When a person is too deeply embedded in the collective, outer reality of everyday life, the discovery in his or her own dreams of universal, archetypal images… can be a freeing experience. –James Hall
In the world of archetypal symbolism birds in our dreams often indicate a spiritual endeavor. After all, they fly above us, closer to the heavens than we normally find ourselves. Their freedom looks exhilarating. In the body of a jet where we might find ourselves flying faster and higher than birds, we still lack open air, the wind in our hair so-to-speak, and we’re confined in mostly small seats amongst other people, who rather than lifting their arms entrained in synch with ours, are coughing, eating, sleeping, working, or looking more concerned than carefree. Therefore when we observe our fine feathered friends in dreams, we consider the context of course, but often think of the heights and liberation of the spirit.
Of a very large species, unless we are ornithologist, we mostly categorize the birds we see in dreams generally. Two important dreams I had at a time of spiritual initiation in my life delivered messages about two divergent paths due to the differences in the winged creatures and the situations in which they appeared. Yet both dreams appeared to promise worthwhile journeys.
I had been steeped in sorrow when a dream lifted me out of my depression almost immediately. At the time of the dream I had not been a student of dream work, but even in my relative ignorance, I could feel that the dream was a blessing. As background information, let me state a that I had lost my father in adolescence. When I was thirteen he suffered a nervous breakdown and when I was fifteen he died of a self-administered overdose of drugs. He was a doctor, so I often wondered if he had intentionally ended his life. Another pertinent fact relating to this period in my young life was that my mother told my siblings and I that he died of a heart attack. In her own shock and pain, she soldiered on, never visibly mourning, so that we did not express our grief either.
I grew up with a certain suspicion about my father’s death but I kept it to myself and repressed what emotions I had about those two difficult years. I was just becoming a woman and my advent into womanhood was affected by what I had witnessed, a kind of quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet desperation in my father. I began to pick boyfriends and later, men friends, who would abandon me and I often reacted with some hysterical end-of-the-world responses to the termination of these relationships.
By the time that my bird dreams occurred, I intellectually understood that my reactions to the loss of a partner were irrational and at times, out of proportion to the seriousness or lack thereof, of the relationship. I “knew” that my unarticulated grief for my father surfaced and further exacerbated my sense of loss.
Knowing however, didn’t help the feelings to subside. So when in my mid thirties, I was suffering from the betrayal of a man I had been very happy with, I didn’t seek out traditional therapy, having gone through five years of that a few years back after a divorce. One day a friend suggested I see her astrologer who lived on an island in Casco Bay, outside of Portland, Maine where I was living. I liked the idea of crossing the water, an archetypal theme in itself, to find some answers as to why my grief was inconsolable.
I sat on the ferry at ten in the morning, smoking a cigarette. In those days I’d lost my appetite for meals and I lived on cigarettes and spring water. The clear October landscape hurt me with its gorgeous auburn leaves and cerulean sky and the bright contrasting colors stabbed at my eyes like an insult, the whole landscape somehow provocative of my lost happiness. A day for lovers, I thought.
Whatever the weather, during that difficult time, I seemed to turn each day into another reason to mourn. The beautiful vista of churning dark blue water wrapped around the speckled islands of the bay only made me feel my loneliness more intensely. In my self-contained universe, every song on the radio seemed designed to bring back the image of my lover, our romantic ritual of dancing in his living room. I wallowed in memories. Images played through my mind like some dopey refrain of the country music he’d introduced me to and yet, quite the wailing country diva myself, I kept bringing them back in order to ask myself why it hurt so much. Was it just the stock cliché, betrayal, jealousy, anger and humiliation I felt, or was it truly losing the essence of this wonderful man from my life that caused me this irrepressible grief? I was convinced of the latter. Some things you just know.
As I debarked from the boat and turned on foot up one of the unpaved roads of the island, my anger was gone but the grief puddled up in my body so that only the consistent rhythm of my sighs, like the whitecaps, one after another washing against the boat, could convince me I was still living. As clueless as the gaping gulls who waddled toward me in search of a hand-out, I had crossed the water to find an answer. Once on the island, I followed the twists in the dirt road according to a scribbled map, my gaze drawn from the street signs to the wild flower gardens, the slatted fences and yards littered with tricycles and lawn chairs even this late in the season. The weeds which had begun to overtake the gardens seemed to smell of decay.
