I was once in the marvelous Field Museum in Chicago, chatting to one of the curators, when he said brightly, "Maybe you can help with a question a visitor left in the box this week." He produced the inquiry, which ran as follows: "I was given an antique dream catcher. Ever since it's been in the house, I've had the feeling that something's just not right and I can't get any good sleep. Maybe I should cleanse the dream catcher or something like that?"
I smiled at the idea of an "antique" dream catcher. The original purpose of a dream catcher is to catch bad stuff you don't want in your psychic space. It looks like a spider web because that's exactly what the first dream catchers were. An Onondaga Indian friend of mine hung a literal spider web from a hoop, in the old way, over his son's face when he was a little baby. You do not want a hand-me-down dream catcher. More than likely, its web will contain traces of other people's "bugs" and psychic pests. "There's no way to cleanse something like that," I told the curator. "If it were mine, I would burn it."
In the understanding that dreaming is social as well as individual, most human cultures have come up with methods to deter unwanted intrusions or visitations during the night. There's a dream guardian in Japan who is rather livelier than a spider web. Here's how it is described in the opening of a folk tale about a girl named Little Silver who feared she would meet ghosts and demons in her dreams:
The old nurse told her to draw pictures of a tapir on the sheet of white paper which was wrapped around her tiny pillow... The nurse told her what many old folks believe,—that if you have a picture of a tapir under the bed, or on the paper pillow-case, you will not have unpleasant dreams, as the tapir is said to eat them. So strongly do some people believe this that they sleep under quilts figured with the device of this long-snouted beast. If in spite of this precaution one should have a bad dream, he must cry out on awaking, "Tapir, come eat, tapir, come eat!" Then the tapir will swallow the dream, and no evil results will happen to the dreamer.
In the story, this has mixed results. Little Silver's dreams take her on a fantastic voyage among ghosts and drunks whose excesses feed demons. At the end, she is terrified by the impending wreck of the ship in which she is sailing. As she wakes, she remembers to cry out "Tapir, come eat, tapir come eat!" This lifts the bad feelings around the dream, but she retains the memory of her adventures and can draw important lessons, including the consequences of to much saki. The narrator observes that it was a good thing she did not actually see the tapir, since it would have scared her more than the ghosts.
The tapir in this story is not the long-snouted pig-like mammal of the natural world. It is a baku a composite beast originally borrowed from Chinese folklore. In early Japanese depictions, this eater of bad dreams is portrayed with an elephant’s trunk and tusks, plus horns and tiger’s claws. Today the baku is also known as yumekui ("dream catcher") - perhaps a borrowing from North America - and in manga and anime it takes many forms. In Satoshi Kon’s animated film Paprika, a young woman is a baku who devours a dream villain in the climactic scene.
The idea of the baku, in a sense, puts the spider into the web of the dream catcher. I rather like the idea of a dream guardian who will eat bad energy from a dream without depriving us of the memory of the dream experience.
 "Little Silver" in William E. Griffis, Fairy Tales of Old Japan (London: Harrap, 1911).
Graphic: Baku byKatsushika Hokusai.
I like a beast that eats dream demons rather than just snaring them in a web.
I, too, read the story of Little Silver. In the last line - "no tapir came that she could see" - speaks to me of the accomodating nature of our imagination allowing the intention of the paper tapir to produce a figure that not only eats the demons and ghosts before they follow us back into waking but has the good grace to dissolve in our memory so as not to frighten us by its own presence upon waking.
This speaks to those psychiatrists who wrongly advise patients who dream nightmares to take drugs and use therapies to eradicate dreaming. They do harm.
In this method of inviting a beast to eat the demons and ghosts, the dreamer - Little Silver - awakes, still with her dream intact, but now it is a harmless memory of a fantastic story, complete with a waking assignment - to remember what happens to someone who drinks to such excess that they do harm. And the demon-eating tapir does his work so seamlessly that he does not remain in Little Silver's memory. So it is not the dream that is taken away, it is the horror of the dream that is devoured and turned to fantasy, with the healthy memory of the dream - with its advisory - still intact.
You make excellent points about Litle Silver and her dream guardian, Wanda. The dream material has not been suppresses and - as you point out - it contains instruction on a number of things, from how to deal with ghosts to how excessive drinking feeds demons. Rather, the dreamer has been given safe passage through all the spills and thrills, with memory intact.
Coincidentally, I recently "spit out" a nightmare from last night...I feel better about it after reading your post. I was helping the police search for a criminal (molester) in the woods. During this dream there were children looking over the sides of an enclosure containing a beautiful leopard. I noticed that the leopard was getting ready to crawl through a large space under the wooden fence to enter the woods. Now, I feel that the main purpose of this leopard was a protector to the children and maybe my dream self. Hoorah! Go beautiful leopard! I had not considered this before - thank you for sharing this post.
Another reason not to avoid or suppress "bad dreams" is that they may contain not demons, but animal energies who at first appear frightening. I've had dreams of cougars or bears other people in my dream were afraid of. When I braved up (often having to go back into the dream), I found help & support. I remember you telling of dreams of yours with this theme, often of bears.
I agree some energies we may want to get rid of, but let's be sure what we're dealing with first & not push away a needed ally.
Hi Margie - Young children respond immediately to the idea that an animal can stand guardian over them during the night, and companion them in their dream adventures. It seems to me entirely possible that the leopard you saw was an ally of this kind, and it's comforting to think - in the context of the disturbing theme of this dream - that he may be out on patrol. Adults can perform a service for kids in encouraging them to appoint a favorite animal as night guardian, and going to bed with the appropriate stuffed toy reinforces that intention splendidly. Children can then remind adults (with the natural shamanism of kids) that this is a pretty good strategy for "grown-ups" too.
Hey Nancy - You've heard me say it many times: dreams are not on our case, they're on our side. I am absolutely with you hat we don't want to push away "bad dreams" that may contain an important advisory, an opportunity for growth - or an ally (often an aspect of our own power) that requires us to brave up and move beyond our fears and outside our comfort zone.
Having said that, we also need healthy psychic boundaries and when we go traveling on some of the roads of dreaming, it's good to have a companion or protector. So I am interested in the many modes of psychic screening (of which the dream catcher is one). And I am quite intrigued by the idea of a dream guardian that can eat the bad energy of an unpleasant dream without taking its meaning and memory away.
I am interested in the fact that both the 'dream catcher' and the 'tapir' are containers. One is passive and the other is active, but both take the chaotic energy and place a boundary around it so that one can consciously deal with the stuff.
A bit like putting hot water in a cup.
Bob Monroe developed something called an 'Energy Conversion Box' to similar effect.
It has been suggestd that I get a dream catcher as a result of a particlarily scary dream. I was in a room filled with people, all were seated at differnt areas of the room. Across the room I saw a a blobby image, but when I focused on the image it becase a very omnious & scary looking man. Every time I moved to look at him he would shift his weight in his chair, lean forward & look straing at me with no expression on his face. Yet, his face was very intense & not in a good way. As is common in dreams, I found myself on his side of the room seated in a chair. The man was still looking at me intensly. I might add, he was wearing what appeared to be a long-riders coat, but dark, he also was a dark white man with a mustache. I felt him get out of his chair, but I figured, what coud he really do in a room full of people, not much. Oh no, he came to my side and enveloped me with his arms, then the entire coat he ws wearing, like wings. He never spoke & I was scared for my life. I woke up shaking. This is why someone sugested I get a dream catcher. Was this man a demon?
I read the story of little silver a small while back and yes i find the whole take on dreams also very very interesting! Man dreams really are very intriguing no matter where they are
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