Penelope and Odysseus: The Perils of Dream Interpretation

Penelope and Odysseus: The Perils of Dream Interpretation by Kelly Bulkeley


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.


Dreaming in Adolescence

Dreaming in Adolescence by Kelly BulkeleyIn the current issue of the IASD journal Dreaming (Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 240-252) I have an article with results of a blind word search analysis of a teenage girl’s dream series.  (Many thanks to the anonymous dreamer, “Bea,” and to Bill Domhoff for mediating our interactions.)  The article is my latest effort at developing a method of using statistical patterns in word usage frequency to identify meaningful continuities between dream content and waking life concerns.  I think the results show that we’re making good progress. Here is the abstract of the paper:


“Previous studies of dreaming in adolescence have found that 1) shifts in dream content parallel shifts in cognitive and social development and 2) adolescent girls seem more prone than boys to disturbing dreams and recurrent nightmares.  This paper confirms and extends those findings by using a novel method, blind word searches, to provide results that are more precise, detailed, and objective than those offered by previous studies. The method is used to analyze a series of 223 dreams recorded in a private diary by an American girl, “Bea” (not her real name) from the ages of 14 to 21.  Accurate predictions about continuities between Bea’s dream content and waking life concerns included important aspects of her emotional welfare, daily activities, personal relationships, and cultural life.  The results of this analysis illuminate the multiple ways in which dream content accurately reflects the interests, concerns, and emotional difficulties of an adolescent girl.”

And here are the final two paragraphs:

“These findings underscore an important yet frequently misunderstood point about the continuity hypothesis: The strongest continuities between dreaming and waking relate to emotional concerns rather than external behaviors (Hall and Nordby 1972; Domhoff, Meyer-Gomes, and Schredl, 2005-2006).  Many of Bea’s nightmares do not reflect actual waking experiences, but they do accurately reflect the dire possibilities and worst-case scenarios that trouble her in waking life.  Bea’s nightmares mirror her worries about things that might happen, not necessarily any actual events that have happened.

“For clinicians, therapists, counselors, and teachers who work with adolescents, the Bea series adds new empirical depth to the idea that dreams are meaningful expressions of emotional truth, especially around issues of family history and personal relationships, and perhaps especially for adolescent girls.  It remains to be seen if word search analyses have any further practical value, but the results presented here should certainly encourage anyone who works with teenagers to listen carefully to their dreams for potentially valuable insights into their developmental experiences.”



The 7 Worst Things Ever Said About Dreams

The 7 Worst Things Ever Said About Dreams by Kelly Bulkeley1.  The most evil type of man is the man who, in his waking hours, has the qualities we find in his dream state.

(Plato, The Republic, IX.571-576)

2.  For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words….For when dreams increase, empty words grow many.”

(Ecclesiastes 5:3, 7)

3.  I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant than the wind…

(Mercutio, in William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, I.iv.102-106)

4. Dreams are a vanity, God knows, pure error.  Dreams are engendered in the too-replete from vapours in the belly, which compete with others, too abundant, swollen tight.

(Pertelote to Chanticleer in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.)

5.  The forebrain may be making the best of a bad job in producing even partially coherent dream imagery from the relatively noisy signals sent up to it from the brain stem.

(J. Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley, “The Brain as a Dream-State Generator,” 1977)

6.  In this model, attempting to remember one’s dreams should perhaps not be encouraged, because such remembering may help to retain patterns of thought which are better forgotten.  These are the very patterns the organism was attempting to damp down.

(Francis Crick and Graeme Mitchison, “The Function of Dream Sleep,” 1983)

7.  Dreaming is a free-rider on a system designed to be conscious while we are awake, and which is designed to sleep….  So far, no hypothesis put forward requires that we think of dreaming as more than a side-effect of the relevant functions of sleep.

