Sunday, July 7, 2024

My reading corner


My book family is an extended one, and ever-growing! I am always ready to adopt superior novelists; Jorge Amado (The War of the Saints) and Ben Okri (The Famished Road), Yangsze Choo (The Ghost Bride) and Ruth Ozeki (A Tale for the Time Being) are most welcome. There’s always room at my table for magical realists and masters of spy fiction and policiers; when I find we get on well together, I devour everything they have written at high speed, as I’ve done recently with Mick Herron and Matt Haig.
     This applies to writers in all genres. I have recently been on a Roberto Calasso binge, savoring everything from Ka and The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and La folie Baudelaire to Tieoplo Pink, Ardor and the (unfortunately disappointing) The Tablet of Destiny. Calasso's The Celestial Hunter is my favorite. Who can resist a book steeped in Ovid's metapmorphoses that opens with this?

In the time of the Great Raven even the invisible was visible. And it continually transformed itself. Animals, at that time, were not necessarily animals. They might happen to be animals, but sometimes they were humans, gods, lords of a species, demons, ancestors. And humans weren’t necessarily humans but could also be the transient form of something else. There were no tricks for recognizing those that appeared. They had to be already known, as one knows a friend or an adversary. Everything, from spiders to the dead, occurred within a single flow of forms. It was the realm of metamorphosis.

     Some members of my book family hold court for a time, then retire into a quiet space. In the late 1980s, when my dreams led me into the world of the Iroquois in an earlier time, my intimate clan, over many months, included the 73 volumes of the Jesuit Relations, an extraordinary collection of the reports of blackrobe missionaries in New France and New York in the seventeenth century. Since a house move they are in storage but I know they are plotting to get back in my line of sight.
     I am a lazy linguist, but I like it when members of our book family speak their own languages because (as the Emperor Charles V said) to know another language is to live a second life. I am currently reading the Marquis d'Hervey de Saint-Denys' book on his pioneering experiments in lucid dreaming in his original language; I read 
Les rêves et les moyens de les diriger (1867) previously in a clumsy and incomplete translation.
      My current reading includes a quite wonderful book by Lynn Struve on the history of dreaming and dream sharing at the end of the Ming dynasty in China, an age of anxiety that was prime time for dream writers. If I were asked - as customs officers used to ask - if this is for business or pleasure, I would say "both, but for pleasure first."     
      Struve writes in The Dreaming Mind and the End of the Ming World:
"Does it matter what people of the remote past thought about their dreams? It certainly should matter to those who study intellectual-cultural history, primarily because dream-writing in general brings us closer than any other kind of writing to the subjective consciousness of the highly literate, who collectively set the major trends of their respective civilizations....Dream-writings can indirectly contribute to a history of consciousness, not in the sense of what people were conscious of over time (such as class identity) but in the sense of what people thought consciousness was and how they experienced it." 
     Elders in my book family, often consulted, include William James, C.G.Jung, Emerson, Robert Graves, C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, Thomas Mann, Henry Corbin. Marija Gimbutas, the great Lithuanian scholar of the Goddess, has a place of honor in our book family, and I often call on Jane Roberts and her multidimensional mentor Seth. Every three or four years I ask Joan Grant to tell me again (in
Winged Pharaoh) about how Egypt dreamed, and I sit down again with Viktor Frankl, in a quiet corner, so he can remind me (through Man’s Search for Meaning) of how the imagination can get us through the most hellish conditions. I’ll smoke a cigar with Mark Twain, who reminds me that we must not approach anything serious without bringing a sense of humor, or have nightcap with Graham Greene, who is always good for tips on the writer’s trade and how to turn memories and dreams into plot and character. 
    When the poets speak, we need to isten, especially when the poet is W.B. Yeats, who once declaimed to me, “What better guide/to the Other Side/ than a poet?” I open Rumi or Homer - or whatever book is closest to my hand -for daily bibliomancy. I walk with Baudelaire whispering in my ear that the world is a forest of living symbols that are looking at us. I go back again and again to the Odyssey and to Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

Per tornar altra volta
La dov’ io son

So I may return again
To where I am


Friday, June 28, 2024

Through the Dream Gates to Initiation


True initiation involves both ordeal and ecstasy, death and rebirth.. “The majority of initiatory ordeals more or less clearly imply a ritual death followed by resurrection or a new birth,” commented the great religious historian Mircea Eliade. “The novice emerges from his ordeal endowed with a totally different being from that which he possessed before his initiation; he has become another.”[1] The initiate is a made man or woman.

