The British visionary artist Chesca Potter says that when she moved to London, she had a vision of an immense goddess figure, dressed in green and gold, over the church of St Pancras. This is the oldest church, in the city, founded (according to legend) by Helen, the mother of the emperor Constantine, who is famous for her dreams; Helen is shown dreaming on the cover of my book The Secret History of Dreaming. It was another Helen – or rather Elen – who seized the artist’s imagination. In her visions, Chesca saw her as an antlered woman. She painted and sketched several versions of this antlered goddess. My favorite is the one shown here, which appears on the card labeled “Lady of the Ways” in John Matthews’ Celtic Shaman’s Pack.
Cernunnos, the male version of the Antlered One, is famous. It is less well known that there is solid evidence for the ancient worship of the Antlered Goddess. In the far north, she was a Reindeer Goddess. Female reindeer sprout antlers too, and that the females grow bigger racks than the males! In early times reindeer were native to Scotland. Reindeer bones have been found in three caves near Inchnadamph, a hamlet in Assynt, Sutherland, Scotland. The name of the hamlet is an anglicisation of the Gaelic Innis nan Damh, meaning “meadow of the stags”. In the British Museum there is a bronze figure from the Iron Age, discovered at Besançon in France, of an antlered goddess (see below).
I am always delighted to come upon fresh material on the ancient forms of the Goddess. Elen is very special, for me, because she is the patron of roads and gates between the worlds. In Chesca’s image, she stands before a dolmen gate embellished with symbols suggesting access to the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds. When you travel the British isles, you may feel Elen’s soft footfall – beneath the traffic and modern construction – along the deer paths and ancient trackways and in the the lapping of quiet streams.
Elen is Lady of the Ways in many senses. Most significant, for me, is her role as Lady of the Dreamways. In the great cycle of Welsh epic poems known as the Mabinogion, Elen calls a king to her in his dreams, and he finds her embodiment in the physical world when he learns to use his dreams as a map and to follow their roads.
To know more of all this, we must study the literature and the archaeology, and we must dream on it. We can do this even on the other side of an ocean from Elen’s ancient trackways, especially if our ancestors knew her – and if we know the right tree.
I know a Camberdown Elm, transplanted from Scotland to a sloping lawn in western Massachusetts. I call it the Village Tree because its canopy resembles a collection of thatched cottages, especially in late fall, when the leaves are matted dull brown. In that season, I walked down to the elm in a light, cold rain. I caressed the scaly bark of the trunk, and wished the elm health and renewal. A wooden seat had been placed under the tree and I sat there, open to vision without insisting on it.
Immediately Deer appeared to me. This time – the first occasion I remember – the antlered deer was wearing a saddlecloth. The saddlecloth was a deep red with a brocaded border. I understood that I was to get on the deer’s back and let it lead me. So I swung myself up, as I would have mounted a horse. Instantly we were off at a terrific pace, heading north across a landscape of frozen marshes. I looked ahead, and saw a huge orange disk very low on the horizon. It seemed we were flying straight into the face of the sun.
Instead, I found myself in the presence of an immense being. She appeared as a beautiful, mature woman, white-skinned, deep-bosomed – and wearing antlers. When she invited me into her embrace, we became the same size. I understood that I was entering the embrace of an Antlered Goddess. Then I shot straight up through the sky, into the face of the Moon, and encountered a number of beings with historical identities in early Europe who gave me specific information I was able to verify and document in subsequent research. Another exercise in dream archaeology, but with even broader resonance.
A big question was put to me recently by a questing young friend: “What is the white man’s spiritual inheritance?” he went on: “it seems there is a dearth of relevant, culturally appropriate spiritual practice for white people.” After gently chastising him for using the phrase “white man“, i suggested that the answer lies in dreaming. Active dreaming is crucial to collective soul retrieval, to recovering and living our authentic spiritual inheritance.
Let me add that Elen of the Dreamways has a double or close sister across the North Sea in Nehalennia, who was venerated at Celtic sacred sites on what is now the coast of the Netherlands. She was the patron of voyagers; seafarers and traders made offerings to her for safe passage and success in their transactions. Her name may mean “Steerswoman” or “Pilot”. She is depicted as a lovely young woman enthroned within a seashell, with a basket of fruit on her lap and a dog nearby, gazing up at her adoringly. Often she has her foot on the prow of a ship, and a boat rope in her hand.
Nehalennia’s other close animal companion is the dolphin. She is the patron of astral as well as physical journeys, just as Elen is the maker of roads as well as dreamways. For the Celts, the happy afterlife on the Islands of the Blessed requires a crossing by water. And in ancient Europe (as in Polynesia) one of the favorite forms of transportation for the Otherworld voyage is the dolphin. Ripe fruits are often carved over the top of Nehalennia’s shrines. She offers abundance and ever-renewing life, as well as safe passage through the Otherworld, before and after death.
Illustration “Lady of the Ways” by Chesca Potter from The Celtic Shaman’s Pack by John Matthews, published by Element.
RETURN OF THE ANCIENT DEER: A JOURNEY INTO CELTIC DREAMING
You are the final authority on your dreams, and you should never give the power of your dreams away by handing them over to other people to interpret. Yes, our dreams can be confusing and opaque, and we gain greatly from other people’s insights, especially when those other people are “frequent fliers” who work closely with their own dreams and have developed a fine intuition about what may be going on in dreaming. So it’s okay to ask for help. More than that, we often need help because we are too close to our own issues, or too inhibited by self-limiting to see what may be obvious to a complete outsider.
