Animist Dreaming

Water's Edge. Photo, Brian Taylor, 1995.

Hugh Brody makes the surprising argument that, from a long term perspective, hunter gatherers are more settled than agriculturalists.  Far from being ‘primitive’, their detailed knowledge of the immense landscapes that their communities have occupied for many generations contrasts markedly with newly arrived settlers’ perceptions of the same land as empty wilderness, without intrinsic value, and in need of development.  Dreaming is often integral to hunter gatherer’s understanding of the land.  Brody points out that “for many hunter gatherers, dreams are a form of decision making.  Along with other forms of insight and intuition, hunters use dreams to help them decide where to hunt, when to go there, and what to hunt.  These decisions can be matters of life and death; they certainly make the difference, day to day, between an adequate and inadequate supply of essential food.”(1)

Dreams have been consulted for healing and divinatory purposes since time immemorial.  Modernist psychologists have, nevertheless, often dismissed them as random by-products of REM sleep physiology.  Even when acknowledging that dreams might be meaningful, psychologists and anthropologists have tended to treat them as objects that can be recorded and analysed without reference to their cultural or personal context.

Western psychoanalytic traditions have, of course, engaged with the meaning of dreams in various ways, but my preference is for approaches that let dreams speak for themselves, and, crucially, that acknowledge the potential reality of dream visitors.

Phenomenologists, such as Medard Boss, have suggested that we discard dream theories in order to study dream phenomena directly.(2)  Coming from a post-Jungian perspective, James Hillman called for an underworld perspective, ‘an attitude of unknowing’ that ‘leaves room for the phenomenon itself to speak’.  We should stay with a dream image, rather than dragging it into the day world of theoretical interpretation.  Dreams arise from ancestral and imaginal depths and reflect ‘the hiding invisibilities that govern our lives’.  Our attitude towards them should, therefore, be ‘modelled upon Hades’, receptive, and hospitable to ‘the incurable conditions’ associated with being human.  Hillman deconstructed Christian and modernist devaluations of the underworld, and called for an approach to dreamwork that respected what was going on in dreams, a process of ‘dying to the dayworld’.  As we dream of deceased family members, for example, we begin to perceive them as living ancestors.(3)

Hugh Brody is far from alone in affirming the importance of dreams in indigenous animist and shamanistic traditions.  Rane Willerslev, for example, writing about Siberian Yukaghir hunters’ conceptions of spirits, disagrees with cognitive theorists who assume that such beings are products of the human imagination.   In contrast to Freud’s individualising and interiorising view of dreams as a royal road to the unconscious mind, Yukaghir hunters approach dreams with the pragmatic expectation that they can provide helpful solutions to every day problems.  In contrast to Edward Tylor’s rational-scientific scepticism, they take dream presences seriously, and regard dreams as an opportunity for dialogue and relationship.  The sleeping hunter’s soul, or abiyii, travels into a shadow world beneath the surface of things, where it negotiates with the normally invisible counterparts of animals and their master-spirits.(4)


Continued in: A Kingfisher Dream.

This post is part of the Animist Blog Carnival March 2014 issue on dreams


1) Hugh Brody, The Other Side of Eden, Hunter Gatherers, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World, Faber and Faber, 2001.

2) Medard Moss, The Analysis of Dreams, Rider, 1957.

3) James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, Harper and Row, Perennial Library, 1979.

4) Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters; Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, University of California Press, 2007.


Barbara Tedlock, The New Anthropology of Dreaming, in Graham Harvey, Shamanism, A Reader, Routledge, 2003.

David E. Young, Dreams and Telepathic Communication, in Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal (originally written 1991).

Penny Bernard, The Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a Calling to Inkosazana’s Pool, in Sylvie Shaw and Andrew Francis, eds Deep Blue, Critical Reflections on Nature, Religion and Water, Equinox, 2008.

Robert Moss, The Secret History of Dreaming, Novato, 2009.

Stanley Krippner, et al, eds. Extraordinary Dreams and How to Work with Them, SUNY, 2002.


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