The hunger for transcendence, through a primal, direct encounter with the sacred, leads people down strange and dangerous byways: into experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, into dubious cults and ersatz Nativism. Yet the authentic call to initiation continues to resonate in our dreams. And through the dream gates, it can be followed to a genuine consummation. Arguably, it can hardly be pursued in any other way since — whatever the externals of ceremony and culture — true spiritual initiation and apprenticeship always take place on the inner planes, in a deeper order of reality.

Even in societies where Mystery initiation was regarded as central to human fulfillment, and its gates and secrets closely guarded, the validity of an individual dream calling and initiation was honored. There is a fascinating story about this from the Hellenistic world, preserved by Sopatros, a teacher of rhetoric. A man dreamed he had attended the epopteia, the crowning revelation of the Eleusinian Mysteries. He recounted the secret rituals of the Telesterion in vivid and accurate detail to an initiate of the Greater Mysteries. But in ordinary reality, the dreamer was not a “made man.” 

The initiate to whom he told his dream was shocked that he was speaking openly about things he had no right to know and denounced him for sacrilege. He was dragged into court, where his accusers demanded the death penalty. However, the defense argued successfully that the gods themselves had played a part of the hierophant in his dream. His dream of initiation was recognized as true initiation; the dreamer would now be respected as an epoptes — one who had “seen” and gone through the sacred fire.[2]

Contemporary dreamers who have never heard of Eleusis have dreams of the same quality.

At the winter solstice, just after her twelfth birthday, Rebecca had a powerful dream that carried her deep into the Otherworld. In her dream, she was invited to enter an immense hall. It was filled with robed figures she described as “wizards.” They came from many races and traditions; she recognized a “Merlin” character among a Celtic contingent. 

A woman robed in white sat enthroned above the throng. She beckoned to Rebecca to approach her. The male wizards ignored Rebecca except for the forbidding figure who moved to block her path. He challenged her to pass a test. Only when she had passed the test was she allowed to ascend the steps to the throne. “The High Priestess was slim and dark-haired. She seemed to be in her late twenties. She spoke to me by thought rather than words. She appeared outwardly solemn as she held court over all the male wizards, but kept cracking mental jokes that only the adepts caught.”

The High Priestess wore a striking pendant, which I asked Rebecca to draw for me. Her drawing showed an equal-armed cross, set within a circle. Crossed staves behind it make the pattern of a diagonal cross within a much larger circle, bordered by a two-headed serpent. The body of the serpent is engraved with writing in Greek characters. There are more inscriptions on scrolls that flank the central cross, which has four crystals in its setting. The wizard who challenged Rebecca wore a simpler version of the same pendant.

For a girl approaching puberty, this dream might carry many levels of meaning. But we spent no time in dream analysis. We celebrated the sense of strength and magic and possibility that Rebecca had drawn from it. She reveled in her special dream relationship with the High Priestess seated above all those powerful men. When I asked Rebecca to sum up the feeling of the dream, she said with little hesitation, “I am coming into my power.”

Nearly three years later, in another spontaneous sleep dream, Rebecca reentered the great hall where she had encountered the High Priestess: 

"This time everything is different. Instead of everyone ignoring me, all the high priests from all the worlds bow down to me and hold out their arms to me.

"The High Priestess stands and holds out her arms. She says, Come, let me show you my mind. Only she does not exactly say it; she suggests it.

"She takes my hand. From her forehead a bright light emerges, and in the bright light I see a gate. I walk toward this gate. When I pass through it, I encounter three beings. The first is a bird-headed man who has given me guidance before. He shows me what happens to people who sell out their values in life. The second is a woman I know to be an immortal. She wears a crowned helmet and carries a shield and spear. She tells me, We are one and the same. The third is a man I do not know. I have the feeling this man will be important in my future life.

"When I finish observing this man, I see another gate to walk through. I travel in this way until the bright light dims and all I can see are the eyes of the High Priestess, shining against a dark rectangle that may be a mask."

These dream experiences accompanied Rebecca’s passage from girlhood into womanhood. In her outer life, no sacred ritual was conducted to mark this passage. But she was called through the dream gates, into a larger life.



1. Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation (New York: Harper & Row, 1975) pp. xii. x.

2. Carl Kerenyi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter (Princeton: Bollingen, 1991) pp.82-83


Text adapted from Dreamgates: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination and Life Beyond Death by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Art: "The Eleusunian Mysteries" by  Paul Sérusier, 1888


Thursday, June 27, 2024

Writing and dreaming

Writing and dreaming are intimately connected, as far back as we can travel through the history of humans making marks intended to be read by others. It seems that in many cultures, humans developed systems of writing because they needed better and more specific ways to record and honor dreams, when dreaming was understood to be a field of interaction between humans and greater powers.

