Sunday, May 15, 2011

Dream birds

Images from dreams can be so haunting and compelling that they stick with us throughout the day, sometimes even for years. Sometimes they can feel even more compelling than our waking reality, as if we're dreaming in Blu-Ray and experiencing "real" life on an ancient, stretched-out VHS tape...or maybe that's just me.

When we experience a truly compelling or frightening dream, it's natural to wonder, "But what did it mean?" The most "rational" view, that our dream image was the product of some random neurons firing in our sleep, could not possibly satisfy anyone with even a shred of poetry in their soul. And, in fact, trying to decode the language of dreams is an ancient human pursuit, so we're in good company.

In a previous post, I described how I have even started birding while I sleep. That post has steadily been getting hits, and it occurred to me that perhaps the people who found their way to it were hoping to figure out what their bird dream meant. And since dream symbols are a topic that interests me, and it's the second rainy day of a long rainy weekend, I decided to tackle the topic today. (And if you want to read more about what birders get up to in their sleep, I found a neat blog about one birder's dreams, Dreambirding: Another Realm of Avian Encounters.)

The simplest approach to deciphering a dream is to consult a Dream Dictionary, of which scores exist in print and on line, which will tell you what your image "means." Opening up one I checked out from the library (Dream Sight: A Dictionary and Guide for Interpreting Any Dream by Michael Lennox--I don't particularly recommend this book, it's just the one I have handy at the moment), I can see that if I have dreamed of a bird, the meaning is "messengers; messages." The book further explains that birds have historically been used as messengers, from Odin's ravens (Hugin and Munin, or Thought and Memory, who delivered the day's news to the Nordic god each day) to carrier pigeons. Also, the expression "bird's eye view" associates birds with getting the full picture. The last paragraph specified that the type of bird in the dream can narrow this down further (birds of prey, songbirds, a flock of birds, etc.)

I have never found dream dictionaries to be particularly insightful. How can one meaning, or even variations on the theme as in the above example, be correct for everyone? Can any symbols be said to be universal? (Do you think "messages" when you think of birds?)

To a certain extent, it is true, just as a culture somehow agrees on the words for things (such as the sound "bird" representing flying creatures with feathers--as to how this happens, I had a brief flirtation with structuralism and semiotics in grad school, but that relationship swiftly went sour, and you'll hear no more on that topic from me), there are cultural definitions to certain symbols. A dove can be seen to represent peace, truce (especially if it is carrying an olive branch in its beak), healing and the Holy Spirit, for example. Popular culture, literature, and other sources can continue to elaborate and add to these themes -- as Edgar Allan Poe did with the raven, Coleridge with the albatross, and Sesame Street with Big Bird. (Has anyone ever dreamed of Big Bird? And if so, was it a good dream, or a nightmare?)

If symbols are culturally defined, then different cultures will come up with different meanings for birds in dreams, and indeed I found that to be true. For example, I was curious to see how the Islamic dream interpretations might differ from the Western ones.

And yes, the dream definitions on these sites are quite different! A few examples--if you dream of birds circling over your head, it may indicate that you will get an administrative position (I don't see the correlation there). Birds can mean travel (that makes sense), and birds of prey can mean monarchs or rulers (as the art of falconry traditionally belonged to monarchs, again, makes sense.) The chirping of birds can represent glad tidings (I can see that), and dreaming of birds of an unknown species indicates the angel of death. (Yikes! That's my typical bird dream!)

To the extent that dream symbols might be part of a shared cultural shorthand, considering these common meanings might certainly help decipher your dream. If you've been quarreling with your spouse, and you dream of a dove, that's pretty obvious. But my dreams, at least, have never been that obvious. And if the meaning of the symbol is not one you're aware of, then how relevant can it be?

For example, let's say that you dream about pelicans, and you look up pelicans, and discover that in the Middle Ages, they were believed to feed their young with their own blood if other food was scare. The symbol of a pelican wounding (or "vulning") itself became associated with Christianity, the self-sacrificing bird representing the sacrifice of Jesus. I don't think that many people are aware of this symbolism today (it's more like one of those "fun facts" I like to torment my family members and co-workers with), but the symbol shows up in some unexpected places, like the Louisiana State Flag.

Although the Louisiana bird isn't vulning itself, the whole image and posture reflects the medieval one.

Personally, I do believe that some symbols resonate on another level, that they really do Mean Something. I use the example of the pelican because, for me, that is part of my lexicon of Really Significant Symbols. It is now known that pelicans don't really sacrifice themselves like that -- in fact, if you watch The Life of Birds you can see the baby pelicans ruthlessly pushing their siblings from the nest, and the parent birds don't even appear to notice!--and as a denizen of the twenty-first century, I find many symbols of medieval piety to be strange or even off-putting. (Fascinating, but off-putting nonetheless.) But still, the pelican resonates, and I will go out on a limb and suggest that perhaps the heart-wrenching images of oiled pelicans after the BP Oil Spill were so painful to look upon, not only because they were of real, live suffering creatures, but on top of that, the symbol "pelican" still resonates.

To return to the question, if one dreams of a pelican, and is unaware of the symbolism, can that symbolism still be relevant in the interpretation? Psychologist and philospher Carl Jung would have said yes, and if you are interested in dreams, sooner or later his name will come up. Jung believed that, in addition to our personal unconscious bank of repressed or forgotten experiences (as popularized by Freud), there is a collective unconscious shared by all humans. The symbols that have universal meaning in this collective unconscious are called archetypes. The number of shared themes and images that appear in different cultures and myths has also been discussed by Joseph Campbell (in works such as The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (but I promised no structuralism in this post!)

I could talk about this sort of thing forever, but I've already rambled on too long.

Getting back to the birds in your dreams, I believe that most of our dream images are too personal for others to easily interpret. Some are even silly--for example, I once dreamed of seeing a hairy woodpecker as large as a chihuahua, which was clearly my mind's literal take of the mnemonic for telling two similar woodpecker species apart: Downies are dinky, and hairies are huge.

My dreams of being unable to identify birds, that I described in my previous post, came about because I sometimes spend most of my waking hours trying to identify birds that I see. Also, all the years when I traveled widely, and did not bird, have become a sort of personal shorthand for missed opportunities. No dream dictionary on earth could tell me that, but that's what they mean to me.

Finally, I do believe that sometimes a symbol that appears to us in a dream might be very significant, and possibly even represent something bigger than our own dreaming minds. But I think that, when we happen upon those, we know it.

The image at the beginning of this post is The Flying Lesson, 1999, copyright Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, and used by permission.


  1. I wish I would dream about birds. Sometimes I dream about books, but never birds. I've met a surprising number of people who are terrified of birds, and would consider any dream featuring a bird (not just Big Bird), a nightmare! Birds as symbols is a fascinating subject, and sometimes dangerous for the birds...look at owls, poor things, wise, perhaps, but also spooky and harbingers of death. Mom

  2. You know, spiders have many positive connotations, Symbolically Speaking, and yet if I dream of a spider, it's sure to be a nightmare! I think having a pre-existing phobia overrides any other consideration.

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