Saturday, February 29, 2020

Winged soul in the sky


I have been a speaker at a conference attended by a group of dealers in art and antique jewelry. I was impressed by the beauty of jeweled belts that two of them have in their stock; they tell me the best of these come from Jordan.
    Now I am outside. The world around me is shimmering. I marvel as the landscape becomes a field of crimson, streaming like silk. High above, to the left, I see a golden winged figure. Is it a golden bee, or a hummingbird?
    Ba.
    Clear as a bell, the one syllable is spoken in a beautiful feminine voice.
    I remember Egypt, and how the ba soul, seen as a human-headed bird, takes flight from the heart. The gods of Egypt, the neteru, have ba souls too. The sun-god Ra, as I recall, has seven and they take many forms. The benu bird the Greeks called the phoenix is a ba of Ra.
    I rise before the sun, thinking of the sun god, because of that vibrant field of red, and that glorious golden winged soul.

I found this dream report dated March 31, 2012, when I opened an old journal at random today. It is one of hundreds of dreams of ancient Egypt and its mindset - l'imaginaire égyptien  - that I have recorded from as far back as I can remember. In dreams, the ancestors are calling, calling. Ancestors of our bloodlines, and of the lands where we live or travel, and of traditions to which we are connected across space and times. Our dreams will show us where we need to clear ancestral karma, and where we can claim an empowering connection with the wise ones. Go deep enough in dreaming and you will understand that outside liner time - to which dreamers are not confined - all these connections are playing right now.

Image: Gold and enamel ba figurine from Ptolemaic Egypt, sold at auction at Christie's on April 26, 2012. 


Friday, February 28, 2020

The Page You’ll Dare to Read to a Friend


As a young man, Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine poet, essayist and maker of imaginal worlds, wrote this: 

I have already written more than one book in order to write, perhaps, one page. The page that justifies me, that summarizes my destiny, the one that perhaps only the attending angels will hear when Judgment Day arrives.
--
Hang on - can Borges really be saying that he (and we) must deliver the right page to the angel in order to be saved on the day of Judgment? That may be as hard as the flinty Calvinist belief of some of my father's Scottish family that we are damned unless we are born among the elect, and damned even so unless our lives are justified by works. I fled that doctrine very early, though those who have observed me working round the clock complain that it remains a sleeper (or rather, unsleeping) agent in me. I won't dispute that the creative spirit is stirred by a "divine unrest", whatever its source. 

Can Borges be serious when he says that to produce that one saving page, we may need to write "more than one book"? That's enough to make any aspiring writer break a sweat. -

Mercifully, in the last lines of his essay, young Borges relents. He wants

Simply, the page that, at dusk, upon the resolved truth of day's end, at sunset, with its dark and fresh breeze and girls glowing against the street, I would dare to read to a friend.

"A page I would dare to read to a friend." Now, that sounds manageable. And think what can be accomplished within a page! Borges' published essays are brilliant miniatures, often only a page in length, as are the stories collected in El Hacedor ("The Maker"). Even his astonishing story "The Aleph", in which his word magic brings a kabbalist legend alive and allows us to see, for a shimmering moment, a sphere the size of a coin that contains universal space - complete with tigers and pistons, tides and armies and a woman in Inverness with her "haughty body" and "violent hair" and the cancer in her breast - fills less than a dozen pages.-
-
A page a day. In my writing workshops *, one of the few requirements I set for participants is: bring us one page every day, in any genre, that you are willing to read to the group. When you go home, do the same, Write one page you would dare to read to a friend at the end of the day. It may simply be a page from your journal, which may be the most important book you will even write. How does that sound to you?   

[1] "A Profession of Literary Faith" (1926) translated by Susan Jill Levine, in Eliot Weinberger (ed) Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).

[*] I am leading my five-day creative writing retreat, “Writing as a State of Conscious Dreaming” at magical Mosswood Hollow, in the red cedar woods 45 minutes east of Seattle, from May 18-22 and in the fairyland of northern Bohemia, near Česká Skalice, from August 19-23.


The Dream Secret of Celtic Inspiration


Awen - inspiration - was, as Caitlin Matthews reminds us, "the supreme preoccupation of Celtic poets, especially among those who had inherited the ancient prophetic and visionary arts of the ovate or faith - probably the earliest form of Celtic shaman." [1] The word awen derives from the Indo-European root -uel, meaning 'to blow', and is kissing cousin with the Welsh, awel meaning "breeze". In contemporary druidism, awen is depicted as three rays emanating from three points of light.

     We have a precious twelfth-century account of the importance of dreaming in the access to awen for the ancient Celtic poets and prophets. The source is Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis) in his Itinerary of Wales. Gerald describes the practice of the awenyddion, or "inspired ones". In a key passage, he writes:

Their gifts are usually conferred upon them in dreams, Some seem to have sweet milk or honey poured on their lips; to others [it seems] that a written document is applied to their mouths, and immediately on rising up from sleep, after completing their chant, they publicly declare that they have received this gift. [2]

1. Caitlin Matthews, "The Three Cauldrons of Inspiration" in Caitlin & John Matthews, The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom. Shaftesbury, Dorset and Rockport MA: Element, 1994, p. 219.
2. Translation from Gerald of Wales in Nikolai Tolstoy, The Quest for Merlin. : Little, Brown, 1985, p. 140.

