It is the rare person who has not awakened from a particularly vivid dream with the feeling that the dream was saying something important, the meaning of which the dreamer could not interpret. This experience is common enough that dream books offering various interpretive perspectives have become popular. When such books are arranged alphabetically to provide meanings for isolated components of dreams, they are referred to as dream dictionaries.
The tradition of dream dictionaries is quite ancient, though ancient and modern interpretations diverge considerably. The thrust of modern dream dictionaries is decidedly psychological. Before the advent of modern psychology and psychoanalysis, the dominant approach to dreams was to view them as omens. A common tool of this approach in the ancient world was the dream dictionary, which contained specific interpretations of various dream elements. While various short lists of dream components and their meanings have survived from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, one large second-century Greek dream dictionary, the Oneirocritica by Artemidorus of Daldis, has come down to us intact. In the Oneirocritica (“The Interpretation of Dreams”), the overriding concern is with dreams as omens. Take, for example, Artemidorus’s interpretation of lions in dreams:
Seeing a tame, fawning lion that is approaching harmlessly is auspicious and means benefits to a soldier from his king, to an athlete from his excellent physical condition, to a citizen from a magistrate, and slave from his master. For the animal resembles them in power and strength. But if the lion threatens or is in any way angered it arouses fear and portends sickness. (Artemidorus, pp. 103–104—see Sources)
Contemporary dream dictionaries, although they often share similar understandings of particular symbols with ancient dictionaries, are more inclined to give them psychological meanings. Thus, a contemporary interpretation of a lion in a dream might, like Artemidorus’s, emphasize the lion’s power and strength, but would discuss them in terms of the psychology of the dreamer. Depending on the other elements of the dream, the advice might be, for instance, to strive to develop or to acquire “lion-like” characteristics.
Contemporary dream dictionaries vary in quality. The best provide suggested starting points for interpreting one’s own dreams. The worst advance rigid interpretations that make a pretense of having captured once and for all time the definitive meaning of particular dream symbols. Despite the psychological cast of modern dream dictionaries, professional psychotherapists are generally highly critical of them. This is partially because the same symbol can have such a wide variety of meanings, depending on the larger context of the dream, that providing interpretations in a dictionary format is problematic (though the better dictionaries convey this complexity to their users).