Dream Gates

Dream Gates

An Irish story for Halloween

posted by Robert Moss

Gallows_at_Caxton_Gibbet.jpgThe best Halloween stories come from Ireland. I am going to retell one of my favorites. It is a thrilling and twitchy tale that brings us awake. If it is in any way exotic, it is only because we have let our inner senses atrophy to the point where we no longer see or sense that the dead are always with us and that the door to the Otherworld opens from wherever we happen to be. 

Read your way inside this wild tale out of Ireland, and you will find the veil between the worlds thinning. You’ll see or remember that shutting out the signs of a deeper world is not the way to set healthy boundaries between the living and the dead. 
The Adventure of Nera 
The Echtra Nerai (“Adventure of Nera”) – whose earliest written account is in a 1782 manuscript but is very much older – is the tale of a Halloween dare that puts everything at risk: life, sanity, the kingdom of the world.
The story unfolds in Connaught, in the kingdom of King Aillil and Queen Maeve, whose very name alerts us that magic and sex and danger are coming soon. 
Two captives have been hanged from a tree, in the daytime before the night of Samhain. They will not be cut down until the next day; everyone knows that to touch a corpse at the time when the hollow hills open and ghosts and demons and the lordly ones of the Sidhe ride forth, in their blood-red finery, is to invite worse luck than Murphy’s. 
The king decides to test the nerve of his warriors, and maybe embarrass them in front of Queen Maeve, whose sexual appetite is such that she has no doubt been entertaining a few of the bucks. Aillil tells his young blades that whoever has the courage to place a band of willow twigs around the leg of either of the dead men swinging from the tree will have the king’s own gold-hilted sword as a prize. 
Some of the warriors accept the dare but return shaking and incoherent, muttering about ghosts and hell-cats.
A young man called Nera takes up the challenge. He does not bolt when the corpse stirs and speaks to him as he tries to fasten the willow-band. The dead man springs on Nera’s back, like a jumping spider, and clamps his leg around his neck. It’s a deadly grip; Nera cannot shake or shift his ghost rider. 
The dead man has a powerful thirst and demands to be carried to a house where it can be slaked right away.
Nera is forced to carry him like a pack mule. They come to a house that has a ring of fire around it. The dead may not enter here. They come to a second house surrounded by a moat of water. Again, the dead may not cross. They come to a third house that is open and loose, with everything in disarray. There is filthy bath water in the tub, and filth and excrement in the pot the people of the house have not bothered to empty. And plenty of drink of other kinds. All of this is nectar and ambrosia to the hungry ghost. 
When they enter the open house, he slurps everything in sight, then blows the last drops over his hosts, killing them all.
Now he is content to go back to his gallows. Nera walks back to the palace, relieved to be free of his hitch-hiker, and finds that nothing is as it was before. Aillil’s palace at Cruachan is in flames. The head of the king and the heads of Nera’s comrades are being carried down beneath the earth by the weird soldiers of the Sidhe. 
Nera follows them, down through the mouth of the cavern of Cruachan, and – to his amazement – finds welcome in a world beneath the one he knows. There is no sign of the caravan of severed heads. The king of this Underworld greets Nera with friendly hospitality, though not as an equal; Nera is tasked to bring him firewood every day, in return for food and board, and sex with a lovely woman of the Sidhe who is given to him as a consort. Nera finds pleasure in her embraces, but cannot forget the appalling sight of Aillil’s palace in flames. 
His Otherworld bride instructs him that what he saw was a vision of a future event – and event that will come to pass the following Halloween, but can be avoided if Nera goes back to his people with a warning. Her love for him is such she is willing to help smuggle him back up to the world of men. She further astonishes him by revealing that time moves differently in the two realms. While he seems to have passed many days with her, no time has passed in Aillil’s court. Nera pictures his reception at that court when he tells his story. People will say he is making it up, as if there are not already enough spooks and terrors on Halloween. His Otherworld lady gives him the credentials that will make him believed – summer fruits (“wild garlic, and primrose and golden fern”) – that died long ago in the world above. 
 Nera goes back to the surface world with his warning, and the king believes him. Aillil prepares an army to attack the Sidhe below Cruathan before they attack him. He allows Nera time to go down to bring out his woman, and the son to whom she gave birth while he was up top, and a bull-calf that will become a major player in a greater story. The Aillil and Maeve go down into the earth, and are victorious, and come back with treasures from the Otherworld, including a faery crown, hidden in a well. 
But because Nera has been touched by the Sidhe, he vanishes back into their realm, with his faery bride, and will not be seen again (according to the pious transcriber of this tale) “until the crack of doom.” 
The Adventure of Nera has lessons for us today. It is set at a liminal time and a liminal place, but in fact the liminal moment could be any time. The dead do come back, invited or uninvited, for many reasons. Physical contact with a corpse can be polluting; if appropriate precautions are not taken it can result in an undesirable energy transfer from the dead to the living, just as the hanged man jumped onto Nera’s back.
When the dead are attached to the living, they transfer their addictions and thoughts and desires, and even their physical symptoms. 
For any of us who have struggled with addictions – or know someone who does – the image of the dead man riding the living in search of a drink is vividly educational. Every time I hear someone complain about a pain in the neck, and that pain does not have an obvious physical explanation, I think about the story of Nera. The living man carries the dead man on his neck. Don’t we all?
Nera’s experiences also guide us to think about psychic protection. His ghost rider cannot enter the houses that are protected by fire or water, where people have set up healthy psychic boundaries. Fire is a purifying agency; water absorbs dense etheric energies.
The house that is open to the hungry ghost is the one where people don’t take care of their shit, in the most literal sense. 
There are further messages in the story. When Nera enters the realm of the dead, he is no longer bound by linear time. He can see far into the future – but does not initially recognize the gift and must be helped to understand how to use it. He finds his mentor in his faery lover. She teaches him something all of us should know:
if we can see the future, we may be able to change it for the better.
Armed with this knowledge, Nera is able to save his people from destruction.
But he has gone so deep into the Otherworld that now he belongs to it, more than the surface world. It is not an easy thing, living in two worlds at the same time.
Adapted from Robert Moss, The Dreamer’s Book of the Dead (Destiny Books) (c) copyright Robert Moss. All rights reserved,

