Saturday, March 30, 2024

Snapshots from a dream of Tallinn


I plucked this report of a visit to Estonia from an old journal. Its content seems uneasily relevant to the current situation in Europe; see the last quotation in particular. 

Tallinn, Estonia
April 21. 2011

I walked past Fat Margaret, the massive medieval tower that guards the north gate of the Old City, and down Pikk Street. Just before 9 AM, it was nearly deserted; while the word "Suletud" on the doors of shops and restaurants and museum simply means "Closed" in Estonian, I was able to enjoy blissful solitude, in the more familiar sense, instead of tourist crowds . 

I walked up to the pink palace that houses Estonia's parliament, then down Toompea Street to a great unhewn block of stone that has been turned into a monument. On August 20, 1991, the day of an attempted coup in Moscow, the Supreme Council of Estonia declared independence. This was one of the rocks that nonviolent independence fighters hauled to block the roads to the citadel against Soviet tanks that (for once) never came. 

At the foot of the hill, I turned west to visit Freedom Square, where a man-made monument greeted me. It is a Victory Tower constructed entirely of glass, honoring Estonia's earlier struggle for independence in 1918-1920, when Estonians, supported by a British fleet and international volunteers, had to fight on two fronts - against the Red Army and against the German Iron Guard, in league with the Baltic German Landswehr. The glass tower, surmounted by the Cross of Liberty, Estonia's military medal, resembles an ice sculpture, suggesting both the difficulty of building a free society, and its fragility in a country whose geographic misfortune is to be situated in the "Bloodlands" between Germany and Russia. 

I walked up the Hill of the Hartu Gates, above the glass tower. A group of Russians were rough-housing with a Samoyed. I heard angelic singing behind me, as I stood under an ancient linden, and turned to find a troop of school girls chorusing a folk song. 

I arrived at the Museum of Occupations at opening time. This was at the top of my "must-see" list because I felt a strong need to understand the long nightmare of the 20th century from which the Estonians emerged, singing. I saw old suitcases piled everywhere, a mute tribute to all the Estonians forced to flee their homes or their country. A sinister inner gateway loomed in front of the exhibits. It looks like a cross between a tank and a border checkpoint, embellished on one side by the red star and on the other by the swastika, emblems of the twin evils that invaded and oppressed Estonia in World War II.  

Beside this iron gate, the museum's statement of intent included these words: 

The loss of memory and gaps in memory are dangerous for a people. 

Yes. And it takes remarkable bravery to own the memories of a history in which so many were not only brutalized or murdered, but compelled to fight in the uniforms of foreign armies commanded by psychopathic despots. The exhibits are understated: a collection of every-shifting identity cards, an NKVD trooper's body armor, a bottle of homemade vodka, a photo of Forest Brethren - who took to the woods to resist the Soviets - smoking cigarettes under a tree. The testimonials of survivors, speaking in documentaries running on monitors above the display cases, are more graphic. A woman speaks of the "smell of burned meat" after the Soviets arrived to "liberate" her district. 

I leave the Museum of Occupations with all the material in English I can find and walk up to Town Hall Square to drink a local beer - A. Le Coq - at a sidewalk table in the sun. Suddenly a large group at two long tables behind me burst into song, quite beautiful song. When I thank them, they tell me they are Swedes, a choir arrived for a singing competition at the Concert Hall. At my request, they proceed to sing a "summer hymn". And I wish that all international conflicts could be resolved in a singing contest. 

My walk brings me back to Fat Margaret, once a prison. Now the thick-walled stone tower houses a maritime museum. I wander inside and contemplate images of Neolithic Estonians in skin boats, of fish-factory ships, of the salvage from warships sunk in the Baltic. There's a copper deep-sea diving suit from the 1920s, worthy of Jules Verne. It's hard to image anyone in that kind of armor surfacing again from the deep; the commentary notes it was never used. Just above the right shoulder of the deep-sea suicide suit is the first painting in special exhibition of seascapes by an Estonian artist, Rein Mägar. It's dated 2011, and shows a wild spray of blue and white. The title? Unistus. "Dream." Perfect. Another nudge to keep on doing what I have come here to do.  

