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?
    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).

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)

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.

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.


  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.


[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)

Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Invitation to the Island of Apples

For the Celts, the road to the Land of the Living, the Islands of the Blessed, runs ever westward, across the sea. The immrama, or voyage tales, contain vital clues to the ancient European craft of dying. Despite flawed and faulty transcription, gaping lacunae, and editing and censoring by pious monks, the voyage tales still hold the memory of shamanic explorations of the Other Side, and of a deep practice for rehearsing the dying and guiding the departed along the roads of the Otherworld.
    The earliest of the immrama is the Voyage of Bran mac Febal, recorded in the seventh century. His journey begins when he is alone. Unearthly music sends him into deep sleep, and he wakes to find a silver branch, blossoming with crystal flowers, beside him.
    A beautiful woman of the Otherworld appears to him in the locked house and sings to him of the glories of the land from which she has come. In one of the loveliest invitations to a journey in all of world literature, she urges Bran to cross the sea and seek the original Avalon, the Island of Apples:

I bring a branch of the apple tree from Emain, from the far island ringed by the shining sea horses of Manannan mac Lir. A joy to the eyes is the White Silver Plain where the hosts play their games, racing chariots against curraghs...
    There is an ancient tree there in fruit and flower, and birds calling from it; every color is shining there, delight is common and the music sweet.
    There is no mourning or betrayal there...
     To be without grief, without sorrow, without death, without any sickness or weakness - this is the sign of Emain, and no common wonder it is.
     Its mists are magical, the sea caresses the shore, brightness falls from the air.
     There are treasures of every hue in the Gentle Land, the Bountiful Land, the sweetest music and the best of wine. Marigold horses on the strand, crimson horses, sky-blue horses...
      There are three times fifty far islands in the ocean to the west, and every one of them twice or three times more than the land you know.
      It is not to all I am speaking, though I have made these wonders known to all who hear me. Let you who are ready listen from the crowd of the world to the wisdom falling from my song.
      Do not fall upon a bed of sloth. Do not be overcome by drunkenness. Set out on your voyage over the clear sea, and you may chance to come to the Land of the Living, the Land of Women, the Island of Apples.

Who could refuse such an invitation? Bran sets sail with three companies of nine men. They meet Manannan mac Lir - lord of the sea and the Underworld. They reach the Land of Women but after a year they leave because one of the men is homesick.
    When they return to Ireland they find that centuries have passe and they are remembered only as figures of legend. When the homesick man stumbles ashore, he crumbles into dust. Bran and his men cross the waters again and do not return - and yet, in another telling, the head of Bran, the man who went to the Otherworld and returned, becomes a true oracle from generation to generation.

In another immram, the Voyage of Maelduin, the hero's journey begins as a quest for vengeance - for Aillil, Maelduin's the murdered father. But in the course of the voyage, deeper purposes emerge and we travel through a marvelous geography of shifting states of reality and consciousness.
    The transition from an ordinary boat trip is marked by a shift in relative scale and proportions as the voyagers come to an island with "ants the size of foals". Many terrors and temptations and reality shifts follow until they pass through a mysterious Silver Net to realms of abundance and love and deeper wisdom. When a falcon from Ireland appears to pilot them home, their petty agendas are forgotten. Maelduin can forgive his enemies and go home. However, he remains joined to a deeper world.

Text adapted from The Dreamer's Book of the Dead by Robert Moss. Published by Destiny Books. The excerpt from the Voyage of Bran is from Kuno Meyer (trans.) The Voyage of Bran Son of Febal to the Land of the Living (London: David Nutt, 1895). In The Dreamer's Book of the Dead I describe a nocturnal journey in which Kuno Meyer or something like his holographic projection gave me a tour of some of his transitions on the Other Side.

Art: "The Voyage of Bran to the Isle of Women" by Monica Lu.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

When Great Owl gave an author the breath of creation

Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex is a triumph of creative empathy. It accomplishes what the best novels do, which is to expand our humanity by transporting us inside the lives and perspectives of others. It also shows us how we can do this for ourselves, by using active imagination to enter the lives of ancestors or the body of a person of a different gender, even a gender not commonly recognized.
     So I was delighted, though not surprised, to find Eugenides' revelation that it was a dream, simple but shockingly direct and numinous, that gave him the power to finish Middlesex. He was living in Berlin at the time, struggling to keep food on the table through a modest fellowship, often sleep-deprived because of an infant child, drinking a good deal of German beer in an effort to loosen up.
     He was seized by a dream. His entire dream report reads as follows:

An owl, descended out of nowhere, seized me in its talons and blew into my mouth a single breath tasting of blood. 

The one-sentence report describes a dream that lasted (he says) all of four or five seconds. Yet he sensed that the owl's visitation "originated not from my mind at all but from a source outside of me". The owl was gigantic, "and not particularly realistic". Its plumage reminded him of paintings by Klimt, with lozenges of color running up and down the wings and over the  breast, and "a large helmeted ceremonial head".
    The owl's eyes were fierce and bright yellow. When the owl dipped its beak to Eugenides' lips, he opened his mouth, unresisting. The owl exhaled one long forceful breath. With a whoosh, his lungs inflated. This inspiration had a taste: "the mineral, meaty flavor of a predatory diet".
    The writer awakened with the deep knowing that a power had been conveyed to him from a greater source: "the great Owl in the Sky had taken a personal interest in me and my book. The owl had come to give me the power to write."

