Lucrecia the Dreamer

Lucrecia the Dreamer by Kelly BulkeleyI’ve just finished writing a new book about a young woman in 16th century Spain whose uncannily accurate prophetic dreams led to her arrest and torture by the Inquisition.  The book is titled Lucrecia the Dreamer: Prophecy, Cognitive Science, and the Spanish Inquisition, to be published by Stanford University Press in early 2018. Lucrecia’s case is by far the most dramatic and compelling historical example of prophetic dreaming I have ever encountered.  Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Below is an excerpt from the first page of the Introduction.

This is the story of a young woman who was violently persecuted because of her dreams.  The fact that she dreamed frequently and vividly from an early age does not make her especially unusual since every society, from ancient times to the present day, has its share of such gifted people.  What makes her story remarkable and historically significant is that she focused her dreaming abilities on gaining insights into the most pressing dangers facing her country. She was born a big dreamer and then, with the help and guidance of various supporters, she amplified her oneiric powers to new levels of visionary intensity.

For that, she was condemned as a traitor and a heretic.

Her name was Lucrecia de Leon.  Born in 1568 in Madrid, Spain, she was the oldest of five children raised in a family of modest economic means… As her parents and neighbors later testified, Lucrecia was an active dreamer from early childhood.  In the fall of 1587, when she was not quite 19, she mentioned one of her odd dreams to a family friend visiting her house.  This friend later described the dream to a nobleman, Don Alonso de Mendoza, who was known to be deeply interested in mystical theology and apocalyptic omens.  Curious to hear more, Don Alonso arranged to record Lucrecia’s dreams on a daily basis.  For the next three years he collected her dreams, analyzed them in relation to passages in the Bible, and showed them to other people concerned about the future of Spain.  Public interest in Lucrecia’s dreams grew, and so did the disapproval of church authorities whose job it was to guard against political dissent and unorthodox spirituality.  In 1590 King Phillip ordered the Inquisition to arrest Lucrecia.  Now 21 years old and several months pregnant, she was brought to the Inquisition’s secret prison in the nearby city of Toledo and tried for heresy and treason.  The carefully recorded collection of her dreams became a primary source of evidence against her.

The first part of the book tells the story of Lucrecia’s life and dreaming and her upbringing as an illiterate but very pious Catholic young woman in the capital city of the most powerful empire in the world at that time.  The second part of the book focuses on her dream reports, which the Inquisition tried for five years to compel her to admit were fraudulent fabrications.  I make the case that the findings of modern cognitive science indicate Lucrecia was not lying but was telling the truth–she was honestly describing genuine dreams that accurately anticipated dangers to her country, specifically the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.  If I could use a time machine to travel back four centuries to the Inquisition’s court in Toledo, this is the expert testimony I would offer based on my analysis of the evidence of her dream reports.

Lucrecia the Dreamer by Kelly Bulkeley

I only wish the book were coming out sooner!  Actually, for a university press, the manuscript is racing through the production process, and I’m grateful for the care and attention of the editorial staff.  The text will be the first entry in a new series, “Spiritual Phenomena,” aimed primarily at academic audiences but also appealing to general readers interested in the creative interplay of mind, body, spirit, and culture.  I certainly wrote Lucrecia the Dreamer with the goal of making her story accessible to readers from all backgrounds.  The historical evidence of her extraordinary capacities for future-oriented dreaming has implications far beyond the relatively narrow concerns of academics. Her story highlights the existence of latent powers of the human imagination that have tremendous relevance today, during another era of unstable leadership and looming dangers for the reigning global empire.

 

Notes:

The first image is a funnel used by the Inquisition to torture prisoners by means of the “toca,” essentially a form of waterboarding.  I took the picture at the Museum of Torture (yes there is such a place) in Toledo.

The second image will be the basis of the book’s cover.  It’s a painting my wife and I bought in Amsterdam many years ago, and I’ve always felt it echoes something of Lucrecia’s story (no direct image of her remains).

Re the word “oneiric,” a friend who read a draft of the manuscript questioned whether I really need to use this term  in the first paragraph.  Here’s the hopefully clarifying endnote I added to the text at the end of the offending sentence: “The English word dream comes from a Proto-Germanic word, draugmaz, which meant dream, deception, delusion, hallucination, festivity, and ghost.  The Greek word oneiros comes from oner in Proto-Indo-European (the oldest known human language), meaning both dreams and the figures who appear in them.  The Spanish word sueño derives, like somnium in Latin and songe in French, from another Proto-Indo-European word, swepno, meaning sleep.”

How Not to Raise a Witch

How Not to Raise a Witch by Kelly BulkeleyMany years ago a student told me a story about her childhood dreams that still haunts me.  It’s not a happy story—in fact I find it incredibly sad—but it’s kept me thinking about what we know, and don’t know, about the potentials of dreaming.

 

Wanda (a pseudonym) was a student in a religious studies course I taught for upper level undergraduates at Santa Clara University.  The topic of the class was religious and psychological perspectives on dreaming, and we covered the history of Western dream theories from ancient Greek myths to modern sleep laboratory research.  I encouraged the students to think about how the various theories related to their own dream experiences as one way of testing the validity of those theories.

 

After class one day Wanda told me that when she was a child, she often had dreams that seemed to anticipate future events.  She didn’t think it was a big deal, and the predictions were often about trivial things, but she was always intrigued by the possibilities her dreams revealed.