I entered Mary Alice’s screened-in porch and rang the bell. Though I doubted I would find any solace in the reading, I was curious as to what she could say without knowing me or my situation at all. Yet within my two hour meeting this lovely and talented astrologer, a wise woman and mistress of metaphor, was able to give me explanations about the fragile state of my psyche that made more sense than the reasoning I’d worked through in my therapy.
Her first image of me was that my hands were stuck in a Chinese puzzle. The more I tried to wiggle them out, the more I found them locked up. Without getting too technical, I’ll just say that she showed me how two very intense planetary transits were at work affecting my moon or emotions, and Venus, my relationship life. She advised me to simply surrender, to sit in my rocking chair by the fire, drinking tea with my favorite blanket around my shoulders, playing my saddest country arias allowing myself to descend into the divine abyss of loss- (the key word here is divine) “Until you are lifted out,” she said. “And you will be lifted out.” She peered at me seriously; “And when you are, you will become someone entirely new.”
On the collective level, Pluto, the planet of ruination and riches, had just entered the sign of Scorpio where it would remain for the next twelve years. She explained that in addition to my personal plight, the universe was making an energetic shift itself and that as we came closer to the millennium, many individuals were tapping into an awakening. Humanity itself was gearing up for a major evolutionary leap, one which would take many years to become apparent. Oh yeah, the harmonious Age of Aquarius, I thought, remembering the sixties musical Hair. So how come I’m miserable? She said my soul had chosen this particular impact and would be opening to a new purpose but first, thanks to Pluto’s renovation technique, it needed to be stripped of emotional dependencies, so that I would learn the true nature of love, which was unconditional. She explained that I had three planets in the eighth house, the natural home for Pluto. Later, reading about Pluto I came across this quote by the eminent Jungian-Astrologer Liz Greene: “If there are many planets in the eighth, the individual must learn to look darkness in the face (85).
I didn’t really understand much astrology then, but I did know that I had a loaded eighth house and that mythically, the descent is often the way into transformation and I thought of the poet Dante in his dark woods, the mythical story of Persephone’s abduction, Odysseus’ trip to Hades and the many literary figures and writers who went to the underworld before returning with new knowledge to deliver to the upper world.
I was also aware of the many poets who never rose from their descent: Plath, Sexton, Berryman, Crane, and so many of the French writers I’d studied in college, as well as my own father. Mary Alice’s astrological explanation for my crisis clicked intuitively in a way I couldn’t explain. As psycho-babbly as these astrological terms (“Pluto square, Saturn transit”) sounded to me at the time, I sensed there was something more profound at work. My sense of loss was almost disproportional to the reality of the event. Among other things I learned about my chart that day was the fact that I had been born to lose my father and with each new loss, the original feeling of loss was triggered.
My stricken mother had simply gone on when my father died. With her four children in tow, she never allowed herself or us to collectively grieve. It was a different era back in 1963. President Kennedy death preceded by father’s by three weeks and in a way we were already grieving. My mother did what she thought was the right thing. Put one foot in front of the other and move forward. But I thought I had worked through the themes of the lost father in my therapy during the years of my divorce. To my surprise I found out that Saturn, the Patriarchal Father, was the ruler of my particular astrological chart and both my Pluto and my Saturn, as well as Mars, the planet of war and will, were located in the eighth house, the native house of Scorpio, the most intense and emotional sign.
I remembered clearly the night my father died. A detective had come to the door with his hat and coat. My mother stood at the railing on the stairs and told us our father had had an accident and died of a heart attack. I remembered distinctly three words surfacing in my head: “he’s killed himself.” Even at fifteen, my own unconscious intuited the truth I didn’t actually discover until I was twenty-nine.
On the trip back to the mainland, I felt for the first time since the breakup as if my emotional and mental state might now make some sense. Somehow believing in a spiritual rescue and recovery was the most heartening idea I had heard in many months and I had learned the effect of the “Pluto square” was to clear away what was not “serving” my “higher purpose.” I was, quite simply, in hell. Incarcerated by the classical God Hades, deep in the realm of depression and loss.
