Of the four classical elements—fire, air, water, and earth—water tends to be the one that appears most frequently in people’s dreams.Some of this is due to the importance of water in our daily existence, and in the existence of all of Earth’s creatures. Some of it is also due to the psychological potency of water as a symbol of life, birth, emotions, fluidity, the feminine, the unconscious, and several other meanings that vary by culture and historical era. If you reflect on your own dreams and follow their development over time, you will likely notice the appearance of water in multiple forms. Here are some questions to keep in mind as you reflect on the presence of water in one of your dreams.

First, what kind of water appears in the dream? Is it a massive body of water like an ocean or lake? Is it a fast-moving river or stream? Is it water falling from the sky as rain or snow? Is it water in a domestic setting like a swimming pool, a bathtub, or a plastic cup? This is one of the reasons that water is so common in dreams—it can take so many different forms and appear in our lives in so many different settings. The tremendous variability of water makes it especially important to look closely at the exact details whenever water appears in a particular dream. Of all the possible forms that water can take, in your dream it took this specific form—when you think of the distinctive qualities of this type of water, what comes to your mind? Who or what in your life has these qualities, too?

Second, how do you interact with the water in your dream? Are you observing it from a distance, or are you immersed in it? Is it peaceful or dangerous, a gentle pond or a bursting dam? Are you swimming, floating, paddling, or sinking in it? Are you using water for bathing, drinking, washing, or cooking? These questions lead quickly to perennial concerns of human life. Civilizations have risen and fallen according to how well people have managed to use water for beneficial purposes while avoiding the destructive threats of water. As you reflect on your interactions with water in your dreams, you might think of it as you would a relationship with a human character. How are you getting along with water in your dreams? Is your relationship friendly and comforting, or tense and frightening, or something else? This might sound strange, but does the water in your dreams seem to want anything from you? Maybe not, but it’s worth at least considering the possibility that vivid dreams of water are calling you to pay attention to emotional realities outside your normal range of conscious awareness, to feelings that are vitally important yet hard to grasp or pin down.

Third, what might the water in your dream symbolize? With many dreams it is easy to trace images from the dream to a recent experience or perception in waking life, what Sigmund Freud called “the day residue.” However, even if you identify the literal source of an image, the water in the dream might still have symbolic meanings, too. For instance, water can symbolize emotions in their power and fluidity. It can symbolize the unconscious and everything that is submerged within the hidden depths of the psyche. It can symbolize the source of all life, the maternal matrix of uterine development, the wellspring of growth and vitality. The range of possible meanings can vary in different cultures and periods of history, so there is no one universal way of interpreting dreams of water. However, the essential importance of water in human life allows us to say with some confidence that water is a universal dream symbol of forces of nature that are both positive and negative, that we both can and cannot control, and that vitally connect us with vast energies, primal rhythms, and non-human forms of life. This is especially true for dreams that have extremely intense and unusual contents without any recent personal connections, what C.G. Jung called “big dreams.” The appearance of water in highly memorable big dreams can take many forms—magical tidal waves, eerie undersea cities, apocalyptic storms, and heavenly rainbows—in which the symbolism of dreaming merges with the symbolism of myths, fairy tales, and sacred narratives.

A final thought about water and dreams concerns the possible future impact of climate change. As the global climate rapidly changes in ways that are disrupting customary weather patterns, how will this impact people’s dreams? How will water themes in dreams change in a world in which some places have drastically less water and other places have drastically more? It seems likely that dreams will accurately reflect people’s rising anxieties in both directions, from too little and too much water: from long-term drought, water scarcity, and extreme conservation requirements, and also from sudden catastrophic floods, hurricanes, rainstorms, hailstorms, and blizzards. If Jung is right that dreams have an anticipatory function of looking ahead and preparing us for possible dangers and challenges in the future, then a new era of climate-stressed water dreams may already have begun.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on June 2, 2022.