(Owen Flanagan, “Dreaming Is Not an Adaptation,” 2000)

Tracking Robert Bosnak’s Dreams

Tracking Robert Bosnak's Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyThe Sleep and Dream Database has just added a new series of dreams to its collection, thanks to the generosity of Robert Bosnak.  In his 1996 book Tracks in the Wilderness of Dreaming he included an appendix with a series of 51 dreams recorded during a seven-week period of travel and personal transition.  With his permission I have transcribed and uploaded this series into the SDDb, where it can be found under the survey label “RB Journal 1996.”


This is a fascinating and valuable series of dreams for a number of reasons. It was recorded by a Jungian analyst with extensive training and professional experience in dream analysis, and it was recorded during a time of significant changes in his waking life. I have known Robbie for nearly 25 years now, since the Chicago conference of the Association for the Study of Dreams in 1990, and I consider him a good friend and colleague.  So it is no easy task to bracket out my familiarity with his life and pretend to study the word usage frequencies of his dreams “blindly.”   Nevertheless, here’s what strikes me in comparing the RB Dreams 1996 to the SDDb male baselines, focusing exclusively on the numerical results and what I’ve learned from past studies:

By my count, this series of 51 dream reports has 7469 total words, for an average of about 150 words per report.

Most of the reports (35) are between 50 and 300 words in length.  Twelve reports have 49 words or less; the shortest report is 13 words.  Four reports have 301 words or more; the longest report is 731 words.

I performed word searches on the whole series of 51 reports for the 7 classes and 40 categories in the SDDb template, and compared the results with the Male MRD Baseline frequencies for reports of 50-300 words.  It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, so the results should be viewed as suggestive rather than definitive.

You can see a google docs spreadsheet of the results here.

The RB dreams have higher frequencies of descriptive perceptual words for intensity, colors, and aesthetic evaluation, along with a slightly higher proportion of vision-related words.  This could be a product of the dreamer’s reporting style and post-awakening literary editing of the reports.  It could also reflect dream experiences of unusual sensory richness and detail.

There is no more fear in RB’s dreams than in the baselines, which would seem to rule out any unusual stressors or anxieties in waking life.  (The low falling frequency may also point in that direction.) The high proportion of happiness-related words really jumps out—I’m not sure I’ve seen a series before with more happiness than fear.  The relatively high number of sadness references suggests sensitivity to loss and mourning.

The relatively low number of awareness-related words could be another product of reporting style, and it could also reflect a greater focus while dreaming on relational process rather than cognitive analysis.

The RB dreams have more references to flying than falling, which reverses the pattern I typically see in other dream series (more falling than flying).

The high proportions of speech, family characters, and friendly social interactions all point to a person who is actively and productively engaged with other people in waking life.  He seems closely involved with several immediate family members: His wife, daughter, son, brother, mother, and father.

The very high frequency of sexual references could reflect a greater degree of honesty in RB’s reporting compared to the baselines, and it could also indicate the significance of sexual activity and thoughts in waking life.

The high number of fantastic beings suggests someone with a lively imagination, perhaps familiar with video games or fantasy fiction.  A somewhat high proportion of Christianity words may reflect someone who knows Christian culture fairly well but is not an active practitioner of the faith.

Several features of these dreams—the high intensity, colors, happiness, flying, fantastic beings—make me wonder if this set includes at least a few reports of mystical dreams with unusual spiritual or existential meaning.

So how do these quasi-blind inferences fare once I explicitly take into account the facts that the dreamer is a successful psychotherapist who says, “I consider it to be a series in connection with the death of my father and a feeling of loss of soul”?

Not perfectly, that’s for sure.  I would not have predicted this was a series relating to the death of his father, based only on these word usage frequencies.  He does not use father-related words more than other family members, and the death references do not directly indicate his father has died.  There are 3 references to ghosts, but not explicitly to the ghost of his father.

I could be missing something, but at this level of analysis the manifest content of this series does not reflect the dreamer’s felt experience of the dreams.

