Tag Archives: symbols

Unsolicited interpretations

People are quick to try and help each other by explaining things. Whether that’s symptoms, or symbols we dive in and offer our take on it. When that’s unsolicited, it can often be problematic. Unsolicited medical advice from people who KNOW that if you just ate this particular fruit the cancer would go away and that if you went for a run every day you’d stop being depressed. One of the problems here is that people mistake the fixing of small, easy things for the fixing of much bigger ones. This is especially true with mental health where minor problems can indeed be eased with a bit of nature, but serious depression cannot.

When it comes to interpreting signs and symbols, it only works if you share culture. Most signs are open to multiple interpretations. Owls can mean Blodeuwedd, or Athena. Ravens go with Odin, and The Morrigan. Jesus and Dionysus both claim the wine. Black cats are lucky or unlucky, depending on where you live. Personal symbolism further complicates things – your mother archetype in a dream will mean different things if you mother is horrible, or dead, or has been missing for years, or is likely to wake you up with coffee at any moment.

In many ancient Pagan cultures, the business of interpreting signs and dreams belonged to the priesthood. I think this is because it is a job that confers authority. The power to tell a person what their symbols mean is a considerable power. Used badly, it is the power to wipe out personal difference and deny personal experience. It’s the opportunity to force cultural norms onto someone resisting them – we don’t care what your mother was like, you’ve dreamed about the archetypal mother who is good and kind and bountiful.

The symbolic language we use in our sleep is personal. It draws on images and experiences from waking life, from the books and films we choose to encounter, and from how we think and feel about things. We have nightmares about the things that frighten us personally, not the things our cultures consider symbols of fear. To impose a meaning on someone else’s symbolic experience is thus to impose a certain authority over them. The pushier we are, the more we claim to have absolute truth and rightness, the more we risk reducing the person whose symbolism we have the ‘answers’ for.

The desire to interpret is one to watch closely. Fair enough if it is your job to interpret, or someone has asked you to – that’s a considered relationship. Rushing in to offer unsolicited interpretations is a whole other thing. I notice this on facebook where I sometimes post dream content – usually because I think it was funny, or odd, and primarily to entertain. Sometimes I ask for suggested interpretations and sometimes I don’t, but I get them either way. People who know nothing much about my life can be very confident about what my dreams signify. None of them have ever considered that I may have withheld details, or matters of context to avoid embarrassing someone else, for example. Interpreting an un-discussed, unexplored dream is not a good way to do it. The person whose symbol it is must retain the right to decide what the symbol means for them.

If you feel the urge to interpret – be that symptoms or symbols, check in with yourself about why that is. Do you want to seem clever? Do you need to feel more important? Do you want to show off a body of knowledge? Do you believe that symbols all have straightforward meanings that apply to all people in all circumstances? I think we’re often well motivated when we pile in – we want to help and believe we can, but belief that we’re helping doesn’t mean we’re actually helping. If you want to help someone, don’t try to steal their authority. Offer them possibility ‘it could be’ ‘it might’. You can share your insight without imposing your reality. Just because your ravens mean Odin doesn’t mean their ravens do. Perhaps they’ve just been to the Tower of London. Perhaps Raven is their animal guide. Perhaps Bran is trying to talk to them. There’s always more possible answers available.

Dragons and omens

Last night I had the huge urge to go up on the hill, despite being very tired. So, up the hill we went. It had been a wet day, but there were breaks in the cloud and we were able to sit out and look at the Severn river.

When we first arrived, there were intense shafts of sunlight over the water, and as we watched a patch of intense darkness, largely blotting out the hills beyond, moved up the water for some distance. The sky out towards Wales glowed a strange, peachy colour, but we could see it was raining heavily over the Forest of Dean. At one point, rain on the river was so intense that we could see the disturbance of the surface, despite being miles away. It did not rain on us, but that’s often the way of it with these hills, weather can be very localised indeed.