Four Ways to Keep Dreaming Into Old Age

Many adults dream less as they get older, and they miss it. They miss the pleasantly curious feeling of waking up with an alluring new message from the unconscious in their minds. A drastic drop in dreaming is not, however, an inevitable feature of aging. People can continue having vibrant, inspiring dreams all through their lives if they follow a few simple practices.

The typical trajectory of dreaming through the life cycle starts with the highest levels of dream recall in childhood and adolescence, and usually diminishes in the later stages of adulthood. According to a 2018 survey of 5,255 American adults on their attitudes towards dreams (available in the Sleep and Dream Database), 57% of men between 18 and 34 years of age remember at least one dream a week. For men between 35 and 54 the figure is 50%, and for men 55 and older it’s 45%. For women, recall is even higher in early life, with 60% between 18 and 34 remembering at least one dream a week, then the drop-off is sharper, with a figure of 53% for women between 35 and 54, and 41% for women 55 and older.

For both men and women, the percentage of people who say they rarely or never remember their dreams increases with age. With men, 27% of 18-34 year olds have little or no dream recall, but that rises to 30% for men between 35 and 54, and 36% for men 55 and older. With women, little or no dream recall is reported by 23% of 18-34 year olds, 28% for women between 35 and 54, and 36% for women 55 and older. It’s also important to note that many older people still have very frequent dream recall: 7% of men and 8% of women age 55 and older remember a dream nearly every morning.

These survey findings indicate that age is not destiny with your powers of dreaming. If you follow the four simple practices below, you will be able to remember more of your dreams and discover new ways of bringing their creative energies into your waking life, no matter what your age.

  1. Wake up slowly. When we are asleep and dreaming, our brains operate in a distinctive mode that’s different from normal waking consciousness. If you wake up too abruptly (for instance, to a loud alarm clock), your mind does not have enough time to transfer your experiences from the dreaming mode into the waking mode. So try this: when you wake up, either after a long night’s rest or an afternoon nap, give yourself a few calm moments to make the sleep-wake transition. Try not to jump out of bed, turn on the light, or check your phone for at least a minute or two, so the dreams you were just experiencing have a better chance of crossing the memory threshold into your waking awareness.
  2. Keep a dream journal. Even the most vivid dreams can fade soon after waking. If you place a pad of paper and a pen or pencil by your bedside, you can record your dreams quickly and conveniently. Voice-to-text apps can also work well for dream recording, but they have the downside of relying on a phone, with its many distracting features. Keeping a dream journal has at least two big benefits. One it enables you to preserve your dreams over time so you can study them for meaningful patterns. Two, it invites new dreams by making it easier for them to enter into the waking world.
  3. Share your dreams with others. One of the most natural forms of human communication is dream-sharing. Throughout history, in cultures all over the world, people have made a regular practice of sharing and discussing their dreams with family, friends, and members of their community. Sharing dreams can provide unique opportunities for developing more empathetic understanding between different people, with more emotional honesty and authentic self-expression. Talking about dreams with people who are important to you will deepen your relationships with them, and further stimulate your recall capacities.
  4. Welcome visitation dreams. The one exception to the age-related decline of dreaming is the experience of visitation dreams, in which someone who has died appears as if alive again in a dream. All other typical dreams (flying, falling, being chased, sexuality) tend to diminish through the life span, but visitation dreams become more frequent later in life. This makes sense, because older people are more likely than younger people to have close friends and family members who have died, and who can thus appear in these kinds of dreams. Although strange and uncanny, visitation dreams often bring positive feelings of reassurance and consolation to the dreamers regarding the death of their loved ones. Even if it remains uncertain where these otherworldly dreams ultimately come from (is it a ghost? A spirit? An image from the unconscious?), their emotional benefits make them among the most meaningful types of dreams people experience in the latter years of life.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, March 15, 2022.

