Sunday, July 23, 2023

Snake pit of dream interpretations

In her dream, a woman enters a clear mountain stream to bathe and finds it is teeming with snakes. She regards snakes as allies rather than adversaries, but there are so many in the water that she becomes fearful. When a huge snake approaches her, she manages to grab it behind the head and uses it to hold the other serpents at a manageable distance. She wakes with a sense of accomplishment.

In a dream of my own around the same time, I am walking in a woodland setting with a woman who decides to use an outhouse on the far side of the clearing. As she starts crossing a swampy patch with many fallen branches, I see that the water is full of snakes and I become concerned for her safety. It's too late to stop her. She crosses without mishap, and I study the snakes. They are of many colors. An inner voice tells me the black and yellow ones are the most dangerous. There is also a vivid crimson snake, and a pair of duller reddish and blueish hues, near the edge where I am standing. I push them down with my stick - which proved to be a very large staff I use to help the woman return safely.

Both dreamers were alarmed by a mass of snakes in the water, but our response strategies were different. The woman dreamer waded right in, while I kept a cautious distance. We both sensed that the snakes in these dreams might mirror somatic conditions - in the case of my dream, that of another person I might be called on to help.

The snake in someone else's dream is not the snake in your dream. That's something I often say when people ask me about dream symbolism.

The theme came up for me again as I did some research to follow leads in a dream in which I was scouting out an impending visit to New York City. In my dream, an excited group of younger New Yorkers were quizzing me about the importance of dreaming and dream interpretation in early Jewish tradition. I spoke to them about Joseph and Pharaoh, and about rabbinical discussions in the Talmud, and about Philo of Alexandria, and about Gabriel, the archangel of dreams for all three Peoples of the Book (Jews, Christians and Muslims).

I opened an old folder on Jewish dream traditions, and found notes I had made on some observations by Rabbi Gershon Winkler (always good value) on dreams in the Talmud. He quoted the following Talmudic interpretation of snake dreams: "One who sees a snake in their dream, it is a sign that their livelihood is at hand. And if the snake bites, it means their income will increase two-fold. And if the dreamer kills the snake, it means they will lose their livelihood." [Talmud, B'rachot 57a] The rationale for this reading (as expounded by the famous 11th century rabbi known as Rashi) was as follows: the snake slithers across the ground, where all sorts of food is easily available, hence it brings the promise of sustenance.

However, another rabbi, Rav Shei'shet, rejected this approach. He contended that, on the contrary, if you kill a snake in your dream it means your income will double. It seems Rav She'shet had a vested interest in this outcome; he himself had dreamed of killing a snake.

In reading our own dreams, we get out of the snake pit of casuistry and conflicting interpretations by cleaving, first and last, to our feelings. If you are bitten by a snake and your feel neutral or even blessed, that dream is clearly very different from a dream with the same apparent content that leaves you feeling frightened or drained. Poison may be medicine, medicine may be poison.

"The dream follows the interpretation" says a famous midrash (Midrash B'reisheet Rabbah 39:8). Let's make sure that we base our interpretation, not on external authorities, but on our feelings and instincts, supported by careful exploration and the right kind of feedback from others (which should always be offered in non-authoritarian mode, "if it were my dream").

In my personal dream life, the snake has often been a powerful ally in healing. On one of the nights when I practiced dream incubation, asking for healing, the great serpent that came and fulfilled my request would have been quite familiar to the therapeuts and supplicants at the ancient templles of Asklepios. You can read that story here

Journal drawing by RM with digital effects

Winging It from a Land of Seers

We have personal styles of dreaming, and content - like the content of any day - will reflect our interests and desires. Because I love reading and research, I do a lot of it in my dreams, as in regular life. I'm posting this "old" report as an example, and also because I've been playing around with illustrations.