Art: John Martin, "The Bard" (1817)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Claim the gift of nightmares

Dreams are not on our case; they are on our side. This is one of my personal mantras about dreams and (yes) it applies even to nightmares.
     In my personal lexicon, a nightmare is not only a "bad" or scary dream; it is an interrupted or aborted dream. We are so frightened we run away. We wake ourselves up and try to slam the door on the dream experience, hoping that it is "only" a dream and can't get out and come after us.
     This is a very foolish strategy. The challenges we face in dreams are challenges that are being presented by life itself. If we learn to confront the underlying issues inside the dream space, we may be able to prevent those issues from blowing up in our regular lives. This may require us to take action in waking life, based on what we have learned in our dreams; but we will lack the essential data required for appropriate action if we have left the dream broken and abandoned, behind that door we are trying to keep shut.
      Common forms of the nightmare include:

The nameless terror.
The intruder.
Being pursued.
Being attacked by a wild animal.
Suffering an infestation of bugs, spiders or bats.
An unwanted encounter with the dead.
Being attacked by vampires, demons or zombies.
Being overwhelmed by a giant wave or a twister.
Being in a plane crash or an auto accident.

You probably have your own version. We have different lives, different characters, and different styles of dreaming (another reason why you will never find the full meaning of dreams by looking them up in a dream dictionary). My own least favorite dreams are ones in which I am stuck in a place where I don't want to be.
     Whatever the content of the dreams you flee from, the Rx is the same: try to learn to confront the challenge on the ground where it is presented. This requires firm intention and some degree of courage. You want to learn to go back inside a dream you fled and try to clarify and resolve what is going on there. You can accomplish this through the dream reentry technique explained in several of my books, including Conscious Dreaming and Active Dreaming.
      You want to give a name to that nameless dread. You want to know whether the plane crash was literal or symbolic and, either way, what you need to do to avoid it. You want to establish whether that dream intruder is someone who could literally break into your house, or a disease that could invade your body, or an aspect or yourself - maybe even your Greater Self - that is trying to get your attention. If you are scared of dream vampires, you want to think about who or what in your life may be draining your energy; if your dream house is infested, you need to know whether this reflects a condition in your body that may need medical attention.
       I think it's like this: our dream producers are constantly trying to alert us to things essential to our health, wholeness and well-being. When we ignore these messages, they resort to special effects to get our attention. If we persist in ignoring the messages, the problem the nightmares reflect is likely to show up in our regular lives. Nightmares are a gift in the way that a smoke detector going off in the middle of the night - when there is a real fire hazard - is a gift.
       Sometimes we find that what we are fleeing in dreams is an aspect of our own power. When I first started living in rural New York, I dreamed repeatedly of a giant bear that came into my bedroom. He did not menace me, but he was so much bigger than me that he scared me. Finally, I told myself (as I would now counsel anyone) that I needed to go back inside those dreams, confront the bear, and discover why he was in my space. When I did that, the bear caught me up in his great embrace and showed me that we were joined at the heart, reassuring me that when I needed healing for myself or others, he would be there. I later learned that the bear is the great medicine animal of North America, and he has kept his promise.
       I have worked with several people challenged by cancer who fled from sharks in their dreams. When they agreed to swim in those dream water through conscious dream reentry, they were able to claim the shark as an ally in healing. The shark, an impeccable killing machine that rarely gets cancer, is indeed an extraordinary ally in healing cancer. But to claim that kind of power, we are first required to brave up.
       In summary: the best remedy for nightmares is to summon the courage and the necessary guidance and protection to go back in, face the source of the fear on its own ground, and stay with the experience until you achieve resolution. If reentry is no longer an option (because the dream is mostly gone) do things that help you to spit out (literally) and shake off (literally) the negative legacy, ground yourself with the good Earth - and make it your intention not to succumb to dread next time. What we most fear is often what we most need to face,

Art: "Shark Woman" by Aniela Sobieski.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The archangel of dreams