Penelope and Odysseus: The Perils of Dream Interpretation



I’d like to illustrate some basic principles of dream interpretation by telling a story. It’s a very old story, one you may have heard before, but I’d like to tell it again because even though it’s “just a story” it highlights the real perils that come when these dream interpretation principles are overlooked.

The story has to do with the meeting of Odysseus and Penelope in Book 19 of The Odyssey. In many respects this encounter is the point of greatest dramatic intensity in the entire poem, and at the heart of the scene is a dream-Penelope’s dream of the twenty geese that are suddenly slaughtered by a mountain eagle. Odysseus, after leading the Achaean army to victory against the Trojans and after enduring a seemingly endless series of trials and adventures, has returned at last to his island home of Ithaca, where he has found a mob of rude noblemen besieging his palace. The crafty warrior has disguised himself as an old beggar in order to gain entrance into the palace without being recognized, and he is plotting violent revenge against the men who would steal his throne. Penelope, who for many years has desperately clung to the hope that Odysseus would someday return to her, has invited this strange wanderer into her private chambers to ask if he can tell her any news of her husband. The beggar fervently promises the Queen that Odysseus is very close and will return very, very soon. Penelope replies to the beggar’s story by saying she wishes his words would come true, but she doubts they will. She then asks her old servant woman, Eurycleia, to bathe the stranger and arrange a comfortable place for him to sleep. The Queen steps away while the old nurse washes the beggar’s feet. Then, before parting for the night, Penelope returns to the beggar and says (all quotes are from the translation of Robert Fagles, 1996, Viking Press),

“My friend, I have only one more question for you….
[P]lease, read this dream for me, won’t you? Listen closely….
I kept twenty geese in the house, from the water trough
They come and peck their wheat-I love to watch them all.
But down from a mountain swooped this great hook-beaked eagle,
Yes, and he snapped their necks and killed them one and all
And they lay in heaps throughout the hall while he,
Back to the clear blue sky he soared at once.
But I wept and wailed-only a dream, of course-
And our well-groomed ladies came and clustered round me,
Sobbing, stricken: the eagle killed my geese. But down
He swooped again and settling onto a jutting rafter
Called out in a human voice that dried my tears,
‘Courage, daughter of famous King Icarius!
This is no dream but a happy waking vision,
Real as day, that will come true for you.
The geese were your suitors-I was once the eagle
But now I am your husband, back again at last,
About to launch a terrible fate against them all!’
So he vowed, and the soothing sleep released me.”
(The Odyssey 19.575, 603-621)

The disguised Odysseus immediately replies,
“Dear woman,….twist it however you like,
Your dream can mean only one thing. Odysseus
Told you himself-he’ll make it come to pass,
Destruction is clear for each and every suitor;
Not a soul escapes his death and doom.”
(The Odyssey 19.624-629)

Penelope’s response to the beggar is this:
“Ah my friend, seasoned Penelope dissented,
Dreams are hard to unravel, wayward, drifting things-
Not all we glimpse in them will come to pass….
Two gates there are for our evanescent dreams,
One is made of ivory, the other made of horn.
Those that pass through the ivory cleanly carved
Are will-o’-the-wisps, their message bears no fruit.
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
Are fraught with truth, for the dreamer who can see them.
But I can’t believe my strange dream has come that way,
Much as my son and I would love to have it so.”
(The Odyssey 19.630-640)

So, what has just happened here? What is going on between Odysseus and Penelope, and what is the significance of her dream and their exchange about its meaning? The traditional interpretation of this scene, shared with near unanimity by scholars from antiquity to the present, is this. Odysseus has heroically controlled his desire to rejoin Penelope and hidden his identity from her for two reasons: one, to test his wife’s fidelity during his long absence (remember Agamemnon and Clytemnestra), and two, to pick up information about how to destroy the hated suitors. Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese is a straightforward prophecy, whose true meaning the disguised Odysseus instantly recognizes. But Penelope, who has shown a stubborn skepticism throughout the story, refuses to accept the dream’s obvious meaning. Indeed, perhaps she unconsciously enjoys the attention of the suitors and does not really want Odysseus to come back.

