Dreams – part I

Karl Bruillov – A dream of a girl before sunrise

Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes. C. G. Jung (1916)

Have you ever awoken from a dream and not known whether you were awake or asleep?  Sometimes it takes a moment to work out whether the dream was the ‘reality’ and whether you really are now awake. Dreams exert a fascinating power over us that create a kind of wonder.


Dreams often follow a dramatic structure:

  • Setting (place, protagonists, time, scene)
  • Development of plot
  • Culmination – turning point/change
  • Solution/cleansing/relief/result.

Broadly this follows Aristotle’s template for action in the Poetics (c. 330 BCE, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory), applied by Jung to dreams:

  • Exposition (the setting forth of the detail)
  • Peripeteia (a Greek word meaning the turn of fortunes dramatized in the dream – or life)
  • Crisis (in the sense of a sense of suspense indicating a turning point, perhaps a decision)
  • Lysis (final unravelling or denouement) (CW8: paras. 561-564)

This is a classical or archetypal structure of stories or dreams.

Jung sees dreams as guiding the dreamer, revealing situations symbolically as follows:

The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre
in which the dreamer is himself the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer,
the author, the public and the critic.
(CW8: para. 509).

For Jung the dream can be seen in the following ways:

  • The dream is the unconscious response to a conscious situation. (So this may be a compensatory attitude which can help to counter a conscious one.)
  • The dream arises from conflict between conscious and unconscious.
  • The unconscious is hinting at a possible change of conscious attitude.
  • The unconscious is depicted in a pure form in a way which can feel quite overwhelming and oracular (2008:5).
  • The dream is a way of communicating with the unconscious; not an attempt to conceal true feelings.
  • Symbols are seen as a guide to help the dreamer.

The oldest recorded dream is in The Epic of Gilgamesh, written in ancient Mesopotamia 1,000 years before the Bible. Mesopotamia is the area of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates corresponding to modern-day Iraq, Kuwait, the north-eastern section of Syria, south-eastern Turkey and smaller parts of south-western Iran.

In the epic, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the two main characters, both have dreams that act as messages which seem prophetic. They come to value them and see dreams as messages from the gods. The first dream depicts Enkidu’s arrival on earth as a meteorite. It is so weighty that Gilgamesh is unable to move it but he manages to do so with assistance. He takes the meteorite to his mother’s house and she accurately predicts that Enkidu will save Gilgamesh’s life (Tablet 1 line 268).

The dream reads:

The stars of the heavens appeared above me,
like a rock from the sky one fell down before me.
I lifted it up, but it weighed too much for me,
I tried to roll it, but I could not dislodge it.

The land of Uruk [of which Gilgamesh is King] was standing around it,
the land was gathered about it.
A crowd was milling about before it,
the menfolk were thronging around it.

Like a babe-in-arms they were kissing its feet,
like a wife I loved it, caressed and embraced it.
I lifted it up, set it down at your feet,
and you, O mother, you made it my equal.

(Tablet 1 lines 247-258)

We are told Gilgamesh invokes the dream by making an offering to the gods and creating the conditions to have a dream. We can follow his example.

We will look at how we can encourage dreams ourselves by recording them. Even at times when a dream seems powerful and unforgettable, they tend to slip away if an effort is not made to capture them. A useful method is to keep a pen and paper by the side of the bed, or alternatively a voice-recording device which can be found on smart phones nowadays.

Everybody dreams – even if you are not aware of this. Perhaps you might experiment with finding out by keeping a watchful ear/eye out and noting them down. It can be helpful not only to note down the narrative, but to draw the dream too. You don’t have to be an artist to try this. It is not about creating an aesthetic object for display, but more about capturing a feeling and an image; finding ways to increase your awareness of what is contained in the dream to facilitate your understanding of the meaning or indeed meanings as dreams can have significance on many different levels simultaneously. Note also, the feeling(s) in the dream as you awaken. These form a vital aspect of the dream itself and will help you make sense of them. How did you feel in the dream? How did you feel on waking? “Stick to the image” was the injunction of James Hillman (1926-2011) who studied with Jung in the 1950s and went on to establish Archetypal Psychology, an offshoot of Jungian Analytical Psychology. The context and timing of the dream are also highly significant, so note them too.

to be continued . . .

You can read more from this chapter on Dreams in future blogs on the AJA website.

This piece is an excerpt from a draft of a chapter to be included in an introductory volume aimed at readers new to Jung and his ideas. Please do not quote from this draft. For further information, contact Ruth Williams at ruthwilliams@msn.com 


Jung, C.G. (1916). Letter to Fanny Bowditch dated 22nd October 1916 in C.G. Jung Letters Vol. 1, 1906-1950 (eds. G. Adler and A. Jaffé; trans. R.F.C. Hull).  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Jung, C.G. (1960). CW8, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche.

George, A. (trans.) (2000). The Epic of Gilgamesh. London: Penguin Classics.

Hillman, J. (1997). Dream Animals. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.


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