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Phase Four. Temple Sleep and Dream Sanctuaries: Ancient Egypt 3150–332 BCE

Excerpted from Initiation Into Dream Mysteries

By Sara Janes


Thousands of years ago, people all over the world were known to have engaged in an activity known as temple sleep. Sanctuaries, temples, and sometimes tombs were the sacred precincts of resident goddesses, gods, and the dead. These were special places where the divine would appear to mortals. Usually the deities and dead would manifest in dreams or as apparitions in other altered states.


In antiquity, those seeking healing, assistance, or oracles believed that sleeping in such places would facilitate a dream encounter with the god, goddess, or dead person associated with that particular sanctuary or tomb. In ancient Egyptian metaphysical thinking, aspects of a dead person’s spirit or their immaterial essence—in particular their ba and ka1—were at times believed to return to the safe sanctuary of their tomb and perfectly preserved body. . . .




There is very little textual or monumental evidence of dedicated dream incubation complexes in Egypt before the Greco-Roman period, which is when the Hellenic god of medicine Asklepios syncretized with the earlier Egyptian deified healer Imhotep. However, it is unlikely that such a widespread and well-documented practice was not taking place in some form or another in Egypt before that time. It is more likely that a form of temple sleep with elements of necromancy was a folk tradition connected to honoring ancestors. There was probably a widespread cultural understanding in predynastic times, and the practice therefore required no formal institutionalization. It’s possible that the structured oracular culture of dreaming and dream interpretation was developed when the influence of other religious systems in the Near East merged with the private rituals of native ancestor worship.


Temple sleep as a ritual practice is frequently attested to in ancient Egyptian narrative texts and inscriptions. A divine dream might be solicited—asked for, prayed for, or requested—or it may come unsolicited, occurring spontaneously, particularly when the sleeper dozes at a site of godly power or is boozed-up at a festival of drunkenness. Egyptologist Kasia Szpakowska, who specializes in ancient Egyptian dreams, nightmares, and demonology, describes instances of such dream encounters with Hathor, goddess of the sky, of women, and of fertility. Szpakowska gives an example of recorded testimony to this kind of encounter during an episode of holy drunkenness associated with Hathor’s festival. Such festival activities involved sacred intoxication, seen as a spiritual communion with the goddess. In such a state, an attendee might hope to experience the divine presence of Hathor.


Beer and wine were sacred to Hathor, so to experience divine adoration was to be enraptured and intoxicated. Divine drunkenness could soften the boundaries between the mortal and the divine and allow for the realms to overlap. The heart could fill up like a cup with the foaming beer of Hathor’s love, nourishing the ka and ba. Drinking Hathor’s beer in festival was thus a way of becoming one with the divine essence of the goddess.


         From the stele of a New Kingdom man named Ipwy:

         (It was) on the day that I saw goodness

         my heart was spending the day in festival thereof

         that I saw the Lady of the Two Lands in a dream

         and she placed joy in my heart.

         Then I was revitalized with her food

         without that one would say, “Would that I had, would that we had!”

         One is bathed and inebriated by the sight of her.3


Descriptions of this sort reminds me a lot of my own lucid dreams. Frequently excluded from dream studies is the exploration of lucidity, ecstasy, and dream-induced orgasmic experiences. Dreaming is a multilayered, transformational state. The feelings that arise within a dream can linger for a considerable time upon awakening. Everyone is familiar with that awful gloom that pervades the day following a nightmare. An afterglow effect is similarly experienced following a divine dream. We shall explore these ideas further in later chapters, but I thought Ipwy summed it up quite nicely here.




Dream interpretation was certainly a respected profession in ancient Egypt, considered an art and a science. Some dream diviners would dream on behalf of another person. In doing so, they intended to extract from the dream gods’ instructions for a cure, an omen, a course of correct action, or the identity of the perpetrator of a crime.4 Many prognostic dream texts have been discovered that list common dreams and their meanings.


It is very useful to consider that unlike modern psychoanalysis, in which dream interpretation is almost exclusively concerned with unraveling the dreamer’s inner world, their complexes and childhood traumas, ancient Egyptian dream interpretation was overwhelmingly focused on discovering the future. I believe the nature of the ancient Egyptian language and writing to be of vital relevance in this respect— that the reason for the employment of literate scribes in the job of dream interpretation and the abundance of wordplay and puns in the prognostic texts lies in the concept of the divine, god-given nature of the ancient Egyptian linguistic system and script. The idea that the gods communicated through the visual language and sound values of the hieroglyphs means that literate scribes were most able to translate dream visions into coherent interpretations.


A good example of a dream interpretation text is the 19th Dynasty Papyrus Chester Beatty 3, known as the Dream Book. This papyrus was owned, but not originally penned by, the scribe Qenherkhepshef, who wrote a poem about the Battle of Kadesh on the other side of the papyrus. The papyrus was discovered in the artisan town of Deir el-Medina and is currently held (not on display), at the British Museum in London.5 In this text, many dream scenarios are simplistically listed and classified in a fashion similar to a modern dream dictionary. Good, auspicious dreams are recorded in black ink, while bad, ominous dreams are indicated by red. Examples of auspicious dreams include eating donkey flesh, being given white bread and burying an old man. Examples of bad dream omens include looking into a deep well, munching on a cucumber and copulating with a wife during daylight. Most of these interpretations rely upon homophones and punning within the ancient Egyptian language.


