New Worlds: The Magic of Dreams

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

In last week’s essay I already touched on the idea that dreams are connected with magic, via the notion that they may hold some clairvoyant or prophetic significance. Most of the time this comes in the form of omens that require interpretation, or occasionally (possibly with the help of after-the-fact editing) a clear-cut instance of a divine figure showing up to explain how things are going to go, but there are other ways it can manifest as well. And moreover, omens are only one part of the way in which dreams can be supernatural.

One thing I didn’t have the space to mention before is the practice of soliciting significant dreams. You can do this in a non-mystical fashion as well; there’s some evidence to support the idea that if you go to sleep chewing on a difficult problem, you’re more likely to wake up in the morning with a solution. (I have done this more than once with story issues.) Much like problem-solving while doing something unrelated such as washing dishes, sleep releases your brain from the obvious ruts and frees it up to make unexpected and creative connections.

But sometimes there are formal rituals for entreating gods or spirits to send you a dream. When those rituals involve mind-altering substances, they slip over the border into visionary trances of a type that came up when we discussed hallucinogens. Alternatively, the key may be going to sleep in a particular location, such as a temple or other sacred site. You pray, maybe you make some kind of offering, and then you lie down and wait to receive your omen. In situations like this, you’re very likely to have a class of specialist whose job is to help you prepare beforehand and then to interpret what you saw after you wake up — because as we saw with that Mesopotamian list of urine motifs, omens may be anything but obvious in their meaning.

Interestingly, fiction also contains a concept I’ve seen rather often which is, to the best of my knowledge, wholly made up. That’s the idea of a “dream realm,” a metaphysical plane your mind or your soul journeys to while you sleep. There are related concepts, certainly, such as the astral plane or other kinds of spirit worlds, and in some cases the belief is that training in the art of lucid dreaming can take you to that place. But when it comes to something like the Fade in the Dragon Age franchise of games, Tel’aran’rhiod in the Wheel of Time series, or Yume-dō in Legend of the Five Rings — a place literally built from and shaped by dreams — I don’t actually know of anything analogous in real culture. (The “Dreaming” or “Dreamtime” of Aboriginal Australian belief is a different concept entirely, and the name itself may be a mis-translation regardless.)

Of course, just because a thing may not have any roots in history doesn’t mean we can’t use it in fiction! I’ll admit I’m a sucker for dream realms: they’re an excellent tool for externalizing the characters’ inner lives, turning their conflicts and desires into something they and their friends or enemies can interact with in a more direct fashion. Naturally, if you overuse this it becomes just as much of a crutch as prophetic dreams do; if you lean too much on a dream realm to reveal or alter a character’s inner state, rather than making them actually speak up or go through the slow work of change, it’s going to feel unsatisfying. But a dose of it here and there can be fun.

Not all dream-related matters are fun, though. Lots of cultures have spirits, demons, or other supernatural critters who interface with dreams, and while some of them are nice — such as the Japanese baku, which devours nightmares (though its older form fended off illness instead, like the Chinese mo it’s derived from) — others are far more dangerous.

The most widely-known of these in the West is probably the succubus, a female demon that seduces men in their sleep. Succubi and similar creatures very likely arose out of the common motif of sexual dreams; it isn’t a big step from dreaming about sex to assuming it indicates some kind of spirit attempting to have intercourse with the sleeper. In the case of incubi, the male counterparts of succubi, there are even tales of women becoming pregnant as a result. (Which may have been a way of explaining out-of-wedlock pregnancies — but if so, not a good one, as people often didn’t take well to the notion that a woman might be carrying a demonic child.) In East Asia, such dreams might instead be attributed to a fox spirit. Where such ideas exist, it’s also common for people to believe that recurrent visits from this type of creature will drain the vitality of the afflicted person, even to the point of death.

You also have the phenomenon of sleep paralysis and its associated explanations. As near as we can tell, this is the result of a biological misfire: your brain essentially wakes up during REM sleep, but the mechanisms that immobilize your body to keep you from physically acting out your dreams are still active. Because this is often a frightening sensation — as I can personally attest — you wind up hallucinating that something is pinning you to the bed. Whether that something is an incubus, a jinn, a night hag, a living shadow, or an extraterrestrial visitor depends on your cultural framework and what symbols your subconscious is primed to reach for.

In general, many demons and other such creatures are associated with dreams precisely because this is a place where the line between your mind and the spirit world seems to blur out of existence. The result is not only some amazing art and poetry, but a wealth of charms designed to protect or shape one’s dreams, guides to interpret omens, and rituals to ensure that no stain of ill fortune or demonic influence lingers once you wake up.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The Magic of Dreams — 4 Comments

  1. I found a text once in a linguistics grammar (all good linguistics grammars contain an appendix with selected texts) of a language called Kham, spoken in Nepal. The text concerns a man who was very ill and while he was ill he dreamed about being hurt and the anger of witches and in the dream he fought with the witches, was aided by an ancestor, and defeats the witches. After he woke up he began to get better.

    I don’t think that qualifies as an example of a dream world. I’m not sure it qualifies as a prophetic dream either. The world in the dream appears to be the real world, but it is an example of actions in a dream affecting the physical world.

    The text starts on page 425 (section 18.2) of A Grammar of Kham by David E Watters. Cambridge UP 2002.

    • I like that! Sort of a really amped-up “solve a problem in your sleep” or “visualize yourself succeeding at a task.” Given all the weird mind-body things we don’t quite understand, I see no reason why a dream couldn’t have at least as good of an effect as a placebo.

  2. I had my first sleep paralysis around age 25. I had never heard of it before; was completely terrifying. Fortunately I managed to Google my way into “oh this is a thing that happens”, and now it’s mostly annoying when it happens. But I blame society for not preparing me. I’d find that implausible but, well, some societies fail to warn girls about menstruation, a similar “terrifying thing that is less so if someone gives you context”.

    I wonder if there’s a dreamscape older than Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.

    Hodgell’s dreamscape is because the Kencyrath are psychically bonded across the species; regular humans in the books might well not have one, though they have other mystic spaces.

    • Heh, my equivalent to your reaction to the sleep paralysis thing is when I had my first ocular migraine. Since I have enough eye problems that I’ve been warned that I’m at risk of my retina detaching, at first that’s what I thought was going on . . .

      It would be interesting if Lovecraft is the originator of that trope!