From Dreams to Death Cults

6 min readFeb 27, 2020


The dream offers an experience of spirit. Of being separate to the body, in many cases whilst retaining its etheric form. It is a regular, daily and perfectly normal experience in which we explore other realms and can even become conscious of generating the imaginary realms — and oneself — in infinitely diverse, divine and humdrum situations.


To ancient dreamers, the dream hinted at a life beyond the limitation of the human body, an afterlife, an otherlife. I believe that dreams inspired the death cults of early civilisation. Dreams are therefore perhaps the most important driving force in the development and evolution of human culture.

This totemic item from pre-dynastic Egypt shows the deceased curled up in the foetal position in the mother’s womb — represented as a boat and designed to sail along the Nile and into the afterlife.

Prehistoric Period, Naqada III, ca.3500–3100 BC. Pottery,


Death Cults arose in ancient civilisations in response to the development of the idea of an individual identity within a collective. As we became aware of our individual physical limitations within time and space, the imaginations that blossomed grasped for the infinite. We observed nature and marvelled at the heavens — we contemplated the cycle of death, decay and resurrection, the rising and setting of the sun and we imagined that our own small portion of allotted time on the planet could not be the sum total of our cosmic influence. We acquired egos.


After head counts and battle bulletins, dreams were one of the first narratives to be recorded. Out of dreams came stories, and out of those stories came more dreams. Language and the world of dreams have an important interdependent relationship. Ideas that arise in the dream realms make their way into the material dimension, where they become stories. These stories impress upon the imagination and memory faculties and rework themselves into more dreams. So a group of humans can collectively dream when they share stories, and in this way culture, consciousness, myth and archetypes are born.

The death cults were enduring beliefs and stories in which simple or complex narratives were told about life after death. These journeys into the afterlife were heavily documented — as per the Book of the Dead (also known as the Book of Coming Forth by Day) in Ancient Egypt.


The Book of the Dead is an arbitrary title attributed to any scrolls found with mummies in tombs — chiefly funerary texts, often comprising of many specific chapters and particular challenges. The earliest known example of these magical spells, meant to guide and protect those entering the afterlife, is found in the Pyramid Texts, in this instance they are hieroglyphs inscribed onto the wall of a subterranean chamber and sarcophagi in Teti’s pyramid at Saqqara.

By creating the story of the journey and the many trials and tribulations of entering the duat (the underworld) it was made possible to experience and practice this journey in dreams and the ancient people of Kemet believed that dreams offered an opportunity to contact the gods and visit the dead.

One of the best examples of these funerary texts is found in the Papyrus of Ani — Ani was a Theban scribe and in this section he is shown receiving judgement in the Weighing of the Heart Ceremony, note Thoth, ibis-headed god, the divine scribe recording the judgement — this is an important chapter of the book. The Papyrus of Ani is at The British Museum, London.

Papyrus of Ani


The so-called ‘Dream Book’ (also housed at the British Museum), alludes to the influential power of the dream.

The idiom ‘sleep on it’ hints at the ancient idea of dreaming up solutions and inspirations in slumber. In many ancient documents, stories and legends the protagonist will go to sleep to come up with a successful plan, or receive wisdom and information from dream characters. Sleep and dream researchers have found that regular lucid dreamers have enhanced problem-solving abilities and I think it quite likely that ancient people had a greater capacity for lucidity during REM sleep.

Dream Book


The Dream Book is considered to be an heirloom item that was passed down from generation to generation to the scribe Qenherkhepshef in whose library it was found at Deir el-Medina (Thebes). The hieratic script (a sort of shorthand, cursive version of Egyptian hieroglyphs) describes, explains and interprets dream content as auspicious and inauspicious (the inauspicious is marked in red).

  • If a man sees himself dead this is good; it means a long life in front of him.
  • If a man sees himself eating crocodile flesh this is good; it means acting as an official amongst his people. (i.e. becoming a tax collector)
  • If a man sees himself with his face in a mirror this is bad; it means a new life.

Dreams are culturally specific and they help to shape a culture and retain and evolve its identity. Dreams have perpetuated the influence of the gods. Where images of the deities are ever-present, as in the city states of Ancient Egypt and Greece for example, these representations of the gods can be animated in the dream states of its citizens and this is where the real relationship between the mortal and divine meshes and death can be practiced (see my earlier articles on the cult of Asklepios).


Perhaps we are losing our connection to our dreams as our culture has become increasing bland, consumerist and homogenous — with less of an emphasis on the cyclical nature of life, death and rebirth and more on instant gratification and receiving personal attention and acclaim.

Ancient dream incubation practices involved lying on the Earth and receiving the wisdom of the mother goddess in dreams, this integrated, natural relationship is something we can still access, it is a wisdom hidden in plain sight, the gift we all have within ourselves if we learn to be still and develop our powers of intuition.

Perhaps we need religion or at least a spiritual belief system of some sort, to provide a framework to integrate dream exploration, to provide a context for our meagre existence in an infinite universe.

How can we authentically marry this world and the next in the increasingly cynical and materialistic culture we live in? I believe we need to return to Earth Worship, to adoring the mother planet. The mother planet and the sun do give us life, scientifically, materially and spiritually, we are truly cosmic children and the act of worship and reverence for the Eden we live in could give our lives a divine purpose. We need to remember that nature is wealth and re-learn to depend upon it and respect it, as so many indigenous populations still do. The death cults gave the ancients a sense of continuity, of long-term commitment to their culture, community and their environment. This sense of continuity contributed to the longevity and consistency of Ancient Egyptian civilisation and continues to influence the precious remaining indigenous tribal life on the planet. We can start by dreaming about it.




Author, researcher, presenter and workshop host exploring the anthropology of sleep, ancient dream cultures and philosophy