Leaving Fat Margaret, I look at the interesting building across the street, which pays distant homage to the Tudors. Now a children's library, this building at 73 Pikk was formerly the Tallinn headquarters of the Soviet KGB. A nice progression. At the Museum of Occupations, I watched the former deputy head of the KGB in Tallinn, Vladimir Pool, recalling on camera his experiences when he was trying to monitor the growth of the Singing Revolution in 1988, three years before the popular movement in the Baltic countries helped trigger the collapse of the Sovet Union. The KGB boss had his agents phoning in estimated numbers of Estonians arriving for a songfest that had been shaped as a cry for freedom from Soviet rule. Pool was astounded as his agents reported ever-growing numbers of people. He lost contact with one of his agents. The man called in. "Fifty thousand now," he reported. (The number was to get much larger). Then the agent added, "Soviet power has just gone down the toilet."

 In the evening, I walk along Soo Street, northwest of the Old City, to a studio in an old wooden building where I open the first session of my Active Dreaming workshop. People are excited; some have read Conscious Dreaming in its Estonian edition. 

As we go round the circle, making our introductions, I feel that a grand communal adventure is beginning. 

A young Estonian man tells us, "I am here because I feel an ache in my belly when I have to come back to the body from my dreams." 

An older woman says, "I am here because your book gave words for how I have dreamed all my life." 

A computer programmer says, "I'm here because my dreams have returned after years of amnesia but I'm clueless." 

A beautiful woman announces, "In my dream, I saw Russians driving around crazily on a monster, aggressive lawnmower in front of my dream home and I want them off my grass."

Photo of Tallinn Sky by RM


Friday, March 29, 2024

The Time of Who Goes There

Have you dreamed you are in a different body, even that of someone of a different gender? Have you noticed that you are a time traveler in dreams? Do you have the sense that you may be leading a parallel life? Do you feel you know far more than you can remember about a deeper reality?
    These themes and more - the liminal state of adolescence, and twilight zones of reality and consciousness - are beautifully explored in a recent Japanese animated movie I discovered when a friend shared a dream that had the visual quality of a film in this genre.
    "I was riding a train to the Moon," she told me. "The train crossed a bridge that was a long, bright crescent. I knew I had to get off at the third stop. You looked different - older but strong and sharper-featured - and I became aware I was dreaming."
    The train to the Moon made me think of Hayao Myazaki's animated films. I went online to refresh my memory and stumbled across a remarkable anime film released in Japan last year as “Your Name”. The original title was “If I Had Known It Was a Dream”, from a line in a famous ninth-century poem that ends “I would not have woken up.” Soon I had it streaming on my screen.
     "Your Name", written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, is a gorgeously-visualized story of body swapping, time travel and parallel worlds. A boy in downtown Tokyo and a girl in a mountain village wake up in each other’s bodies and each other’s lives. 

Spoiler alert  Plot surprises are revealed in the summary that follows.

