BMCR 2008.03.05

Nocturnal Ciphers: The Allusive Language of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, American Oriental Series, 89

, Nocturnal ciphers : the allusive language of dreams in the ancient Near East. American oriental series ; v. 89. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 2007. xv, 346 pages ; 27 cm.. ISBN 9780940490208. $49.50.

Noegel’s study deals with the very important phenomena of enigmatic dreams, their interpretation, word-play and punning within the cultural context of the Ancient Near East (i.e., Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan and Israel), Greece, and Rabbinic traditions. His basic idea is to demonstrate how dream interpretation was predicated by word-play and punning of dream interpreters. The research, as stated by the author (Introduction, pp. 1-3), has several intersecting goals: to understand the cultural context and function of word-play in the dream interpretation of Mesopotamia; to explain the presence of punning in Akkadian written sources; to analyze Egyptian oneirocritic punning as evidence for intellectual interconnections between Egypt and Western Asia; to show that enigmatic dreams attested in the literary tradition of the Eastern Mediterranean (for example, Canaan, Ugarit, and Israel, i.e., the Old Testament) also display mantic knowledge; and finally, to “trace the movement of the punning oneirocritic strategy and its changing contexts into later times and texts, including early Greek and Talmudic literature”.

Noegel’s thesis shows that the same basic concepts were common in societies of the Ancient Near East.1 Perhaps the most important common feature was the dream experience of kings, queens, priests, and others closer to the divine. In cases where a god appears in a dream, the night experience becomes ominous. While analyzing various sources, Noegel points out that real understanding of dreams in the ancient world can be provided by the understanding of mantic punning. He concludes that dream interpretation was a ritual experience and similar to other forms of prognostication of the Ancient Near East, while noting that the skill of dream interpretation was mantic, restricted to the educated scribes. One of Noegel’s most important suggestions is that Mesopotamia gave birth to such a model of dream interpretation. According to Noegel, mantic skills spread from Mesopotamia to Egypt (in the period of the New Kingdom) and from Egypt back to the Assyrian empire. The legacy of Mesopotamian tradition is more than visible in biblical narratives, as the dream interpreters use the same procedures in deciphering the meanings of the night visions.

Noegel follows the work of previous scholars but quite often challenges and criticizes a number of previous conclusions (as in cases of the use of punning in divinatory contexts, pp. 86-88; the sources of Artemidorus, pp. 231-233; dream typologies, pp. 274-276), as well as psychoanalytic evaluations of literary texts.2 Noegel suggests that “the hieroglyphic and cuneiform scripts may have played formative roles in the construction of Egyptian and Mesopotamian divinatory conceptions” (p. 270)

His study is divided into nine chapters. Following an introduction, in Ch. 2, ‘Enigmatic dreams in Mesopotamian literature’ (pp. 57-88), the author analyses the dreams of Gilgamesh (the Old Babylonian and Assyrian version) and the dream report of Addu-duri of Mari. Ch. 3, ‘Enigmatic dreams in Egypt’ (pp. 89-106) deals with the dream of Pharaoh Tantamani. Ch. 4, ‘Enigmatic dreams in Canaan’ (pp. 107-112) and Ch. 5, ‘Enigmatic dreams in Israel’ (pp. 113-183) are the most impressive. Noegel takes his reader for a walk through the dreams of El (Ugaritic Baal Myth), the dreams of the butler, baker, and pharaoh in the Joseph narratives (Gen 40-41), the dream of the Midianite (Jud 7: 7), the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2 and Dan 4) and Daniel’s vision (Dan 7). Ch. 6, ‘Possible biblical references to oneiric punning’ (pp. 183-189), is an interlude in the main stream of the book and examines less direct examples attested in the Hebrew Bible. As the dream interpretation and divine secrets occur on several places in the Hebrew Bible, Noegel also examines these less direct references: the speeches of Job (Job 4:12-21), Zophar (Job 11:5-6) and Elihu (Job 33:15-17) and the complaint of Jeremiah (Jer 25: 25-39).3 Ch. 7, ‘Oneiromancy in early Greek literature’ (pp. 191- 9), examines Penelope’s dream about the geese/suitors in Homer’s Odyssey and its Near Eastern background. Furthermore, Noegel pays special attention to the interpretation of omens recorded in the Oneirocritica, a famous dream book composed by Artemidorus of Daldis. Ch. 8, ‘Oneiromancy in Rabbinic culture’ (pp. 235-251) turns to the ‘Midrash Haggadol Bereshit’ and to other rabbinic scripts.

Noegel demonstrates that word-play and punning function as “an active demonstration of the theological principle of divine justice, and as such, registers a mantic insecurity with regard to the proper functioning of the world under divine aegis” (p. 278), and emphasizes the importance of studying the phenomenon of punning in its various cultural contexts. The book ends with an extensive bibliography (66 pages). Noegel’s study must be a first step for every scholar interested in research on dreams and dreaming in the ancient world as it provides a great deal of comparative material for those in adjacent fields (especially for sociology and anthropology), in addition to a wealth of philological, cultural, religious, and historical information for the specialist.


1. To the examples analyzed by Noegel should be added the wonderful collection of sources and study of Hittite texts concerning dreams and dreaming, by Alice Mouton, Rêves hittites: Contribution à une histoire et une anthropologie du rêve en Anatolie ancienne (Culture and History of the Ancient Near East, 28; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2007).

2. Compare with Eric Csapo, Theories of Mythology, (Ancient Cultures. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), Ch. 3.

3. The ancient Egyptian “Letters to the Dead” might also be interesting in respect to the subject in question.