  • http://dreamersight.wordpress.com/ Nancy

    What a stirring tale, and you tell it so well! Makes me wonder if my dream last night of a fire erupting in the far end of a school building where I was a student was more sinister than I had realized. Second, I thought yesterday about my mother bemoaning her own myopia repeatedly in my childhood, how she couldn’t see the board at school, clearly viewing herself as a victim, and how this may have landed on my own back to carry; her mother was nearsighted too. Your story brought this home to me more vividly — thanks. Fuel for an upcoming releasing fire ceremony, methinks….

  • Ananna

    A gripping story Robert. I’ll be reading this one to my sons (24 and 17) this weekend.
    I’ve been told ghosts can walk through walls so fire and water sound like good suggestions. I’ll be looking at pumpkins with candles lit on porches in a different way now.
    “It is not an easy thing, living in two worlds at the same time.” And sometimes faery dreams are not always sweet and elegantly felt as soft as butterfly wings.
    I’ll be getting the candles out and gathering some bowls for water

  • http://www.wandaburch.com Wanda Burch

    Ah, an eerie tale indeed but one with many good lessons. I’m supposin’ I’ll be getting a pot of milk and a soul-cake out just for good measure so that those carrying the burden of demons pass on by.

  • Savannah

    What a gripping and instructive tale Robert, and a wonderful read, thank you! Interesting timing also, as just before bed last night I was pondering a recent dream report in which I come upon a hanged man at the edge of a forest clearing. According to the newspaper article that flashed in the dream he had hanged himself; I am a bit baffled when a short while later I watch him wandering around in the forest holding a hunting knife. When he tries to engage myself and a friend I feel wary. There may have been much else going on in that though oddly it hadn’t occurred to me the encounter may have been with a ghost. I woke a bit disturbed… now I wonder if he needs help moving along.