    In an early scene we see the astonishment of Taki (the Tokyo boy) waking up to realize he’s in the body of a girl named Mitsuha. He’s still feeling her young breasts as her little sister comes to call her to breakfast. The grandmother tells him he’s more “normal” today. Yesterday he was “nuts” and didn’t know how to tie his hair. 
    On the way to school, someone asks if Mitsuha's grandmother had him exorcized because the day before he was acting completely possessed. In class, when a teacher calls “Mitsuha,” the boy in her body is just able to respond; the day before, he did not recognize this name.          The teacher’s blackboard lesson is fascinating. She is explaining the etymology of a Japanese word for "twilight." It literally means "Who goes there?" This is the theme of the whole story, and we will discover in the denouement that twilight is truly magic time.
    Mitsuha, in her own body, participates in a ritual at a Shinto shrine, making sacred sake the old way by masticating rice and spitting into a bowl. After, she screams her frustration at being “stuck in a weird dream, living someone else’s life.” She wishes that in her next life she will be “a handsome boy in central Tokyo.”
     Scene shift to Tokyo: Taki is wakened by his cell phone. But he's not there. Mitsuha is in his body. Now we see the girl experience the shock of discovering that she's changed sex overnight. Mitsuha is horrified when she reaches between the legs of the body she is in. She doesn't know Taki's routine - where he goes to school, where he waits tables after school. She must be dreaming of course, but she's amazed by the realism of this dream and wonders where it will end. She finds Taki's online diary and enters a message.Before sleep, she writes her name on the boy’s palm.
    Next day neither remembers the body-switching, but both boy and girl find they have messages written in markers on their hands. They go over their journals and come to the shocking conclusion that in their dreams they are switching bodies. This seems to be happening randomly a few times a week.
    They come up with a survival strategy. They’ll give each other guidelines, like "Use the right bathroom." They’ll go on posting diary notes on each other’s smartphones. Taki reads this entry in his phone diary: "Today is the day we’ll be able to see the comet". But there is no comet in the sky that day on his timeline. As we will discover, the comet appeared three years earlier. Taki and Mitsuha are not only living in different places; they are living in different times.
   Mitsuha, in her own body and her own time, watches the comet. It splits in the sky, hurling a lethal fragment straight at her village. We understands that the comet kills her and wipes out her village. After this episode, Taki stops waking up in her body. He entries in his smartphone diary fade away.
    Is it possible to bend events in the past, to save the girl from the death she experiences three years earlier? It's a crazy idea, but then it's crazy that boy and girl have been swapping bodies and living parts of each other's lives. If their destinies are that closely intertwined, maybe there's a chance that Taki can reach her across time, warn her about the coming disaster - and save her life and others.
    So the quest begins. Taki does not know the name of Mitsuha's village, but he has sketches he has made from his second life of its beautiful setting. Out in the countryside, a woman in a noodle shop recognizes the location in his pictures.
   Taki goes to the site. The village is gone, replaced by the crater made by the meteor.  All seems lost, but then then there is sake, and archaic technology for relocating spirits and stepping in and out of time. He finds his way to the place of a god, a placee where Mitsuha left “half herself” in safekeeping. The container of a vital part of her spirit is  a jug of kuchikamisake, sacred sake, made with her own spit.
     Taki drinks this. We understand that he is ingesting part of Mitsuha's vital essence. Now we see the unbraiding and re-weaving of time. This is visually compelling, bringing alive an ancient tradition. We come to understand that corded braids represent the threads of time, which can be knotted and unknotted.
      Now Taki is back in Mitsuha’s body on the day that the comet will strike. He struggles to get people to evacuate the village, without much success.
    Meanwhile Mitsuha is on a train to Tokyo in search of him. “If I see you I will know I was in your body.” But his number is unavailable (because they are living three years removed from each other, which she does not yet understand. She finds Taki on a train. He does not recognize her but she gives him her name.
     They are finally able to see each other and meet on the lip of the crater where there is the home of the old god. This begins and ends in the space of twilight. We are reminded of the blackboard early in the film, on which the teacher writes the kanji for Tasogare-doki , twilight time, and explains that it means the time of “'Who Goes There?”. The sense of the expression is that at twilight, t’s still light enough to see someone but too dark to recognize them. For much of the film, the dialect word kataware-doki is used.
    Thanks to Taki's journey across time, the people of Mitsuha's town are saved, though the town itself is destroyed.
    We can't stop without some romance. Mitsuha and Taki continue to seek each other. They finally spot each other on trains in the big city, as they travel on parallel lines. By this time, just as dreams fade, they have forgotten almost everything 
– including each other’s names – except that something restless in their souls has kept them searching for someone, somewhere.

Makoto Shinkai wrote a "light novel", also titled Your Name, while making his film, and it is well worth reading, though I recommend watching the movie first.

In the garden of Ottoman dreams

In the collective imagination of Islam, paradise is a garden. In the Ottoman world, gardens are places where friends come together, where wonderful parties unfold, where joy and romance are easy, where the seeker finds the spiritual master, where the living and the worthy dead rub shoulders. The maturation of a person in spiritual and life terms is likened again and again to the opening of a bud. The bud becomes a flower. Sometimes this sets a whole garden astir with blossoming, delighting the senses with color, perfume and the susurrus of silken petals.
    A book may be a garden of ever-living plants. Ottoman biographical dictionaries are often called gardens: The Garden of Roses, the Garden of Peonies, even the Garden of Truths. The last is the title of a biographical dictionary by the poet and provincial kadi (judge) 
Nev’zade ‘Ata’i (d. 1637). He studied a thousand lives, of people from the generation before his, and planted these in formal rows in the garden of his book. He took only subjects who had died and gone into the earth. The fact that his subjects were dead did not mean that they could not speak. He reports face-to-face encounters with the dead, in a garden, or at a gravesite, or at the threshold of a home.  