December 2, 2021
Winging It from Molossian Country
I am boning up on Molossian divination from a bulky typescript that contains fragments of an epic, trying to get a clear picture before I go to a dinner where this information will be greatly valued. There were many oracles in ancient Epirus, including the sacred oak at Dodona. I am intrigued by an account of how crucial messages traveled rapidly to and from the East, as far as Asia Minor. Seers could accomplish this mind to mind. I suspect that oracles also used carrier pigeons.
Dreaming inside the dream, I fly like a bird, over wild, windy country, East towards Attica. When I land I find a silver tetradrachm with the owl of Athena. I bite into it, testing the purity of the metal.

Feelings: Enjoyment. Certainty that this is a real experience. Been there, done that.
Reality check: My dream activity here is very similar to my ordinary days, in the combination of literary research and shamanic lucid dreaming that I call dream archaeology. The document I am reading resembles academic papers on divination at Dodona and other sites in Molossia/Epirus I studied when preparing a new class on Greek oracles.
I read in dreams very much as I do in ordinary life. My attention wobbled a bit with the dream typescript not because the text broke up (as some dream researchers say happens with reading material in dreams) but because of the difficulty of digesting a lot of academic writing at high speed.

Journal drawing by RM with digital effects

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Dream hunters of Corsica

The "dream hunters” of Corsica - the mazzeri - who are often women, go hunting at night. They hunt with knives and vine-root clubs called mazza and tear their prey apart with their teeth. They attack any animals that are around, but boars are their favorite. At the moment they kill an animal, they get a flash glimpse of a human being they can identify, and know by this that the human will die within a year. If the animal is only wounded, the human connected with it will get sick or have an accident but will recover. One mazzera, taking a trout from a stream, recognized her aunt and hastily returned the fish to the water; her aunt sickened but recovered.

The mazzeri do these things in dreaming, and the things they do are real. They may go out in the night, or they may leave their bodies during an afternoon siesta. They have a flair for bilocation, what the French call the dédoublement de la personnalité. You meet a mazzeru on a hillside, among the sheep, at an hour when his family swears he was asleep in bed.

The hunt takes place in a parallel world. In Corsican belief, the spirit of the dream hunter meets the spirit of his victim, a human who has assumed animal form. When he kills the animal, he severs the spirit from the victim's body. The human body of the victim may carry on for a time, but it is going to sicken and die.

The dream hunters themselves may take animal form - appropriately, the form of hunting dogs. The dream hunters don't seem to be regarded as evil or malicious; what they do is just a part of Corsican life, like the violence of a stream in flood.

This is all part of the night life depicted in a book by Dorothy Carrington titled The Dream-Hunters of Corsica. I can’t personally vouch for its content, and I’m not planning to check out these club-bearing night hunters any time soon. If I do, I'll take something larger than a dog with me. In a recent Italian documentary, the mazzeri are called facitori da morte ('death makers") and a type of European shaman.

Napoleon (and 43 of his generals) came from Corsica. I wonder whether he had something of these gifts. I have seen a legend that he was able to view a field of battle from the other side of a hill, penetrating the fog of war through inner sight.

The author of Dream Hunters of Corsica is herself a fine subject for a book. Oxford-educated, the daughter of a general who was a friend of Cecil Rhodes and a mother who had access to the leading literary salons, Frederica Dorothy Carrington (1910-2002) moved to Corsica with her third husband, the Surrealist painter Sir Francis Rose, after hearing tales of the island from a Corsican waiter. "My life really ended and started when I set foot in Corsica," she told me. "My former role-playing ended, and my vocation began."

The Angel of the Rushing Waters


The Angel of the Rushing Waters


I have seen you as a purple bruise in a yellow sky,

as a Scottish soldier with drawn sword

at the edge of the tame land and the wild wood,

as a snowy owl with fierce talons and fiercer eyes

as an Indian death-lord traveling abroad

in a Johnny Cash outfit, swinging a lasso.


I have felt you enter as a gentle breeze

stirring the curtains of a window in a hospital room,

and in the raw, thrusting horse-power

of the dark lord bursting into the sunlit maiden meadow.


You are a sexy devil.

I love you better than your brother Sleep.

Through aching nights of absence

I have longed for your embrace.


