Thursday, May 30, 2024

In praise of bricolage

I've given up trying to translate the marvelous French word bricolage, sometimes rendered as "tinkering". It's about putting together bits and pieces on a whim, rather than approaching a project as a solid, stolid work of engineering. It's about following oneiric logic rather than plans and structures.
     Claude Lévi-Strauss,who made the word at home in French, found that this approach is central to the making of myths and the workings of "the savage mind". In his celebrated book La pensée sauvage he observed that the bricoleur employs "devious means". His game is "always to make do with whatever is at hand, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions."[1]
     Found objects, junk shops, storage basements, words overheard from strangers...these are materials for bricolage. So are your journals. I love to go through old journals plucking out curious and shiny things and arranging them on fresh pages. I was encouraged to learn that this was a regular practice for Thoreau, a dedicated journal keeper. He liked to forage through old journals plucking out promising bits and pieces - observations in nature, quotes from his reading, dreams and reflections. He copied excerpts and married them up as fresh drafts. It became his habit “to work back over his journals…to reengage old subjects in the light of new interests, to revise and recopy his own earlier journal work,measuring, weighing, culling and sorting his materials…taking up earlier threads, reweaving and combining them.”[1]
     For any writer, as for Thoreau, it opens treasuries of material and above all it supports the writing habit. Playing around with old notes removes the terror of the blank page. When you dip into an old journal, you are never at a loss for a theme. The simple processes of selection, arrangement and retitling will fire the imagination. Before you know it, you’ll be in the midst of writing something new. However, the practice of journaling from journals is not only for writers. It is a marvelous tool for self-observation, for life navigation, and for constructing a personal encyclopedia of symbols.  
     Ah, but what is best is the pure bricolage. I might start working through old journals with a specific agenda, using the search engine to pull up items from my digital files, arranging materials in orderly folders, setting production schedules. Then I am distracted or enchanted by a note I made after a concert:

Barber's Adagio for Strings: The sad and lovely waves of sound carried me effortlessly into vision: of an island in the mist, of the grace of swimming swans, and the loneliness of a solitary swan, of a bright winged being towering above the many-colored waters. Meeting me halfway in the crossing, the swan prince made me know what is required to be enfolded in his knowing. I remember how Aengus, dream god and love god, took the form of a swan.

or a quote that stuns me awake:

Plotinus on the personal guardian: "“Our guardian is the power immediately superior to the one we exercise, for it presides over our life without itself being active…Plato truly said that ‘we choose our guardian’, for, by the kind of life that we prefer, we choose the guardian that presides over our life.’

or a dream of any kind, calling me into fields of memory, mystery and delight:

The Thumbelina Exchange: A young woman has mastered the art of entering another universe by becoming incredibly small.This may have been intentional; she may have wished herself out of her life situation, at least for a fling. Not clear if she is able to return at will.

Soon the pleasure of simply playing with my finds as they come up and come back, takes over. I forget my agendas, and play with the pieces that catch my eye, arranging and fitting them together without expecting them to snap into prearranged place like a jigsaw puzzle. I don't count on it, I don't try to program it, but I am open to finding again that it is in these moments of dickering and tinkering and playing without thought of consequences that fresh and unexpected creation bursts through, as I once saw an apple tree rise from an abandoned core in a heap of compost.  

1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée sauvage (Paris: Plon, 1962)
2. Robert D. Richardson Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986)

Swan People and Bullet Shamans

The Door Opener
Paper Bark

These are the names of three famous dream shamans in a Native American tradition – that of the Dane-zaa, or Beaver People, of northern British Columbia and Alberta. Probe their meaning, and you get a vivid sense of the powers of the most gifted Dreamers in this tradition. The Door Opener finds paths between the worlds for traveling souls, and paths through the hazards of this life for his people. Paper Bark carries messages back and forth between the living and the dead – on birch bark, the paper of indigenous northern North America. Gunpowder is a dream shaman who travels from one place to another at the speed of a bullet fired from a gun. 
      Among the Dane-zaa, respected spiritual elders or shamans like these are called Naachin, Dreamers. When young members of the People (Dane-zaa simply means The People) are sent into the wilderness on a vision quest, a Dreamer will watch over them, traveling in his astral body. The Dreamers are the givers of the songs that bring the People together in sacred ceremony in alignment with the spirits of the natural world. A song may be a bridge between worlds. It may confer the gift of understanding the language of birds and animals. The vision quest itself is called “seeking a song”, shi kaa.
    As in the Upanishads, the Dane-zaa say that a powerful dreamer travels like a swan from and back to the nest of the body. ”The Dreamers are like swans in their ability to fly from one season to another. Like the swans that fly south in the winter, Dreamers fly to a land beyond the sky and bring back songs for the people on Earth.” [1]
    Tales of the feats of great Naachin of the past are essential teaching stories among the People, and those who wish to learn are expected to sit quiet and listen. The names of Dreamers, past and present, give fascinating clues to their special gifts, to why the community valued them and what it sought from them. The names might also evoke visionary experiences that were the source of their power.
The names of these Dreamers of the NorthwestDreamers are discussed by anthropologist Robin Ridington, who lived with the Dane-zaa and recorded their ways over many decades. The Door Opener is the legendary founder of the lineage, and his indigenous name is Makenunatane. The components of this word break in literal translation into the following sequence: “His Tracks Earth Trail”, which is already intriguing. However, elders explained to Ridington that the name is understood to mean “He Opens the Door”.
     The indigenous name of Paper Bark is Atiskise. This literally means "Birch Bark". Birch bark is also “paper bark”, the indigenous writing material of First Peoples of northern North America. As Ridington reports, the dream shaman called Paper Bark was viewed as a mailman carrying messages between the living and the departed.
     The indigenous name of Gunpowder is Aledze. He was said to travel in dreams from one place to another at the speed of a bullet. 