    We can enter his world, and the gardens of Ottoman dreaming, through the pages of Dreams and Lives in Ottoman Istanbul by Aslı Niyazioğlu, a history professor at Koç University in Istanbul. We learn that for Ottoman officials, dreams were especially prized as a way of gaining counsel on career decisions; there is a practical edge to how they compared dream reports. In a society that valued dreams, a dream report might be a way to promote a case or a cause.    
    Versed in current scholarship on dream sharing in other early modern societies, from Mughal India, Safavid Iran, Habsburg Spain, Ming China, Aslı Niyazioğlu makes an important contribution to the history of dream sharing and how identities are constructed in different societies. We can almost hear the dreams being swapped at garden parties, by Sufis in the dervish houses, by students in the religious schools, in private homes. 
    Ottoman biographers often included dreams in their narratives. “They referred to dreams as mirrors that reflected the divine world that was hidden from ordinary eyes.”  In times of opportunity, as in times of unease, students and officials looked for role models  as they sought tools to survive and thrive.
    The full title of 'Ata'i's compendium is Garden of Truths in the Completion of the Peonies. Why peonies? I thought of those thick, ruffled blooms, ability to come back spring after spring for a century or more, and traditional associations with abundance, prosperity, fullness.
    What did the Ottomans want to know about the people they read about? What made, in their minds, an interesting or worthwhile life? Niyazioğlu correctly insists that we must abandon contemporary expectations to enter a different era and mindset. Ottoman biographies are full of dreams and encounters with the dead. On one level, 'Ata'i's collection is a set of resume lives, chronicles of career steps and appointments,  "Yet, it is also a book where the dreamers woke up to another sight of their world, a fearsome and restless world where social networks and career paths are turned upside down.” 
    The purpose of biography – according to Taskoprizade [d.1561], author of the Arabic biographical dictionary Crimson Peonies, a model for ‘Ata’i, it is “to learn from those conditions [of individuals of the past], to seek advice from them and to form the habit of experience through acquaintance with the vicissitudes of time.” 
     In Ottoman lives, dreams are shown to be guidance on practical decisions and career moves. It is also recognized that dreams can open the eye of truth, what Ibn 'Arabi called the eye of the heart. The bureaucrat Latifi [d.1582] recounted a memorable case of how the voice of conscience may be heard in dreams. The case involved a judge who gave up his career after he dreamed that on the Day of Judgment water mills crushed the heads of corrupt judges; the mills were powered by the blood of their victims.
    In this period Sufi sheikhs used dreams in the training of their disciples, especially in the Halveti and Bayrami orders. The Halveti leader Sinan Efendi wanted disciples to tell all their dreams to their sheiks. 
    Dreams selected by Ottoman biographers are typically clear and direct. These were held to be characteristics of a true dream. 
    Asli sees Ottoman dreams as “bridges between different realms…between the living and the dead, the past and the future, the human and the divine". This is a world where dreams change lives, the dead appear in broad daylight, and biographers invited their readers into gardens of remembrance where the departed will bloom again like peonies in the spring.
    Interaction between the living and the dead is constant in Ottoman biographies. The dead may appear at your door, or in a dream or both; it’s not always clear which reality you are in at the moment of encounter. In one of ‘Ata’i’s stories, an Ottoman sailor in North Africa is woken from a nap by a servant who tells him that his beloved friend, a sea captain reported dead three years earlier, is at the door. They embrace, they pass a couple of delightful hours together, then the friend leaves and the sailor is overcome by sleep. When he wakes, he hastens to tell his friends about the visit. He is amazed when they insist that the captain is indeed dead. No reason is given for the visit except the natural desire of good friends to spend time together.
    Rumi appears to welcome and bless a sheikh who travels to Konya, the poet-mystic’s domain. He appears at a sema and draws a skeptical sheikh into the turning dance, making him a convert. “I could not stay still”. 
     A dead lover appears to his grieving boyfriend and leaves a physical token.
    ‘Ata’i visits the tomb of a sheikh, who appears to him and gives him a pen and assures him he can function both as a kadi (provincial judge) and as a leading poet. When ‘Ata’i is blocked composing a mesnevi, his deceased father, the poet Nev’i Efendi appears and addresses him as “O young bud of the garden of my heart.” Telling him “I built a fountain of pure milk in this house.Strive so that it continues to flow. Do not bring it to a halt.” 
     In 'Ata'i's time, one preacher condemned visits to grave sites from the minbar of Ayasofya, while another praised them from the Blue Mosque just opposite. For 'Ata’i the wise dead are “guardians of the world”. Their bodies are beneath the earth, but their spirits open like wonderful ever-growing flowers.  
    Let’s notice these were scary times. The paranoid Sultan roamed the streets of Istanbul at night with his guards, sniffing for any tell-tale trace of tobacco; if he catches anyone smoking he will have him killed. Anyone caught walking without a light was also subject to immediate execution.
    The author of the Garden of Truths steadies himself in dangerous times with the knowledge that he has allies and bonds beyond death. He presents himself as custodian and gardener for wise men accessible to him in dreams. As a gardener, he removes weeds, prunes, fertilizes, displays unique plants. Asli  Niyazioğlu has rendered a tremendous service to the history of dreaming - which must also be a history of the role of dreams in social interaction - in this careful and fascinating study of Ottoman dreams and biographies.

