How to understand dream symbols: 10 questions to help identify their meaning, with real dream examples – plus infographic.
Are you wondering what the symbols mean in your dreams?
This article explains the basics of dream symbols and how to approach interpreting them.
It includes ten clues to help find the meaning of any dream symbol without needing a dream dictionary – with dowloadable infographic.
I approach dream interpretation from a biblical perspective. My belief is that our dreams can come from God, and understanding them is best understood within the context of an ongoing relationship with Him.
If you have just come across this post and are new to dream interpretation, it is worth mentioning that dreams are symbolic in nature. You might find it helpful to read the following articles: Understand your dreams: A bible-based introduction to dream language and Beginner’s guide to biblical dream interpretation .
- What are dream symbols?
- Should I use a dream dictionary?
- 10 clues to the meaning of a dream symbol
What are dream symbols?
By dream symbols, I mean those elements that pop up in our dreams. They could be people, places, buildings, objects, colours, numbers, etc. What does a red car mean, or a horse, for example?
In any given dream there will be symbols that feature prominently, and we will need to understand them in order to make sense of the dream.
If you have just come across this post and are new to dream interpretation, it is worth mentioning that dreams are symbolic in nature. You might find it helpful to read Understand your dreams: A bible-based introduction to dream language to give you a foundation.
Dreams symbols are personal
It is vital to understand that dreams are personal. There is no ‘one size fits all’ meaning for dream symbols. That is why dream dictionaries and advice from other websites can be so confusing. What a dream element means for another person could be totally different from what it means for you.
What a dream element means for another person could be totally different from what it means for you.
To make it even more challenging, a symbol can mean one thing in one of our dreams, and a different thing in another! And sometimes the usual meaning of a symbol in our dream life suddenly changes.
There is no easy way around this! Understanding dream symbols involves becoming a personal dream detective and investigating all the potential clues available to us – in order to discover the true meaning in an individual dream.
Dreams symbols are defined by God
If you read my blog regularly, you will have gathered that I believe that dreams come from God. I have tested this theory out over many years of dream interpretation. This has several implications for understanding dream symbols. It means that:
- God is the ultimate authority on what our dream symbol means.
- We will need to learn to listen to God’s Spirit as we seek out the meaning of the symbol.
And they said to him, “We have had a dream, and there is no one to interpret it.” Then Joseph said to them, “Do interpretations not belong to God? Tell it to me, please.”Genesis 40:8, NASB
Dream symbols must be taken in context
Although I am focusing on symbols in this article, it is important to note that dream symbols cannot be taken on their own; they must be considered within the setting of the whole dream.
On social media forums it is common to see questions about the meaning of dream symbols; a symbol is posted and interpretations are invited. Although this is sometimes helpful for gathering potential ideas, it is impossible to interpret the symbol in isolation. If you want more sensible suggestions, you must share the whole dream.
If you want sensible suggestions about the meaning of dream symbols, it is vital to share the whole dream.
I have written a separate article with pointers about the type of information to record in order for you to consider the dream symbol in context:
Should I use a dream dictionary?
If you are into dreams, the chances are that you have seen the dream dictionaries that are widely available, both on the internet and in book format.
Dream dictionaries are lists of symbols that could potentially occur in dreams, together with their supposed meanings. There are ones written specifically for Christians, and ones covering many other approaches to dream interpretation.
But do we really need a dream dictionary? Let us consider some of the pros and cons:
Pros of using a dream dictionary
- A dream dictionary can kick-start metaphorical thinking by providing examples when we are stuck for ideas, or new to dream interpretation.
- Some dream symbols are fairly universal in meaning, so a dream dictionary can help with these.
- Sometimes God’s Spirit can speak to us through a suggested symbol meaning, and we immediately know it is the right meaning for our dream.
- Some Christian dream dictionaries contain biblical meanings, which can be useful.
Cons of using a dream dictionary
- There are so many dream dictionaries available, with different suggested meanings to choose from, that it can be confusing.
- Dreams are personal, so the suggested meanings might not apply to our particular dream anyway.
- Relying on a dream dictionary can hinder our personal growth as a dream interpreter, if it stops us thinking more deeply about the symbol or listening to God for ourselves.