Up the Severn Vale came a parade of dark clouds, low, heavy and moving a lot faster than the pale clouds above them. Behind the pale clouds lay bright blue sky, and sometimes we could see all three layers, and sometimes some of the clouds were golden from the setting sun. The dark clouds that came were each incredibly distinctive. Animalish shapes – we saw lots of elephants, but far more dragons. Huge, serpentine Chinese style dragons with distinctive heads and faces, winding up the Severn. If it had just been me there, I might have put it down to whimsy on my part, but my husband and son saw much the same things. At one point, a kestrel came and hovered right over us.

I’m not one for symbols. I tend not to infer meaning from natural events except in the most literal ways – it’s a big cloud so it could well rain – is about my level for this sort of thing. Last night was something else entirely. There was such a sense of presence, and significance, of something big in motion. Towards the end, the sky looked like one of those old paintings of divine retribution. As we were leaving, a mix of rain and setting sun had flooded the plain towards Slimbridge with a dense orangeness unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a landscape before.

It all felt important, and I have no idea what to make of it.

Magical symbolism and a normal world

Our entertainment sources play a huge role in terms of how we imagine the world to be, and how we imagine it could be. Consider for a moment the frequency with which you see people driving – in adverts with those mythical open roads, in dramas and documentaries. Politicians and celebrities step out of especially shiny ones to the flashes of many cameras. Superheroes have massively powerful ones. We watch them race for sport, we even given them names and personas and create films about them.

Imagine what it would be like if every day you saw the same amount of footage of people arriving on foot and by bicycle. If celebs turned up on buses as a matter of course, if politicians travelled by train, if more of the epic chases in films involved people running rather than driving. Imagine how your sense of the future possibilities would change if you saw stories about the future full of clean, quiet cities and where the car had ceased to dominate. Imagine what would happen if toy cars became as suspect as gifts for children as toy guns have become in recent years.

Every day, we tell each other stories about how the world is, and could be. The stories washing about our media and popular culture are the ones impacting on the most people. Currently our stories tell us that cars are everywhere and essential and will continue to be everywhere. Cars are glamorous, we are told, but if we started telling each other how wild and romantic it is for some unconventional celebrity to ride the buses, our whole attitude to public transport would shift. If we made films in which future buses were gorgeous spaces full of successful people, we’d start wanting those buses. If we started associating walking purposefully onto the train platform with images of power and status, we might make the car less of a symbol for personal importance.

The industrialised world exists because humans collectively imagined it into being. We could imagine something different. The symbols of power we identify with are a matter of choice. They could be changed. Why isn’t the fit body of a cyclist more widely accepted as sexy than the curves of a metallic car? The answer is largely because one has a well paid marketing department, and the other doesn’t.

I’d like to live in a world where the hum of traffic noise isn’t a constant. I’d like to be able to stand on the hills and not hear the motorway. I’d like it not to be considered merely an unavoidable and unfortunate side effect that people die and are seriously injured every day on the roads. I’d like us to questions that normality. Above all else, I want us to start questioning the role of the car as an icon, a symbol, a fetish within our cultures, and to dare to imagine something different. Something that smells better. Something that doesn’t smear tarmac across our countryside.

Divination lessons with Poe

I was listening to Omnia’s version of ‘The raven  a little while back, it struck me what a pertinent piece of writing this is for anyone engaged in symbol interpretation. It’s a bit of a crash course in things you really don’t want to do, and I thought it might be both entertaining and useful to poke around in that a bit. If you aren’t able to listen to Omnia, here’s the text version.

We start out with a chap in a state of angst and melancholy. Moods colour perceptions, and if you are depressed, pretty much everything has the potential to look like a harbinger of doom. He has a fair sense of his own mood, so has no excuse. If you know everything looks shitty and feels doomed, try to avoid reading messages into things because you will just see portents of everything going to hell in a handcart. Had a dancing rainbow unicorn turned up, he would probably have seen something terrible in its eyes.

