Thanks to last night’s dreams, I have no doubt why Virgil had his hero return to the ordinary world through the Gate of Ivory. The famous passage in Book VI of the Aeneid has sparked endless discussion among scholars and thoughtful readers.
There are two gates of sleep: one is called the Gate of Horn and it is an easy exit for true shades; the other is made all in gleaming white ivory, but through it the powers of the underworld send false dreams up to the heavens. Here on the night did Anchises walk with his son and with the Sibyl and spoke such words to them as he sent them on their journey through the Gate of Ivory.(Aeneid 6.893-898)
In both Homer and Virgil, there are twin gates of dreams: false dreams come to humans through the Gate of Ivory, true dreams come through the Gate of Horn. The symbolism is clear: ivory is opaque, while polished horn, as the ancients knew it, is translucent and sometimes almost transparent. False dreams were thought to be brought to humans by low spirits; true dreams by higher guides. False dreams were held to be prevalent before midnight, true dreams after midnight.
So one theory about Virgil is that Aeneas and his seeress companion, the Cumaean Sybil, returned from the Underworld after meeting the hero’s dead father Anchises because they traveled back before midnight, Then there’s the political theory, that Virgil was making a camouflaged dig at the emperor Augustus. The hero is returning to a world made false by Roman imperialism.
A dream of last night confirms me in the view Virgil has Aeneas return through the Gate of Ivory because he is coming back to a world that is no more real, and may be more illusory, than the Otherworld territory where he has been.
In the dream, I led a series of group journeys through various portals to places in the Imaginal Realm and in the afterlife. We shared very rich experiences. Each time I sounded the recall with my drum and brought our shamanic travelers back to their bodies, I enjoyed startling them by saying, “You are now in a dream.” Or: “You are now in the afterlife.” The last statement produced notable shock effects.
I riffed on it with successive groups, saying at one point (as a voice in a much older dream had once declared to me), “This is not a dream. You are in the afterlife.”
Thoughts come flocking, like the wild geese over the lake in my line of sight as I write. From the viewpoint of the beings we were before we came into this world, our physical existence is literally the afterlife. In dreams and visions, we often travel to realities where the dead are alive. We frequently fail to realize that we are with the “dead”. We also miss the fact that we are traveling in environments we may inhabit when we have left our present bodies behind. We may have known some of these places for eons, in the spaces between lives..
So then: as you return from your night adventures, are you coming back through the Gate of Ivory or the Gate of Horn?
P.S. I have no doubt that my father came through the Gate of Horn when he recently brought me a vital medical advisory that I acted upon.
Images (1) Wooded path photo by RM (2) Aeneas and the Sybil c 1800, artist unknown.