1. Robin Ridington, “They Dream about Everything: The Last Dreamers of the Dane-zaa” in Ryan Hurd and Kelly Bulkeley (eds) Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2014) vol. 2, 194.

Photo: Swan Rising by Romy Needham

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Dogs, doppelgangers and dream assignments

I dreamed that a writer or publisher named Grenier was important to me. An internet search brought me, very quickly, to Roger Grenier, a celebrated editor at Gallimard who also wrote many books. Two days later (there is no cure for a bibliophile, at least none I wish to consider) a copy of his book Les larmes d'Ulysse arrived at my door, It is a treasury of short-form reflections on literature and the treatment of dogs in literature.
    I enjoyed being reminded that Baudelaire said there is paradise for dogs; he was correct. I was moved by Grenier's memories of his walks with his pointer, Ulysses - and then stirred by a moment when Grenier saw a man who appeared to be his doppelganger across the street, and his dog saw and sniffed the same thing.

"Walking along the rue Saint-Dominique, I saw a man on the opposite sidewalk who looked a lot like me, my double. Ulysses noticed him. He too was struck by the resemblance. For a second he pulled at his leash. Then he remembered he was with me. He looked at the double, he looked at me. He was totally bewildered, just as we would be, in the grip of what Freud called 'the uncanny'."

I never regret taking on the research assignments my dreams set for me, or being reminded that dogs are wonderful companions on the roads of many worlds. Best of all, dogs love you no matter what. Maybe his dogs helped Roger Grenier live in creative health to the ripe old age of 98; he died in November 2017.

Monday, May 27, 2024

Where Did the White Doe Come From?



from Notes for a History of Dream Creation

"Where did the white doe come from?" It's the question with which Jorge Luis Borges opens his poem "La Cierva Blanca" ("The White Doe"). He explained elsewhere that the poem came to him. fully formed, in a dream. 

“I don’t feel that I wrote that poem...The poem was given to me, in a dream, some minutes before dawn. At times dreams are painful and tedious, and I object to their outrage and say, enough, this is only a dream, stop. But this time it was an oral picture that I saw and heard. I simply copied it, exactly as it was given to me.” [Willis Barnstone, With Borges on an Ordinary Evening in Buenos Aires (Champaign IL: University of Illinois Pres, 1992) 30]

from La Cierva Blanca by Jorge Luis Borges

tal vez en un recodo del porvenir profundo
te encontraré de nuevo, cierva blanca de un sueño.
Yo también soy un sueño fugitivo que dura
unos días más que el sueño del prado y la blancura.

Perhaps in a corner of the far future
I will meet you again, white doe of my dream.
I, too, am a dream that will not last much longer
than the dream of whiteness in the meadow.

(my free translation)

Saturday, May 25, 2024

When the Emperor Sends You a Letter about Dreams


Manuel II Palaiologos was Byzantine emperor from 1391 to 1425. Perilous times. He hunted, campaigned and clashed with the paranoid Ottoman Sultan Bayazid, called The Thunderbolt, and was held ceremonial hostage by him. His capital, Constantinople, was besieged and blockaded by the Ottomans several times. Provinces were lost and won back and lost again; family members plotted to assassinate him or drive him into exile. He made a long journey west, to the crowned heads of Europe, all the way to France and England, seeking support against the Turks. He was received with great pomp at the court of Henry IV. He stood at the crossroads of a trembling world. His fourth son, the last Byzantine emperor, died on the city walls when Constantinople finaly fell to the Turks. 

A scholar by nature, who said that he loved to write, Manuel made time in the midst of war and intrigue to write discourses on many things, including marriage.The most intriguing of his productions may be the dream book that bears his name. Scholars dispute the authorship, some asserting that a highly literate emperor would not stoop to contribute to the lowly and "superstitious" genre of the dream dictionary.

