Well, we’re back to caves again. You can’t get too much cave, at midwinter. At this time of year I feel very bear-like, drawn to the warm darkness of my dreaming-cave. It’s a time for dreaming, for sure. For me, this year is a time for dreaming up new stories, letting the voices dream their way into me. It’s a bit of a hibernatory time, curling up in bed for an hour before sleeping with a book that makes me dream of better worlds. It’s a time for incubating dreams of all kinds.
You’ll maybe know the story. It comes from the Cuillin mountains, on the Isle of Skye. It was in If Women Rose Rooted, and before that, I shared it here back in 2014. But it’s such a unique and beautiful story that I can’t help but share it again. Because it has a cave in it, and an Old Woman. And, perhaps most surprisingly of all, an Old Man too. The old woman is likely to be a version of the Cailleach; in Scottish myth, she was known to keep herds of deer, and there’s a mountain in the Cuillins (Beinn na Caillich) named after her. As for the old man – who knows? In some stories, the Cailleach has a husband, called the Bodach – but it’s rare to see them together in a complete story. That’s one of the things that makes this one remarkable.
The other thing which makes it remarkable is that it is about dreams. It’s about what the Dream-makers know, and what Dreamers can come to know as a consequence.
A group of young women from a coastal village on Skye set off into the mountains one day to gather blaeberries. One of them strayed away from the rest, climbing up higher and higher in search of larger and finer berries. Suddenly the air grew chilly, and she saw a wall of mist rolling down the slopes towards her. She realised that she was alone, and turned to retrace her steps and to find her friends – but the mist whirled around her, and she became lost. Slowly and cautiously she moved on, only realising that she was going in the wrong direction when heather gave way to rock. She stood still, frightened now, afraid to move for fear of stepping over a cliff edge, or falling into the deep cut of a mountain burn.
And then she heard footsteps. She peered into the mist and saw some huge ghostly forms moving towards her – but a sudden small breeze shifted the mist, and she saw that the visitors were deer: most of them hinds, with calves at foot. They didn’t seem to be afraid of her, and so she decided to join them, thinking that they might lead her to safety. The deer moved slowly, grazing here and there, and so it was easy for the girl to keep up with them. They led her high up into the Cuillins, where she found herself at the opening of a cave.
The girl entered the cave, and inside were an old man and an old woman, each seated upon a wooden stool, gazing into a dark rockpool in the cave’s floor. The old woman asked the girl what she was doing there, and she told her tale and begged shelter for the night or until the mist would clear. ‘Shelter for one night we cannot give,’ the old woman said, ‘but shelter for a year and a night you may have if you will help me in the dairy, for I grow old. The deer will take you back down the mountain when the time is done.’
The girl agreed. She spent busy days milking the hinds and gathering sweet-scented herbs upon the mountains. There was thyme, meadowsweet and wild mint, golden asphodel and bog myrtle. The old woman dried them and sprinkled them on the fire which she made out of dried heather. Then she would heat the deer’s milk, and make crowdie. While the old woman worked, the old man sat gazing into the pool, in which all the world was mirrored. When the crowdie was made, he fashioned from it shapes and figures of the things that he had seen on the pool’s surface. For he and his wife were the makers of dreams.
Every evening as the sun set below the sea, the old man carried his dreams to the cave mouth, and held them up to take colour from the sunset. The dreams that he held in his right hand were true dreams, and out of the blue sky came eagles and falcons, larks and wrens, to carry them throughout the world. But the dreams in the old man’s left hand were false phantoms, designed to mislead. Out of the dark of the mountain came the crows and ravens, to spread the nightmares around the world.
When the year and the night of the girl’s service were ended, the old woman spoke in a strange tongue to the leader of the herd of deer, a hind grey with age. She said farewell to the girl, telling her that her service had been honest and true, and that she would find a reward waiting for her when she returned home to the seashore.
The deer led her by a hidden, easy route down the mountain, and they came to the shore – though not to any shore that the girl knew. But when she started to walk along the beach to see if she could find her way home, the deer wouldn’t let her, and they gathered around her in a circle and stood looking out to sea. The girl looked too, and soon she saw, coming out of the sunset, a boat of skins, and in it was a fair young man with a golden torc at his throat. He landed his coracle and came to her, hands outstretched, and at once she loved him. He spoke of her as ‘the fair one of dreams’, and told her that he had dreamed of her in his father the king’s halls, and had come to ask her to marry him. The girl of course agreed, and they sailed away together into the sunset. And when she became queen of her husband’s country, she taught the people the meaning of many dreams, and they grew wondrously wise.