In summary, it is certainly possible to understand our dreams without using a dream dictionary – although they can be helpful at times. They do have their place – so I have included some in my list of resources for dream interpretation.
It is possible to understand dreams without a dream dictionary – but they can be helpful at times.
10 clues to help find the meaning of a dream symbol
In the following section I have identified 10 clues to work through, consisting of questions to ask about the dream element. These can help you think creatively and identify what the symbol could mean in your dream.
I have assumed that you will be interpreting your own dreams, and the questions will be relevant to that. If you are interpreting someone else’s dream it will be more difficult to answer all the questions, but you can still think about many of the ideas.
Specific clues for people in dreams
If you are specifically interested in the meaning of people in your dreams, I have written an article that specifically applies to this subject:
A prayerful approach
If you are using this process for a specific dream, you might like to use the following prayerful approach; it is an attitude that can be maintained throughout the entire dream interpretation process.
Stay in an attitude of prayer and listening to God throughout:
Clue 1: Is it positive or negative?
The first thing to determine is whether the symbol is being used in a positive or negative context in your dream. This makes a big difference to the meaning. There will be some obvious clues in your dream to help you determine which it is.
Take notice of how you feel about the dream element, because feelings in dreams are usually pretty accurate.
- If the element just feels normal, it is probably being used in a positive context.
- Sometimes an element will have a very positive feeling about it; maybe it is bright and sparkling, or gives you a feeling of delight or happiness.
- Sometimes it will have a negative feeling attached to it such as fear or uneasiness.
Sometimes it is obvious that a symbol is negative because it is harmful or has the potential to harm you. For example, it could be attacking you or have the potential to bite or sting you. In those sorts of scenarios it is obviously a negative use of the symbol.
It is particularly common with colours to have positive or negative meanings. A colour will often appear an unpleasant shade (or one that you think is unpleasant) if the symbol is being used in a negative context.
Real dream example:
I dreamed that I had left my laptop in the wrong place. It had an extremely unpleasant feeling about it in my dream – almost like a horror movie!
A laptop is a computer and as such can represent our mind/thinking. In this case it was negative and symbolised wrong thinking; the dream was alerting me that I had got my understanding of something horribly wrong!
Clue 2: Is it in the bible?
I consistently find that the bible is relevant to dreams and the meaning of symbols.
- On one level, the bible contains a great wealth of symbolic literature and is a useful source of ideas in itself.
- But it is much more than that: If our dreams are coming from God and we want to understand what He means, then it is necessary to understand how He usually speaks. And the bible can help with that!
My experience is that the God who I have met through reading the bible, is the same God I meet in my dreams. And when I think about the meaning of symbols in the bible, they are often consistent with the meaning of those things in my dreams.
If I think that a symbol in my dream existed in biblical times, I will always start by researching it. That could be through an online bible search, or by finding articles written on the topic. I then consider whether the biblical meaning fits with my dream – and it frequently does!
I have written more about that – with an example – in: Biblical tools: The bible as a dream dictionary.
Clue 3: Does it have a personal meaning?
Some dream symbol meanings are personal. It could be something that relates to specific experiences that you have had, or personal likes and dislikes. Only you will know the significance of that object!
Take dogs for example: Dogs commonly represent a friend in dreams (because a dog is ‘man’s best friend’). But another person might be afraid of dogs, and for them a dog might represent a threat or a fear in their dream.
So you can ask the question: Does this dream symbol have special significance for me?
Real dream example:
I dreamed I climbed through a small hole, which required me to put down everything I was carrying. Once I was through, I was given a Baileys with ice.
The symbolism of climbing through the hole represented letting go of some things in order to make necessary changes in my life. But the personal aspect of this dream relates to the drink. Baileys is my personal favourite alcoholic drink, particularly with ice.
Drinking alcohol usually relates to receiving from the Holy Spirit. So this dream was telling me that the sacrifice of letting go of those things would be worth it, because I would absolutely love the reward afterwards!
Clue 4: Does it have a cultural meaning?
This is really an extension of the personal meaning. Some dream elements have a cultural association that will only be known to you and those from the same cultural background. It might be related to your family upbringing, or the country/people group that you live in.