Yet the few pages of this Byzantine dream book that survive suggest that the author was intimately familiar with life at the imperial palace, and the approach to dream meanings is reasoned and nuanced. Dream books of this era - tracing their descent from the Greek interpreter Artemidorus of Daldis, or from Persian, Indian and Arabic traditions, or all the above - were popular in elite circles as well as among the largely illiterate populace who would gather round a reader to hear a story or interpretation. The two surviving texts of the dream book have been assessed to be from the late fourteenth century, contemporary with the reign of Manuel II. Incidents are described involving high imperial officials. And we have an epistolary essay that was certainly written by Manuel that confirms his deep interest in dreaming and what it reveals about soul.

The Oneirokritikon kata Manouel Palaiologon, or Dream Book of Manuel Palaiologos, is not organized as a dream dictionary, with an alphabetical list of dream symbols, tagged with supposed meanings. It is arranged thematically,and it gives a rationale for interpretations. [1] The author had a taste for puns. and an ear for homophony. If you dream of mosaics, he says,  you may hope for a fair adjudication, because the Greek word for "mosaic pebble" (psephos) also means "judgement". The Greek word for “cheese” τυρί [tyri] sounds like a word for “disorder” or “turmoil” τύρβη  [tyrbi] so when things get "cheesy" you might prepare for more trouble than English slang would suggest.[2] 

The dream book describes the precognitive dream of a high official who saw the unexpected death of his son-in-law [3]. In the thirteen pages of printed text we have from the manuscript, seven dreams that proved truthful are reported. The commentary insists on factual reporting of possibly portentous dreams.

Dream symbols are discussed elsewhere in ways that recall Artemidorus. Thus: wells, cisterns and vessels that hold water relate to women. There is the  distinction that Artemidorus made between insignificant incidents in sleep  (enypnia) and meaningful dreams (oneirata). 

Let's turn to Manuel's letter on dreams.[4] It is not a letter as we think of them today. In her recent biography of Manuel II as  "author-emperor", Siren Çelik observes that Byzantine authors crafted letters as "beautifully ornate, polished compositions filled with literary features....Instead of offering concrete information, a letter aimed at providing literary delight to the recipient; sophisticated language, metaphors, allusions and quotations were highly desired and appreciated features in this context...Letters were meant to be circulated among a literary circle, and sometimes performed aloud in literary gatherings called theatra."[5] 

The emperor's epistle on dreams fits this mode. He is writing to one Andreas Asan, a provincial governor who may be his cousin. He takes his theme from a question Andreas has previously asked: Is it true that all dreams are prophetic, but become false or deceptive through the weakness of our interpretation? This sounds as if the questioner has read Synesius of Cyrene, who wrote that if dreams are read correctly then they all come through the Gate of Horn.

Manuel introduces a brief personal note by mentioning that he is writing (or more likely dictating) his missive in the spring, but a cold snap has caused him to draw close to the fire. This puts the reader inside the scene and also takes up at once - craftily and indircetly - the theme of veracity. It was commonly taught in the old Greek dream books that spring is the best time to look for veridical dreams because life is surging forth from  the earth. [6] 

On the question of whether all dreams are prophetic, Manuel delivers a short  philosophical homily, citing Hellenic and Christian authorities. He assigns dreams to three categories. There are dreams that are generated by the dreamer's “disposition”, daily habits, and the balance of the four humors. This first category includes the dreams you bring on yourself by eating too much or too fast. No prophecy here, though a doctor might find something to work with.

Next, there are dreams that are experiences of the soul. During sleep the soul “comes closer to its divine origins”, though it is still under the negative influence of the body. The emperor appears to acknowledge that the soul travels beyond the body in dreams. It may still fall into states of illusion, and the heavy influence of the body causes it to come back from its excursions blurry and confused.

Third, there are dreams that are true prophecies because they come from God. They are sent to the “pious and pure” who may also have waking visions. A prophetic dream is not only for the receiver but for the people. 

The emperor says that care must be taken to discern whether a prophetic dream is for real or a deception of the devil. Some dreams and omens, as well as some forms of divination, are used by the evil spirit in order to deceive. Thankfully, oneirokritike, dream interpretation, is not mentioned as a possible vehicle for the wiles of the Dark One. Back in the ninth century, the emperor Leo the Wise decided to give dreamwork a clean bill of health. Dream interpretation was formally removed from Byzantine lists of evil practices in the compilation of laws known as the Basilika, issued in 892.

The emperor writes that the devil does not have the gift of prescience: he can only speculate by calculations that either come true or not. The devil not only deceives; he may be deceived. [7] Whew

 Much of what Manuel puts in his epistle on dreams is borrowed from earlier writers, as he is happy to acknowledge. The theory of the influence of the four humors on dreams goes back to Galen and Hellenic medical writings. “Theoretical discussion and practice of divination was de rigeur in Byzantine learned circles in the fourteenth century.” [8]  Manuel weaves Platonist and Christian teachings on the soul into his discussion, but this emerges as the most original part of his epistle on dreams.   