From Ottoman Istanbul: A Sufi cure for a dream drought

According to his biographers, when Ibrahim Tennuri wanted to become a disciple of the Bayrami sheikh Akşemseddîn (d. 1459), the sheikh asked him about his dreams. As he could not remember any, he was placed in a retreat for forty days. The retreat worked: he had a hundred dreams and remembered each with great precision.

The subject of this review article is Dreams and Lives in Ottoman Istanbul: A Seventeenth-Century Biographer's Perspective  by Asli Niyazioğlu. Published by Routledge for the Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies Series, 2016. 

Art: anonymous painted illustration of the garden of Sa'dabad at Kağıthane, Istanbul, ca. 1720.

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

A 2-minute history of dream creation

Dreams and twilight states of consciousness have inspired great scientists, inventors, musicians, writers and liberators of human possibility throughout history. Here are some examples:
    • Scientist Otto Loewi dreamed the experiment that enabled him to prove that nerve impulses are chemically transmitted, a discovery that won him the Nobel Prize.
    • Beethoven composed a canon in his sleep, and transcribed it after waking.
    • Giuseppe Tartini dreamed his famous Violin Sonata in G Minor, known as the Devil's Trill. By his own account, Tartini gave the Devil his violin in the dream and was awed by the brilliance of the fresh composition he received.
    • Robert Louis Stevenson received his stories in a twilight state of “reverie” in which benign spirits he called “brownies” helped him to compose.
    • William Butler Yeats wrote his celebrated one-act play Cathleen ni Houlihan from a dream, and much of his poetry flowed directly from dreams and visions.
    • Elias Howe, the inventor of the modern sewing machine, dreamed the solution to the technical problem that had stumped him.
    • Lucille Ball was inspired to launch her phenomenally successful TV show by a dream in which she was visited by a departed friend, the actress Carole Lombard (who had been killed in a plane crash in 1942). Later Lucy’s departed mother appeared in dreams to give her business guidance.
    • Jack Nicklaus dreamed up a new golf grip.
    • Polynesian master navigators were able to cross thousands of miles of ocean, without maps or instruments, because they followed courses shown to them in dreams. A priest (and royal tattooist) called Hau Maka dreamed the way to Easter Island, describing the location in great detail. His king and his people trusted the dreamer’s travel report. They all set sail with everything they had and after two months sailed into Anakena Bay, which was exactly as Hau Maka had described.
    • In his speech on acceptance of his Nobel Prize, quantum physicist Niels Bohr attributed his discoveries to his dreams. 
    •  Another Nobel laureate and quantum physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, said that dreams were his "secret laboratory."
    • Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad, helped 300 slaves escape to freedom by leading them along the roads she discovered and scouted in her dreams.
    • Larry Page, co-founder of Google, told a commencement audience at his alma mater that the idea that put him en route to creating the search engine that became a financial behemoth came to him in a dream, counseling, "If you have a big dream, grab it."
    • The biggest gusher in the history of oil, at the time of its discovery in 1938, was the direct result of the dream of a retired British colonial official. It was the origin of Kuwait's oil wealth, the source of the fuel that got American shipping across the Atlantic in World War II - and of the later Gulf War.
    • Johnny Cash, John Lennon and Paul McCartney are among scores of popular musicians whose songs have been directly inspired by dreams.