However, the relatively high sadness frequency may pick up on this theme.  And the mystical themes I noted may underscore the sense of deep transformation he felt was happening during this period of time.  In that sense, the dreams may accurately reflect not the death itself, but the psychological consequences of the death, the still-rippling impact of his father’s loss on his experience of the world.

Again, I wouldn’t have come up with any of that just from looking at the statistical frequencies.  But knowing this series came during a period of mourning, I can see where the waking-dreaming connections emerge, and I’ll be curious to see if future studies discover similar patterns with people who have recently lost a close loved one.

Knowing that Bosnak is a psychotherapist with a successful practice makes sense of many features of his dreams—the high speech, friendly social interactions, happiness, and low physical aggression.  The high frequency of sexual references may relate to his professional work, and so might the unusual detail of his perceptual descriptions, indicating well-honed observation skills.

In chapter 8 of his book Bosnak describes his understanding of these dreams, which goes into much greater depth than a strictly quantitative method can provide.  His goal is to teach readers how to explore the deeper patterns of their own dream series.  I highly recommend that chapter, and Bosnak’s work in general, as an excellent resource in learning how to study large collections of dreams.


Transcription note: To conform to current SDDb upload specifications, I made the following changes to the dream reports as presented in Bosnak’s book: I removed all quotation marks, dashes, and italics, condensed each report into a single paragraph, and added the location of the dream and number in the series to start each report. Some degree of meaning is lost with these changes.





What’s In a Lucid Dream?

What's In a Lucid Dream? by Kelly BulkeleyWhat do people dream about when they have lucid dreams?  What’s going on in the dream when someone has the realization, “I am dreaming”?  Here’s another example of how the word search function of the SDDb can help get a research project started.  The database includes a set of surveys (Demographic Survey 2012) in which the participants were asked to describe a lucid dream.  By word searching their answers you can get a quick sense of the overall patterns of their dream content.  This information gives you an empirical context for deeper study of particular dreams and particular themes within the dreams.


I’m following here the same approach I described in the previous post with visitation dreams, with one refinement.  Instead of searching for reports of 25 words or more, I performed separate searches for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words, for both females and males (see links below).  This produced smaller numbers of dreams for each analysis, but it allowed more of an apples-to-apples comparison with the SDDb baselines I’ve been developing (described in posts herehere, and here).  I now have provisional baselines for word usage frequencies in shorter (25-49 words) and longer (50-300 words) most recent dream reports.  These baselines guide the analysis below.

To repeat the method: From the SDDb’s word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values and selected harris_2012:Q1035, Lucid Dream.  Then I selected Female from the top line of the constraint values, in the line for Gender, Q922.  I clicked on “word search,” and then entered the appropriate numbers in the Min Words and Max Words boxes under “Limit Response Length”  (25 and 49, 50 and 300).  I clicked on “Perform Search” and received a set of dream reports with these parameters.  I then searched the given set for each word class and word category, one by one. I followed the same procedure for the male lucid dream reports.

The results of this analysis, which took me about an hour to conduct, can be easily summarized.  Compared to the SDDb baselines, lucid dreams tend to have unusually low frequencies of words relating to visual perception, color, emotion, characters, social interactions, and culture.  Lucid dreams have higher than usual references to awareness, effort, and physical aggression (relative to friendliness).  Females and males share these basic patterns, though the men’s reports included more flying-related words.

These findings, though preliminary, seem strong enough to formulate a working hypothesis that lucid dreams are generally characterized by low visual references, low emotions, high awareness and effort, and relatively high physical aggression compared to friendly social interactions.

If I were now given two sets of dreams and told that one is a set of lucid dreams and the other a set of most recent dreams, I believe this working hypothesis could help me tell the difference without ever reading through the dreams, just by performing a few word searches.

Of course, each individual report has its own unique constellation of content.  Some lucid dreams are filled with visual perceptions, strong emotions, and friendly social interactions.  Indeed, I think it’s even more interesting to study such dreams now we know they are rather unusual.

