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Material worthy of The Thousand and One Nights gave rise to Hilprecht’s second problem-solving dream, which occurred in March of 1893. A Penn expedition to the temple of Bel at Nippur (in present-day Iraq) had brought back a sketch of two agate fragments with inscriptions in cuneiform. Hilprecht had made a stab at translating these, but the results, he confessed, left him “far from satisfied.” One night a “tall, thin priest of the old pre-christian Nippur” came to Hilprecht in a dream, informing him in either English or German (Hilprecht couldn’t say which) that the fragments were portions of earrings, and that they had a complex provenance. A Babylonian king, Kurigalzu, had sent “an inscribed votive cylinder of agate” to the temple of Bel, along with a command for its artisans to make him a pair of agate earrings. Having no other agate to use, the workmen cut the cylinder itself into three parts, “thus making three rings, each of which contained a portion of the original inscription.” (Why the third earring, the priest did not explain. Maybe it was a spare.) Each of the two fragments depicted on the sketch in Hilprecht’s possession belonged to a different earring. The third earring, the priest finished up, would never be found.

In the morning Hilprecht consulted the sketch and decided that his dream-visitor was right. Put together correctly, the fragments indicated that the votive cylinder from which they’d come had borne this inscription: “To the god Ninib, son of Bel, his lord, has Kurigalzu, pontifex of Bel, presented this.”

But not so fast, Hilprecht cautioned himself. The sketch depicted one fragment as white and the other grey, so how could they be chips off the same cylinder? The artifacts themselves were in the custody of the Imperial Museum in Constantinople, and there Hilprecht betook himself in August of 1893. After locating the fragments in two widely separated cases, he arranged them side-by-side and finally savored his Eureka moment: “they had, in fact, once belonged to one and the same votive cylinder. As it had originally been of finely veined agate, the stone-cutter’s saw had accidentally divided the object in such a way that the whitish vein of the stone appeared only upon the one fragment and the larger grey surface upon the other.”

As scholarly insights go, Hilprecht’s was a pip, but Newbold wasn’t content with simply reporting it. In keeping with the Society’s agenda, he sniffed around for supernatural influences. But after unpacking the dream into an orderly series of propositions, he decided that “not one of these items was beyond the reach of the processes of associative reasoning, which Professor Hilprecht daily employs.”


Newbold’s handling of the three “Penn dreams” is admirably clear-headed. It would be a long time, in fact, before dreams were analyzed with such dispassionate precision again.

A decade or so after the publication of “Sub-Conscious Reasoning,” Sigmund Freud and his followers began incorporating dreams into psychoanalysis. For the Freudians, dreams were akin to plays staged in a country ruled by an uptight dictator. Just as an ingenious playwright tries to slip furtive jabs and veiled references past government censors, so, it was believed, the dreaming self entertains urges that the conscious mind would rather not acknowledge. In this reading, the typical dream has a scandalous latent content, which gets bowdlerized into a more palatable manifest content before the dream lands in the sleeper’s waking memory. Psychoanalysts identified symbols and complexes by which they could help patients decode their dreams, recover latent content, and confront the origins of neuroses, in the process transforming the often amusing, occasionally horrific experience of dreaming into little more than an opportunity for exegesis in aid of therapy. The poor patient was trapped, for if she denied the meaning assigned her dreams, she could stand accused of being doubly repressive.

Although psychoanalytical approaches to dreaming prevailed throughout most of the 20th century, they shed little light on dreams like Lamberton’s and Hilprecht’s. What wish was fulfilled when Lamberton awoke to see the solution to his ellipse-puzzle projected on that wall? Why, the wish to solve the problem, of course—nothing closeted or shocking in that. The same question can be asked about Hilprecht’s dream of the Babylonian priest, who doesn’t appear to have dropped in to indulge some shameful urge but rather to satisfy the dreamer’s straightforward, unrepressed desire to make sense of two tantalizing artifacts.

In Dreams Begin Discoveries By Dennis Drabelle

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