His writing indicates he knew something of Neoplatonist philosophy and theurgy, as well as Orthodox mysticism and patristic literature. He recognizes that dreams may be experiences of the divine and imperishable soul, and that (contrary to Aquinas ) the soul may have greater access to divine wisdom than the angels.[9]  However, because of its long bondage to the body, the soul is heavy and distracted, drawn down towards darkness and its light dims. So the flight of the soul in dreams may follow the shifting border between truth and illusion, and the memories it brings the dreamer on its return will require interpretation. 

Did the emperor set himself up, as author, to play dream interpreter in the manner of Artemidorus or the anonymous author of the popular Oneirocriticon of Achmet? Byzantinist George Calofonos says, " I believe that still one cannot give a definite answer, although his letter and the dreambook show some similarities. Both texts are systematic, lengthy, and quite original. If Manuel was not the author it could be someone from his immediate circle."[10]

If we return to that dream book, we find one prognostication the emperor surely knew to be true: If you dream you become emperor, you will "face humility, dishonour, persecution, and accusations at the hands of many people" [11] 


1. The Greek text of the Manuel Palaiologos Dream Book (Oneirokritikon kata Manouel Palaiologon) is in Armand Dellate (ed.) Anecdota Atheniensia 1 (Paris: Vaillant-Carmanne 1927), 511-24. Translation in Steven M. Oberhelman, Dreambooks in Byzantium: Six Oneirocritica in Translation, with Commentary and Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2008)

2. Maria Mavroudi, "Byzantine and Islamic Dream Interpretation: A Comparative Approach to the Problem of ‘Reality’ vs ‘Literary Tradition’” in  Christne Angelidi and Gerge T. Calofonos (eds), Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond (New York: Routledge, 2014)  169

3. ibid 166

4. The Greek text of Manuel's epistle On Dreams (περί ονειράτον) is in Jean François Boissonade, Anecdota Nova (Paris: Apud Dumont 1844) 239-246. For an extended paraphrase and discussion, see George T. Calofonos,  ‘Manuel II Palaiologos: Interpreter of Dreams?’ in Anthony Bryer, Manzikert to Lepanto: The Byzantine World and the Turks (1071–1517) Papers Given at the Nineteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, March 1985.  Byzantinische Forschungen 16 (1991) 447–55

5. Siren Çelik, Manuel II Palaiologos (1350–1425): A Byzantine Emperor in a Time of Tumult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021) 6-7

6. Mavroudi, Maria V., A Byzantine Book on Dream Interpretation: The Oneirocriticon of Achmet and Its Arabic Sources (Leiden: Brill, 2002) 133-35

7. Based on text in Calofonos, op.cit.,450

8. Mavroudi, "Byzantine and Islamic Dream Interpretation"  173 

9. Manuel insists on the equality of the human soul with angels, contradicting Aquinas' statement in Summa Theologica 2:2, 172.2, on how the gift of prophecy comes to angels. “The angels hold a middle position between God and men, in that they have a greater share in the perfection of divine goodness than men have. Wherfore the divine enlightenments and revelations are carried to men by the angels.” 

10. Calofonos op.cit., 454

11. ibid 454-5 

Art: Manuel II Palaiologos depicted as a gift-bearing member of the Magi (Melchior) in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. On his visit to France, Manuel feasted and exchanged gifts with the Duc du Berry, the uncle of the mad French King Charles VI

Friday, May 17, 2024

Such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enameling To keep a drowsy emperor awake Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

I woke with these lines from Yeats' poem "Sailing to Byzantium" in mind. I have known them by heart since my early teens. I thought, as Yeats the magus did, of vehicles of soul and ancient statue magic. Then the historian in me wanted to check the details.

All Yeats said about the origin of his imagery was that “I have read somewhere that in the Emperor's palace at Byzantium was a tree made of gold and silver, and artificial birds that sang." [1]

Those who have investigated the spources available to Yeats in languages he could read have concluded that his main - and probably only - source was a brief passage in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on the emperor Theophilus. We can now range further.

The Frankish ambassador Liudprand of Cremona, who visited Constantinople in 949, reported that "In front of the imperial throne stood a certain tree of gilt bronze, whose branches, similarly gilt bronze, were filled with birds of different sizes, which emitted the songs of the different birds corresponding to their species."

