Dreams and Symbolisms, According to African Traditions

By: Marcella Phillips-Grizzle


Ethiopian Coptic Cross

From as old as mankind is, dreams have been an integral element of our psyche.  It is a feature of our subconsciousness that, during periods of rest, stimulates, and even magnifies, the undercurrents of our thought processes and emotions.  More often than not, dreams (more so troubling ones) are marked by symbols, some of which are unknown or foreign to the dreamer.  According to Jamaica Memory Bank interviewee, Obehetep Bakhushek, having consistent symbols that are ingrained in our psyche would spur our mind/soul to work with those symbols, which, in turn, would enable us to easily interpret dreams, or interpret them better.  However, because Jamaicans (and in general, African descendants in the Americas) do not have a regular set of symbols to engage with, then messages from dreams may at times be readily received, and at other times are imperceptible.  Dream interpretation, therefore, becomes difficult because the mind/soul does not have a consistent set of symbols to draw on.


Revival Seal

African traditional societies, on the other hand, tend to possess systematic symbols; these spiritual symbols, once observed in a dream, will be more readily understood, thereby providing understanding of the tone and message of the dream.  The culture of the Kmetic and Nubian people, for example, involves the use of established symbols.  The sceptre (a specifically designed staff) is a most prominent symbol that has been immersed in this culture for millennia.  Its popularly is associated with the wise rule of the pharaohs.  Notwithstanding, the symbol of the sceptre represents health and happiness.  Bakhushek notes that although a dream including the symbol of the sceptre may be loosely interpreted as being linked to health and happiness, a “guided” interpretation of the dream may point to particular health concerns that need to be addressed, whether it be an actual illness in a person’s body, or an advisory to an individual to be mindful against improper eating habits that may compromise the quality of health and life.

 MOses Bonnick - Revivalist

Revivalist, Moses Bonnick, garbed with staff (Supple Jack), rope, pencil, as well as ruler and the Holy Bible

Because symbolism affects perceptions of reality, symbols need an interpreter, whether it is a diviner, priest, or esteemed spiritualist.  ‘Symbols…make visible the powers which belong together, and participate in each other’, but they should not be confused with signs.  ‘Signs are one-directional [and] unmistakeable [while symbols] condense several aspects which are not fully explainable.’1  According to author, Theo Sundemeier, ‘…the African understanding of symbols…reveal that which is latent and make purposeful action possible.  They are not retrospective, but also prospective.’2  Hence, ‘interpretation can change, without the previous interpretation losing its validity, even when its significance decreases.  Different interpretations are not mutually exclusive.  They have to be understood as supplementary, since each interpretation embraces only one level of meaning, be it social…legal, psychological or religious.  Synchronising these levels is the essential task of the symbol.’3


  1. Theo Sundemeier, The Individual and the Community in African Traditional Religions (Hamburg, Germany: LIT Verlag Munster, 1998) 39
  2. Theo Sundemeier, The Individual and the Community in African Traditional Religions (Hamburg, Germany: LIT Verlag Munster, 1998) 40
  3. Theo Sundemeier, The Individual and the Community in African Traditional Religions (Hamburg, Germany: LIT Verlag Munster, 1998) 39

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