Gabriel is the archangel of dreams, for all three peoples of the Book – Jews, Christians and Muslims.
He first appears in scripture in the Book of Daniel, where he explains a troubling vision that Daniel does not understand. The archangel shows himself in the form of a man. But when he comes closer, Daniel is seized with fear and awe and falls prostrate on the ground. [Daniel 8:13-16 NJB] When Gabriel comes again to explain a prophecy about the restoration of Jerusalem, he “swoops” on Daniel in “full flight.” [Dan. 9:22]
The name Gabriel is a composite of two Hebrew words, meaning “man” (gever) and “God” (El). As Rabbi Joel Covitz comments, “Gabriel brings man to God and God to man, thus divinizing man and humanizing God.” [1]
In the Talmud, Gabriel figures as an angel of justice, smiting the hosts of Sennacherib with a sharpened scythe. He is also an interpreter between nations, fluent in languages such as Syriac and Chaldee. In Jewish tradition, Gabriel is sometimes identified with the nameless voice that told Noah to prepare the Ark, and the invisible force that prevented Abrahaman from sacrificing Isaac, and the voice that spoke to Moses from the burning bush.
The Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, identifies Gabriel both as the Master of Dreams, and as the angel who mentors the soul before birth. In this conception, the bringer of dreams is also the source of the soul’s knowledge of its destiny and its place in the order of creation.
In the Christian story, Gabriel is the angel of the Annunciation. He appears to Mary to announce the coming of the Christ, as he formerly appeared to Zacharias to announce the coming of John the Baptist. He visits Joseph in a dream to reveal the identity of the divine child. He returns in another dream to warn the family to flee from Herod’s persecution.
    In a Celtic blessing, he is called "the seer of the Virgin".
The beauty of his face and form are almost feminine in countless Renaissance images of the Annunciation – in Leonardo’s version, for example, and in Melozzo da Forli’s.
The whole of Islam hangs on Gabriel’s relationship, as dream guide, with the prophet Muhammad. The prophet claimed it was Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic) of the “140 pairs of wings”, who dictated the Koran to him, sura by sura. It was Gabriel who escorted Muhammad on his Night Journey (miraaj) to gain the personal knowledge of higher worlds.
Gabriel brought Muhammad an extraordinary ride, the Buraq, sometimes depicted as a mule with a woman’s face. Like the human mind, the Buraq is restive and must be calmed by the angel before it can carry Muhammad through the many worlds. They fly to Jerusalem, swift as thought. They ascend to higher realms from the Dome of the Rock. They explore successive heavens – some say seven, others nine – where Muhammad interviews spiritual masters who once lived on earth, as well as planetary angels.
Gabriel parts company with Muhammad at the Lote Tree of the Farthest Boundary. The Lote Tree is unlike any tree known on earth. It marks the outer limit of the realm of images; beyond this, the intellect may not go.
When Muhammad returns to his body, with the inspiration for the Koran, he finds that water from the jug his mystical steed kicked over during its take-off is still spilling onto the floor of his cave. His travels through all the heaven worlds have taken less time than is required to empty a jug of water.
Muslims believe that Gabriel descends to earth once a year on the Night of Destiny, towards the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
In Kabbalah, Gabriel is associated with Yesod, Foundation, and the sphere of the Moon. In the Western Mystery traditions, his color is blue and his element is water. 

My favorite account of Gabriel is from Rumi. The great Persian mystical poet put himself inside the scene in which Mary first encountered the archangel and found that (of course) she was terrified.
Alone in her room, Mary saw a “heart-ravishing form”. It “rose up before her from the face of the earth, bright as the moon and the sun.”
She trembled with fear. She was naked and feared that her body would be ravished by this amazing power.
She was so scared she jumped out of her skin, trusting herself to the protection of God. She was practiced in “flight to the unseen.” “Seeing this world to be a kingdom without permanence, she made a fortress of the presence of God” – and sought shelter in that fortress now.
The angel spoke to her. “I am the true messenger of the Presence. Do not fear me.” As he spoke, a pure light flamed from his lips, like a candle, and spiraled up to the star Arcturus.
“You flee from me from the seen into the unseen, where I am lord and king. What are you thinking? My home is in the unseen. What you see before you is only a portrait. Mary, look closely, for I am difficult to grasp. I am a new moon and a yearning in the heart.
“You seek refuge from the one who is your refuge. You confuse the Friend of your soul with a stranger. You flee from the Friend you seek. Don’t choose sorrow when what is before you is joy.”

Many years ago, in a critical passage of my life, I had a vision of Gabriel while walking in bright sunlight on a dusty farm road beside a cornfield. The power of this vision brought me to my knees and set tears streaming down my face. I knew I was in the presence of Gabriel. The angel's beauty was so great that I thought of him/her as feminine more than masculine. I wrote a poem from that encounter:

Song for Gabriel


My heart is a song that rises
It is a rainbow bridge
spanning abysses
of place and time

My heart is a song that rises
to walk in the One Light
to heal the wound
between earth and sky

My heart is a song that rises
It is the crystal fire
that wakens the sleeper
into the dream

My heart is a song that rises
It is the pure waterfall
that cleanses my path
with tears of joy. 