The mechanical magic was not confined to singing birds. The emperor's throne was fitted out so it could be raised up to the ceiling, from whence the ruler could look down godlike on his courtiers and guests. Liudprand goes on: "The emperor's throne was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air. This throne was of immense size and was, as it were, guarded by lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue". When a visitor was received, the lions began to roar and the bords started singing. The visitor was expected to prostartte himslef three times. When he rose, he would fimnd the meperor seated high above hom. Liudprand averred that "I was moved neither by fear nor astonishment [however] I could not think how this was done, unless perhaps he was lifted up by some such machine as is used for raising the timbers of a wine press".[2]

After the sack of Constantinople by the Franks in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Robert de Clari wrote that he saw mechanical figures of incredible verisimilitude that used to "play by enchantment" - giuer par encantement. "There were figures of men and women, and of horses and oxen and camels and bears and lions and of many manner of beasts, all made of copper, and which were so well made and so naturally formed that there is not a master in heathendom or Christendom who has enough skill as to make figures as good as these figures were made. And in the past they used to perform by enchantment, but they do not play any longer. And the Franks looked at the Games of the Emperor in wonder when they saw it." [3]
The more I read, the more I wanted to identify the golden tree. Historian Allegra Iafrate makes a convincing case that it was a plane tree (platanus). In the Greek world plane trees were admired for their longevity, stature and shade. In Persian tradition - interwoven with Greek, as the vine embraces the plane tree - the chinār (plane) was venerated. Herodotus and Xenophon both wrote that Persian kings had golden plane trees in their palaces. The Persians believed that plane trees sometimes housed souls of the dead, and listening to wind and spirit by a plane tree was a recognized form of divination. [4]
The "Grecian goldsmiths" were also influenced by the fabrications of the Abbasid court in Baghdad. In 917, Byzantine ambassadors arrived at the court of the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir. They were greeted with an elaborate ceremony, and led through room after room in the palace. Near the end of the tour, they were shown into a chamber where "the amazement of the ambassador grew even greater upon entering the Tree Room [Dar ash-Shajarah]; for there he gazed upon birds fashioned out of silver and whistling with every motion, while perched on a tree of silver weighing 500 dirhams." [5] The Byzantine emperor Theophilus is said to have instructed his craftsmen to copy this marvelous tree. It stood at the centre of a pool, surrounded by armored knights, its branches full of singing mechanical birds - and who knows how many itinerant souls?

1. W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1933) 450.
1. The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona trans. Paolo Squatriti (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2007), 197–98.
2. Robert de Clari, La Conquete de Constantinople, ed. Philippe Lauer (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Edouard Champion, 1924), 88. 3. Allegra Iafrate, The Wandering Throne of Solomon Objects and Tales of Kingship in the Medieval Mediterranean (Leiden: Brill, 2015) 79-80.
4. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi translated in Jacob Lassner, The Topography of Baghdad in the Early Middle Ages. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970) 88.

Journal drawing by Robert Moss

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

A Seat at the Fox's Bar


I land at Washington's Dulles airport late, on a little prop plane that is not the one I was scheduled to take, after one of the bumpiest rides I have ever experienced outside a war zone. 
    I have time before my connecting flight to 
São Paulo, and I am starving. The only halfway decent place for a sit-down lunch on my concourse is a pub called The Fox and Firkin. It is jam-packed. But wait: a woman is getting up from the bar. A young man helps her to disentangle her luggage. I thank her for providing me with a seat at the right moment. "You'll enjoy this young man," she tells me.

    The young man at the bar is behaving oddly, hopping back and forth between the now vacant seat and the one he was sitting on. He finally decides I may have his previous seat. Clearly there is going to be some kind of engagement here. His baby-blue eyes float up out of a pale and desperate face. "I know you are an elder." 
    He asks me to guess his age. I do. Now he is almost beseeching. "What can you tell me about life?"
    "Never leave home without your sense of humor."
    "I know. But I get so intense, so aggressive. Like, if someone bumps the back of my seat -" he bumps the back of my seat to make his point ["-I want to get up and get in that guy's face."
     "I'll tell you something else I have learned about life," I remark after he hits the back of my seat a second time. "We always have the freedom to choose our attitude."
     He stops banging my seat. "Oh my God, you're right. It's amazing you just sit down next to me and say that."
     He pushes his face close to mine as if he needs to be petted. I am trying to think who he reminds me of. Got it. He resembles Smeagol, the Gollem in Lord of the Rings. The absence of hair on his head is the least notable point of resemblance.
     He wants something from me I can't yet fathom.
     But as he goes on talking, questioning, I begin to sense its shape. He talks about his military Virginia family, his estrangement from his dad. It is clear this has left a deep wound. My guess is that his father has not been able to accept that his son is gay.
     I tell him that, I too, come from a military family and that I was estranged from my father until three years before his death, when we became the best of friends. I tell the young man that if it were my life, I would make it my game to make all well with my dad while he is still in the world.
    "You're giving me goosebumps." He shows me. His whole arm is chicken skin.
    "Truth comes with goosebumps."   

    He is crying now. "You come into the bar, you take a seat, and you tell me the most important things I've ever been told."
     "Here's something else I've learned. The world speaks to us through coincidence and chance encounters. It's a kind of magic."
     "Is that what you are? A magician? You got me crying at the bar for chrissake."

    "Well that lady who gave me her seat did give you a good review."
    He wants to pay for my burger and beer. Of course I won't let him. He asks for a hug. I do give him that. 

