When we lose the dreaming, we may lose everything that matters. There is a haunting warning about this, echoing down across the millennia, from an ancient Sumerian inscription that gives voice to Ningal, the goddess-protector of Ur, who shared the central temple-palace complex with her consort Nanna, the god of the Moon. Ningal is speaking on the eve of the destruction of the great city by barbarians:
When I was grieving for that day of storm,
that day of storm, destined for me,
laid upon me, heavy with tears…
Dread of the storm’s floodlike destruction
weighed on me,
and of a sudden on my couch at night,
upon my couch at night no dreams were granted me.
(trans. Samuel Noah Kramer; in Jacobsen, Treasures of Darkness, p.87)
Here the loss of dreams heralds the fall of the city and the loss of an empire.
We can only grasp the full power of Ningal’s terrible complaint when we understand her vital role, and that of the succession of high priestesses who embodied her, as dreamers and dream interpreters.
In The Treasures of Darkness, Thorkild Jacobsen made a strong case that Ningal, like her mother Ningikuga, was a goddess of reeds as well as of the Moon. For the people of ancient Sumer, reeds defined a liminal environment, between the marshes and the dry land, symbolically a place of passage between states of consciousness and reality. Betty de Shong Meador writes in her wonderful book Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: “Ningal wanders in that borderland between dry ground and the watery deep of the rivers or ocean. In that transitional space between solid consciousness and the muddy unconscious, dreams emerge. Ningal is the divine dream-spinner who roams the marsh in the moonlight of her husband and taps the fertile, imaginative play of figures in the drakness that make up dreams.”
The high priestess of Ningal in Ur embodied the goddess in the annual rites of sacred union with the Moon god, embodied by the king; the hieros gamos was believed to renew the fertility of the land. From day to day, a no less vital function of the high priestess was to receive and pass on to the king and the people “Ningal’s gifts of dreams”. The phrase comes from the first author known by a personal name in all the world’s literature: Enheduanna, poet, princess and high priestess of Ningal at Ur, whose wild and lovely poems evoking Ningal’s daughter Inanna, Queen of Earth and Heaven, still arouse and unsettle us today.
Scholars parsing the cuneiform texts from Sumer that have survived on baked clay tablets have found extensive evidence that dreams were greatly valued as oracles for both individuals, families and the whole polity. It was believed that the gods expressed their wishes and revealed the future through dreams. Special care was taken in incubating dreams on matters of great importance. The dream seeker would lie down on a special couch – “the shining, fruitful couch” – to seek divine guidance, or seclude herself in a specially constructed reed hut.
In her poem of exile, Enheduanna reminds us, again, of the sadness of a people bereft of the gift of dreams. The dream priestess laments
I cannot stretch my hands
from the pure sacred bed
I cannot unravel
Ningal’s gifts of dreams
(trans. in Meador, Inanna, p.66)