1. Joel Covitz, Visions of the Night: A Study of Jewish Dream Interpretation (Boston: Shambhala, 1990) 58

Art: Melozzo da Forli, "The Archangel Gabriel"(15th century)


Tuesday, February 25, 2020

To carry the water of death you must open the spring of the muses


Different elements in myths call to us at different points in our lives; different archetypes turn us on or turn us off. Revisiting the trials set for Psyche by Venus, I am thrilled and chilled by a feature of her assignment to fetch water from the River Styx that I had not dreamed on deeply enough until now. Anyone who knows the Greek myths remembers that even the gods are terrified of the waters of Styx, who is a dark and merciless goddess, older than the Olympians and closely associated with Nemesis. The gods swear oaths on the Styx, whose waters destroy any sentient being and cannot be contained in any normal vessel. If a god breaks a Stygian oath, he will lie dead for one year and be exiled from Olympus for another nine.
     Of course the girl Psyche has no chance of fetching the water of death without the intercession of a greater power. Zeus sends his eagle and the bird catches water from the falls in carved crystal bottle that Psyche was given, so now she can go on to an even more dangerous trial.
    Our source for the story of Psyche and Eros is a comic novel by Apuleius that veers from bawdy farce to astonishing spiritual depth. Rereading Marie-Louise von Franz' excellent monograph The Golden Ass of Apuleius I am thrilled by a story about the waters of Styx that goes to the heart of the creative project.

"The only way to keep some of it, according to myth, is in the hoof of a horse,or the horn of a mythological (in reality nonexisiting) , one-horned Scythian ass. The horn, a phallic symbol, symbolizes the creative force of the Self, and the horse hoof has also, in a simpler form, the same meaning, because it was believed that horses could stamp springs out of the earth and that the kick of a horse fertilized the earth. So it shows that only the principle of creativeness in the human soul can hold its own against the destructiveness of the water of Styx....Creative achievement is the only 'vessel' which can hold the water of Styx." [1]

I am reminded of Pegasus, the magic flying horse born of the blood of nightmares, opens the spring of the muses. I wrote these lines in celebration:

Harder. The hooves drive sparks from the rock.
The great wings beat the air, driving a warm wind
Across the snowy slopes of the mountain.
Again, the hooves come down. And again.
The rock groans and yields, releasing the jets
Of the secret spring. I am down on my knees,
Catching the water in my open mouth. [2]

Dream on this, and you may find yourself approaching the site of your own creative source, your inner spring of the muses. Be prepared to stamp hard.


1. Marie-Louise von Franz, The Golden Ass of Apuleius: The Liberation of the Feminine in Man (Boston & London: Shambhala, 1992) 124-5.
2. Robert Moss, "Becoming Caduceus" in Here, Everything Is Dreaming: Stories and Poems (Albany NY: Excelsior Editions, 2013) 76.

Photo of a Styx in the Araonian mountains of the Peloponnese by Artemis Katsadoura


Monday, February 24, 2020

Shelf elves at play with The Dream of H.G.Wells


I had just finished dressing and was getting ready to go to my desk to write when a shelf elf flung H.G.Wells’ novel The Dream at me from the top of a tall bookcase holding fiction in the room where I do much of my horizontal meditation. Of course I had to interrupt what I thought I was doing and explore the themes I had just been given. In the last pages on Wells' novel I read:
    "It was a life," said Sarnac, "and it was a dream, a dream within this life; and this life too is a dream. Dreams within dreams, dreams containing dreams, until we come at last, maybe, to the Dreamer of dreams, the Being who is all beings."
     In the novel a man living 2000 years in the future falls asleep in a ruined city and dreams he is in the body and life of a man in London in the early 20th century. The dream is presented as an entirely real experience of another life. 
     Another character in the novel reports a dream of a shorter, wilder life experience in a very different body.
    "I dreamed the other day that I was a panther that haunted a village of huts in which lived naked children and some very toothsome dogs. And how I was hunted for three years and shot at five times before I was killed. I can remember how I killed an old woman gathering sticks and hid part of it under a tree to finish it on the morrow. It was a very vivid dream. And as I dreamed it by no means horrible. But it was not a clear and continuous dream like yours. A panther's mind is not clear and continuous, but passes from flashes of interest to interludes of apathy and utter forgetfulness."
    The theme that personal evolution involves relations between past, present and future personalities - alternate and other selves - was of consuming interest to Wells. After The Dream, he wrote Christina Alberta's Father, a novel in which a man of modest circumstances thinks he is simultaneously, across time, King Sargon of Akkad.
    The framing device of the dream was used repeatedly by Wells (see A Dream of Armageddon). He also makes us aware that a dream of this kind is more than a literary device; it is a portal to real experiences in other times and other worlds. I have heard that Wells himself dreamed of life as Sargon, who gets a glowing report in his Outline of History.

Shelf elves don't make slips. They cause slips often allow us to think that we made them.
    Shelf elves bring books to my attention in several ways. Sometimes a book falls from a shelf. Sometimes it is clear it was thrown or pushed. Sometimes the books at the top of a pile fall off, revealing the book that is now featured. Then there are the bookshops where exactly the right book will be at eye level on a shelf when I enter the door, or on top of a stack of new arrivals. 
     For the physics of such things, we can now consider the scene in the film Interstellar where a man inside a tesseract - who is dead in one world but alive in another - pushes books on a shelf in his daughter's room from the other side to get her attention.