So you can ask the question: Does this symbol have a specific significance in my culture?
Clue 5: Is it a recurring dream symbol?
If you interpret your dreams regularly, you will notice that certain symbols reoccur. When that happens, it is helpful to record them in a personal dream dictionary – as you will save a lot of time with future dreams.
A personal dream dictionary is a list of symbols that appear regularly in your dreams, and what you think they mean for you. This is something that has to be established over time by noting down your interpretation ideas in a central place.
If you do this, then when that symbol appears in a dream, you can look it up in your master list.
A word of caution though: Sometimes the meaning of a dream symbol changes, so always check whether it still seems to make sense with your current dream. If its meaning changes you can update your dream dictionary.
Top tip: God sometimes seems to use the first appearance of a dream symbol to set the meaning of that symbol in subsequent dreams. In my experience this is most commonly relevant for people who appear in our dreams, but can also apply to other things like places, buildings and even objects.
Read more on this theme:
Clue 6: What is the object used for?
Now we are moving onto the more specific details of an object in a dream.
The function or use of an object can give some vital clues about what it could symbolise. As you think about what it is used for, think about the wording you use as you describe its function. Then consider parallels in your spiritual life.
Here are a couple of examples of how the thought process could work:
Car: A car is used to take us from one place to another, and so can represent anything that helps us get to where we need to go, e.g. our personal job, our ministry, or anything else we do. Or it could just represent ourselves on a journey!
Food: We use food to provide energy and nourishment by eating it (taking it in). It could be us eating the food, or we could be feeding other people. In symbolic terms, it could represent teaching, or any input that we are receiving and accepting. If we are feeding others, then we are providing other people with input. The state of the food in the dream would indicate whether it was good input/teaching or not.
You could use this type of thinking to consider any object in a dream.
Real dream example:
I dreamed that my clothes had been in the wash and now needed to go in the tumble drier. In real life I had just been through a period where I had lots of new things to think about; everything I thought I knew was changing. I could see that it had been a bit like my life going through the wash!
A tumble drier is used to dry clothes after they have been in the wash, and things need to go round and round for a while. In symbolic terms, I could see that the drier represented taking time to process everything that had happened, and the dream was encouraging me to give myself time to do that.
Clue 7: What is the object made of?
The material that an object is made of can give an important clue about its symbolic meaning. Does the material stand out as being unusual? Or is it noteworthy in the dream?
Some materials are very helpful because they often mean the same thing. Here are some examples:
- Wood – usually represents something man-made (rather than heavenly)
- Stone – often represents something from God, or reliable, because it is more solid
Consider the properties of the material the symbol is made of. Here are a few examples:
- Plastic could be something man-made, or something long lasting
- Iron is known for its strength
- Gold is known for its value
- Cardboard is weak and temporary
Think about how you would describe the material the object is made of, just like I have done with the examples above. If it seems significant, you can translate that into symbolic thinking.
Real dream example:
I dreamed I was in a big hall, looking at all sorts of flimsy cardboard models that I had displayed at the front.
The cardboard material gave me a big clue that these objects were not sturdy or sound. The fact that they were at the front of the room suggested that it was about my ideas for the future (front = future).
Therefore the dream was telling my that my ideas for the future were flimsy and I should reconsider them.
Clue 8: What is its appearance/colour?
The appearance of a dream symbol can be important.
Sometimes an object will stand out in an exaggerated way. For example, it might be abnormally large, or be a funny colour. It might have unusual features or have numbers or symbols on. These are all vital clues to think about, and are probably placed there to draw our attention. For example:
- Is the object new or old?
- Is it smart or scruffy?
- Is it unusually big or small?
- Are any features out of proportion with the rest?
In particular, note any colour, particuarly if it stands out. I have written articles about the symbolic meaning of many colours. If a symbol has an obvious colour, it could be the most important factor in determining the meaning. Transparent objects usually represent spiritual things
So, consider whether any aspects of the appearance of the symbol are noteworthy, and if so, that could be the main clue to its meaning.
Read more about the meaning of different colours:
Clue 9: Is it a wordplay?