The techniques of writing may themselves have been the gift of dreams. It is surely no accident that in ancient pantheons a god of writing is also a giver and interpreter of dreams. Ibis-headed Thoth, with his stylus, venerated in night rituals of dream incubation, is a famous exemplar. His consort the star goddess Seshat, patron of scribes and keeper of the akashic records, is also depicted writing.

The cuneiform scripts of Mesopotamia and the hieroglyphs of Egypt were not devised merely to figure out how many bales of cotton or bundles of reeds Achmet had delivered, but to record dream encounters with the gods, and oneiric geographies of the Otherworld. From these recorded visions, mythologies grew and spread their waving fronds over whole peoples.
Among indigenous peoples, we can see the process at work up to the present day. Look at the intricate pictographs of the Anishnaabe, or Ojibwa, of the Great Lakes. They are drawn on long scrolls of birch bark, the papyrus of the Northeast woodlands of North America. They record the trials of the soul between birth, through trial and initiation, to the womb of rebirth. They depict life as a spiritual adventure, where success will be followed by a zigzag path of new challenge and temptation. They are vision maps. They spring from the soul journeys of shamans, and the shared dreaming of initiates gathered in the medicine circle of the Midewiwin.

Friday, June 21, 2024

If it were my dream


Don’t let anyone tell you what your dreams mean. And never do that to anyone else. This is the golden rule of dream-sharing.

None of us have the right to tell another person what his or her dream means, based on any certification or presumed authority.  We don’t need to be doctors or shrinks, gurus or experts to offer helpful comments on someone else’s dreams. In commenting on each other’s dreams, we should begin by saying, “If it were my dream,” making it clear that we are offering our personal associations and projections, not presuming to tell the dreamer the definitive meaning of his or her dream.

If you are commenting on someone else’s dream, you can do little wrong as long as you follow the simple rule that you will preface your opinions and associations by saying “if it were my dream.” You will not presume to interpret another person’s dream. You are absolutely free to give your own ideas on the meaning of the dream, but you will do that by pretending that the dream is your own. You will own your own projections instead of foisting them on the other person. You will not only help to guide the dreamer towards grasping the meaning of a dream; you will help her to claim her power to determine the meaning of her dreams, and her life, for herself.

You listen to a dream, you ask for the dreamer’s feelings on waking (which are always the first and best clues to what is going on in the dream) and you run a quick reality check, asking the dreamer what she recognizes from the dream in the rest of her life and whether any of it could manifest in the future, literally or symbolically.

Then you offer your comments, starting with the phrase, “if it were my dream”. As long as you follow this protocol, you are free to bring in any associations, feelings or memories the dream arouses in you, including dreams of your own that may come to mind. Often we understand other people’s dreams best when we can relate them to our own dream experiences.

For example: If the dreamer has told you a dream in which he/she is running away from a bear, you may recall a dream of your own in which you hid from a bear – before you discovered that the bear was an ally. Your own experience may lead you to say, “If it were my dream, I would like to go back into the dream and meet the bear again and see whether it might be an ally”. You are now doing something more useful than merely interpreting the dream; you are gently guiding the dreamer to take action on the dream.

It is very rewarding to receive a totally different perspective on a dream, so sharing in this way with strangers can be amazingly rewarding – as long as the rules of the game are respected.

The fact that we may be highly intuitive, and highly skilled as dream interpreters, does not give us the right to take people’s power away by telling them what their dreams mean – even (and perhaps especially) when we are convinced we are “right” in our reading of what is going on in the dream.

As dreamers, we also want to be open to what other people can contribute to our understanding of our own dreams. We don’t want to adopt a “know-it-all” attitude, because even if we think we have a pretty fair idea of what is going on in a dream, more than likely someone else’s take will offer fresh perspectives. Even if feedback we receive seems remote from our own feelings about a dream,  that can help us to home in on what matters for us. 

Because dreams are multi-layered, it is also possible that a different perspective can help us open up aspects of the dream we may have missed. I find it very helpful to hear from people who have a very different perspective than my own. For example, because I tend to see dreams as transpersonal experiences in which we encounter other beings, in one order of reality or another, it can be very useful for me to be prompted to ask “what part of me” are the different characters and elements in a dream.

RM journal drawing: "Lady of Colors"

With the air of a magician, the young woman artist shows me the pigment powders she has laid out in metal dishes. We agree they could be used as a benign arsenal to paint visions of healing and possibility in place of hatred and despair. I have my own set of paints but I need to learn her techniques.

Dreams Are Real Events: An Anthropologist Breaks the Glass in New Guinea


For the Barok people of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, dream events are no less real than waking events, and may be more real, in the sense that "big people" - people with powerful magic - may act in the dreamspace to generate what follows on the physical plane.                