But we need to learn some simple rules about how to share and comment on dreams.
I suggest the following guidelines for starters:
1. Tell the dream as clearly and exactly as possible. Dreams are real experiences, and the meaning of the dream is often inside the dream experience itself.
2. Consider your feelings, inside the dream and on waking. These are a quick and usually reliable guide to the importance, urgency and quality (e.g. positive/negative) of the dream.
3. Always run a reality check by asking: Is it remotely possible the events in this dream could be played out in waking life? I have never seen more time wasted in dream analysis — and more life-supporting messages lost — than when we fail to recognize that our dreams are constantly rehearsing us for challenges that lie around the corner. In our dreams, we are all psychic.
4. If you are going to comment on someone else’s dream, always begin by saying (in these words or similar words), “If this were my dream, I would think about…” This way, you are not leaning on other people and presuming to tell them the meaning of their dreams or their lives. If we can only encourage more people to follow this vitally important etiquette for dream-sharing, we’ll create a safe space for many people to share dreams and work with them in everyday contexts — at work, in the family, in schools — and we’ll be on our way to becoming a dreaming culture again.
5. Try to go back inside the dream and recover more information. A dream fully remembered is often its own interpretation.
6. Try to come up with a one-liner to summarize what happens in the dream (or encourage the dreamer to do that). This will often turn out to be a personal dream motto that will orient you towards appropriate action — to act on the dream guidance and honor the dream.
7. Always do something with the dream! We need to do far more than interpret dreams;we need to bring their energy and insight into manifestation in waking life.
The simple guidelines above are central to my Active Dreaming approach. You can learn more about fun, everyday techniques for working and playing with dreams and using them as portals for adventure and healing in a larger reality in my books; Conscious Dreaming and The Three “Only” Things are good places to jump in.
There is a people of the South Pacific who say that there are as many afterlife situations as there are human imaginations. They may be right. What we encounter on the Other Side is conditioned by our desires, our courage and our imagination (or lack of imagination). These things are too important for us to rely on hand-me-down versions or other people’s opinions. We need first-hand knowledge. We get that through contact with the deceased, which is an entirely natural phenomenon, and through our ability to travel in the realms where the departed are at home. We do that quite spontaneously, in night dreams. We can learn to embark on conscious exploration to learn the geographies of the afterlife.
Dreaming is practice for immortality, perhaps the best we have available. Why? Because dreaming is traveling. We journey effortlessly beyond body and brain, into realms beyond the fields we know in ordinary life. We travel to territories in which the dead are at home. In this way we gain first-hand knowledge of the roads and conditions of the afterlife.
In dreams, we also receive visitations from the dead. They come for all the reasons we may contact each other in ordinary life, and then some. They come for healing and forgiveness. They come for an update on family affairs. They come with warnings and information. They come because they are trying to understand the fuller story of the life they recently ended, in order to make choices about new life options.
Sometimes the deceased need help and information from us, because they are lost of confused. Sometimes they can serve as family counselors and everyday angels for us. Tremendous numbers of people who are living in the afterworld are seeking to communicate with the living, and dreaming is their main medium. Across the ages, dream encounters with the departed have been the primary reason why humans believe in the survival of soul or consciousness after death.
Our dreams show us things we may prefer not to think about — which is a major reason why many of us slam that door shut on our dreams and try to keep it closed. Those things may include future life problems, or parts of ourselves we tend to ignore or repress, or the larger values and issues involved in a situation we are approaching from a limited point of view.
We may prefer not to think about these matters, but if they are in our dreams, it is because our wiser Self is telling us we need to think about them. When our dreams show us future problems, they are also offering tools to avoid or contain those problems — if we will only heed the messages and take appropriate action. When our dreams reveal aspects of ourselves we tend to deny, they invite us to reclaim the energy we waste in denial and to integrate and work with all the aspects of our energy. When dreams reflect the bigger issues involved in a current situation, they offer us an inner compass and a corrective to decisions driven by ego or other people’s expectations.
When we see things in night dreams we don’t like, we need to pay careful attention, because we are being shown elements in our life situation that require understanding and action. The scarier the dream, the more urgent the need to receive its message and figure out what needs to be done.
Here’s one of my personal mantras:
Dreams are not on our case, they are on our side.
We need to stop running away from what our dreams are showing us and learn to stand our ground and confront the issue or the monster in the space where it first presents itself. If we fail to resolve a challenge in our dreams then – as Jung discovered – it is likely to come after us in the waking world, perhaps with even more scary consequences. A nightmare, in my lexicon, isn’t just a scary dream; it is and interrupted or aborted dream. We tried to escape from the dream, leaving it broken and unresolved, because we were too frightened to deal with what confronted us.
We want to learn to go back inside an interrupted dream of this kind, when we can muster the strength and resources to do that, and dream it onward to healing and resolution. We can do this through the Dream Reentry technique explained in my books The Three “Only” Things and Conscious Dreaming. We can ask a friend to go along with us as family support in conscious shared dreaming. We can write a satisfactory ending for the broken dream, which can be a fabulous exercise in creativity.
We may find we’ve been running away from an advisory than can help save our job or our relationship, or can enable us to avoid a road accident or an illness. Sometime we find that what we’ve been running away from is our own power. When we manage to brave up and face the beast or the alien, we may discover that what was most alien to us was our own larger Self, or that the wild animal we feared is an invitation to move beyond self-limitation into a life of wild freedom.
The first part of this article is adapted from The Three “Only” Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.
Photo: dream sharing at Mosswood Hollow (c) Robert Moss