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Among the Sambia, a hunting and horticultural people living in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, dreams bear upon ritual by providing explicit instructions that are followed by initiates in order to head off impending attacks. More generally, many aspects of Sambia social interaction are characterized by a watchfulness and a suspiciousness necessary to anticipate attacks. This type of social paranoia inhibits and frames dream experiences, as well as regulates the sharing of them and their interpretations. Among the most typical dreams, which generally refer to the same images and themes, are the dream experiences of feeling cheated or disgusted, being chased by malevolent people, being threatened with drowning, or seeing a raging fire.
Dreams are regarded as experiences, occurring during sleep, in which the soul leaves the body. The soul takes thought with it, leaves the body empty, and visits various places. The dream world exists parallel to this one. Thus, dream reports are viewed as narratives of events. All dream images are supernatural because they occur not to the person but to the soul, for whose actions the person is not responsible.
The principal setting in which dreams are shared is the residence where a person sleeps. Another typical context for dream sharing is a healing ceremony in which shamans, who are the mediators between the secular and the spiritual worlds, perform dream rituals. Another context is initiation rituals, where dreams are shared by elders and shamans and where dream interpretations for ritual secrets are taught. Other settings are public or secret storytelling sessions, during gossip and rumor exchanges, and during hunting, trading, or gardening trips.
Dreams are influenced by social status factors such as sex, age, and ritual standing. Thus, men generally share dreams more often than women, and older people report more dreams than younger individuals do, even though children’s nightmares are regarded as threatening enough to be shared. Dreams are usually shared by the Sambia because they have been part of their basic experience since childhood. However, most dreams are forgotten after awakening, and only significant and troubling dreams are remembered and shared. Accounts of these dreams often become very stylized and stereotyped. If they are shared in public contexts, they may become an important part of public cultural knowledge.
Dream interpretation may reveal bad omens about future events, and sometimes reinterpretations of past dreams make it seem they foretold correctly what happened. The Sambia generally seek dream interpretation when they are beginning new or risky ventures, as well as to relieve the anxiety and troubling feeling associated with some dreams.