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To Sleep Perchance to Dream
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To Sleep Perchance to DreamMyths and Symbols
by Marina Bonomi
Dreams are the veritable domain of symbols, and the belief that dreams aren’t simply a more or less organized sequence of images but often have a deeper meaning is an ancient and universal one, way before Sigmund Freud and all his followers or critics.
The boundary between dream and vision is often blurry in legends and myths. It must not be believed, though, that in ancient times every dream was believed to carry a message. In Homer’s Odyssey (book XIX) Penelope (Ulysses’ wife) asks a guest of the house (her own husband, returned incognito) to interpret a dream she had the night before of an eagle stooping down and killing twenty geese. When the stranger answers that the dream is an omen of Ulysses’ return and his vengeance against his wife’s suitors, Penelope comments:
Stranger, dreams are very curious and unaccountable things, and they do not by any means invariably come true. There are two gates through which these unsubstantial fancies proceed; the one is of horn, and the other ivory. Those that come through the gate of ivory are fatuous, but those from the gate of horn mean something to those that see them. (1)
The art of interpreting dreams was so widespread and recognized in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilizations that it originated a branch of literature: the so-called Books of Dreams. Examples of these guides for the interpretations of dreams have been found in Egypt and in the library of King Assurbanipal in Nineveh (2).
A specific divinatory practice originated in Greece: the so-called incubation. The supplicant would go to a temple or sanctuary (often consecrated to a healer god, like Asclepius) and there, after a ritual purification, he or she would be led to a section of the temple called the abaton (meaning: ‘inaccessible place’) to spend the night. The god would then manifest in the supplicant’s dreams, revealing causes and cures of the illness. Another famous temple where incubation was practiced was that of Anphiaraus, a seer divinized after his death.
In the Bible the ability to understand the meaning of dreams is a divine gift bestowed on the faithful. For instance, Daniel and his companions, or Joseph, the son of Jacob sold in slavery, who foresaw the coming famine in the dreams of the Pharaoh. Often in the Bible dreams are divine messages that may be assimilated to visions, such as Jacob’s dream of the celestial ladder or the angel warning the mages from the Orient about Herod.
Many cultures, from the American plains to Asia and Africa, believe that in dreams the soul of the dreamer leaves the body and travels, either in this world or the spirit land, where it can get lost or be captured by evil spirits or practitioners of black magic. If this happens the result is severe, possibly fatal illness, and a shaman (in his different, local incarnations) must be brought in to search for the lost soul, either to free it from imprisonment or to guide it back home. It is also often believed that no sleeper should be awakened suddenly for fear that the travelling soul would not have the time to come back to the body, the act thus resulting in sudden death.
A similar belief might have been shared by the Celts. In the famous story called “Maxen’s Dream,” Maxen, emperor of Rome (3), dreams of a hunt during which he finds a manor and a beautiful young woman he falls in love with. The love-sick emperor sends envoys everywhere seeking the woman of his dream, but she is found only when the emperor himself goes hunting in the same direction he took in the dream and sets his thirteen messengers on the road he then recognizes (4). The belief of an alternate but real world that people may enter in dreams has, of course, found its way into fantasy writing. One example is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time cycle, in which some gifted people can enter the parallel dream-world of Tel’aran’rhiod during lucid dreams, thus being able of consciously interacting with it.
People being at their most helpless in sleep, it is only to be expected that in worldwide popular belief a whole host of unsavory spirits is laying in ambush to harm the sleeper, chief among them the nightmare.
The ‘mare’ part in nightmare is not the English word for “female horse.” It comes from the Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse word mara, a demon that sat on sleepers’ chests, giving them bad dreams, together with shortness of breath and inability to move, a close relative of the mara is the German alp (5)
Succubi and incubi (6) are medieval demons, probably the most dangerous to sleepers. They lay on sleepers to have intercourse with them (the female succubus preying on men and the male incubus on women), and like the Chinese fox-spirit, leave their victims weak and depleted of life-force. Incubi were believed to be able to generate children with their victims. Such a child would be a cambion (half-demon). The most famous cambion in legend is, without doubt, Merlin the wizard.
In the Historia Brittonum by Nennius, Merlin is the ‘child with no father’ whose blood poured on foundation stones would ensure that king Vortigern’s castle would not collapse. In fact the child is the son of a princess and an incubus, and his father’s demonic blood gives him the gifts of prophecy and magic, allowing him to discover the real cause of the castle’s ruin.
The Dreamtime is a fundamental element in the Aborigine worldview. It was the ancient time of the Ancestor Beings, who emerged from the dark, shapeless Earth at the very beginning of time. The Ancestor spirits were half-human but also partly animals or plants, in the Dreamtime they travelled through the barren Earth, shaping the landscape and making the celestial bodies, elements, animals, plants and human beings, then, wearied by their labours, the Ancestor Beings sank back into the Earth and went back to sleep, sometimes turning into rocks or trees marking a sacred place that can be seen only by the initiated.
The Dreamtime continues as the Dreaming in which the ancient events of creation are re-enacted in ceremony, dances and songs that bring their power into today’s life. Dreaming is the nearest rendering for a concept for which English has no words. It is the ritual experience of the Ancestors’ deeds, it is also the sum of knowledge, rules, and traditions inherited from the Ancestors.
The Dreaming is not some long past era but a continuous entity, from which people come, which people renew and which people go back to. Art is one to the ways through which Aboriginal people communicate with and maintain a oneness with the Dreaming. (7)
With this, I leave you for this month. In the next issue we shall explore the different traditions concerning one of the most useful, and oft maligned, domesticated animals: the pig.
(1) Odyssey book XIX, prose translation by Samuel Butler, from The Internet Classic Archives
(2) Also known as Ashurbanipal or Sardanapal , king of Assyria 685 - 627 B.C.
(3) The legendary figure of Maxen is based on the historical Magnus Maximus, a Spanish general stationed in Britain who was proclaimed emperor by his troops in the late IV century a.C.
(4) Caution must be used in assuming that the tale portrays faithfully a Celtic belief, since the Mabinogion tales (of which ‘Maxen’s dream’ is one) according to the scholars have been composed between the X and the XII century a. C. and any echo of older beliefs is inextricably mixed with later influences.
(5) Alp is etymologically linked to elf.
(6) Originally the succubus and the incubus were believed to be the two different shapes of a single kind of demon who could change gender at will to match its intended victim, later on they were transformed into two different, if complementary, creatures. Incubo is the modern Italian word for nightmare (in the ‘bad dream’ meaning).
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