But now much is forgotten.
What the Dream-makers Know
‘But now much is forgotten.’ Possibly the saddest final words to a story. On the other hand: much may be forgotten, but Dream-makers know, I think, that much of what is forgotten can be remembered. Re-membered. Artists are Dream-makers, and writers, and storytellers. Maybe that’s what we’re doing: re-membering the world. Making sure that, somewhere, the necessary knowledge is preserved. And in writing that, I’m reminded of French philosopher René Guénon who, in 1962, suggested that we live in ‘degenerate times’, at the end of a long age during which important spiritual truths have been forgotten, the ancient centres of wisdom have been destroyed and the guardians of that wisdom have been dispersed. At such times, he said, a safe repository for spiritual truth can be found in folklore. He suggested that knowledge which is in danger of being lost passes into the symbolic code of a folk tale, and then is passed on to the people. They will perhaps only be concerned with the stories’ surface meanings – but they will at least preserve them, and pass them down to their children. Then, in better times, people might once again appear who understand the code, and who will penetrate the symbolic disguise to the wider meaning behind.
What else do the Dream-makers know?
– That, before you can come into your own work then, like the young woman in the story, you need to serve a proper apprenticeship. It’s a lost art, and I wrote about it at some length here:
To fully express our calling, we must be able to tolerate the idea of apprenticeship. To understand what we don’t know, to do the proper research, to find the right teachers, to embody the necessary lived experience before we imagine that we’re ready to share our gift with the world. Apprenticeship requires humility: a little-valued quality in a world hell-bent on glory. All the best fairy-tale heroines knew it to be true: sometimes it’s okay to say that you’re not quite there yet.’
– That for every beautiful dream, there must be a nightmare. That nightmares and shadows and dark things have their place in this world, too.
– That dreams don’t originate inside our heads; dreams are sendings from the world. It’s an old idea – and, like many of the best old ideas, one which fell out of fashion, thanks to the founders of Western philosophy. The earliest Western writings about dreams tell us that our ancestors believed that dreams were caused by gods (or devils), and sometimes, too, came from the dead. Throughout the ancient world, the practice of ‘dream incubation’ was known, and temples and other sacred places were created to facilitate the process of communicating with the gods – or accessing the wisdom of the Otherworld – through dreams. But Greek philosophers like Plato and the Stoics opposed these beliefs, suggesting that dreams were generated internally, rather than coming from external or supernatural/Otherworldly forces. And so, over time, the idea of what dreams might be shifted from a belief that they were mystical manifestations of external forces, to a belief that they were the physiological/ psychological manifestations of a purely internal reality.
Jung revived the idea that some aspects of dreaming come from outside the dreamer: in coining the notion of the ‘collective unconscious’ he suggested that structures of the unconscious mind, including the images which occur in dreams, could be shared among humans. The collective unconscious, then, is a kind of human ‘over-soul’ – but this idea confines us still to the human species. We need to look to more contemporary depth psychologists before we can find an approach to dreaming which takes us not only out of the confines of our own individual heads, but outside the confines of our species too. And so Stephen Aizenstat of the Pacifica Graduate Institute in California suggests that the images in dreams have lives and bodies of their own. They are not merely projections of the dreamer, and the dreamer is not necessarily the centre of the dream. Autonomous images may appear in the dream to interact with the dreamer, but the totality of the dream should not be reduced (as we are always so inclined to reduce everything) only to ‘a story about me’. He describes imagining a dream as ‘a community event, a town meeting of images’ – each image having a life of its own, yet also relating to other images in the dream (including the dreamer). These images often have something to say about their own existence, their own plights in the world. Part of the value of dreams, he suggests, is that we have access to these voices of other beings in the world, and we have the opportunity to relate to them in a deeper way than we often do in our waking life.
Dreams. Messages from the Otherworld, then, made of cheese and cast out onto the night winds from a cave high in the mountains? Or emanations from the anima mundi, trying to tell us something about the plight of the Earth? The Dream-makers know. Do you?
Things to consider
If you were a Dream-maker, what dreams would you want to send out into the world?