My dissatisfaction with this widely held interpretation centers on its strange depreciation of Penelope’s intelligence. This is a woman whom several characters have praised for her unrivalled perceptiveness, cunning, and guile; this is the woman who devised the famous ruse of the funeral shroud, by which she successfully deceived the suitors for three years. All of the evidence in the poem makes it clear that Penelope is not a fool: she is extremely perceptive and capable of remarkably subtle deceptions. So why, when we come to Book 19 and her meeting with the “beggar,” should we now forget all that and regard Penelope as a pathetically unwitting dupe in the vengeful scheming of Odysseus?

Here is the moment when careful reflection on Penelope’s dream can open up new horizons of meaning. The Iliad and The Odyssey together contain, up to the point of Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese, four major dream episodes: Agamemnon’s “Evil Dream” from Zeus (2.1-83), Achilles’ mournful dream of the spirit of dead Patroklos (23.54-107), Penelope’s reassuring dream from Athena (4.884-946), and Nausicaa’s arousing marriage dream from Athena (6.15-79). Viewed in this context, Penelope’s dream is unusual in at least two ways:

  • One, this is the only dream that occurs “offstage,” out of direct view of the audience. We do not “see” the dream while it is happening; we only hear the dreamer describe it, after the fact.
  • Two, this is the only “symbolic” dream, with its meaning encoded in stylized imagery. The dream thus poses a riddle, which must be accurately interpreted for the true meaning to emerge.

I believe these two details suggest a very different reading of the encounter between Penelope and the disguised Odysseus. Could it be that this is not a “real” dream at all, that in fact Penelope has made it up? Could it be that Penelope is deliberately using the riddle of her dream as a test to find out the intentions of this man, whom she consciously suspects is Odysseus? Could it be that while he thinks he’s deceiving her, she’s really the one deceiving him?

This would not be the first time in Homer’s poems that dreams have been used to deceive and manipulate others-in fact, it would be the fourth time: Zeus sending the “Evil Dream” to Agamemnon, Athena sending the “marriage dream” to Nausicaa, and Odysseus (at the end of The Odyssey, Book 14) making up a story about the “real” Odysseus making up a dream in order to steal another warrior’s cloak on a cold, windy night (14.519-589).

Why would Penelope make up such a dream? The answer emerges if we think carefully about what is happening at that crucial moment when the old nurse Eurycleia is washing the beggar’s feet. Penelope has removed herself and is standing alone, after a long and intimate conversation with a man who has detailed knowledge about Odysseus, who looks and sounds very much like Odysseus, who insists with passionate certainty that Odysseus will return to the palace the very next day. The question could hardly not arise for this most intelligent and perceptive of women: is this stranger Odysseus himself? If he is, then why isn’t he revealing himself? Penelope has just poured her heart out to him, saying how terribly she has suffered over the years-why won’t he drop his disguise and reunite with her this very moment?

When Eurycleia finishes washing the beggar’s feet, Penelope returns to him and says she has one last question-what is the meaning of her dream of the geese and the mountain eagle? The disguised Odysseus eagerly agrees with the words of the mountain eagle in the dream: the dream means “destruction is clear for each and every suitor.”

Penelope, however, disagrees. Her “two gates” speech that follows is a subtle but unmistakable way of saying “I don’t think so” to the beggar’s interpretation. She cannot agree with him for a simple reason: the mountain eagle and the beggar have both misinterpreted the dream. There are 20 geese in her dream, but more, many more than that number of suitors in the palace. As we learn in Book 16.270-288, where Telemachus tells Odysseus who all the suitors are and where they come from, there are a total of 108 men besieging the palace. Penelope’s refusal to accept the interpretation of the mountain eagle and the beggar is not due to stubborn skepticism, pathetic ignorance, or unconscious desire-she rejects the interpretation because it is wrong. The true meaning of the symbol of the 20 geese is surprisingly easy to find if we do not automatically assume that the mountain eagle and the beggar are right (that is, if we do not automatically privilege the hermeneutic perspective of Odysseus). The 20 geese symbolize the 20 years that Odysseus has been away fighting the war at Troy and journeying through the world. The exact length of Odysseus’ absence, 20 years, is mentioned five separate times in the poem, and most significantly the beggar himself comments to Penelope a few lines earlier in Book 19 that Odysseus has been gone for 20 years.