Clearly he’s looking for something or hoping that something will come to him. Perhaps the ghost of dead Leonore, but he has both a mood of gloom, and an agenda, which informs how he understands everything. It’s easy to see omens when you are specifically looking for them, and the stronger desire is, the less reliable your interpretations will be, so at the very least you need to factor that in a bit and not get too carried away.

He asks the bird its name, it answers ‘Nevermore’ and he instantly rejects that as the name the bird goes by, because it does not suit him to accept. If we are led by our assumptions, we are going to get things wrong. We should not assume otherworldly beings will have the same conventions and habits as we do.

He says a few other doleful things, the raven repeats ‘Nevermore’ and he at once assumes there must be innate meaning in its saying that. The more logical conclusion is that the bird knows one word, and this is it. Again the agenda is allowed to inform the interpretation even when other possibilities are clearly present. He then proceeds to ask an array of questions to which ‘nevermore’ would be the least helpful answer he could hear. He’s setting himself up to get the depressing answers that on some level, he evidently wants. Gloomy man confirms his gloom.

The bird stays. Never once does he consider that the bird might be benevolent, a guardian, or connected to Leonore in some way. He assumes it is there to torture him because he is busy torturing himself. Had he asked ‘how long must I suffer?’ the raven’s ‘Nevermore,’ might have sounded like a blessing, not a curse.

“Will they make me eat tapioca again?”


Without an open mind, any form of divination can be a lot like seeing what you were looking for.

Interpreting the cranes

Poke about online and you’ll find a lot of references to the ancient Druids using ogham for divination, and as a consequence being described as having ‘Crane knowledge’. There is much to be cautious about here. Firstly the ogham itself, which might well not be ancient, and the relationship between Druids and cranes. The idea of the crane bag – a tiny bag of wisdom items carried by Druids, may be something derived wholly from Robert Graves’ The White Goddess. The idea of ogham as ancient, sacred, mystical language of the Druids, and as method for divination, probably comes from there too.

I’ve read The White Goddess. I’ve also read a Peter Beresford Ellis essay on the subject of Graves’ ogham fabrications, and I’ve read Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess, which flags up many issues around Graves’ work, including the ancientness of ogham. The trouble with Graves is that his influence is widespread, and his ideas are touted around the Pagan community as ancient truth in ways that are bloody difficult to unpick.

It is therefore entirely possible that Druids did not spend any time at all reading mystical ogham messages in the flight of cranes.

However, of all the birds a person might look to for mystical signs in flight, cranes strike me as the most interesting. I’ve spent a lot of time sat in hides and windows watching birds. The thing about most birds, is that once you get to know them, there’s plenty of logic to what they do. They have methods for flying that suit their purposes. Little birds, vulnerable to predation, fall like leaves out of branches. Large winged buzzards soar on the thermals, because they can. Crows attack falcons, not to proclaim coming revolution, but to defend nests and territory. Fishing birds get active when the fish do. They have patterns that repeat over days, habits, preferences, tastes. Spend enough time watching, and the mysterious behaviour of birds resolves into something wholly intelligible.

Except for the flight of cranes, that is. I’ve seen cranes in flight a few times now. They have huge wingspans, long, delicate legs, long necks, and are capable of making a lot of shapes in the sky. Most birds tuck their feet in when in flight, but crane legs seem to get all over the place. The shapes they make are many. They also like posing when on the ground and court with a crane dance that offers all kinds of interesting moves. I would bet that what cranes do makes perfect sense to cranes, but for the observer it’s not too easy to match the shapes they make with obvious intentions. The bigger a flock of cranes, the more complex things they may seem to write across the sky. With their otherworldly calls, and their rather glamorous presence, they really do stand out as birds that might be embodying messages from the divine.