  • Nina

    Thank you very much for the beautiful Irish tale and about living in two words simultaneously, as difficult as it appears to be it´s a great privilege and actually it´s accesible for everybody.
    I heard another zen story about this and is called The Ruler of the Sea. It´s about a family man, a peasant who goes every day to work in the field and one day a gracious young woman crosses his road and insists on marrying him. She is so beautiful that eventually he agrees and follows her to the ocean shore. He orders him to enter the ocean , he backs off, but when she takes him by hand they both dive into the deep water. They arrive at the royal palace and she introduces him to her father and the ruler of the sea. He accepts him as his son-of-law. Apparently, the man continues living an ordinary life with his wife and children, but every morning instead of going to the field, he heads for the ocean. After some time, his earthly wife becomes suspicious and pursuits him to the underwater palace. There she is stopped by guardians who are on the point of killing her. Her husbands rushes to her aid and tells the guards that she´s his earthly wife and mother of his children.
    He takes her back home and explains to her that he has married the sea ruler´s daughter. Then he lets his farming work to his first-born son and leaves them for good because he doesn´t belong to this world any more.
    The monk finishes his story with the notion, that in reality each of us is the governor in some underwater palace, which I can´t disagree, only I have one reservation, that it´s perhaps not necessary to abandon people or partners (although it´s probably best when they are also connected in the most loving relationship with their deepest soul).
    Tizian has a miraculously splendid picture, entitled Heavenly and Earthly Love. Here he presents the subject for a meditation on two seemingly contradicting forces. As a real genius he penetrates and opens deep insights into many mysteries of love for a man.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Savannah – Your dream of the hanged man who is later walking the woods (perhaps in his second body) has strong synchronicity for me, beyond the story of Nera and the gallows image I chose to illustrate it. I spent yesterday afternoon at a lecture by a scholar of colonial New England where there was much discussion of the case of an Algonkian shaman named Squando who reportedly hanged himself after a series of grisly visions. The reports of both the hanging and the visions are murky and disputed and given the beliefs and practices of his people it’s a good bet that a sensitive might have caught him roaming the woods with a hunting knife after death (however precisely he died).

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Nina – Thanks for your lovely telling of the story of the Ruler of the Sea. There are many, many variants on this in the folk tales of Ireland and Scotland, and some of us know the tug of the two lives in our dreams and imaginings. Thanks, too, for prompting me to look again at Titian’s enigantic painting (usually called “Sacred and Profane Love” in English) with the two Venuses, draped and undraped, at the marble sarcophagus that is also a fountain – perhaps an allegory for the “tomb of the soul” (the body) and its prospect of spiritual life.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Wanda – sure that doesn’t need to be a pot of ale?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Nancy – Of course we can carry our living, as well as our dead, on our necks.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Patty – we preserve customs long after we forget their origin. As for walking through walls, don’t you do that in your dreambody every night?

  • Wanda Burch

    Nope. All of the old folk stories say you need a bowl of milk and a soul [barley] cake left out for those pesky dead and they’ll not bother you. Not sure why milk – I”ll check the Golden Bough.

  • Savannah

    That’s quite the synchronicity Robert… the man in my dream seemed to be a composite of people from waking life – past and present – it felt like the story had broader resonance; the shaman gives an interesting context, thanks so much.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Wanda – Good luck tracking this in the Golden Bough. The only relevant reference to milk that I found in the index to the full edition mentions offering milk at graves, not specifically at Halloween. On the other hand, I am looking at other sources that state that the original “soul cakes” were offered with cups of WINE. This seems quite likely since they come in with the creation of All Souls Day at the petition of a French abbot, Odil of Cluny.

  • Ananna

    How about those dream bodies. i wonder if I’ve ever been mistaken for a ghost?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/dreamgates/ Robert Moss

    Patty – Oh yes, that happens. One of my favorite books by the Victorian psychic researchers is titled “Apparitions of the Living.”

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