I have run your errands,

speaking in your voice to the old golfer on the plane,

negotiating with your razor-sharp precision

the terms for a possible life extension.

I have taken ailing humans by the hand

to your deep pools, to find you – if they dare –

in the troubling of the waters.


Few can look into your black sun

but those who do are different.

To know you, to walk with you,

to feel you always at the left shoulder

brings courage and late October light.


You love to dress for occasions.

I have encountered you as a dandy in evening dress,

as a red Irish big-bellied god, and an Indian flame,

and a white lady whose footsteps are frost.

Your image is rarely in public places

though the medieval mind, like the mind of Mexico,

puts skeletal reminders of you at every turning,

mocking the vanities of the world.


On our wedding day

I want you to reach from the sky in your robe of stars

and catch me in your voluptuous embrace

and leave my old garment under the blanket of earth.

But if you choose not to come in your goddess form

I want you to be wearing my face.

Art: "Dancing with Azrael" (c) Robert Moss

Place of Leaping


Place of Leaping

The dead tree quickens. Its leaves unfold

And become a pillar of gentle fire

That bursts into butterfly wings

And blood oranges over the tide pool

Where fresh and falling water joins the main.


Here, at the Place of Leaping,

Things turn into their opposites and turn again

Faster than the Monarch’s metamorphoses –

Larva into caterpillar, shell into winged soul –

Death into life, this side into the Other Side.


You listen to the Speaker in the tree

Who dares you to come to the edge

Telling you, “Leap now, or forever regret.”

You take off everything except your body

On the high cliff, and plunge like a diver.


The rocks call you and claim your flesh.

You are light as a white crane over the waves

But lose your direction until your old friends,

The dolphins, come to guide and carry you.

You stand on their backs like Aphrodite in the foam.


Your soul’s compass brings you across the churning sea

To welcoming faces, and places of rest and recollection

And the scholar-city, and the path of the Blue Star

Until you are called to dream your way back to us

With blue fire in your heart, singing a mermaid song.

Photo: Where Fresh Water Meets Salt at Esalen by Robert Moss

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

The sword, the silk dress and the soul

What is this voice that calls him away from life, to climb "the winding ancient stair", into "the breathless starlit air" and

Fix every wandering thought upon
That quarter where all thought is done

He calls it his Soul. Is it calling him to Death? Certainly, it is calling him to die to the natural world, the world of blood and sinew and nerve-endings.

 W.B. Yeats wrote "A Dialogue of Self and Soul" when he was over 60. As writer and thinker, he was approaching the peak of his powers, but he was very conscious that his body was failing and he sensed the nearness of Death in recurring bouts of illness. In the chill Dublin fall of 1927, hardly able to breathe, he feared he would not survive the congestion of his lungs. A year later, on vacation in Rapallo, he was stricken by what was diagnosed as "Malta fever" and confined to bed for four months, often too weak to turn his mind to anything more demanding than detective stories, fed an evening diet of serum and very dry champagne.

Sensing Death at his side, in "A Dialogue of Self and Soul", the poet chooses life, even if his choice will carry the price of recurrence of heartache and humiliations of the flesh. In the poem, as so often in Yeats' writing, he gives a personal spin to familiar terms so that we no longer quite recognize them. "Soul", here, is an austere, world-rejecting inner voice. "Self" is the man of flesh and bone, of memory and desire, not ready to cast off from the world. 

Yeats' Self has a weapon on his knees: "Sato's ancient blade", "still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass", wrapped in embroidered silk "torn from some court-lady's dress." The image of the long sword sheathed in a lady's silk dress in the poet's lap is raw and sexual; it opens like a wound, bringing a shudder of unease and excitement.

Soul argues with him. He is "long past his prime". He should forget things "emblematical of love and war". If he will only teach his imagination to "scorn the earth", he may win the prize of deliverance from the wheel of reincarnation, from what Soul denounces as "the crime of death and birth."

Self insists on what he can touch and stroke with his hands and his symbol-weaving mind. He evokes the master who made the sword, and the "heart's purple" of the silk streaming under his touch; he sets these against the austerity of the tower he has been called to ascend.