Toilet dreams


“Shit is good!” The elderly Italian grocery store owner’s eyes twinkled as she bagged tomatoes and homemade pasta for me. “If you crap in your dreams, it means money.”
Her reading is an ancient one, still alive in many family traditions. Josefina had carried it with her from Sicily. The association between excrement and wealth isn’t silly, when we remember that gold and silver come from under the earth, the repository of night soil. One of the names of Hades, the Greek lord of the Underworld, is Ploutos (Roman Pluto) which means The Wealthy. 
Sometimes our dream producers make the link impossible to miss. I once dreamed I was on the potty and produced a gusher. What might have been an explosion of diarrhea was a great burst of liquid gold. I woke laughing, feeling a happy release and also a terrific sense of possibility.
As with any dream symbol, the excrement in your dream isn’t necessarily the same as in mine. A good guess, with many dreams of defecation, is that you are eliminating something that needs to come out of your body or your life. To “take a dump”, in a dream, may be to dump what you need to let go. When your feelings tell you that such dreams are positive, they may indicate effective cleansing and releasing, perhaps a return to good health. A bowel movement, in a dream, may herald or accompany a move beyond a blocked or stuck situation. We sometimes say, “I’m feeling constipated” as a metaphor for the sense that things just aren’t coming out of coming through as they should do.
A common variant of the poop dream is one in which we need to go but find ourselves doing it in public. Sometimes this reflects a need for privacy in the dreamer’s life. Sometimes it’s more about whether and when it’s okay to “let it go” in front of others. Guidance on that may come from the reactions of others inside the dream. If other people in the dream don’t seem to notice or mind, that may be telling you it’s okay to let it all out. Let’s remember that in some cultures, going in public was normal bathroom procedure.
Colloquial phrases involving shit or its synonyms may give us a clue to the meaning of a dream of this ilk. Relevant phrases that plop to mind include:
I’m pooped
The shit hit the fan
I’m in deep doodoo
Shit for brains
He/she is a real shit
That’s crap
On the shitlist
Time to shit or get off the pot
This dream theme has been actively discussed for as long as people have been dreaming and needing to go. Some of the best pages in the most famous dream book of the ancient world, the Oneirocritica (“Interpretation of Dreams”) by Artemidorus, are devoted to skatá(the Greek word for shit, from which we derive the term “scatological”). Though I am no fan of dream dictionaries, I have a soft spot for Artemidorus, because he was always careful to note that similar dreams mean very different things according to the varied circumstances of the dreamer, and he checked on incidents that followed a particular dream.
  If you see a lot of human shit in a public place, according to Artemidorus, you won’t be able to accomplish anything there. In general, it doesn’t bode well if someone is shitting on your head. But that depends. “I know of a man who dreamed that a rich friend was defecating over his head. That man received a fortune and was named the heir of his friend.” On the other hand, a man who dreamed he was “befouled with dung by a poor acquaintance” later suffered great damage from the person who shat on him in the dream.
Defecating while in bed is not a good thing in a dream, says Artemidorus; it could mean you’ll be bedridden. It could also mean that your relations with a spouse or partner are in trouble, since the bad has been defiled. On the other hand to defecate copiously while seated on a toilet means “good luck for all men”, including “the alleviation of many cares and all distress. For the body is lightest after it has relieved itself.” It’s also a happy event when you dream you relieve yourself this way at a place in nature, on a road or in a river. Watch out, however, if you dream you are pooping in a temple, a place of commerce, or a public street.
I’m not sure I would be happy if I dreamed that anyone was pooping on my head although some folk traditions maintain that having a bird shit on your head in physical life is a very good omen.

Photo by RM. This sidewalk oracle - a toilet left out on the curb for the pickers on garbage collection day -was my prompt to revisit the theme of this piece.



Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Nishan shaman brings back a soul from the Land of the Dead

Remember Orpheus, who went down to the Underworld to try to bring back a soul from the Land of the Dead? In an epic poem recorded in the Manchu language – related to the Tungusic language family that gave us the word “shaman” – we have a story that folklorists might place in the “Orphic” category but differs from the Greek myth in three important ways. First, the shaman succeeds in retrieving the soul – because, unlike Orpheus, she refuses to look back. Second, the shaman is a woman. Third, she is not operating on behalf of a spouse or lover or even a close family member, as in many tales of this kind. She intervenes on behalf of a stranger in need. 
     By the fires of the Daur Mongols and neighboring peoples of Manchuria, they still tell the story of the Nishan shaman. In addition to the oral traditions, there is a written version, collected by Russian ethnographers before the Bolshevik Revolution; The Tale of the Nishan Shaman is the one great surviving text of Manchu literature. By harmonizing these voices, we can reclaim the extraordinary experience of a shaman who is a woman, and a dreamer who uses her gift to rescue souls, even from the Underworld. It begins like this:

A rich boy is out hunting. They call him Sergudai. He kills the animals without reverence, for sheer pleasure. Sometimes he does not even bother to send his retainers to take the hides and the meat. He revels in running down a mature female reindeer; her antlers are bigger than those of the males. He kills her with his arrows, and laughs.
     The animal spirits complain to Irmu Khan, the Lord of Death, that the order of things has been disturbed. The death lord sends his shadow to strike down the boy hunter and carry his soul down to his inner keep in his sunless domain.
     The boy’s father, a wealthy headman called Baldu Bayan, is inconsolable. A stranger tells him there is a powerful shaman, who lives on the Nishan river, who could bring back his son. Bayan is skeptical; the local shamans are greedy charlatans and the stranger is a hunchback in rags. Then the stranger performs a disappearing act on a many-colored cloud, and Bayan understands – whether or not he was dreaming – that his message came from an immortal.
     So the father sets out in quest of the shaman. People describe her house, on the east side of the river. When he comes to the western shore, Bayan looks over the water and sees a pretty young woman doing the wash. She is wearing a simple, unbelted dark blue gown, the year-round garb of any other ordinary woman. But when he swims his horse across the river, he greets her with respect. “Elder Sister, are you the shaman?”
“Not me,” she tells him. She directs him back across the river, to another house. When Bayan makes his way back, they tell him on the other side that he has been deceived. Shamans are tricky.
Bayan crosses the river for the third time. “You are a powerful shaman. Can you bring back my son?” She must consult her guardian spirits, her onggors. They can take many forms. They promise their help. She must also ask permission from her mother-in-law, because she is living with her husband’s clan, and is required to conform to their rules, shaman or not. She has been a widow for some time, and may be older than she looks. The mother-in-law says she can go.
Her personal name is Teteke; it is there in the Manchu version of the tale. But most people who tell her story call her simply “the Nishan shaman”, as if to release her from personal and family circumstances. [Note the word “shaman” is not gender specific]
The shaman’s fee is agreed. The Nishan shaman gathers her professional tools – her drum, her robe hung with bronze mirrors and horse tails, her antlered headdress – and follows Bayan back to his home, where the son’s body is laid out. She knows that her work will require a long journey, where no normal person would choose to go. Offerings will be required for the gatekeepers she must pass; bean paste and bundles of paper, a dog and a rooster.
    Her safety requires an assistant who is a powerful drummer and singer, strong enough to propel her along the roads of the Underworld – and, above all, to bring her back. She names the man she must have, Sunny Anggu. There’s an edge of excitement when he is named; we sense that they know each other body and soul.
When Sunny arrives, the Nishan shaman gets ready to journey. She is unrecognizable now as the girl with the wash, resplendent in her long fringed coat of skins, hung with bells and horsetails, with a bronze mirror hanging over her heart. In her own language, the mirror is called the “soul vessel”, a place to capture and carry soul. She pounds her skin drum, while Sunny echoes her beat. She is cantering, galloping, turning to the left, her feet almost noiseless in her high reindeer boots. A deerskin fringe flutters over her face, hiding her eyes. The antlers of her headdress sweep back and forth, in a spray of feathers.
She dances until there is foam on her lips, until she crumples into a dream as deep as death, her drum over her face. “She dies,” they say.
The hoofbeats do not slacken or tire. Her assistant is riding his drum, sending her the power.
The steady beat helps her to make a road out of a chaos of fog and sourceless shadows. The road brings her to a river. The Lame Boatman is on the other side. He is a hard bargainer. She has to promise more than is easy before he comes for her in his dugout canoe.
There are more crossings, more negotiations, and many tests of her courage. She comes to a river without a ferryman; she crosses by making her drum her boat.She descends at last to the inner keep of Irmu Khan. She sees the soul of the boy hunter playing with a youngster she knows to be the child of Death. None of her companion spirits can help her now. She must raise a cry from her heart and her gut that can reach all the way to the nest of the heaven bird that is her strongest ally.
    In some lands, they call him the Garuda. The shaman’s cry spirals up from the depths of the Underworld. In the Middle World, her assistant echoes it. The cry rises up the World Tree, and rouses the heaven bird from his nest. The great bird unfolds his long form and swoops down. At the shaman’s direction, he folds himself tight enough, like a projectile, to penetrate the fortress of Irmu Khan, snatches up the boy hunter, and delivers him to the shaman, who places the soul in her mirror.
Now she is racing back up the confusing, murky roads from the lower depths, pursued by Death’s servitors. Her animal guardians can help her now, blurring her trail, leading pursuers in the wrong directions.
Her greatest test is in front of her. From a mob of hungry spirits, twittering like bats, a man’s shape separates and becomes gruesomely familiar. It’s her ex-husband. He often out her down, when he was still living, beating her if the milk was sour or his meal was late, chasing after other women. But he wants her now, desperately. “Take me with you,” he implores, alternately cajoling and threatening. When she explains that there is nothing to be done for him – his body rotted long ago – he tries to hold her in the Underworld by laying a guilt trip on her, then by brute force. She has to fight him and silence him. “She stamps on his face and his mouth” so stop the words that are draining her strength and resolve.
She stops by a kind of registration office and bargains hard for a good long lifespan for Sergudai, the soul in the mirror. She has a moving encounter with Omosi-mama, the "divine grandmother" who "causes leaves to unfurl and the roots to spread properly," who is the giver of souls and protectress of children. We learn that it was Omosi, no less, who ordained that Teteke would become a great shaman.
The Nishan shaman loses so much energy during all of this that she might never make it back, except for the pull of the drum. Sunny is beating harder and faster, calling her back. Now she is riding his beat, back to her prostrate body. When she rises in that, she can finish her job by fanning the boy hunter’s soul from its vessel – the bronze mirror – back into his own body. The Nishan shaman has dreamed strong enough to rescue a soul even from the fortress of Death.