For much more on dreaming as a secret engine in the history of all things human, please read The Secret History of Dreaming.

Picture: "Tartini's Dream" by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1824)

Saturday, March 16, 2024

The Golden Times between Sleep and Awake


Iamblichus (c.250-325 CE), the famous philosopher and theurgist descended from the priest-kings of Emesa (in modern Syria) was very clear that the liminal space between sleep and awake is prime time for contact with spiritual guides, such as gods: 

"Either when sleep departs, just as we are awakening, it is possible to hear a sudden voice guiding us about things to be done, or the voices are heard between waking and going to sleep, or even when wholly awake. And sometimes an intangible and incorporeal spirit encircles those lying down, so that there is no visual perception of it, but some other awareness and self-consciousness. When entering, it makes a whooshing sound, and diffuses itself in all directions without any contact, and it does wondrous works by way of freeing both soul and body from their sufferings. 

"At other times, however, when a light shines brightly and peacefully, not only is the sight of the eye possessed, but closed up after previously being quite open. And the other senses are awake and consciously aware of how the gods shine forth in the light, and with a clear understanding they both hear what they say and know what they do."[1]

Iamblichus wrote his book under the pseudonym of an Egyptian priest, Abrammon, maintaining that “the gods are pleased when invoked according to the custom of the Egyptians”. [2] Though he wrote and taught in Greek, he is distinctly less Hellenic that other Neoplatonists. He kept his Semitic name, which is derived from the Syriac or Aramaic ya-mliku, meaning “El is King”. He was descended from the priest-kings of Emesa, some of whom bore his name. Iamblichus I sent troops to support Octavian in the Roman civil war. [3] Iamblichus the theurgist professes great reverence for Egyptian and Chaldean tradition, as opposed to the faddism of the "flight" Hellenes. 

Theurgy means "divine working" and for Iamblichus it was a matter of ritual activity and practice in shifting consciousness, not abstract speculation. The aim was to “rediscover life-giving water hidden in our desert”, to return the soul to knowledge of its greater identity and purpose and lift the individual to the level of a greater self.  This extended to “taking the shapes of the gods” while human, in the body."

 Iamblichus taught that theurgy did not act through the intellect but through one’s entire character “to allow the soul to exchange one life for another, to exchange the mortal life for the life of a god”. [4] In Theurgy and the Soul, Gregory Shaw observes that Iamblichus was  “the first leader of a Platonic school to function simultaneously as hierophant of a sacred cult”.[5] We do not have texts describing the specific ritual practices of that cult, though we know it involved sound and light and telestiké, statue magic, which involved calling the energy of a god or daimon into an image to ensoul it. 

Good to know that this celebrated ancient magician-philosopher also recognized that nightly or morning magic awaits us in that liminal space of “god-sent dreams” between sleep and awake.


1. Iamblichus, De mysteriis trans. Emma C. Clarke John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003) III.2

2. Marsilio Ficino came up with the title On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Assyrians [De mysteriis for short in most references]. Since it was framed as an epistle from an Egyptian priest in response to criticisms from Porphyry, another leading Neoplatonist, its real title would be: “The Reply of the Master Abammon to the Letter of Porphyry”. 