The unknown dream interpreter/scribe of the text further divides the (all male) dreamers into extra categories. There are those who are determined to be followers of the falcon-headed, righteous god Horus. These characters exemplify the beneficent, humble, and ideal type of male qualities in ancient Egyptian culture. And there are those who the text’s author describes as being followers of Set, god of war, chaos, and storms. These men are immoderate, violent, and lusty redheads. Red was the color of Horus’s enemy and murderous brother, Set. Set was also associated with reddish animals and the inhospitable and ferocious red desert. The dream interpretation would differ according to which category the dreamer was in.


Luigi Prada is another contemporary Egyptologist who specializes in ancient Egyptian dream texts and inscriptions. He makes the intriguing observation that a large part of a dream interpreter’s skill involved analysis of the dreamer, whose status, sex, and other characteristics may have determined the way in which a given dream would be interpreted.7 Depending on one’s status and temperament, the same dream events could have different meanings. For example, if an unmarried woman dreamed she had sex with a snake, this would be considered auspicious and would indicate she would soon meet a husband. However, should a married woman have the same dream, it would suggest infidelity.


The entries in Qenherkhepshef’s Dream Book are generally no more than a couple of lines of hieratic, the priestly cursive form of hieroglyphs, used often for writing on papyri. The dreams described give good examples of the perceived law of opposites in dream logic. For example, dying violently in a dream is classified as good and somewhat cryptically means “living after his father.” Whether this means reflecting the good qualities of his father in life or succeeding him in death is unclear. To be seen in a dream copulating with one’s sister or mother was also considered auspicious and generally indicated a gain of some kind. Sex with wives and other women, however, was often considered a bad omen, and bestiality usually incurred a loss of property. Snakes are curiously associated with words, and many interpretations in the dream book reflect the punning and word-playing nature of dreaming.


To fully understand the many converging elements of these interpretations, it would be necessary to be very well-versed in the language, script, material culture, and social conventions of ancient Egypt. Texts such as Qenherkhepshef’s and similar tomes were produced all over Egypt and Mesopotamia and wordplay is a significant and vital feature of all ancient dream interpretation. It continued to inform dream interpretation methodology and the stylistic presentation of interpretation into the later Greco-Roman period. Texts such as the Assyrian Dream Book and the Egyptian dream interpretation texts of the Ramesside age eventually came to influence dream diviners such as the third-century Roman soothsayer Artemidorus of Ephesus, who famously produced a five-volume work of dream interpretation titled Oneirocritica (“Interpretation of Dreams”). Artemidorus himself claims to have collated the information presented in his voluminous treatise as a result of many years of traveling in different countries and gathering oneiric insights, wisdom, and texts from a diverse array of diviners. The last section of Oneirocritica includes ninety-five dreams collected during his travels for his son, a wannabe dream interpreter himself, to practice on.




Imhotep shared a sanctuary with another deified architect, Amenhotep, at Deir el-Bahari.16 This complex provides some of the best evidence of a dedicated incubatory site in ancient Egypt. It is well documented in various inscriptions, graffiti, and ostraca that therapeutic and oracular dreams were purposefully sought within its walls. Here, during the Ptolemaic period, even though Amenhotep appears to take precedence, Egyptian visitors petitioned Imhotep for divine dreams, and the Greeks called on their god of medicine, Asklepios, and his wife, Hygieia, goddess of health and cleanliness. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all!


Amenhotep is referred to as the “good physician,” while Imhotep/Asklepios is the “famous physician.” Presumably, Amenhotep presided over other therapeutic treatments offered by the sanctuary, but dream healing was the domain of the famous one. It is believed that those who came seeking a cure at Imhotep and Asklepios’s sanctuary initially wrote letters to the gods about their maladies. In this way, the temple attendants would have been able to tailor their treatments and provide relevant advice. Unlike visitors to the healing sanctuaries of Asklepios, it seems that those who came to Deir el-Bahari rarely received long-term care. Most patients seem to have come with minor ailments and left after a couple of days. It is believed the small barque shrine there was the chamber dedicated to dream incubation in the temple. A barque shrine was often the closest room to, or in some cases part of, the inner sanctum of a temple. Therefore it was considered a place of incredible divine power, one that the public would not usually be granted access to. This suggests that supplicants came to request a dream from the priests on their behalf. A barque was a sacred boat in which the gods traveled to the otherworld. Often these barques would be taken on ceremonial processions from one shrine to another during festivals, as they were considered divine housing for the living statues of the gods.




The entanglements of heka, Egyptian magic, and the divine manifesting power of the mdw ntjr, or hieroglyphs, are vital components of the dream culture of ancient Egypt. They help us understand Imhotep’s role as magician, scribe, and divine physician. As was the case in Mesopotamia, magic and medicine were inextricable from each other in ancient Egypt. I suggest that the nature of the hieroglyphs encourages particularly bihemispheric thought processes; they provoke an expanded, constantly cross-referencing system of verbal and visual recognition. In fact, this language system is especially sympathetic to the way human memory works, by encoding, storing, and retrieving information. The study of hieroglyphs is therefore a natural primer for conscious dreaming.


About the Author: Sarah Janes has been an enthusiastic lucid dreamer since childhood. She is a writer, public speaker, and sleep hypnosis workshop facilitator. She runs Explorers Egyptology, an online lecture series, and with Carl Hayden Smith operates The Seventh Ray, a virtual reality Mystery School. She is also producer and co-host for the Anthony Peake Consciousness Hour podcast. Sarah is currently working with Rupert Sheldrake and The British Pilgrimage Trust to reinvigorate the practice of dream incubation at sacred sites. She lives in the UK.


Initiation into Dream Mysteries by Sarah Janes © 2022 Destiny Books. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International.

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