Her feat does not go unpunished. The Nishan shaman is not allowed to enjoy her triumph for long. In the Manchu text, her late husband’s mother brings the equivalent of a legal action against her, for failing to bring her ex back. She is forced to relinquish the tools of her trade – the antlers and the mirror, the robe and the drum – and to give up her lover, the indefatigable drummer, and becomes just another of the drab “work women” in her village, bound to the routines and taboos of her husband’s people. In this last version we encounter a perennial theme in the history of women.
     The Nishan shaman is not a solitary figure in the history of shamanism, especially in this part of Central Asia. The Chukchi say “Woman is by nature a shaman.” [1] Among the Manchus, shamans were mostly women. There is strong evidence that under the Shang dynasty in China [1766-1122 BCE], shamans again were mostly women. For the Nishan shaman, as for women of power in other cultures, the way to establish authority is to dream stronger than others, to become at home with the uncanny, and to risk herself in a soul journey from which most men would flinch. A woman with gifts like hers will be sought after in an emergency, but the guardians of the conventional order will pull her down, if they can, once the crisis is over. [2]

For more on the Nishan shaman, please see The Secret History of Dreaming, chapter 1. In this telling I have interwoven (a) the Manchu version translated in Margaret Nowak and Stephen W. Durrant, The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: a Manchu Folk Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977 with (b) oral traditions, especially a Daur Mongol version transcribed in Caroline Humphrey and Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

References

  1. M. A. Czaplica, Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914, p 243.
  2. Stephen W. Durrant,, “The Nišan Shaman Caught in Cultural Contradiction” in Signs, Vol. 5, No.2. (Winter, 1979), pp. 338-347.
Image: The Nishan shaman with her drum and antlered headdress. Illustration from Nowak and Durrant (trans.) The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: a Manchu Folk Epic.


Thursday, February 20, 2020

Dreaming with Julia and Ulysses S. Grant


 Broken Mirrors and Never Turning Back: Dreaming and Superstition in the Lives of General Ulysses S. Grant and Julia Dent Grant

Guest blog by Wanda Easter Burch


Julia Dent believed in dreams, coincidence, naming bedposts, fairies and in an entire host of superstitions. Ulysses Grant believed in dreams, coincidence, and a few of his own hard-held superstitions. Julia married Lt. Ulysses Grant in 1848.
     In the years 1843 and 1844 Ulysses had begun an intense courtship that escalated to weekly visits when he was in the area of Julia’s home. He was aware of Julia’s quick wit, and intelligence but also became aware of Julia's attachment to folklore, fairies and her flawless track record of dreaming the future. Ulysses, a lieutenant at that time, left with orders to Louisiana, and Julia, knew he would not be back in his usual barracks.
    Julia consciously set a dream intent. She had a new bed and believed in a popular superstition called naming the bedposts. The “naming” was of the specific intended if you wanted your first dream to be of him or her. Julia named a bedpost Ulysses, and “
I did dream of Mr. Grant.  I thought he came at Monday noon and was dressed in civilian clothes. He came in, greeted us all most cordially, and seated himself near me; when I asked him how long he would remain, he said: ‘I am going to try to stay a week.’”
    Julia shared the dream with friends, all of whom said it would come true; but Julia protested that it could not come true because Ulysses was sailing down the Mississippi, “far below the mouth of the Ohio.” Monday morning progressed into the afternoon and Julia’s maid came to her and pointed toward the gate where Lt. Ulysses Grant was seen arriving, uncharacteristically in civilian clothing just as she had seen him in her “bedpost” dream.