3. John Dillon, “Iamblichus of Chalcis” In Wolfgang Haase (ed.), Philosophie, Wissenschaften, Technik, (New York: De Gruyter, 1987) pp. 863-5

4. Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul: The Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (Kettering OH: Angelico Press/Sophia Perennis, 2014) p.6

5. ibid., pp. 76-7

Photo: The Emesa Helmet. A Roman cavalry helmet with iron face guard covered by a sheet of silver, from the 1st century; found at Homs (ancient Edesa) in 1936.


Gods in disguise

When it comes to gods, human kind cannot bear very much reality. Jung, the son of a disaffected Protestant minister, observed that organized religion exists to protect humans against a direct experience of the sacred. The Hebrews appeal to Moses to speak to Yahweh on their behalf and play middleman, because he terrifies them. God counsels Joshua “I am near you, but you must hide your head or you will be destroyed." The closest Joshua can come to seeing the deity is to get a glimpse of his back as he withdraws. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna begs to see Krishna’s cosmic form, but can't bear it when it is revealed.

In C.S.Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (published in  the United States as the Space Trilogy), the Oyarsa, planetary deities, are dizzying when they first appear to humans, seeming to rush in all directions, more directions than Earth physics allows. They must slow and gentle their manifesting forms to interact with humans.

We read in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, “I saw Him in the manner that I was able to perceive him.” So gods come in disguises and they use camouflage that is meant to be seen through by those who are ready. For a costume shop of disguises, check out Athena’s apparitions in the Odyssey.

As for camouflage, it’s been said that coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. We might add: while tempting us to try to identify the author. When we realize that in special moments of synchronicity greater powers are in play, and seek their identity we start to construct the greater stories of our lives. Then we can riff on the old saying like this

Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous, while tempting us to try to identify the author.

Photo: XIX dynasty mask of Anubis in the Louvre

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The lion who fell from the moon

Impressions, momentary and vivid, would wash over him: a potter’s vermilion glaze; the sky-vault filled with stars that were also gods; the moon, from which a lion had fallen….

My chills of recognition make me pause, just three lines into a story by Jorge Luis Borges, one of the essential writers, opening worlds of wonder and doorways into the Universal Library in a few pages. Borges named this one after himself: “The Maker”, El Hacedor.
     Previous translators squirmed at the title “The Maker”. They thought people might confuse it with Our Maker; they feared leaving sulphurous traces of a heresiarch. So they considered and sometimes used “The Poet”, “The Artificer”, “Il Fabbro”. But Borges chose the English himself. And yes, he meant maker of worlds.
     The maker wrote this as he was nearing blindness in the vast library in Buenos Aires with whose flying books he had made love and married and danced the tango and fought with knives inside his mind. I can think of no one, not even Jung, who has housed so many books in his head and incited so much action between them. Borges was now engaged in constructing a total library in the imaginal realm, his version of paradise. Never a tame library, but one where wild things are.

the moon, from which a lion had fallen….

    I am seized again with wild familiarity, the hot breath at my neck, claws at my kidneys.
    Borges’ line has a rhyming cousin, short, stocky and flat-faced, wearing a robe of skins hung with bronze mirrors. I know where find it.  I keep it locked behind glass doors, along with the Red Book, the Golden Bough and other books that are restive and like to flap about and  prowl in the night.
     Sometimes the doors rattle and the key turns itself but today, things are quiet and I must fetch the book myself. It was published in Oxford five years after Borges died, so he could not have known it but might have known some of its sources. Its words are spun from conversations with shamans and elders of the Daur Mongols, lovers of horses, fermented mare’s milk, and drums that they ride to other worlds.
     Like Borges, these shamans are forever talking about tigers and lions. While Borges tried to make dreamtigers and was never quite satisfied, around Hailar or the Nomin River it’s not hard. Lie by the water watching butterflies and a tiger twice as long as you may come for you, as it would come for a tethered goat.
     Out here the lion may demand a deeper seeing, since you won’t see lions in Daur country with your ordinary eyes.
     The Oxford anthropologist asks a Daur shaman, Urgunge Onon, about this. He speaks from the tellings, which is how his people describe their traditional knowledge. Anthropologists may know about shamanism but the people who practice it in the old ways don’t have any “isms” in their vocabulary.
      Urgunge says, “Wild animals of the forest have two kings [khan], the tiger [tasaga] and the lion [arsalang].
      “Lion?” The anthropologist is amazed. “But you don’t have lions in Manchuria.”
      “They will be thinking of …er..what is it in English? Leopard. Leopard is just like lion, is that right?”
      “But you don’t have leopards either.”
      “No, that is true. So the conclusion is: in reality the khan of animals is the tiger; in imagination the khan is also the lion, even if we do not have lions in Mongolia. Everybody knows the story of the lion who jumped to catch the moon, then it died, you see. This is definitely the lion. The tiger never did that.”