    As usual, when plans get scrambled the Trickster comes into play. There is more than what we understand as chance going on in chance encounters. And sometimes they take place for the benefit of someone else.

Drawing by Robert Moss  

Text adapted from Sidewalk Oracles: Playing with Signs, Symbols and Synchronicity

Synchronicity: You Know It When You Feel It


You feel it in your fingers, in your toes and especially in your skin. It is, first and last, through our feelings that we know that coincidence is going on, and that it is meaningful. It can tickle, it can punch you in the gut. It can stop your breath or make you jump with delight. It can give you cold chills or warm shivers. It can feel like a pat on the shoulder, like a bisou on your cheek, like a jab in the small of your back.
     Feeling is your clue to meaning. I made an informal survey of 800 people who follow my work. I asked them the following question:

When you encounter significant coincidence (aka synchronicity) what do you feel and what do you say about it?

Here are some of the responses:

Usually I say, bring it on! I feel I am being shown I am on the right path.

I say thank you. I feel motivated to be alert and to be present.

 I shudder. I feel a tilt in the world. I say, "Hot damn!"

For a moment, the whole world stops and I am at one with the universe.

I always feel deeply grateful and special.

Often coincidences are very playful in my life. I smile or laugh, then look a little deeper. Is there something here I need to look at? Do I need to take action or just relax and enjoy the play?

Sometimes I giggle, sometimes I feel awe and oneness. The biggies I share with those who may appreciate or gain from it, and I try to note them all in my gratitude journal to keep 'em coming.

 It's like hearing the bell when the angel, Clarence, gets his wings in the movie ‘It's a Wonderful Life.’

 I feel very happy because I feel conscious and awake.

Chicken skin!

I feel lucky and supported and connected and I tell other people, to remind them of the story that we are collectively woven into

I just say, ‘Dang!’

I tell everybody about it, to remind them that life is magic.

I give thanks and gratitude for something far more sacred taking place than I had ever realized before .

Laughing and expectant, I say, Yes! and Thank you!

I feel it is my higher self and the universe conspiring to bring into my life all that is needed in just the right moment.

I feel things are working in the direction they should be.

I feel euphoric, giddy and scared. I know there’s magic afoot.

I get the warm fuzzy feeling like the universe is allowing me to see a few of the strings behind the special effects.

It’s like waking up suddenly.

I feel I’m on the right path, in touch, connected.

 I feel like I'm being nagged by something with a peculiar sense of humor. I generally chuckle and say, Alright then.

The message for me is, Pay attention

I say, Ah….someone is listening after all.

amused and supported 

I smile and enjoy the feeling of having my senses open. It's everywhere all the time and I just love it.

I say thank you to the universe and spirit, and then I always wonder what I might have been missing when I wasn't noticing a synchronicity around me.

I say, Gimme more please! Thank you! And what can I do with this? It makes me feel alive, enchanted and the world becomes sharper.

What is most striking in this informal survey is that no one who responded described the experience of synchronicity as scary. They find it thrilling and exciting. They did not speak of synchronicity as strange, either in the sense of being foreign to normal experience or in the sense of being a rare phenomenon in their lives. On the contrary, they spoke again and again of how the experience makes them feel at home in a conscious, benign universe where they are recognized and supported. Some talked of receiving “divine winks” or “secret handshakes”.   Nobody described the experience of synchronicity as “weird” until I introduced focused discussion of that word later on. Again and again, we heard responders saying, Gimme more please, Bring it on! What was “weird” to them was not the phenomenon of synchronicity, but missing out on it.

I see I must add the wisdom of Laotzi, in the Tao Te Ching, to the counsel on navigating  by synchronicity I presented in my book Sidewalk Oracles: "The sage is guided by what he feels". 


Photo by RM from Sibiu, Romania

Speaking Land


The easiest way to understand synchronicity is the oldest. We live in a conscious universe, where everything is alive, everything is connected, everything has spirit. Early peoples say that humans are the animals that tell stories about all the others, but this does not mean that humans are the only ones talking. Birds speak in complex languages, bees are great communicators and their drone or hum is the sound that humans often hear when their inner senses are opening. A stone can speak, though it may lie dormant and silent until approached in the right way. A river or a mountain can speak. Thunder is louder than any human could speak until people started making things that can blow up cities.
     The Aborigines of my native Australia say that we live in a Speaking Land where everything is speaking. How much we can hear depends on how we use our senses, both inner and outer. How much we can use and understand depends on selection, on grasping what matters.
      While the world around us is alive and spirited, it is also the playground or boxing ring for spirits whose home is in other realities. Some have been worshipped as gods, invoked as angels or feared as demons, and still are by many. A passage in the Puranas informs us that there are forty thousand orders of beings, humanoid to human perception, that are within contact range of humans. They may be friendly, hostile or inimical to humans and human agendas.
      The air is thickly settled, as they say on New England road signs, with spirits of the dead. Some are bound to certain places. Some are hitchhikers, getting around by riding the living. Some are visitors dropping in for the night. Some are commuters from the astral realm of the Moon. They may have been promoted to the rank of daimon and given responsibility, under the supervision of higher intelligences, for watching, counseling, or intervening in the lives of people on Earth.
      From this very ancient and primal perspective, it’s all personal. 