Dreams can contain puns, riddles, wordplay and even jokes! here are some examples of some basic types of wordplay:
- Homophones sound the same but have different spellings and meanings: e.g. where and wear.
- Homographs are spelled the same but are pronounced differently to give different meanings: e.g. bass (fish) and bass (low sound).
- Homonyms have exactly the same sound and spelling, but have different meanings: e.g. bark (the sound a dog makes) and bark (part of a tree).
Any of these could pop up in our dreams, so we need to keep our eyes and ears open to such possibilities.
Try turning your thoughts away from the visual image of the object, and rather listen to the sound of the word. Try saying it out loud. Does it sound similar to another word? Could it be a play-on-words?
Sometimes I look up words in etymonline.com to find the original meaning of a word, or use a dictionary to find alternative meanings. This can help identify potential wordplays.
Read more about puns and wordplay in dreams and in the bible:
Real dream example:
I dreamed I was given a prescription by a doctor.
At face value, a prescription is a piece of paper; it is something you need in order to obtain medicines. However, the word prescription also means an order or direction.
In this dream the prescription had nothing to do with medicine. It symbolised directions that I would shortly be given by God to follow. I had to distance myself from the image and consider the word itself to understand the meaning.
Clue 10: Carry out a search for more ideas
And, finally, if you have worked through all those clues and are still stuck, now is the time to to some more research and look for ideas!
Dream dictionaries: When you are new to dream interpretation, it can be helpful to see what other people have found that symbol to mean. It is worth looking in a few different places. You might find that one of the ideas resonates with you, or makes sense of your dream. I have recommended some bible-based ones in my resources article.
Online search: I often look up meanings of objects in my dream; partularly names of people and places, and other objects that I am not familiar with. Sometimes a little research around the nature of a dream element can spark off some ideas. Maybe it is an animal with certain characteristics, or an object with a specific use.
Ask yourself: Why is this specific object in my dream?
Do your research accordingly. But do keep a prayerful attitude throughout the process; ask God to guide your searching; and don’t rely too heavily on these resources.
I have given you lots of things to think about. I have dropped many clues and ideas that can help you identify what the symbols could mean in your dreams:
- Is it positive or negative?
- Is it in the bible?
- Does it have a personal meaning?
- Does it have a cultural meaning?
- Is it a recurring dream symbol?
- What is the object used for?
- What is the object made of?
- What is its appearance/colour?
- Is it a wordplay?
- Carry out a search for more ideas.
It might seem a little overwhelming – but it’s actually simpler than it seems. The chances are that you can narrow down the options pretty quickly. Something will probably stand out to you about the symbol as you consider the list of clues.
But remember, a dream interpretation is not guaranteed – at least not straight away anyway! Sometimes the meaning only becomes clear later on – often in a flash of inspiration!
However, none of your effort will have been wasted! Anything you do to think and pray about the dream and consider the dream symbols – will set you up to understand the dream when the time is right.
So make a start; give it a go; and it will get easier with practice!
Click on the image for a downloadable pdf – for personal use only.
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The purpose of this blog is to provide biblical foundations for interpreting dreams and encourage others to make their own dream journey. I am primarily a writer and bible teacher – who loves dreams, and I hope you will be inspired to learn to interpret your own dreams.
It is not currently my aim to routinely engage in dream interpretations or provide training, except through writing blog posts. You can read my most up to date position on interpreting dreams here: Requests for dream interpretations.
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The information contained above is provided for information purposes only. The contents of this article are not intended to amount to advice and you should not rely on any of the contents of this article. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article. Jennifer Needham disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on any of the contents of this article.
Essential information to include when writing down dreams
Essential details to include when recording your night dreams – and why.
Positive and negative contexts of dream symbols
How to tell if a dream symbol is being used in a positive or negative way – and why it is important.
Puns and wordplay in dreams
Biblical examples of puns and wordplay – and how they can help you interpret the symbols in your dreams.
- Dream symbols: Sun, wind, rain, storms, and other types of weather
- Why you don’t need a prophetic gift to interpret dreams
- Dream symbols: Gardens, plants, and flowers – and what they mean
- How dreams can help with renewing the mind
- Meeting God in your dreams