Art: René Magritte, "The Companions of Fear"(1942)

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Lightning dreamwork is enlightening

I invented a fun way to share dreams, get some non-authoritarian and non-intrusive feedback, and move toward creative action. I call this the Lightning Dreamwork Game. It’s like lightning in two senses — it’s very quick (you can do it in five minutes), and it focuses and brings through terrific energy. It’s a game you can play just about anywhere, with just about anyone – with the stranger in the line at the supermarket checkout, or with the intimate stranger who shares your bed. The rules are simple, and they open a safe space to share even the most sensitive material.

You can play this game with two or more people. We’ll call the principal players the Dreamer and the Partner. There are four moves in the Lightning Dreamwork Game.

First Move
The Dreamer tells the dream as simply and clearly as possible, as a story. Just the facts of the dream, no background or autobiography. In telling a dream this way, the Dreamer claims the power of the story. The Partner should ask the Dreamer to give the dream report a title, like a story or a movie.

Second Move
The Partner asks the Three Essential Questions. (1) How did you feel? (2) Reality check: What do you recognize from this dream in the rest of your life, and could any part of this dream be played out in the future? (3) What do you want to know about this now?
The Dreamer answers all three questions.

Third Move
The Partner now shares whatever thoughts and associations the dream has triggered for him or her. The Partner begins by saying, “If it were my dream, I would think about such-and-such.” The etiquette is very important. By saying “if it were my dream,” we make it clear that we are not setting out to tell the Dreamer what his or her dream — or life — means. We are not posing as experts of any kind. The Partner is just sharing whatever strikes him or her about the dream, which may include personal memories, other dreams, or things that just pop up. (Those seemingly random pop-ups are often the best.)

Fourth Move
Following the discussion, the Partner asks the Dreamer: What are you going to do now? What action will you take to honor this dream or work with its guidance? If the Dreamer is clueless about what action to take, the Partner will offer his or her own suggestions, which may range from calling the guy up or buying the pink shoes to doing historical or linguistic research to decode odd references. Or, the Dreamer may want to go back inside the dream to get more information or move beyond a fear. One thing we can do with any dream is to write a personal motto, like a bumper sticker or something that could go on a refrigerator magnet. 

After road-testing Lightning Dreamwork in some of my advanced groups, I introduced the process to general audiences in 2000. Since then I have noticed that 90 percent of the people who mention it in writing misspell the name, making it "Lightening".
    I used to play spelling cop, but I have tired of than, and also notice that there is something interesting that is showing through the slip. Learning to tell our stories to each other by this method does "lighten" the day, and sometimes brings enlightenment, and encourages us to lighten up.
 he term One of our dream teachers reminds me that the term "lightening" also refers to a stage of delivery just before birth in which the fetus descends farther down the birth canal. So Lightning or Lightening, it's all good. 

The rules of the game are adapted from the version in The Three "Only" Things: Tapping the Power of Dreams, Coincidence and Imagination by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library.

Monday, February 3, 2020

"Sargon lay down not to sleep but he lay down to dream"

I have been saying for decades that dreaming is not fundamentally about what happens during sleep; it is about waking up to a deeper reality. I found confirmation for this understanding in a Sumerian text that is a mere four millennia old. It is the story of "Sargon and Ur-Zababa". The famous Sargon of Akkad began his career as a cupbearer to Ur-Zababa, the Sumerian king of Kish around 2350 bce.. Ill and anxious, the ruler of Kish asked Sargon to dream on his behalf. We then read "Sargon lay down not to sleep but he lay down to dream" Sargon's dream brought no comfort to the king.He saw the goddess Inanna as a beautiful young woman "high as the heavens and vast as the earth" who drowned Ur-Zababa in a river of blood. Ur-Zababa tried to have the dreamer killed but he was the one who died and Sargon took his throne. The people believed, because of his dream, that Sargon was under the aegis of the great goddess. Source: Gil H. Renberg, Where Dreams May Come: Incubation Sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman World (Leiden: Brill, 2017) 45

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Brigid's flame

I dreamed overnight that I found and posted six images and blessings of Brigid beyond what I offered here in my last post. I just composed one more:

Brigid's Flame

May the radiance of her blue mantle
surround you and protect you
May you burn with her fires:
fire of seership,
fire of craft,
fire of inspiration,
fire of healing,
fire of transformation
fire of heart.
May you always stand ready
to wrest the killing irons
from evildoers and oppressors
and to take up the Sword of Light
in defense of the weak and the just
May you always be a lover of poets
and commit poetry every day.

- Robert Moss, Imbolc 2020

Icon of Brigid
One of the most powerful experiences of my life at a place of worship was at Solas Bhride in County Kildare, where the eternal flame of She who is both Goddess and Saint, joining the old religion and a newer one, is kept burning. She rose from her icon, suffusing the whole space with the blue aura of her robe. She plucked the sword from under her feet and held it up. She said, with blazing eyes, "I have kept the sword here not only to deny it to killers and evildoers but to offer it to those I call to be warriors for the Light." How can I not love a Goddess who born at a threshold in the fire of sunrise and is patron of those who work with the fires of metalwork and healing and poetic inspiration?