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Dream Symbols and Living Spirits

February 6, 2008 on 12:57 pm | In Dream Symbols, Interpreting Dreams | 2 Comments

Dreams and symbols are both vast and interesting topics. There is a lot to think about, and both subjects touch on many disciplines: psychology, anthropology, mythology, and so on.

Cyber Celt wrote an interesting comment Sunday on my post about dream symbolism. This comment made me stop and think:

As you study symbols, do you notice how many are similar across different cultures. The raven, the wolf, the whale, the sun . . .

Well, I consider Raven, Wolf, and Whale to be spirits, not symbols, so cultures that actually interact with them both as real animals in nature and as spirits might have similar impressions of them.

The Sun, another spirit, shows very different faces to different cultures. She was the harsh and fearsome lioness to the predynastic Egyptians, a lovely female spirit to the ancient Japanese, and a dazzling young man to late pre-Christian Mediterranean cultures.

In modern cultures it appears that the spirits get turned into symbols, and the symbols often stray far from actual experience. Sadly, modern people don’t seem to realize that—or even miss having actual experiences, as opposed to making assumptions based on abstract ideas or commonly accepted symbolism.

Also, one symbol set is often derived from another, as symbols are passed from one culture to another, and as the needs of cultures gradually evolve.

So, yes, I do see similarities among some sets of symbols, but I try to accept each symbol set as a whole system, on its own merits, and not assume that the meanings that appear similar to me are universal—or even related to each other—if that makes any sense.

Archaeologist Mariya Gimbutas wrote some interesting things about the difference between living spirits and symbols (though not specifically about dreams) in her final book, The Living Goddesses.

It seems to me that most books and most of what is taught in school are too oversimplified. They make so many assumptions of universality (conveniently skipping the many facts that do not fit), that they are very misleading. The simplest cure for that, I guess, is to read the authentic teaching stories and mythologies of many cultures from every part of the world.

But if you read anthologies, you are often reading stories that were chosen (perhaps unconsciously) for how well they fit into the belief system of the author. So naturally they seem similar. And often the stories are also “retold” to make them fit even better.

I recommend reading books and papers by anthropologists and folklorists who go out and interview actual members of each culture and translate the stories as accurately as they can, without “retelling” to suit themselves.

A recent favorite book is Singing Story, Healing Drum, by Kyra Van Duesen, a folklorist who spent years interviewing shamans and storytellers in several different cultures and language groups in Siberia, letting the people speak for themselves. Siberia is a vast region of Asia that includes quite a few countries, some of which come from entirely unrelated language groups, so the cultures are different as well.

Van Duesen seems to have done a good job, as both the essentials of shamanism, shared by many cultures, and the specifics of the different cultural groups shine through. I love that book and highly recommend it.

Another great book on symbolism and spirits is The Spell of the Sensuous. One of the essays is on how becoming literate completely changes the way cultures think. The author shows how the thinking and the language changed rapidly even between the time of Socrates, who taught orally, and his own student Plato, who was a writer.

The author points out that preliterate cultures think concretely, based on actual experience of the senses, while literate cultures become more and more abstract, farther and farther from actual experience. That makes sense to me.

It is very hard to enter into the worldview of another culture. In many cases, you would have to learn a very difficult language and actually live with the people for years, participating in their culture, to begin to understand their reality. Without doing that, there is no way to know for sure if what appears to be the same dream symbol actually means the same thing.

For example, to some cultures the spider is a male trickster, called Iktomi by the Lakota and Anansi by some African peoples. Does that mean he has all the same characteristics? Not necessarily.

The nomadic peoples of the Great Plains observed the trap door spider, which tricks its prey into falling into a hole. I don’t know what kind of spider the Africans had observed, or how what they saw fit into their way of thinking.

To cultures that weave cloth, the spider is often female and benevolent. For example, to the Pueblo peoples, the Navajo, and ancient Greeks, spider is the weaver of the world (Grandmother Spider) and the patroness of weavers (Ariadne).

But there again, we are talking about spirits, not just symbols. The people believed that the spirits actually spoke to them in dreams and visions. They didn’t consider them to be symbols, though they often used symbols to represent the individual spirits.

Wow, this stuff is complicated to discuss…but it is the kind of stuff I think about much of the time. I love it!

Thanks, CyberCelt for your thought-provoking comment. I originally replied in another comment, but I ended up writing so much that it was too hard to read (because I can’t format comments properly with this blog theme). So it seemed best to just make it into a post.

I love it when blogging becomes a conversation, and I hope there will be more of that here. Dreams and dreaming should be discussed from many perspectives.

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  1. [...] Dream Symbols and Living Spirits Dreams and symbols are both vast and interesting topics. There is a lot to think about, and both subjects touch on many disciplines: psychology, anthropology, mythology, and so on. Cyber Celt wrote an interesting comment Sunday on my post about dream symbolism. This comment made me stop and think: As you study symbols, do you notice how many are similar across different cultures. The raven, the wolf, the whale, the sun . . . Well, I consider Raven, Wolf, and Whale to be spirits, not symbols [...]

    Pingback by Teaching on The Finance World For News and Information Around The World On Finance » Dream Symbols and Living Spirits — February 6, 2008 #

  2. Interesting post. I supposed the tendency to standardize a spirit into a common understanding is the habit that crosses cultures. There’s always the danger of killing off the relationship with the spirits.

    Happy Blog Your Blessings Sunday. Come by for a visit!

    Comment by SandyCarlson — February 10, 2008 #

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