The life-denier soon quits the debate, leaving the poet to speak uninterrupted in Part II of the poem. His memories of his present life are full of hurt and shame, from the "ignominy of boyhood" to the "clumsiness" of the "unfinished man". He broods on how malicious eyes can give a false shape to a man - this man - and so distort his own vision that "he thinks that shape must be his shape."

Yet he cries out, "I am content to live it all again," even if  "it be life to pitch/ Into the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch"

Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

It seems the wound of his unrequited love for Maud Gonne will never heal. Yet he affirms that he will find the way to forgive himself, cast out remorse, and move on.

We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

That final affirmation rings less certain, for me, than the glint of the sword, through the folds of silk, in the first part of the poem. The last lines, to my ear, are whistling in the dark. I'm for that, but what recruits my conviction is the unexpected marriage of silk and tempered steel.

Curious about the origin of that image, I tracked down Yeats' account  of how he came into possession of an antique samurai sword:

"A rather wonderful thing happened the day before yesterday. A very distinguished looking Japanese came to see us. He had read my poetry when in Japan and had now just heard me lecture. He had something in his hand wrapped up in embroidered silk. He said it was a present for me. He untied the silk cord that bound it and brought out a sword which had been for 500 years in his family. It had been made 550 years ago and he showed me the maker’s name upon the hilt.

"I was greatly embarrassed at the thought of such a gift and went to fetch George, thinking that we might find some way of refusing it. When she came I said 'But surely this ought always to remain in your family?' He answered 'My family have many swords.' But later he brought back my embarrassment by speaking of having given me 'his sword.' I had to accept it but I have written him a letter saying that I 'put him under a vow' to write and tell me when his first child is born—he is not yet married—that I may leave the sword back to his family in my will. (WBY Letter to Edmund Dulac, 22 March 1920)

The name of the Japanese donor, Sato, is in the poem, where Yeats also refers to the sword as "Montashigi". This is his rendering of Motoshigé, the name used for very special swords created with the craft and ritual of Ko Motoshigé ("Old Motoshige") a master swordmaker of the early fourteenth century.

Inspiration, from a physical object, for the double thrust of passion and of pain that defies Death and abstraction.

The making of a master blade in the illustration above dates back to the eleventh century; here we see a sword being brought alive by a fox spirit. The swordsmith is the renowned 
Kokaji Munechika, and this is also a dream story; the emperor Ichijô ordered him to forge this blade because of a dream. The story is the theme of a Noh play, and Yeats was strongly influenced by Noh in creating his own one-act plays.

Illustration: Blacksmith Munechika, helped by a fox spirit, forging the blade Ko-Gitsune Maru, by Ogata Gekkō (1887)

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The birds of fortuity and The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The play of coincidence can shape a whole life, like a musical composition. Out of the weave of small incidents we can find beauty and a secret order. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera writes beautifully about the "fortuities" that bring lovers together. Tereza notices Tomas in a pub in a small provincial town because he has a book in his hand and because her favorite Beethoven starts playing on the radio. Six tiny incidents of this kind prompt her to get on a train and follow him to Prague; she feels "the birds of fortuity fluttering down on her shoulders".
    Kundera insists that this is not only the stuff of novels but the shape of lives. He is absolutely and poetically correct.
   "Our day-to-day life is bombarded with fortuities or, to be more precise, with the accidental meetings of people and events we call coincidences," he observes. "Tomas appears in the hotel restaurant at the same time as the radio is playing Beethoven. We do not even notice the great majority of such coincidences. If the seat Tomas occupied had been occupied instead by the local butcher, Tereza never would have noticed that the radio was playing Beethoven. But her nascent love inflamed her sense of beauty, and she would never forget that music."
    Kundera suggests that "human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music, Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence…into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life…Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress."
   So it is wrong to chide a novelist for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences and making his plot turn on them. "But it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty. 
Synchronicity is a flash moment where you’re glimpsing a hidden structure or web of connections. But these can also be little hints that, yes, I am caught in a novel. That can be reassuring or disturbing, depending if you like the novel or not."