Thus, the first part of Penelope’s dream symbolically, and very accurately, describes her emotional experience of what has happened between them: Odysseus, by going off to fight in someone else’s war, has destroyed the last 20 years for her. What should have been the prime years of their marriage, the wonderful years of raising a family and creating a home, the years that Penelope would have “loved to watch” and care for, have been slaughtered by Odysseus. The second part of the dream expresses Penelope’s fearful perception of Odysseus right now, still standing apart from her in the disguise of a beggar. He doesn’t recognize her, and what the last 20 years have been like for her; all he can see are the suitors and a galling challenge to his honor. By posing this dream riddle to the beggar, Penelope is in effect asking if her suspicion is true: is the “real” Odysseus as blind to her feelings and as obsessed with killing the suitors as is the “dream” Odysseus? When the beggar agrees with the mountain eagle’s words in the dream, Penelope knows the unfortunate answer.

The mysterious poetry of Penelope’s two gates speech becomes all the more powerful when it is understood as a response to Odysseus’ failure of the dream interpretation test. To his reprimanding words, “twist it however you like, your dream can only mean one thing,” Penelope replies that dreams are always difficult to understand, and they do not always come true. The danger is that we will allow our desire to cloud our perception-taking as divine prophecy what is merely human fantasy. But some dreams, she goes on to say, do have the potential to come true-though only “for the dreamer who can see them.” That is precisely what Odysseus has failed to do. He has failed to see past his own desire for revenge.

I am reluctant to finish with this story, because there is so much more to be told (and so much more to be questioned, if you happen to disagree with my admittedly unorthodox reading of this scene). But I will close by reflecting on the interpretive principles guiding this approach to Penelope’s dream of the 20 geese. First, I chose to privilege the perspective of the dreamer, listening to her words, looking carefully at her experience, asking critical questions of her motivations, and ultimately grounding the dream’s meaning in the conditions of her waking life. Second, I focused special attention on the details of the dream, particularly on the exact number of geese, 20. Third, I located the dream in the context of broader cultural patterns, focusing in particular on how Penelope’s dream deviates from the narrative structuring of other Homeric dreams. And fourth, I tried to look beyond the seemingly obvious and self-evident to discover the new, the surprising, the unexpected.


A Dream Before Dying

Life’s profound problems often get resolved in the sleep  that comes before the final rest, these authors say

By Anne Underwood
Newsweek Magazine
July 25, 2005 issue

As a hospice chaplain for 10 years, the Rev. Patricia Bulkley confronted the raw emotions of the dying-their terror at the approaching end, their unresolved family problems, their crises of faith. They were people like Charles Rasmussen, a retired merchant-marine captain in his mid-80s who was dying of cancer. He was consumed by fear until, in a dream one night, he saw himself sailing in uncharted waters. Once again, he felt the thrill of adventure as he pushed through a vast, dark, empty sea, knowing he was on course. “Strangely enough, I’m not afraid to die anymore,” he told Bulkley after that dream. Death was no longer an end, but a journey.