A scatter of wings and legs across a wintery sky. A flash and arc of cranes in flight as they move between feeding places. The human temptation to see a message, written in bird form. What did it say? What did it mean? To the cranes, it meant they were shifting field, for whatever reason. Did the universe pick the moment of their flight to have a little conversation with itself?

Then there were the great flocks of lapwings, weaving across the sky – an act of alarm at the possible presence of a predator, but those swirling bird forms paint the sky in ways that suggest meaning. Crows and lapwings flying across each other in the high wind, a tapestry of bird forms. Does it mean something?

The human mind is predisposed to look for patterns and meanings. That’s one of the features that has turned us into what we now are. We see meaning in randomness – as the Rorschach ink blots have taught us. We find it reassuring to have meanings, and we have a collective obsession with the idea that patterns can be interpreted to give us some control over the future. Be that patterns in currency markets, education outcomes, political policies or the flight of cranes. We really don’t want to believe that the world is a random place that has nothing to say to us. However, in our desire to impose a meaning, I wonder if we miss the subtle things that might be actually there. A lack of meaning would sometimes do a lot more to comfortably explain life, and even more critically, death, than this desire to interpret.


I’ve long been fascinated with the science of dreaming, the psychology of it, and the more mystical takes as well. There are interesting overlaps between the three. Generally my own dreaming is the basis from which I explore this, although I had a long stretch when my dream life was so barren and limited that I had little to work with. If I’d been honest with myself, I would have been quicker to recognise the barren dream phase as indicative that much was wrong in my life.

I’ve never been keen to accept the idea of dream interpretation guides, where one thing can be safely interpreted as meaning another. We’re all unique, and we all use our own symbolic language. That said, the idea of self as house has been with me for some time.

When I was a child, the house I dreamed about was a beautiful cottage where a couple of warm and welcoming old people lived. By my teens, the house had become a threatening place, full of rooms I didn’t dare go into. In my twenties, the house was derelict, and usually had squatters in it, more often than not I would have the same nightmare of being chased through my house until I eventually jumped out of a window in desperation to escape. What I needed to do in my waking life, was jump and escape.

After that, the house dreams changed. I stopped having reoccurring nightmares about needing to run away from usually unspecified threats.

Some of my house dreams at the moment are explicitly about house hunting. In a more pragmatic way, that has to do with the knowledge that I’ll be moving again in less than a year, there is actual house hunting in my future, and a new life to build around that. It’s also about the ongoing process of redefining me, reimagining me. I’m very much a work in progress, and have been for several years now. I have a feeling the next geographical change will go alongside some dramatic lifestyle changes, and no doubt changes to my sense of self. And so at night, I am looking for a new house.

I had a classic old-style house nightmare last night though – big house, and not one that I owned. I never did have proper ownership of the nightmare houses, but I think that went with not feeling like I had proper ownership of myself, really. For the first time, the fear source, the thing hunting me wasn’t vague. I knew exactly what I was running away from. In the dream, they were animals that had been kept in captivity and escaped, and went mad for human flesh. Actually, I blame Jonathan Green’s fiction entirely for this, with his escaping dinosaurs and marauding monsters.

There’s a lot of practical difference between a nameless dread, and a troublesome thing you can point at. So much horror depends upon the uncanny and unknowable nature of the threat. That which we do not understand is always more scary. That’s why the first Alien film remains so powerful. What we don’t see, and have to imagine has far more power to scare us, than the known.

Sometimes the answer to a nameless dread, is to name it. Even if you don’t know what it is, naming confines it, makes it more manageable. Apparently somewhere deep in the murky layers of my unconscious mind, I have given a name to the nameless fears. Right now they look like familiar things gone predatory – I’m sure we could do some entertaining Freudian-style analysis there. A known fear can be fought, faced and conquered.

One day, I’m going to find that cottage again, or somewhere a lot like it. If I can’t dream it, I shall make it, in the waking world, out of my own actions and intent. A safe place that feels like me. A place where the nameless dreads do not get any kind of space.