-     - quotes from Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being trans. Michael Henry Heim.(New York: Harper Perennial, 2009).

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Le Hêtre: Beech Gate


The roots of the beech are living serpents
There is a green woman in the tree gate
her eyes are the green fire of growing things
The winged deer stamps its hooves
impatient for me to go in or go up.
High in the branches, close to the crown,
the raven couple wait for me
but for now my way is down
into the painted cave, past the see stone
where a ruined king came to call me.

For time I do not count I am among the long
luminous elegant people who raised me
when I was away from my body as a boy.
But I will not spend another life with them,
not yet. I feel my way down, ever down
to the shallows of blind fish
where grains of sand sparkle like jewels.

I choose the grain that glows like cinnabar
and it becomes a universe. I see now
how the infinitely large is contained
in the infinitely small, how the high branches
of the world tree in one universe
are the roots of the tree of life in another.

Drawing: "Beech Gate" (c) Robert Moss




Tuesday, July 4, 2023

A Yogi Learns about Astral Worlds from his Dead Guru


One of the most valuable pieces of life counsel in Autobiography of a Yogi comes from the author's guru, Sri Yukteswar: “Forget the past. The past lives of all men are dark with many shames. Human conduct is ever unreliable until anchored in the Divine. Everything in future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now.” This is said to have been Paramahansa Yogananda's favorite passage in his book.

Though his whole life practice had prepared him for death, Sri Yukteswar was nervous as the moment approached. While talking to Yogananda about his impending death, the guru "trembled like a frightened child". The great yoga teacher Patanjali wrote that "attachment to bodily residence, springing up of its own nature, is present in slight degree even in great saints." Before his last days, Sri Yukteswar, in similar vein, often compared a human approaching death to a "long-caged bird" that "hesitates to leave its accustomed home when the door is opened."

After burying his master, Yogananda grieved and meditated in the Regent hotel, a classic pile in the city of Bombay, now called Mumbai. One afternoon he saw an immense golden glow rise above the buildings across the street. It took the form of Lord Krishma.

A week later, sitting on his bed on the third floor of the hotel at three o'clock in the afternoon on June 19, 1936, Yogananda saw a golden light flower inside the room. In this "beatific light" Yogananda found his room transformed into "a strange world". Sri Yukteswar, appeared before him in "flesh and blood form". His guru assured him, "I am in truth resurrected-not on earth but on an astral planet."

Yukteswar proceeded to give a detailed account of the geography and physics of the astral worlds, the causal realm beyond the astral, and the higher realm where forms dissolve into a sea of light. This fills chapter 43 of Autobiography of a Yogi, and is of perennial interest. Some key revelations:

* "Astral beings dematerialize or materialize their forms at will. All astral beings are free to assume any form, and can easily commune together."

* "The recently physically disembodied being arrives in an astral family through invitation, drawn by similar mental and spiritual tendencies."

* "The span of life in the astral world is much longer than on earth. A normal advanced astral being's average life period is from five hundred to one thousand years,." 

* There are multitudes of astral realms, from astral prisons where the evil dead are confined to gated communities for the holy evolved like the one where Yukteswar said he had taken up residence. The residency status of the population of the astral worlds ranges from "temporary visitor" - someone who has not worked off earthly karma and will need to go through reincarnation, maybe again and again and again - to "long-term resident", who will eventually be able to doff their astral body and ascend to a home on the higher causal plane - to "savior", someone not obliged to remain on the astral (and not required to reincarnate on earth) who stays to help others on this level.  

* Astral beings "have the privilege of costuming themselves at will with new, colorful, astrally materialized bodies. Just as worldly men don new array for gala events, so astral beings find occasions to bedeck themselves in specially designed forms."

* "Friends of other lives easily recognize one another in the astral world."

* "The intuition of astral beings pierces through the veil and observes human activities on earth, but man cannot view the astral world unless his sixth sense is somewhat developed."