Another name for the ruler of subterranean spaces was “Plutus” which means “riches.” Treasures and resurrections were also associated with Pluto. What I didn’t know at that time was how very long the journey would take to yield these treasures. But shortly thereafter, in earnest, I was lifted out by a major archetypal dream. I recognized it as important by the numinosity of the images and the level of emotional intensity it left me with.
I am walking on the beach with a adolescent girl who is in my care. She is cranky and nagging me. I find her to be a real pain in the neck. At some point she steps on a twig and gets a splinter in her foot. I try to get the splinter out, and as I do, it flies from my hands, boomeranging out and then back into her forehead, hitting her right between her eyes. Now I am truly concerned about her because the splinter has become a wedge as big as a meat cleaver. I go to pull it out again but when I release it from her head, her head splits open in clean very surreal planes and out flies a huge bird. The two very cubically neat halves of her head fold back into place as the eagle flaps its enormous wings and flies above and around us. We hold each other squealing and laughing in awe of the bird’s power, acting like giddy young girls and I feel a deep love this girl.
This dream was a tremendous release. I wasn’t sure of all the implications but I knew the girl I didn’t want any part of was me at thirteen or fourteen, that it spoke of an adolescent wound, most likely my father’s death, and that out of this girl’s pain had come a huge bird. It seemed to me the wound of abandoning boyfriend and the wound of the father were overlaid and had thrown me back to the girl who had never healed, who lived with this issue now right between the eyes. Depending on the genus, birds are often associated with the spiritual world, the heavens, although some like the owl, albatross or raven are associated with more negative augury. But this bird was a huge eagle with an enormous wingspan and what I felt from the image of it flapping its wings was the sheer physical power of its body. It was the joy of witnessing that huge, muscular body and feeling the strength of its wings that delighted me and the young dream girl. It is difficult to convey the fascination and pleasure we felt in watching the enormity of that bird take off.
The American and Native American symbol of the eagle is related to celestial omnipotence. Furthermore, the eagle is associated with the sun’s power. It is Zeus’s companion in Greek myths, and to the Christian mystics, is a symbol of Christ’s ascension, “… also an attribute of John the Evangelist… Jung regards the eagle as a father symbol.” (Imagine my surprise!!!) (The Herder Symbol Dictionary 63) I found even more synchronistic meaning in J.C. Cooper’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: “… release from bondage… Alchemic: The soaring eagle is the liberated part of the prima materia… resurrection and the new life in baptism: the soul renewed by grace ” (italics mine).
In the dream there was a transformation and the head wound was instantaneously healed. It was only later that I realized in Freudian psychology that the foot wound is a sexual wound, the Oedipal wound from the father. In the story of Oedipus, the baby boy is shackled to a rock with a pin through his foot, left to die from exposure. Freud associated Oedipus’ foot with the phallus, as his crime later in life is to unconsciously commit incest and beget children with his mother/wife. His father had wounded his foot and after Oedipus escapes and is adopted, he grows up and unknowingly kills his real father.
The young girl’s splinter or foot wound becomes a wound in her head, an unconscious complex. When the wounding object is released, the spiritual power flies out in the form of the eagle. The alchemical gold of transformation is in the lead of depression, as the bird is in the whining adolescent’s head.
I felt so clear and relieved that I actually thought my trauma was now over. I felt I had arrived on the new level. Was this the “lifting out” Mary Alice had predicted? You will be someone new. This is not to say there weren’t recurring relapses into sorrow and more pining, but I felt I had a leg up from the abysmal pit of depression I’d lived in for so long.
A few days after the dream I picked up a poem by the Hungarian poet Miraslav Holub and read the lines You ask the answer, it is but one word-Again. As I read these words I realized I wanted to go back into therapy.
Driving to a small seacoast town an hour away, I began going twice a week for two hour and a half sessions with Winona, a petite woman who grew up in New England and had just returned after spending twenty or so years in Belgium and Switzerland where she trained at the C.G. Jung Institute in Kusnacht, outside Zurich. By this time my ex and I had sold and split the proceeds of our house. I bought the beach condo and used some of the money for analysis. Due to the intensity of three analytic hours a week, during this round of therapy, my dreams both descended from the heavens and rose like steam from the underworld and I could not record them fast enough. Nor could I stop writing poems. It was a tremendously introspective but fruitful time.
