Dreams and Visions

Elizabeth Barrette
Impressions by Elizabeth Barrette, PanGaia editor.

Dreams and Visions
by Elizabeth Barrette


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   Two gates the silent house
of Sleep adorn:
   Of polished ivory this,
that of transparent horn:

   True visions through transparent
horn arise;

   Through polished ivory pass
deluding lies.

       — Virgil, in Aeneid, VI (Dryden trans.)

Dreams and visions are mysteries of the soul. We may strive to understand them, but our understanding will always be limited. They exist in a different layer of reality than the one our minds ordinarily inhabit. We can cross that threshold into the realm of dreams and visions — indeed, most of us do it nightly — but what happens there follows a logic all its own, often beyond the ability of our waking minds to make sense of. Only through practice and study can we learn how to tap the power of dreams and visions.

Different cultures deal with these things in varying ways. Many tribal cultures have sophisticated knowledge of dreamlore. There are shamans who can interpret dreams, explain what techniques to use in search of a vision depending on the person and context, or mix entheogens with an eye to what colors the individual plants will bring out in a vision.1 Some cultures have “maps” of places and images frequently encountered in the spirit world.

When it comes to dream science, though, modern Americans are the “ignorant savages.” Most consider dreams unimportant, and visions mere hallucination. Machines can tell that certain areas of the brain are active, and trace out the brain waves. That tells us nothing about what’s really happening in there, from a subjective viewpoint.

Yet even a culture that tends to dismiss dreams as nonsense retains some sense of their importance — as shown by a recent sleep-aid slogan, “Your dreams miss you.”2 The accompanying image just begs for interpretation: a beaver and a very lonesome-looking Abraham Lincoln playing chess in an attic. You can’t look at that picture without wondering what the heck it means. It epitomizes the contemporary characterization of dreams as nonsensical, yet at the same time, its surreality demands that we seek its meaning.

There are dozens of dream dictionaries on the shelves, and sadly, most of them are garbage. Symbolism in dreams draws on cultural and individual resources and doesn’t lend itself to rote learning. A snake might represent betrayal to a Christian, but rebirth to a Pagan. Flowers, emblematic of growth in many traditions, might represent death to an urban Witch who encounters them primarily at funerals. These are the language of “true dreams,” the ones that hold a message for us — the ones that come through the Gate of Horn. Those from the Gate of Ivory are whimsical side effects of our brain’s processes. Trouble is, it’s not always easy to tell them apart.

If dreams are enigmatic, visions are enigmatic and elusive. Whereas dreams are ordinary nighttime events, visions are a rare juxtaposition of two different layers of reality that don’t usually overlap. They may be sought out — as in certain rites of passage — but they may also occur spontaneously. Visions may appear at times of great need, or in magical places where the veil between worlds is thinner. They also seem to have a higher signal-to-noise ratio than dreams, but they are no easier to interpret.

So why bother chasing visions and puzzling out dreams? They can hold great power, and provide insights unavailable through other means. These are favored lines of communication for many higher powers including totems, deities, spirit guides and guardians, etc. They also allow us access to the “higher self” and the “subconscious,” parts of the human awareness which are not directly accessible to the conscious mind under ordinary circumstances. (This is a key reason why “sleep on it” is excellent advice for making decisions.) Because those connections and information have proven useful over time, our instincts prod us to pay attention, even if our conscious mind protests that it’s “silly.”

I’ve been working with dream-craft for most of my life. When I was very young, I discovered that I could gain tremendous creativity from the borderlands between waking and sleeping (called the “hypnogogic” and “hypnopompic” states). With practice, I learned to extend the amount of time spent in that most profitable territory — I can spend an hour or two coming and going, as contrasted with the few minutes that most people spend there. I can bring back specific poems or stories composed in dreamspace, not just inspiration for things to be written later; waking up from such a dream, and holding onto it, is like trying to swim for the surface while carrying rocks in a wet paper towel. These techniques have added much to my writing.

In the last few years, dream interpretation has been added to my repertoire. I used to say “I’m a dream-swimmer, what would I know about that? It’s expert territory.” But there aren’t many experts around, and the Universe has evidently decided that I now know enough to start practicing. So I’m exploring new skills.

What I have learned about dreams and visions is that they possess what I call “serial reality” — that is, they can have definite effects on people in this reality, so in some sense they must be real themselves. Visions and true dreams can be worldshaking, or at least worldview-shaking. That’s a good thing, because sometimes our worldview gets a case of galloping stupidity, and needs to be shaken up.

For example, think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.3 That one shook up the whole system of racial segregation and gave tremendous power to the civil rights movement. It also demonstrates the kind of dream or vision that shows us a better future and inspires us to strive for it. That kind is typically a sending from a higher power, or from the higher self (which is in communication with divine levels of reality). In this manner, our dreams can wake us up from the odd sort of sleepwalking that many people do when they go through the motions of their lives without really stopping to think about the implications of what they do.

For magical people in particular, dreams and visions are valuable assets. They can increase our spiritual growth, deepen our mystical power, teach us new skills, grant insights, and connect us with our divine patrons. So it pays off for us to explore these things is greater detail. Science can help somewhat — it’s well worth your time to read how the brain works, and how dreams and visions are believed to happen in the brain — but there’s a limit to how far it can go. Beyond that is the territory of mystics, shamans, priests and priest-esses, and other explorers of the ephemeral realms. In other words, right up our alley!

This issue of PanGaia explores the magic of dreams and visions through many different approaches. Our cover piece is an interview with Oberon Zell-Ravenheart conducted by Michael Night Sky and Anne Newkirk Niven. In it, you’ll read about one of the Pagan community’s greatest visionary leaders. Over the years, Oberon has founded the Church of All Worlds, run Green Egg magazine, and established the Grey School of Wizardry. Here he talks about the visions that have guided and inspired him.

My article, “Dreamweavings” teaches practical dream magic. You’ll learn about the materials and techniques for making your own dream-catchers and dream pillows.

“Living in Dreamtime” by Mary Pat Mann explores the history and traditions of indigenous Australia. Here lies the Dreamtime, a mystical aspect of timespace which overlaps the ordinary world.

“Introduction to Lucid Dreaming” by Mark McElroy is another piece of practical magic, this time explaining how to gain control of what happens in your dreams.

“Dreamwalking” by Michelle Belanger builds on the idea of lucid dreaming by describing how dreams connect the sleeping mind to another world where the dreamer can travel freely.

Our short story this time is “Water Under Thorns” by Patricia Lucas. It features a mysterious young woman who moves into a house on an ordinary street, and causes extraordinary things to happen.

In “Toe to Toe” our essayists debate whether or not Pagans should build churches. Is this idea a dream about to come to fruition — or a nightmare? Read and find out!


  1. Kenneth Kamler, M.D., Surviving the Extremes: What Happens to the Body and Mind at the Limits of Human Endurance, Penguin Books, New York, NY, 2005, p. 72.
  2. TIME, May 14, 2007, p. 113.
  3. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963. http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm.

— Elizabeth Barrette is the Managing Editor of PanGaia. She lives in Charleston, Illinois.


» Originally appeared in PanGaia #47 - Dreams & Visions

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