* "The advanced beings on Hiranyaloka [a higher astral realm] remain mostly awake in ecstasy during the long astral day and night, helping to work out intricate problems of cosmic government and the redemption of prodigal sons, earthbound souls. When the Hiranyaloka beings sleep, they have occasional dreamlike astral visions."

* "The undeveloped man must undergo countless earthly and astral and causal incarnations in order to emerge from his three bodies. A master who achieves this final freedom may elect to return to earth as a prophet to bring other human beings back to God, or like myself he may choose to reside in the astral cosmos."

Picture: "Astral Seminar in Bombay" (c) Robert Moss

Saturday, July 1, 2023

The reindeer with shaman eyes

We derive the word shaman from the Tungus people of Siberia, now generally known as the Eveny or Evenki, which means "fast runners". I have been rereading an extraordinary book about the Evenki by anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, who lived with them and entered their culture, ecology and dreaming very deeply. The book is titled The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. It is beautifully written and offers a gift on every page.
    We learn, for example, how anomalies in the natural environment are immediately scanned for guidance on what is developing beyond the normal range of perception. The Evenki read the world around them as a book of clues. "If they noticed an untypical pattern, or a striking analogy between two forms that were otherwise unconnected, they took this as a pointer to something significant in reality itself." The behavior of animals, both in regular life and in dreams, is studied for clues as to what is happening at a distance in time or space. It is considered an especially bad omen if a wild animal comes inside a tent. A dream of a wounded reindeer might portend the illness or death of someone. Predictive dreams are especially likely towards morning, when the dreamer is half-awake. For focused guidance, for example on which way to go on a hunt, the Evenki still heat the shoulder-bones of reindeer over embers and find maps in the patterns of cracks. Vitebsky reports step-by-step instructions by a shaman hunter on how to get this right.
    I am greatly moved by the depth of soul connection between the traditionally shamanic Evenki and the reindeer - those they herd, and the wild ones they hunt. This extends to the bonding with individual reindeer who are chosen to defend the health and even the life of their humans. The reindeer given this role, in ritual bonding, is known as the kujjai. A Evenki may have a whole series of kujjai in the course of his or her life, as one after another gives its life to preserve that of the human. It is believed that the reindeer that takes on this role is a willing sacrifice.
    "Nearly everyone who lived on the land had a kujjai, a reindeer that was specially consecrated to protect its owner from harm. When you were threatened by danger, your kujjai placed itself in front of you and died in your place...You then had to consecrate another reindeer to maintain the same level of protection...Only a reindeer could sacrifice itself knowingly and intentionally."
    An Evenki reindeer herder told Vitebsky, "A kujjai is a very special kind of reindeer. Its 
eyes aren't like an ordinary reindeer's. I can't really explain it. It's like a shaman's, I suppose - it's hypnotic."
    A kujjai can be consecrated by a shaman to protect someone at a distance. Vitebsky describes the simple ceremony by which a white reindeer was appointed to guard the life of his young daughter in England; he was to carry a photo of the kujjai back home with him.
    I have seen a deer give its life for a human, and I have painted the Deer hanging on the cross, its heart open, as the willing sacrifice. I find it fascinating that a people who live so close to the deer have made this a ritual of conscious mutual bonding, for life.
    I have read elsewhere, in Esther Jacobson's The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia, that in archaic hunting rituals the Evenki honored a form of the Antlered Goddess. Before a moose hunt, a shaman would go into the forest, to a sacred tree, to contact the female spirit of the land and ask for her help. She would sent the shaman a spirit ally that took the form of a giant cow moose or perhaps a giant woman with moose horns. The shaman would now rehearse a successful hunt with the help of his ally. The physical hunt that followed was believed to manifest what had already been accomplished on the spirit plane.


Piers Vitebsky, The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Esther Jacobson, The Deer Goddess of Ancient Siberia: A Study in the Ecology of Belief. Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1993.

Graphic: Reindeer rider from a collection of Evenki folk tales published in Novosibirsk in 1971.