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  Why Freud Should Credit Mesopotamia

AS Perspectives / Summer 1998

Jay Leno loves them. Numerous books have been written about them. They can be corny or they can be witty. We are a society captivated by puns.

Ancient cultures were also fascinated by puns, but for very different reasons. Word play was used as a guide to divine questions. Scott Noegel, assistant professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, has been studying the use of puns in ancient literature from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel, and Greece, with particular emphasis on the importance of puns in dream analysis.

“We tend to think of puns as a literary device —a sign of humor, rhetoric,” says Noegel. “In antiquity, puns were not used in that way, because the conception of words was so different. Writing was considered of divine origin.”

  Scott Noegel. Photo by Mary Levin.

Perhaps because the written word evolved from pictographs in Mesopotamia, words were considered the embodiment of the object or idea they represented. While we read the word “dog” and know that refers to a dog, ancient Mesopotamians would view the word “dog” as a dog in a concentrated form. As a result, individual words contained the power of essence, in this case the essence of a dog. “There was a whole envelope of information that came with every sign or part of a word,” explains Noegel.

Dreams were considered powerful and complex in Mesopotamia. People looked to priests or diviners to write or interpret them. That’s where the use of puns in dream interpretation came in. If someone had a symbolic dream and it was deemed a divine message, he or she would go the “expert”—a priest or diviner—who would find answers in the written word.

“The diviner would write down the dream and then look for puns—in the written word as well as the oral word, since many puns were based on the way words were written rather than how they sounded,” says Noegel. “Puns provided diviners with interpretative strategies.”

Sound reminiscent of Sigmund Freud? Yes, and for good reason. “Freud found punning to be an important strategy to help him understand dreams,” explains Noegel, “and he commented that it must be a universal strategy. But it’s not. He was influenced by the dream-related puns he’d read in the Talmud and Greek texts, which in turn were influenced by the writings of Mesopotamia and Egypt. I can’t find another ancient culture that does this punning with dream materials. I’ve asked friends who work in African, Sanskrit, and other languages, and they have not come up with any examples.”

Noegel, who has training in such ancient languages as Akkadian (Mesopotamia), Sumerian, hieroglyphic Egyptian, ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, spent the last five years reading ancient dream texts in their original languages to learn more about the use of word play. It was a painstaking process, but well worth the effort.

“Understanding these ancient writing systems brings the past alive in a way that modern translations just can’t,” he says. “Translations often make these texts seem entertaining, but they were not written to be entertaining. They were never meant to be read as literature. Their purpose was divinatory.”

Noegel offers more details in his new book, Nocturnal Ciphers: The Elusive Language of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, which he admits is “highly technical, and not for the timid reader.” But for those steeped in ancient languages, Noegel’s book may be just their cup of tea. (No pun intended—of course.)

[Other Research Stories in this Issue]

For Wasps, Bad Work Habits Can Really Bite

Using fMRI Technology to Probe Musical Comprehension

[Winter/Sping 2002 - Table of Contents]