“We talk to the spirit-child before a baby is born,” naturopath and traditional healer Burnham Burnham explained it to me. If the father-to-be is a dreamer, he is frequently the one who first meets the spirit-child in dreams. These dream encounters often unfold at places of water that exist in the natural world – a billabong, the shallows of a river, a waterfall – where the spirit-child plays with its own kind and is not confined to a single form. It can appear as a kingfisher or a platypus, as a fish or a crocodile. The dreamer may have to negotiate with the spirit-child, giving it reasons for coming into a human body. Finally, the dreamer plays soul-guide, escorting the incoming spirit to the mother’s womb.
On the way to death, the soul-guide appears from the other side. Departed loved ones and ancestral beings who are at home in the Dreamtime come calling, in dreams, to prepare a dying person for his or her journey. When the spirit leaves the body in death, these guides from the Dreamtime escort it along the roads to the afterlife, which may involve a sea crossing, descent through a cave, and/or the ascent of a magical tree whose roots are in the World Up Top.
Aboriginal dreaming is an antidote to Freud, who wrote that the dream “has nothing to communicate to anyone else”. The first Australians know that dreaming means everything and is a highly social activity. We meet other people and other beings when we go dreaming, and sharing dreams is not a matter of puzzling over obscure “texts” but a source of wisdom, community guidance and grand entertainment. Among nomad communities, listening to a dream by the camp fire, or over a morning cup of tea, is better fun than going to the movies, and may run the whole gamut from romance to horror, from Star Trek to soaps.
The 500-plus Aboriginal tribes of Australia share this understanding: a dream is a journey. When we dream, “the spirit goes on walkabout”, says Nungurrayi, a wise woman of the Kukatja, a people of the Western Desert. A powerful dreamer, she explains, is a person who knows how to travel in spirit to interesting places, and bring back a “good story”.
If you know that your dream is a journey, or a visitation by another dream traveler, then you are unlikely to be interested in the kind of analysis that reduces dream experiences to a list of symbols and then interprets what the symbols mean. When traditional Aborigines share dreams, they want to know who, when and where. Who was that sorcerer I saw pointing the bone at me? Who was that person who came to my camp and wanted sex with me? Where is the cave where the dream ceremony took place? When will the car break down?
When you know that a dream is a real experience, then you want to get the information clear in order to figure out what to do with it. Maybe you’ll want to tell that dream of the sorcerer all over the camp to scare away the actual sorcerer, as anthropologist Sylvie Poirier saw done in the Western Desert. Maybe you’ll get together with your dream lover (if the experience was pleasant) or find a way to prevent that person from intruding on your psychic space (if it was not). Perhaps you’ll travel to the dream cave, and celebrate a ritual to confirm and honor what has already taken place, in the Dreaming. Maybe you’ll get your car fixed before it breaks down.
Aboriginals look to dreams as the place of encounter with spiritual guides and sacred healers, who often appear as totem animals but may come in many other forms.
Aboriginal Australians are well aware that dreaming can be active; you can decide where you are going to go, and you can go consciously. You can travel across time and space, or into other dimensions. You can rendezvous with other dreamers, and embark on shared journeys. Shamans receive their calling and much of their training in this way.
The first Australians do not live under the illusion that it is necessary to go to sleep in order to dream. They dream with a living landscape in a way that baffles urbanized, deracinated people. Everything in that landscape is alive and conscious, every place has its Dreaming.
“Nothing is nothing,” as they say in the Cape York peninsula; everything means something.
Let’s be clear: there is The Dreaming, or the Dreamtime, the realm of gods and ancestral beings, and then there is everyday dreaming. The two interweave, but are not the same. The Kukatja, in common with many other Western Desert tribes, use the word Tjukurrpa for the ancestral Dreaming, but a different term – kapukurri – for personal dream experiences.
Dreamtime is creation time, and stories of the Dreamtime often tell us about the origin of things. But Dreamtime is not long ago; in Dreamtime it is always now.
Aborigines call Dreamtime the “All-at-Once”. Dreamtime is the seedbed of life, the origin of everything that is manifested in the world. It is not separate from the physical world; it is the inner pulse of the land. Our personal dreams may open portals to the All-at-Once.
The science of the 21st century may help us to grasp the Paleolithic science of the Earth’s oldest ongoing tradition. Dreamtime may encompass the six (or seven) hidden dimensions of the physical universe posited by superstring theory. Dreamtime is the multidimensional matrix in which 3D reality floats. By entering Dreamtime, we may be able to reach into the quantum soup of possibilities from which the events of the 3D world bubble up.
Graphic: “Making Songlines” (c) Robert Moss
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.