As Bulkley reveals in a slender but powerful new book, “Dreaming Beyond Death,” many people have extraordinary dreams in their final days and weeks. These dreams can help the dying grapple with their fears, find the larger meaning in their lives, even mend fences with relatives. Yet all too often, caregivers dismiss them as delusional or unworthy of attention. Not Bulkley, who often discussed dreams with patients at the Hospice of Marin in California. Her experiences were the inspiration for the book, which she coauthored with her son Kelly Bulkeley, a past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. It is the first volume devoted to the (paradoxically) life-affirming power of pre-death dreams. And though the research is still preliminary, the authors inject level-headed analysis into an arena often dominated by seekers of the paranormal.

Accounts of prescient or meaningful pre-death dreams span religions and cultures, from China and India to ancient Greece. The last dream that psychologist Carl Jung was able to communicate to his followers, a few days before his death, was of a great round stone engraved with the words “And this shall be a sign unto you of Wholeness and Oneness.” To Jung, it showed that his work in this life was complete. Socrates and Confucius also spoke of significant dreams they had shortly before their deaths.

Yet there has been little systematic study of such dreams in modern times. The inherent difficulties are obvious. You can’t enroll people with a week or two to live in formal studies-and they’re hardly going to walk into a sleep clinic and volunteer. By default, hospice workers and family members have collected more of these stories than dream researchers. No one even knows what percentage of people ultimately experience such dreams. Still, scientists recognize that they can be deeply meaningful.

There are certain overarching themes that emerge-going on journeys, reuniting with deceased loved ones, seeing stopped clocks. Often the imagery is straightforward. In one woman’s dream, a candle on her hospital windowsill is snuffed out, engulfing her in darkness-a symbol of death that scares her, until the candle spontaneously relights outside the window. A man struggling to find meaning in his life dreams of a square dance in which the partners leave visible traces of their movements, like ribbons weaving a pattern. “There really is a plan after all, isn’t there?” the man asked Bulkley after that dream. “Somehow we all belong to one another.”

But not all pre-death dreams are comforting. They can also frighten the dreamer, who imagines being chased through crumbling cityscapes or hurtling in a driverless car toward a freshly dug ditch or entering the sanctuary of a cathedral, only to have a tornado break through the roof and suck the visitor up into the whirlwind. “I’ve had patients who woke up pounding on the mattress, very agitated, struggling with the idea that they’re going to lose this battle,” says Rosalind Cartwright, chair of behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center. These dreams are warnings of unresolved issues. But by forcing attention to the underlying problems, nightmares may ultimately help the dreamer find peace. “Ignore them at your peril,” says Cartwright.

It is hardly surprising that pre-death dreams are more urgent, more vivid and more memorable than the run-of-the mill patchwork of dreams. “Throughout life, at acute stages of crisis and transition, the need to dream is intensified,” says psychologist Alan Siegel of the University of California, Berkeley. The more dramatic the event, the more the dreams cluster around solving related emotional issues. Pre-death dreams can be so intense that the dying mistake them for waking reality-especially when the dreams feature dead relatives.

Yet despite the power of these dreams, caregivers often miss the opportunity to explore their meaning. It’s a loss on both sides, according to Bulkley. Talking about end-of-life dreams can give family members a way to broach the uncomfortable topic of death, she says. For the dying, discussing such a dream can provide a simple way to articulate complex emotions-or, if the meaning of the dream is unclear, to fathom its purpose. And to the extent the dying person finds comfort in any such dream, so do surviving relatives. “These are the stories that get repeated at funerals,” says Bulkley. “They become part of the family lore.”

The authors resist the notion that pre-death dreams prove the existence of God. Yet the dying often interpret them as affirmations of faith. On her deathbed, a female cancer patient of Bulkley’s was stricken with doubts about the nature of God. For three nights in a row, she dreamed of huge boulders that pulsated with an eerie blue light. To her, they represented a divine being that was unidentifiable, but very real. “I don’t need to know anything more than that,” she told Bulkley. “God is God.” But she had one final dream. In it, the boulders morphed into steppingstones. In the distance a golden light glowed. “It’s calling me now, and I want to go,” she told Bulkley that morning. She died the next day-at peace.

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005 MSNBC.com

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