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Greek Demons and Dream Archetypes
Random images or ordered thoughts?
Like most people, I used to wake up wondering about whatever funny, bizarre or frightening dream that I had just had. And like most people, I used to laugh or shrug off the eventful dream, dismissing it as nonsense or, as William Shakespeare wrote about dreams "the children of an idle brain".
A few years ago, my attitude changed when, during a period of illness, I experienced a series of extraordinary dreams. I had to find out what it all meant, so I went and bought a copy of The Dream Whisperer by Davina MacKail. In the book, the author explains how all of the characters that come to us in dreams; living or dead relatives, friends and other people we have known in our lives, unknown people and recognisable celebrities whom we have never met, are actually dream archetypes. These archetypes are the hidden aspects of our own personalities that are trying to communicate something significant to us. It is by identifying these archetypes, decoding the information that they are conveying to us and acting on it that we achieve personal growth.
The technique for identifying archetypes takes a little time and some discipline. Keep a notebook and pen at your bedside and record every dream upon awakening. Note down all of the people in it, explaining who they were if you know them, and a description of the person if unknown. Describe all events, colours and sounds, and how you felt while everything was "happening". Most importantly, record any words you heard spoken or saw written in the dream. I had only been doing this exercise for a few months when I noticed patterns emerging, certain stock characters that appeared in my different nocturnal dramas, like familiar actors in different plays.
Eventually, I concluded that dream matter was not arbitrary, that the characters that habitually appeared might indeed be archetypes. By now, I was bursting with curiosity to identify these archetypes and to decipher the information that they were trying to communicate to me. Slowly, I learned the process of identifying them. People who meditate routinely will find the process easier to do, post meditation. Get into a seated position and relax. Picture the dream character and ask him or her questions: who are you, what do you do, what are you trying to tell me?
Write down any and every word that comes into your head as you study the person. For example, if your archetype is a dark man, your words may be “stranger”, “handsome”, “prince”, “mystery”, “love”, “romance” and so on. Of course, the meanings that come to you will vary according to your gender, age and condition in life. Write down every word you think of and – I always find this so exciting - at some point, you will suddenly identify the archetype.
It is important to remember that the dream archetype is an aspect of your own personality, not a particular individual. For example, the young woman who keeps dreaming of a dark and handsome man may find that her dream subject is the part of her that is longing for adventure. It does not (sadly) mean that a dark and handsome man is about to enter her life. A man may find that the male stranger who appears in his dream is the competitive, go-getting part of himself. It is through the dramas enacted by theses facets or aspects of our personalities that we interpret dream meanings. Actual dream interpretation is a subject for another feature. Meanwhile, I was ever more fascinated with the characters that habitually appeared in my own dreams, identifying archetypes and deciphering conveyed information. What is more, as these archetypes emerged, the more convinced I became that the gods of the ancient Greeks have their roots in dreams.
The fair woman
One figure that keeps appearing in my dreams, especially when I am going through lean times, is the fair-haired or blonde woman. Although I envy her beauty, I always welcome her appearance as she is a sign that things are going to improve. In Greek mythology, she parallels with the “daytime” goddesses, strong women who like hunting, gathering and other productive activities. One of these fair women is the corn goddess, Demeter, associated with the invention of the mill and the raising of vegetables. She is often portrayed seated with torches and a serpent. Another fair woman is Athena, who presides over art and literature, over spinning, weaving and household activities. She is also a warrior goddess, wearing a helmet and carrying a shield. Artemis, twin sister of the sun god, Apollo, is also a great hunter. Whoever the fair woman is, she stands for energy, abundance and action.
The dark woman
A young, dark woman often appears in my dreams, usually as a cautionary official. Once, she served me food in a restaurant. Hecate is the dark twin of Artemis, credited with the invention of sorcery. She has the power to grant material prosperity, eloquent speech and victory in competition. Hecate is the mother of another dark lady, Circe. She is the enchantress who lured the Greek warriors returning from Troy, led by Odysseus, into her palace. As they ate and drank her food and wine, she waved her magic wand and they changed into swine. The appearance of the dark woman in a dream is a warning to beware of forthcoming gifts, or good fortune that comes too easily.
The old man
In several of my dreams, an old man has appeared, and indicator that my life is moving from one phase to another. In one dream, I found an old man lying asleep or dead, in my bed. In dreams, death is the symbol of imminent change. In Greek mythology, old Autolycus is the grandfather of Odysseus, and has the power to shape-shift, with the ability to change himself into an animal. He is also a notorious thief. Another old man is Silvanus, a Roman deity of the woods. He possesses the strength of youth and his mysterious voice is known always to tell the truth.
It is always touching to meet a child that you know, in a dream. However, several of my dreams have featured unknown children, the archetype of areas of my life that I have never explored. Some years ago when I was recovering from illness, I had a dream about a group of children who were heading towards a swimming pool. I remember thinking: I must dive into a new career when I recover. I did, and exploring the depths have served me well, ever since. The most famous child in mythology is Eros or Cupid, the personification of love. Many legends surround the birth of Eros. In his Symposium, Plato describes Eros as having been born from the union of Expediency (Poros) and Poverty (Penia). He is not powerful but is a perpetually restless and dissatisfied force.
A number of my dreams featured a relative who was very fond of merry-making and partying. Indeed, when he appears in my dreams, we are most often at a party or some kind of celebration. His appearance is the archetype of old emotions that hamper new progress. This could be progress either in work or in relationships. The most renowned reveller in Greek mythology is Bacchus or Dionysus, god of the vine and Lord of Misrule, the son of Zeus and Semele. He wandered around the countryside accompanied by his triumphal train, the Bacchantes, the Sileni, the Satyrs and other minor deities. Wherever he brought his revels, entire populations – especially of women – were seized by madness. Dreams featuring the Reveller are a warning against being dragged down by old or negative emotions.
Tragedy or comedy?
Occasionally, I have a dream that is populated by a crowd of shadowy people; indistinguishable as individuals, like the chorus familiar to Greek comedy and tragedy. A crowd in my dreams in the archetype of conforming, a group of people who assemble to mourn or rejoice. Whatever, they always do the same thing. It is the context of the dream that determines whether I should conform or strike my own path. Some time ago, I was confronted with a decision of whether or not to pursue a particular training course. One night, I had a dream that I was seated on a beach with a crowd of people, all of us munching on chocolate eggs. The dream was warning me to avail of the opportunity or else be deprived of benefits that everyone else was enjoying. In the longer term, I did the course and it has served me well.
The more I explore this subject, the more I am convinced that Greek myths and legends are born of dreams. After all, the origin of drama, as we know it, lies in classical Greece. Signs and symbols are archetypes also, but that is for another feature.
Dictionary of Classical Mythology, edited by Pierre Grimal, Penguin Books.
The Dream Whisperer by Davina MacKail, Hay House, 2010