   Julia met Ulysses in the drawing room. Certainly aware of a dream coming to fulfillment, she tested its information and asked Ulysses how long he planned to remain. He replied that he would try to stay for a week. “ On inquiring how he happened to be dressed in civilian’s clothes, he told me he was wearing borrowed plumage; that he had plunged into Gravois Creek and was nearly drowned, was of course very wet and had to borrow dry clothing from brother John, who lived some two miles from us.” His men wrote that once he started forward, whether it be on a march or in a battle, or just crossing a creek, he believed it was bad luck to turn around in a journey or on a path and go back. So Ulysses would have never returned to camp and put on his own dry clothing, thus, playing out a crucial element in Julia’s dream. [1]
     Ulysses took heed when intuition or dreams, folklore or fairies guided Julia’s surroundings. Just after her marriage to Ulysses, Julia sobbed with fear when they moved into a new house and found an heirloom mirror broken when she opened the moving box. The mirror had been in her father’s house for fifty years: “The Captain, in place of being impatient with me, tried to soothe me, saying, “It is broken, and tears will not mend it now.” I sobbed out: “It has always been at home, and then it is such a bad sign.” This meant someone would die within the year, a folk belief that dated to the Roman Empire.
     According to Julia's reminiscences, Ulysses knelt gently beside her and suggested that perhaps the breaking of the mirror did not cause misfortune to come. She said, "no," it did not cause the misfortune but foretold misfortune. The astute, now Captain Ulysses S. Grant, carefully suggested that since the broken mirror did not bring the misfortune that Julia had no cause for such grief. He also suggested, even more astutely, that they take each fragment of the broken mirror and have them made into single and separate mirrors, thereby breaking the manifestation of the foretelling of bad fortune. Julia agreed.[2]
     In her reminiscences, Julia described her need to verify and validate dreams, often using events as they unfolded to be the confirmation she needed.
     A significant dream captured a perilous moment in Ulysses’ life after “Colonel” Grant moved to Missouri and then to Cairo, Illinois. He had asked Julia to visit him there and to bring the children, now four in number. Nervous and frustrated, Julia “saw Ulys” a few rods away but only his head and shoulders as though he were on horseback. He also looked at her in what she thought was a reproachful manner. She awoke and called out his name: “Ulys!” Before leaving for the remaining leg of the trip Julia heard about the battle of Belmont. Ulysses met her at the train and she said that she had seen him in a dream on the day of the battle. He asked the hour of the vision, and when she told him the hour, he responded: “Just about that time I was on horseback and in great peril, and I thought of you and the children, and what would become of you if I were lost. I was thinking of you, my dear Julia, and very earnestly too.” [3]
      Julia's intuitive "feelings," equally as important as her night dreams, saved her husband's life when he was invited to accompany President Lincoln to the theater. It was not a rumored and difficult relationship between Mary Lincoln and Julia Grant; it was a strong, abiding intuitive feeling of danger that drove Julia to insist that Ulysses leave an important cabinet meeting immediately upon closing business and take a carriage for a train home rather than leave for the theater. The series of events began unfolding when a strangely dressed young man took a position near the door to her room. The young man said he was sent by Mrs. Lincoln and that she would call for Julia at 8:00 to go to the theater. In an instant flash of presentiment of danger, Julia declined. The young man reminded her that the newspapers had announced that General Grant would be with President Lincoln at the theater.
      Julia sent a note to General Grant telling him she wanted to go home that evening. Ulysses sent word back for her to pack her trunks and that they would leave immediately for Philadelphia. At a late luncheon four men sat near Julia and her luncheon companions. She noticed odd eating behavior, one of them, for example, holding a spoon near his mouth but never eating. The same man rode past the Grant’s carriage later in the evening, glaring through the carriage glass.[4] 
      In one of her last unexplained dreams recorded in her reminiscences, Julia sadly related a vision in Washington in which she “looked down upon a great throng surging up the avenue leading from Pennsylvania Avenue towards the White House. In the midst of this throng of moving people was an open carriage drawn by four prancing horses, and seated in this carriage with his pretty wife beside him was one dear to me. The carriage drove on and stopped at the portals of the White House…After that, I gave no more thought to the subject, as I knew General Grant was not to be there, nor was I.” [5]
      These reminiscences shared a strong sense of Julia’s belief in the destiny of Ulysses Grant and of her destiny alongside him as his wife. She envisioned success, warnings of danger, and safe passage through difficult times and onward through a grand hero’s march around the world and back again to dreamed acclaim in the streets of New Orleans and sadly not in the presidential mansion.

References 

[1] John Y. Simon, ed. The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses P. Grant), (Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press), 1975. 49-50 and Footnote 22:  p. 63:  Julia Grant gave a more detailed account of the marriage proposal to a journalist in 1890. Foster Coates, “The Courtship of General Grant,”Ladies’ Home Journal, VII (October, 1890).
2 Ibid., 84.
3 Ibid., 99.
4 Ibid., 155-157, footnote 6: the man trying to overhear the luncheon conversation was also the man who rode up alongside the carriage – John Wilkes Booth. In Philadelphia, Grant received a telegram about Lincoln’s death, sent Julia on to Burlington, and returned.
Julia also enjoyed sharing her children’s precognitive dreams, one of them dreaming their papa would come into the room. When told he would not be there that evening, she pointed to the door. He had just walked in. On another occasion little Nellie announced that someday they would live in a great house like “the picture in my geography of the…Capitol in Washington.” 157.
5 It was unclear whether or not she thought she was dreaming about the possible presidency of her son Frederick. No further notes accompanied this dream.







Text adapted from The Home Voices Speak Louder than the Drums: Dreams and the Imagination in Civil War Letters and Memoirs by Wanda Easter Burch: (McFarland Publishers, 2017)