I draw these insights from a fascinating report by an anthropologist whose assignment among the Barok was to study their spiritual hierarchy and rituals up close. Marianne George developed a relationship with Kalerian, the “big woman” of the community, that spilled over into the dreamspace, or vice versa. Kalerian was very old, almost blind, and big in stature as well as status, finding it hard to walk because of her swollen legs. She could not get up the ladder into Marianne’s dwelling but would sit outside and chew betel nut with her.
     One morning two of Kalerian’s sons, Alek and Bustaman, visited Marianne early, while she was making tea. Alek looked her straight in the eyes, and asked, “Did you understand her?”
    Alek said that his mother spoke to Marianne the night before, and had sent him over to make sure Marianne understood the message. Marianne protested that she had not spoken to Kalerian the previous evening.
   Alek corrected her, saying that Kalerian “came to her in the night”. He used the word
griman, which means “dreaming”.
   The anthropologist felt slightly queasy. She now recalled vaguely that she had seen Kalerian in a dream and that the big woman had wanted her to change her mind about a financial decision. Marianne had not mentioned this decision to anyone. 
    The sons recounted the full conversation Marianne had supposedly had with the big woman as if reading a transcript – or as if they were present. As she listened, Marianne became convinced that everything had happened exactly as described. She asked the sons if they were always able to communicate in dreams like this. Of course. They seemed surprised that she was surprised. “If our mother wants to talk to us, she does” – no matter where we are.”
    It shook the anthropologist to realize that for this family, stepping in and out of someone’s dream space was as easy as stepping in and out of a room – easier, since the big woman did not have to get her awkward body up a ladder. Four people had met in  the same dream, sharing the same conversation..
    “I wrote about what happened in my journal — in code, just in case anything happened to me. I did not want anyone to end up reading about it and thinking that I had gone nuts in the field. I knew that there was nothing wrong with me. I had simply come across something unexpected, and I had no explanation for it except for the one they gave me… there was no getting around the fact that four people had shared the same dream with me.”

It took years, and more dreams – which Marianne usually had trouble remembering – for the anthropologist to recognize she was being educated in the dreamspace. This became hard to ignore when Kalerrian appeared to Marianne in a dream after her death to reveal the exact location of an ancient clan hearth that she and a colleague were trying to excavate – and to warn of danger of a landslide if anyone stood too close to the cliff beside the site.
     It took even more years before Marianne was ready to go public with what she learned at the dream school of the Barok. She feared that colleagues would think she had gone nuts, or at any rate, gone native. In a courageous personal account of her experiences, she wrote that she learned from Barok big people that “in order actually to do something important, one dreams about it first.”
     It had been demonstrated to her that dreams may be transpersonal as well as personal. "I learned that spiritually skilled people are able intentionally to communicate with and empower others in dreaming. This kind of dreaming had transcendent meaning and objective effects on my waking reality… In my dreams I was directed, provided, warned, and shown things that were important to me and to others in reality.”
     Marianne was able to break with models of reality that deny that people can dream together and reject the idea  that dreams may create, as well as rehearse, the future. Her ideas about causation had changed profoundly. She could now state that "t
he intent of spiritually powerful persons [acting in dreams] was what determined non-dreaming reality, rather than ordinary reality determining dreams."
     In her own life, she added, dreams became "a sort of spiritual experience that has provided more real creative opportunities than any other activity."

Monday, June 17, 2024

Tiki time

At thirty, the French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) was appointed chair of History of Religions of Uncivilized Peoples at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. In his inaugural lecture he declared that "uncivilized peoples do not exist." As Roberto Calasso observed, "Mauss had been appointed to teach a subject that he declared did not exist." [1]

Mauss deplored the use of the term "primitive" to describe nonliterate cultures. He had met Sir Edward Tylor, the first professor of anthropology at Oxford and author of the immensely influential work Primitive Culture (1871) . At sixty, Mauss told his audience at the Collège de France that "all the rest of humanity, who are called primitive and are still living, deserve instead the name archaic." [2]

Let us note that both Mauss and Tylor were armchair anthropologists, relying on the books and reports of field observers. Despite Tylor's Victorian language - "primitive", "savage", "lower races" - he made a great contribution with his theory of animism and his well- documented thesis that dream experiences had generated and sustained the near-universal belief in a soul that is sepaarble from the body and survives physical death. [3]

Mauss' imagination was fired up when he saw the hei-tiki of a Maori noblewoman - not even the jade talisman itself, but an illustration in John White's Ancient History of the Maori - with a list of correspondences between deities and parts of the body. Microcosm and macrocosm, sculpted in portable green stone.