Photo by RM

Friday, May 10, 2024

The Dream Recorder and the Perilous Bridge

Rock Bridge at T'ien-t'ai Mountain

The Rock Bridge of T'en t'ai (Tiantai) Mountain in eastern China is a famously wild and dangerous crossing regarded as a Bridge of Heaven to a land of luohans, heavenly beings depicted as Buddhist monks. The bridge narrows to a few inches, high above a rift valley with a great waterfall, and presents the traveler with a seemingly unscalable hump of rock. In a 12th century painting by Zhou Jichang, a fearful monk is shown approaching this obstacle, observed by luohans floating on clouds. [1]
The physical journey to the rock bridge was made around 1071 by a Japanese Tendai monk named Jōjin. Keeping a dream journal was part of his daily spiritual practice. When he made his journey to China, he not only wrote down his dreams as soon as he woke but carried his "Dream Record" for the past years with him, and noted how it gave him roadside assistance. When he neared the rock bridge, he recognized, in every detail, the bridge he had seen in a dream he recorded a decade earlier, in 1061. The bridge broke in his dream, but a dream character helped him across. He read his old report and wrote on a fresh page:
“Looking through my Dream Record. I see that on the 30th of the 7th month in the fourth year of Kohyo (1061) I dreamed I was crossing over a great river by a stone bridge. Before I was across the bridge broke, but someone else got across by stepping along my bed and eventually got me across in the same way. Even in my dream. I felt sure that the bridge was the stone bridge at T’ien-t’ai in China about which it is said that only one who has attained to the Highest Enlightenment get safely across.
“Now, long afterwards, I was delighted that my dream had come true and that I had succeeded in crossing the bridge. I examined its construction carefully and it corresponded in every way to the bridge in my dream.” [2]
From the profusion of dreams in Buddhist and Daoist literature from this era we can be sure that Jōjin was not alone in keeping a Dream Record, and in paying attention to how dreams foreshadow future events. While some Buddhist rhetoric (for example, the Diamond Sutra) is famoulsy dismissive of dreams as the model of illusion, in practice dreaming and dreamwork have been at the heart of Buddhism since Gautama's mother dreamed of his coming and his wife dreamed of him leaving home. [3]


1. Wen Fong, The Lohans and a Bridge to Heaven (Washington D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 1958) 9-17
2. Arthur Waley,“Some Far-Eastern Dreams” in The Secret History of the Mongols & Other Works (Looe, Cornwall: House of Stratus, 2008) 67
3. Serinity Young, Dreaming in the Lotus: Buddhist Dream Narrative, Imagery and Practice (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1999)

Art: "Rock Bridge at T'ien-t'ai Mountain" by Zhou Jichang. Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

The Empress and her red-hot lover, Jesus

Empress Zoe does not appear to mind that the emperor has installed his official mistress in the Grand Palace, right opposite her own apartments. She has her own red-hot lover, Jesus.
    The rapture she shares with him is not a disembodied transport of the spirit. She has helped to create a physical body in which she may commune with Jesus in her private chamber. This is a full-size statue, anatomically complete, that has many properties that seem bizarre but were not unknown to crafters of "breathing images" in many cultures, from Egypt and Mesopotamia to the crumbling Byzantine empire to Hindu or Tibetan Buddhist temples today. A modern sex shop could no doubt produce a superior technical version, but you would have to shop elsewhere for the psychospiritual battery.
     The empress believes her statue to be fully aliveand ensouled. She kisses and caresses it. In moments of distress, she alternately clasps the icon, speaks to it as to a living person, addresses it as her lover, or flings herself to the ground, wailing and beating her breast.
     Beyond this, the complexion of her savior of the bedchamber is quite changeable. She uses the changes in color as a mode of divination. When Jesus turns pallid, she is stricken with fear than an evil event will take place, to the point where she may throw herself to the floor and beat her breast and rend her clothes. When Jesus turns ruddy, however, she is assured that her affairs - and those of the empire - will go well. She gives advice to her husband, the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, based on the skin tone of her holy statue.
    She feeds the spirit in the statue with perfumes and incense, in immense quantities. Any necromancer knows that spirits don't feed on gross food and drink, but on the essence or vapor of things; they are sniffers rather than swallowers. Fires burn in braziers day and night in the empress' chambers, even in the full heat of summer, as she keeps her retainers working to produce new aromas to please and feed her spirit lover and keep him lively in the body she has crafted for him. Aromatic substances are placed inside the effigy, to fuel and recharge its spirit.
     A fantasy story? No more than other episodes of Byzantine history, carefully recorded in the 11th-century Chronographia of Michael Psellus and available in a Penguin translation retitled Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. Psellus [1]was no minor clerk who gathered gossip; he was the foremost philosopher and orator of his day and an imperial counselor who rose as high as prime minister. He became a monk but loved the Neoplatonists more than the scriptures, on the evidence of his books, and did more than anyone in his age to rescue their w0rks from obscurity. Byzantine scholar John Duffy says of Psellus: "Singlehandedly, he was responsible for bringing back, almost from the dead, an entire group of occult authors and books whose existence had long been as good as forgotten." [2]
    His understanding of what was going on between Zoe and her Jesus statue was informed by first-hand observation, and also by the study of works on theurgy: a lost commentary by Proclus and the Chaldaean Oracles, an essential text for practitioners of high magic in late antiquity. Psellus was not only a learned man; he sought "a wisdom which is beyond all demonstration, apprehensible only by the intellect of a wise man, in moments of inspiration." [3]