If learning about the patterns of ordinary dreams gives us new insights into extraordinary dreams, then learning about the patterns of extraordinary dreams gives us new insights into extra-extraordinary dreams.

Female lucid dreams 25-49 words: 113 total

Female lucid dreams 50-300 words: 71 total

Male lucid dreams 25-49 words: 60 total

Male lucid dreams 50-300 words: 29 total


Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams

Dreaming of the Dead: Patterns of Word Usage in Visitation Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyHere’s a good example of how to use the word search function of the Sleep and Dream Database.   It focuses on “visitation dreams,” i.e., dreams in which people who are dead appear as if alive.  These vivid and highly memorable dreams have been reported in cultures all over the world, in many periods of history.  People today still experience visitation dreams with remarkable frequency (1).   As part of research I’m doing for a new book, I want to learn more about the basic patterns in visitation dreams.  I’m especially interested in their social and emotional aspects.  My hypothesis, based on cross-cultural evidence and the results of a 2007 content analysis study I did of mystical dreams (2), is that visitation dreams tend to be positive experiences, characterized by friendly interactions and low negative emotions.


Can I put that hypothesis to an empirical test?  Can I push the analysis of visitation dreams to a deeper level of detail and identify additional recurrent features?

The SDDb word search function makes this kind of research easier to pursue than ever before.  There’s a new set of dreams in the database, Demographic Survey 2012, which includes a question about visitation dreams.  On the word search page I scrolled down the list of constraint values to harris_2012:Q1030, Visitation Dream, and selected it.  I then selected “Female” from the top line of the constraint value list.  I clicked on “Word Search” again, and entered “25” in the Min Words box under Limit Response Length.  When I clicked “Perform Search” I had a set of 221 reports from women of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length.  When I repeated this procedure and selected “Male” instead of “Female,” I had a set of 96 reports from men of visitation dreams of 25 or more words in length.

For both the Female and Male sets I searched for all 7 Word Classes and 40 Word Categories, one class or category at a time.  It took about 20 minutes to generate these figures.

The results both confirm and extend my initial hypothesis.  The visitation dreams have many more friendly than physically aggressive social interactions, and generally low proportions of negative emotions (3).  That’s a solid confirmation of previous findings, with some additional details to fill out the picture:

— The overwhelming majority of characters in the visitation dreams are elder family members.  For women, the most frequently used family character words are grandmother, mother, and father.  For men, the most used words are father and dad.

— Other than vision, speech, and some mention of intensity, these dreams have very few other elements of content: low non-visual perception, low colors, low emotions, low cognition, low nature, low non-family characters, low non-friendly social interactions, and virtually no culture references.

This quick exercise in using the SDDb’s word search function has taught me several things.  Visitation dreams do seem to be mostly positive experiences.  They very often include elder family members, i.e. well-known and personally intimate characters with whom the dreamer speaks and has friendly social interactions.  Evidently few other details matter; the dreamer’s focus is squarely on the appearance of the person who is dead but appears as if alive.  There may be some gender differences in which particular family characters show up  most frequently, but the basic patterns of content emerge clearly in both the women’s and men’s reports.

I’m sure I’ll find many more recurrent themes once I read through the dream narratives.  But already, after just a few minutes of statistical analysis, I have a good overview of the dreams that gives me an empirical context for highlighting further subtleties of significance.




(1) In American Dreamers I cite a 2007 survey of 705 American adults that found 38% of the participants had experienced a visitation dream at least once in their lives (p. 32).

(2) “Mystical Dreaming: Patterns in Form, Content, and Meaning” (2009),  Dreaming 19(1): 30-41.

(3) These two sets are not perfect matches for comparison with the SDDb Baselines, since they include all reports of 25+ words, whereas the SDDb Baselines are for reports of 25-49 words and 50-300 words.  But the baselines can still be useful in evaluating the broad patterns of the visitation dreams.