When he was able to study all seven volumes of White's Maori cycle, he averred that this is "one of the most coherent bodies of cosmogonic myths that we know". The Greeks had nothing to match it. "Comparisons have been made with Hesiod's Theogony. The Maori version (and the Polynesian version in general) appears more coherent, better developed, closer to living institutions than that sort of Greek compilation." [4]

Coherent, cohérent. Mauss uses the word over and over in his commentaries on Maori cosmology. It becomes a drumbeat. The word comes from the Latin cohaerentem, present participle of cohaerere: com "together" plus haerere "to adhere or stick" If things are coherent, they "stick together". They are connected, consistent, in harmony. 

Around the little green man with the tilted head and the huge staring eyes, the powers of the greater universe muster and adhere, the war god and the god of peace to right and left, the gods of sky and intelligence and dreams at the head, the god or magic at feet. [5] And you can wear it all on a necklace. In the 1960s and 1970s, Air New Zealand used to routinely hand out plastic tikis to passengers on its plane. 

Instead of comparing Polynesian cosmology with Old World models, Mauss thought we should study how the conceptions of advanced civilizations might fit within the Polynesian cosmic plan. "All of the themes of the great ancient cosmogonies find their place there." [6]


1. Roberto Calasso, Ardor trans. Richard Dixon (London: Penguin Books, 2015)m p. 272
2. Marcel Mauss, "Leçon sur l'emploi de la notion de 'primitif' en sociologie" Oeuvres (Paris: Minuit, 1969) p. 237
3. "Animism is, in fact, the groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men…Animism divides into two great dogmas, forming parts of one consistent doctrine; first, concerning souls of individual creatures, capable of continued existence after the death or destruction of the body ; second, concerning other spirits, upward to the rank of powerful deities." Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom 2nd edition(London: John Murray, 1873) Vol 1 p.426' 4, Mauss, "introduction aux myths" Oeuvres vol. 2. p. 269
5. Mauss, "Debat sur les visions du monde primitif et moderne" Oeuvres vol. 2 p.156
6. Mauss, "Leçons sur la cosmologie polynésienne"  Oeuvres vol 2 p. 189

Photo credits. Maori women (19th century): Wellcome collection. Hei-tiki: Pitt-Rivers collection. 

Sunday, June 16, 2024

When your dream soul goes flying


From the Teachings of Island Woman:

The memory of a dream is the memory of a journey. It may have been a short visit to a neighbor's place or a date with the lover you will meet three years from now. It may have been a journey to the spirits on the moon, or into a universe inside a stone that is as big as the universe out there.

When your dreamsoul goes flying, it visits the future and brings back memories of things that haven’t happened yet in the Shadow World. Sometimes you can stop those things from coming to pass. Sometimes you just have to live them out. Sometimes you can tame a future you don’t want by acting out a little piece of it, enough to contain the event that is trying to come through.
   Life is full of crossroads. Often you don’t even notice them until they are behind you, unless you know how to dream. Through dreaming, you can scout out the different trails you might follow and see where they lead. Through dreaming, you are already choosing the events that will take place in your waking life.

There is limitless power and beauty and healing available to us in the dreamworlds. To keep body and soul together in the surface world – and to live from the purposes of the soul – we need to bring that dream energy through. This requires action in the Shadow World.
    The first part of that action may be speech, but not the chatter of idle birds or village gossips. The speech required is an act that brings something new into a world. Dreaming gives us the songs and the magic words that can bring something up from a soupy ocean of possibilities to take root in the earth. That is why real men and women of power are poets, singers, storytellers, performers. With skeins of song and dancing needles of magic words, they reweave the fabric of reality.
   When we do this, we know that we are entertaining the spirits: our own vital spirits, the spirits of the ancestors, the great ones who reach to us from beyond space and time, the ancient and shining ones.

Nothing happens until it is dreamed. When we bring something good from the dreamworld into the surface world, we do the work of the Creator. We join in dancing a world into being, as Sky Woman danced on Turtle’s back.


"Island Woman" is the name I gave to an indigenous arendiwanen ("woman of power") who was born Huron and raised Mohawk some 300 years ago. She became Mother of the Wolf Clan of the Kanienkehaka, or Mohawk people, and a revered healer and dream shaman. She called me in lucid dreams in the late 1980s, after I moved to a farm on the edge of traditional Mohawk country and I had to study the Huron and Mohawk languages to understand and record her teachings. For her fuller teachings and my discoveries about her in historical records, see my book
Dreamways of the Iroquois

Drawing: "Island Woman" by Robert Moss