It’s said that the early dreams in an analysis set the themes for the entire analysis and so it was in my own experience. Here is my first dream (with another bird) where I believe I found a new view of myself and the work I had to do.
I am on a beautiful beach. It is the shape of my neighborhood beach but much more tropical more like the beach in New Zealand which I recently saw on the postcard I received from a dear friend. I am walking with my son and we see in the distance, walking towards us, an old woman wearing a babushka and flying a kite. My eight year old son is excited to hold the kite. As the old woman approaches us, she looks me straight in the eye and holds out her arm to hand me the kite string. My son is jumping up and down, trying to grab it. As I look up at the kite itself, I notice it is not an inanimate object but a live vulture that the old woman is flying on a leash. I back away from her, shaking my head No… No, I don’t want anything to do with a vulture. But my young son jumps up and down saying “Take it Mom, Please take it.” I keep shaking my head and backing away, pulling him away until I catch the eye of the old woman again and she nods at me as if to say, “Honey, you’d better take this vulture. It’s yours. It belongs to you.”
Most of us identify and recognize the vulture as the bird who feeds on the dead. But what I didn’t see at the time was the significance of the vulture as a symbol of underworld wisdom. It was sacred to the Egyptians as a guardian of the threshold between life and death. In a Jungian sense, the image came from the collective unconscious, a heavy archetypal image, universally comprehended as an association with the dead. Again, the symbol dictionaries emphasized interpretations synchronistic to my particular experience. “Since it eats carrion and transforms it into vital energy, the vulture… knows the secret of the transformation of worthless material into gold.” (Herder, 211) And “Ambivalent as maternal solicitude, protection and shelter, and as death-dealing destruction and voracity. All vultures were thought to be female and symbolized the feminine principle with the hawk as male (italics mine)… As a scavenger the vulture represented purification, a worker of good. In Egypt it represented the Mother Goddess, maternity and love, Isis having assumed the form of a vulture” (Cooper).
I had had two bird dreams, one with the father’s wound which transforms to a powerful inner male figure and one with a crone, a wise inner feminine associated with the Egyptian Mother Goddess, Isis. Consciously, in my quotidian life, I had no reason for having dreamed these symbols. I was familiar with neither at the time of the dreams. These were “big dreams,” with collective symbols which came at a time of crisis.
With the help of my analyst, I took the vulture dream in two ways. I was perhaps lifted out of my black hole but by no means had I put my depression behind me. It was time to mine this underworld and come to grips with its contents. As the realm of the dead, it also constituted the world of my father. I knew I must go back and look at how I had integrated the negative side of my father.
My young son’s reaction in the dream, his excitement and enthusiasm to take on the vulture, to let it fly as his own pet, showed in Jung’s terms, my young animus or my newly reborn creative male side, eager and capable of handling this material. I must follow the vulture. And the old lady, whom I associated to my Polish grandmother, a pious and spiritually wise immigrant with an abiding faith in the supernatural-she was the archetypal Wise Old Woman. What had become of the hag, the dark side of the Great Mother? Foolishly, I thought she was gone for good. I didn’t realize then that in times of new emotional setbacks which carried repressed anger or fear, she would reappear again, often in the form of a bag lady. But for now, I was thrilled to have an older woman as an inner mentor, a crone.
I also had her in Winona, who was far from crone-looking but older and wiser than I in the world of dreams. But this old woman in the dream was also a potential part of me, the part that was wiser than my ego, who I thought I was, what I thought I needed, that narrow range to which we limit ourselves from our unique egoic perception. I learned not to trust the ego’s position in the dream. The conscious self did not want the vulture; the unconscious animus, my son, was raring to take it on! With Winona’s help, I could see from the wise woman’s perspective that she knew better than my ego did. The dream clicked in the specific direction of my new “path.” Dream work seemed a best friend to poetry, my chosen field. I’ve been immersed in the imagery of both ever since.
Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1978
Hall, James, Dream Interpretation, Toronto: Inner City Books, 1983