Dreams have been used as a source of power and self-knowledge since recorded history. In some societies they were, and are, seen as messages from the ancestors and/or Gods and Goddesses foretelling the future. Dreams are used for healing or cultural specific reasons such as the ‘soul retrieval’ techniques used by Shamans in ancient cultures and today in native aboriginal practices throughout the world that pre date the written word. Indeed some of the earliest written words were about dream interpretation, particularly in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures of Egypt and the Assyrian civilization.
When talking about the history of dream interpretation scholars used to think that each of the different civilizations had their own set meanings to certain symbols in dreams. But a recent translation of an ancient papyrus at the University of Cincinnati shows that this may not have been the case. Because ancient Egypt was such a centre for learning, culture, and trade it became a ‘melting pot’ for people from all around the Mediterranean who brought their spiritual beliefs with them. In this papyrus the writer goes into great depth about whether the dream messages are in the language of the local or foreign deities particularly if the person seeking answers is from another culture.
The translated texts suggest that interpreters generally preferred the Egyptian meanings of dreams. These were surprisingly modern in nature, taking in the idea of puns, symbols of the house as the personality, and other interpretation techniques that are used by dream analysts today. Classical Egyptian theology also promoted the idea of the ‘Ba’ and the ‘Ka’ as part of a persons’ energy essences. The Ba equates with the current idea of ‘soul’ and the Ka the slightly denser ‘etheric body’ both of which were capable of leaving the body during sleep. This equates to the idea of astral and etheric projection techniques that are popular with many Pagans today.
The modern approach to dreamwork evolved from the works of the psychotherapists Jung and Freud. Freud is credited with saying that dreams were the “highway to the subconscious” and coming up with a fixed meaning for many dream symbols. This was particularly popular with the people of the time who were already familiar with ‘dream books’ drawn from local folklore. Jung developed the idea that although some dream symbols are apparently universal others are particular to the individual dreamer.
Jung’s theory developed from both classical psychoanalysis and from studying systems such as the myths of different cultures to see the differences and similarities of various symbolic systems. From this he developed his theories of Archetypes and the collective subconscious. He also found evidence that in addition to symbols common to many parts of the world, each individual had a rich internal resource built up from their experience and worldview.
This approach was carried on by Jung’s acolytes who developed ways of working with dreams for insight and healing, one well-known approach is the Jung-Senoi dreamwork system. Based on the dream system of the Senoi tribe in Malaysia it uses group and individual dreams to guide actions and find answers to life and personal questions. The results of this research and development have filtered into general society and been picked up by the Pagan community.
Dreams in modern Paganism are used for many different purposes. Chief amongst them is to communicate with your own subconscious and learn your own language of symbols. The best way to do this is to keep a dream diary of all your dreams for a month and then go back over the diary and see the common threads and symbols that occur in relation to life events and personal situations. From this you can start to build up your own ‘dream book’ to help you in decoding what your unique dream symbols mean to you.
In some covens or magickal groups this is a key part of their ‘Book of Shadows’ or ‘Magickal Record’. From it you can start to distinguish which dreams are just sorting out daily happenings, those that are communications from the subconscious about important matters, and those that might be precognitive and/or astral projection. At first such recall may be difficult as most people dream, but the difference between sleeping and waking consciousness is so different that many people cannot recall their dreams. Some people even believe that they don’t dream.
The best way to remedy this is to keep a pen and paper by your bedside and write down any dreams, or at least their key points, as soon as you wake up. Sometimes it is better to write without even turning on the light, especially if you wake up in the middle of the night. This is where a large pad of A4 paper, rather than a notebook, comes in handy. With the pad you have a large area to write on, and only have to flip over the top sheet to continue. Some people find unruled pads even more liberating, as there is no nagging feeling they should be writing on the lines and it feels more ‘right’ to draw symbols and images.
Once you have begun to unravel the symbols of your subconscious you can begin to use them in ritual and magick. When you do this you may find some of your spells and altars change radically from the ‘standard’ ones but, at the same time, your spells become more effective and rituals more meaningful. If you wish you can combine the two so that you can associate the traditional and personal to work together synergistically. The combination can be as simple as making talismans of your dream symbols and hanging them from or near the corresponding Deities or images.
As you grow more experienced with this style of dreamwork you can even use impromptu ritual with good results. This is the meaning of the 20th century occultists term “Being on their Contacts” where they were in tune with the flow of events like a successful surfer on a wave. This level of connectedness also enabled them to be in contact with their True Will and draw what they needed into their lives with the minimum of effort. Using dreams in this manner you can too, although it may take a little practice and perseverance as with all areas of the magickal arts. Once you do however your whole life can become like a pleasant dream.