It is a strange factor of sentience that we are aware of ourselves through time – something different from memory or instinct, something more profound than animal awareness. It is the source of much anxiety, but it is also what fuels ambition, hope, and the imaginative life.
It is presumed that when animals dream, they replay experiences in order to hone ability and instinct. It is an aid to their survival. But human dreaming is different. Although we often relive and revise events from our day, frequently our dreams bear little or no resemblance to actual experience. Flying is a common enough dream, but who among us has actually taken to the air of their own volition? I have recurring dreams of telekenesis – a very distinct sensation that has no equivalent in my waking life. It’s always a bit of a bummer to open my eyes and realize that I can’t shut off the alarm clock with my mind. Sigh.
Perhaps the most fascinating dream experience is one of the rarest – the prophetic dream. Few of us can claim to have seen the future, but those who have are often terrified by the experience. And because of the changeable, symbolic nature of dreams themselves, it’s easy to misinterpret what we encounter there, or doubt the validity of what we think it means. This explains the enduring popularity of the “dream dictionary” – a codex to imagery commonly encountered and its metaphorical meaning. Such books can be very helpful, and do a lot to alleviate the anxiety and confusion that stem from vivid dreaming. Yet they are only what they claim to be – dictionaries -and like any other dictionary they only help with part of the translation process. No one would believe that they could watch a film or read book in a foreign language with just the help of a dictionary. Syntax alone can alter the meaning of the individual words, and much depends on context and intonation. So it is with dreams. A dream dictionary helps only a little. The true nature of the dream is a much larger, organic vision that requires insight, not just definition. Part of that insight is acquired through self-knowledge (pilgrims to the Delphic Oracle were cautioned by an inscription above the door to the Temple of Apollo – “Know Thyself” – good advice, then and now) and part of that insight is acquired through serious study of mythology (our common cultural dreamscape) and history. To that end, I’d like to offer you an excerpt from Michelle Belanger’s excellent book Psychic Dreamwalking; Explorations at the Edge of Self. If you are seriously interested in the possibilities of dreamwalking, dream divination or dream spellwork, this book will guide you well.
A Brief History of Dreams
Oneiromancy was the ancient practice of telling the future through dreams. Related to the belief that the gods could communicate with mortals in their sleep, oneiromancy relied upon the notion that many different levels of reality intersected in the realm of dreams. Through dreaming, not only could mortals come into contact with spirits and gods, but they could also connect with the distant future and the distant past.
As times changed and empires fell, dreams became no less mysterious to our forbears. In medieval Europe, the spirit that was believed to inspire healing and prophesy during dream incubation was transformed from helpful genius to malicious demon. We know it now as the incubus, and all traces of its formerly benevolent identity have been lost.
This small detail offers a significant insight into how the spread of Christianity impacted the attitude on dreams and dreaming. In early Christian Europe, dreams still occupied that hazy place between the mortal and spirit worlds. However, such gray areas did not fare well in a culture that had adopted a starkly black-and-white-world-view. The Bible taught that dreams could be prophetic visions granted by God, but only very special individuals were graced with such miracles. More often than not, the phantasmagoric images that haunted people at night were attributed to the Devil or his many minions sent to subvert the good people of the world. St. Jerome, writing in the fourth century C.E., deliberately mistranslated parts of the Bible to condemn the practice of observing dreams. In the face of such rigid thinking, there was little room for the interpretation of dreams.
The Renaissance saw a renewed interest in all aspects of the classical world. Wealthy families, like the Medici of Florence, financed the translation of a number of classical texts. Included in the more traditional Greek and Roman works on philosophy and history were several books on magic and spirits. The Church was not pleased by what it considered a scandalous Paganizing of European art and literature. But no matter how high Savonarola and other outspoken priests piled on the bonfires of burned books, there was no denying that people’s interests had once more been turned to the gray areas of human experience. Notably, a new edition of Artemidorus’s Oneirocritica emerged from Venice in the early 1500s.
From that time forward, the Western opinion on the significance and mechanism of dreams has wavered back and forth between potent meaning and utter meaninglessness. Rene Descartes, a seventeenth century mathematician who is viewed as the father of modern philosophy, maintained that dreams were nothing more than fanciful images conjured by an irrational portion of the mind. Even so, on the evening of November 10th, 1619, Descartes had a series of dreams that inspired his life’s work. Despite his belief in the irrational nature of dreams, Descarte himself maintained that these particular nighttime visions were so potent that they could only have come “from above.”
In the Age of Reason and the Industrial Era, the official stance on the fanciful meaninglessness of dreams stood in stark contrast against the dream-inspired experiences of artists, composers, authors, and even military leaders. Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and portions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle were all conceived in dreams. Napoleon Bonaparte put such stock in his dreams that he based many of his military tactics upon them. At the Battle of Waterloo, he discounted a dream that foretold his defeat, dooming his empire.
In November of 1917, a young German corporal heeded a dream that foretold the shelling of his bunker. Wakened from his sleep by a nightmare of being buried alive, he wandered out to walk the night, only to have a heavy artillery shell completely destroy the bunker and everyone sleeping within it a short while later. Nightmares may have continued to inspire him throughout his later life: the young corporal became known to the world as Adolf Hitler.
An Austrian Jew driven from his homeland by that selfsame German corporal essentially wrote the book on the modern approach to dreams. Sigmund Freud is remembered by the world as one of the fathers of modern psychology. In 1899, he published a landmark work, The Interpretation of Dreams – a title conspicuously reminiscent of Artemidorus’s famous work. In many ways, Freud was styling himself as the Artemidorus of the twentieth century, attempting to redefine the modern approach to dreams. Freud was so intent that his work should pioneer dreams for a new era that he convinced his publishers to list the publication year not as 1899, but as 1900, so as to set the book firmly in the twentieth century…
From Michelle Belanger’s Psychic Dreamwalking; Explorations at the Edge of Self.