchy of realities (Tedlock, 1987a:3). In the Islamic Sufi tradition a form of reality is identified which is midway between sensibility and spirituality. This is identified by Corbin (1966) as the ‘imaginal world’ which is an autonomous world of imagery and forms accessible through both dreaming and techniques of active imagination (Price-Williams, 1987). Moreover, outside the great world religious traditions there is abundant evidence from anthropologists to show that many non-industrialised societies value and use dream imagery as part of their