I don't trust the end of this story. I am pretty sure the lion who fell from the moon did not really die. Some nights, coming in or out of sleep, I feel him lying with me on the bed, back to back.

The night after I wrote th
is, I dreamed of lions in a place of soul recovery. In a huge cavern, divided by an underground river, a wise elder is preparing people to make the crossing and meet the lions who are waiting for them, one for each. From this side the lions look no bigger than kittens. They may look different close up. I know that those who find the courage to meet their lions will be transformed. The courage of the lion and its power to make itself heard will live in them.

Books referenced 

"The Maker" in Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998).292
Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols  by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

Art: Douanier Rousseau, "Sleeping Gypsy".

Friday, March 8, 2024

Mutual dreaming and remote healing in The Temple of Asklepios


Of all the testimonies that survive from the temples of dream healing consecrated to the god Asklepios and his divine family, the most fascinating, for me, is the case of the mother of a young Spartan woman named Arata. The mother made the  long and often dangerous journey to the great Asklepian temple of Epidaurus to seek healing for her daughter.

Arata, we are told, was υδρωπ, "dropsical". Today, we might say that she had an edema, a serious swelling due to the build-up of fluids in the cavities of the body. When ordinary medicine could do nothing for her, the mother embarked on her journey. She must have undergone the customary cleansing and ritual purification, and made simple offerings to the sacred powers of the sanctuary, including honey cakes for the serpents of Asklepios.

She would have been assisted by the therapeuts - the helpers of the healing god - to incubate a dream of invitation and to clarify her request to the god, for the benefit of her beloved daughter. She would have been shown testimonies of those who had been healed before, and images of the gods, building a mental climate of positive expectation. Eventually she was ushered into the abaton, the inner precinct of the temple, where she would have been encouraged to lie down on an animal skin and await the coming of the healing god in the sacred night.

In the night, "She slept in the temple and saw the following dream: it seemed to her that the god cut off her daughter’s head and hung up her body in such a way that her neck hung down." We can picture how a butcher might hang an animal carcass on a meat hook.  Out of the neck came a huge quantity of fluid matter. Then the mother took down her daughter’s body and fitted the head back on the neck. 

After she had seen this dream, she went home and found her daughter fully recovered, in good health and excellent spirits. Her daughter reported she had the same dream.

In this wild and primal experience, glimpsed through a few lines of an inscription chiseled on stone, we see the lineaments of a healing practice that reaches beyond ordinary medicine and beyond time and place. A sacred power appears to the dreamer, in response to a heart-felt prayer. Let us notice that the experience unfolding is possibly best understood as a lucid dream playing in the liminal space between sleep and awake.

The god of this dream is a ruthless surgeon, but his cutting is true and precise. Something that was wrong in the body of a person at a distance is drained and healed during this operation., Not only is the effect transferred to Arata, hundreds of miles away, but Arata sees the whole thing, as if she were with her mother and the god in the sacred space.

We have here remarkable evidence of the reality and efficacy of remote healing and shared dreaming. We have confirmation that direct engagement with the sacred is the ultimate healing resource. We have a reminder that even the most terrifying image - if it is authentic and truly belongs to us - can open a way to healing and transformation, if we are willing to stay with it and work with it.

Source: the testimony of Arata's mother is printed in Emma J. Edelstein and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (second edition, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998) as #423.21.

 Photo: Marble votive relief depicting Asklepios healing a patient in the sacred night, with Hygieia standing behind. From the Asklepeion at Piraeus, c.400 bce. Now in the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus:.