Graphic: mosaic of  Empress Zoe with Jesus and her third husband, the emperor Constantine IX. Her face was repainted at least twice. Here she is at least 70 but made to look much younger. 

1. Psellos, in Greek, means "Stammerer". Maybe Michael Psellos (like Demosthenes) had to overcome an early speech defect; he was certainly no stammerer when it came to winning the ear of emperors. His surname is widely latinized as Psellus.
2. John Duffy, "Reactions of Two Byzantine Intellectuals to the Theory and Practice of Magic: Michael Psellos and Michael Italikos" in Henry Maguire (ed) Byzantine Magic (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1995) p. 83.
3. E.R.A. Sewter (trans) Fourteen Byzantine Rules: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) p.175

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Everyday Dream Archaeology: Imhotep and the Bears


Dreams can introduce us to cultures and spiritual connections we might not otherwise know about. A woman in one of my courses received the name Imhotep in a dream. She knew it was Egyptian but knew nothing about Imhotep himself. She accepted the research assignment and discovered that in ancient Egypt, Imhotep, whose name means "comes in peace,” became associated with medicine and healing. In the late period, Cleopatra's time, the shrines of Imhotep were sites of dream incubation for healing in the style of the Asklepian temples of the Greco-Roman world. The dreamer’s curiosity deepened. Why was she dreaming of Imhotep? And what did an Egyptian god have to do with the other characters in her dream, in which she found herself in a happy family of black bears, gamboling with them and perfectly at home?

Historically, Imhotep was famous as an architect before he became a god. He is said to have designed the step pyramid of Djoser in the 27th century bce. It was only 2,200 years later that he started to be recognized as a physician. That probably came in because of people's dreams. Maybe they dreamed of a physician by that name. Imhotep was celebrated in Cleopatra's time as a physician whose sanctuaries were places where dreams healed. At Saqqara, on the west side of the Nile from the ancient Egyptian city of Memphis, there was a temple of Imhotep where people went to dream or have their dreams interpreted by professionals. In Karnak, in a vanished temple of Imhotep, at one time there were no fewer than fifty priests responsible for dream rituals and interpretation. There are records of a very knowledgeable dreamer whose name was Hor. He was actually a priest of Thoth and used to dream amongst the mummified ibis birds in the temple of Thoth. But when it came to reading an important but confusing dream, the priest of Thoth went to "a magician of Imhotep” to get a definitive reading. [1]

So a modern American woman dreams of an Egyptian deity and a family of black bears. She learns that Imhotep was at the center of a cult of dream healing at a time when ordinary people are gaining access to sites and practices once reserved for royalty and closed priesthoods. What’s with the bears? Their appearance in a dream of an ancient god was both thrilling and strangely familiar for me. 

In the first years when I was leading public workshops in Active Dreaming, I often placed a statue of Asclepius on the altar at the center of the circle. These gatherings usually started with the group singing a song to call the Bear as healer and protector. During one of these workshops, as I circled the room, beating my drum to power a journey to a place of healing, I asked about the possible connection between the Bear – the great medicine animal of North America – and an Old World deity of dream healing. Suddenly I saw the energy form of the bear joining what had become the living statue of the god. The two fused and came together. In my vision I saw that in the New World, the Medicine Bear is a counterpart for what Asklepios and maybe Imhotep meant in the ancient world of the Greeks and the Egyptians. I think this perception would have delighted the ancient mind because the ancient mind was forever shuffling things together, making hybrid deities, melding different traditions, borrowing power and “breathing images” from many cultures.

“You are a natural at this,” I told the woman who dreamed the name of an Egyptian god while dancing with bears. She said that when she needed help in healing, she now knew just who to call. 

1. One one ostrakon, Hor, a native Egyptian, left this invocation: I call upon thee  in heaven, in earth, Imhotep…come for a dream, come forth." O.Hor 18, verso, 1–3, 18 trans. J.D. Ray inThe Archive of Hor: Excavations at North Saqqara (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 1976), 2 vols.