One night when she was thirteen-years old, a few weeks before her 8th grade prom, she dreamed that her mother would be in a car accident the very night of the dance.  In the dream Wanda saw that, for some unknown reason, her prom dress was in the car, and so was her mother’s collection of record albums.

She shared the dream and its strange details with her best friend, and they were both stunned when, right before the prom, Wanda’s mother did indeed have a car crash.  Without telling Wanda, her mother had taken her prom dress to be hand-tailored, and on the way to the tailor she was taking her stereo and albums to loan to a friend.  Fortunately no one was injured, but the accident seemed to conform very closely to what Wanda had recently dreamed.

At this point I should note something Wanda had mentioned in earlier class discussions, namely that she was raised in a strictly fundamentalist Christian family.

Excited by the weird accuracy of her dream, Wanda told her mother about it, and also about other dreams she felt had accurately foreseen future events.  To her surprise, her mother became frightened and angry.  She said she didn’t want to hear any more dreams like that.  “I am not going to be the mother of a witch!” she shouted.

Realizing how upset her mother was, Wanda simply stopped having such dreams.  She said it was like she chose to shut something off inside her.

And now, many years later, she didn’t know how she could turn it back “on” again even if she wanted.

In other cultural contexts, Wanda’s extraordinary dreams would be taken as indications of her natural aptitude for training as a shaman, healer, or diviner.  But in the cultural context of Wanda’s fundamentalist Christian family these kinds of powers, especially when emerging in a female, were harshly repudiated as “witchery.”

It’s possible, of course, that Wanda made up her story.  I have no way of independently verifying what she told me.  She certainly seemed honest and sincere to me, and I saw nothing in her behavior during the class to make me doubt her character.  She was a good but not spectacular student, quiet and reserved among her peers.  She gained no special favor by telling me what she did.  Actually, given that SCU is a Catholic school, it probably wasn’t a wise thing for her to share such a heretical experience with a teacher.

There’s no compelling scientific evidence proving that dreams can predict the future, although there is an argument to be made that dreaming has the adaptive function of simulating potential threats that may arise in waking life (Antii Revonsuo and Katja Valli have done research in this area).  But Wanda’s dream was so accurate and so detailed, and it involved a threat not to her but to someone else.  How is that possible?  We just don’t know.  Current science cannot explain this kind of ability.

We do know, however, that humans vary widely in their dream recall, with some people naturally much more receptive to the products of their nocturnal imaginations than others.

We also know that some Christian authorities have a troubled history of demonizing unusual dream experiences and persecuting people, especially women, who show an interest in them.

And we know, thanks to works like Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams, a study of dream reports gathered in 1933-1939 Nazi Germany, that extremely oppressive cultural forces can disrupt people’s capacity to dream, scaring them away from their own inner lives.

In light of all that, I’m left thinking that Wanda was likely telling me the truth.  She was a “big dreamer” with the misfortune to be born in a cultural context that was hostile to her gift.

Abraham Lincoln’s Dreams

Abraham Lincoln’s Dreams by Kelly BulkeleyAbraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, and in honor of his birthday I am reposting a brief essay about four dreams he reportedly experienced while President: a visitation dream, a dream of parental concern, a prophecy of his assassination, and a series of dreams relating to military battles.  Each of these dreams is reported in a legitimate historical source, indicating that Lincoln took dreams very seriously and tried to incorporate their insights into his waking life.

 

Abraham Lincoln 1: Visitation of the Dead

“Mr. Lincoln said: ‘Colonel, did you ever dream of a lost friend, and feel that you were holding sweet communion with that friend, and yet have a sad consciousness that it was not a reality?—just so I dream of my boy Willie.’  Overcome with emotion, he dropped his head on the table, and sobbed aloud.”

Henry J. Raymond, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Darby and Miller, 1865), 756.

Abraham Lincoln, elected President of a rapidly fragmenting country in 1860, reportedly confided this dream to in the spring of 1862 to his personal aide, Colonel Le Grand B. Cannon.  Just a few months earlier Lincoln’s son Willie had died, at the age of eleven.  Willie was the second son he and his wife Mary had lost (four-year old Eddie died in 1850).  Visitation dreams of deceased loved ones have been reported in many cultures around the world, reflecting the all-too-human desire to look beyond death and meet with those who have left their physical bodies.  Lincoln commented on the paradoxical quality of his experience, which I’ve found characteristic of many visitation dreams: they are joyful and heartbreaking, reassuring and distressing at the same time.  The vivid memorability of such dreams plays an important role in the mourning process, enabling the individual to envision a new kind of relationship with the dead person—an enduring spiritual connection of tremendous emotional power that carries over from dreaming into waking awareness.  Whether or not you believe such dreams represent the wishful imaginings of the mind or the actual contact between a living person and a soul of the dead, visitation dreams provide people with a kind of sad wisdom that’s profoundly reassuring, particularly in times of waking-life conflict and danger.  That would certainly describe the situation Lincoln faced in 1862.  The Civil War had begun the previous year, and he felt the unimaginable weight of personal responsibility for the country’s political survival.  As painful as these dreams of his dead son Willie may have been, I suspect Lincoln wouldn’t have given them up for anything.

Abraham Lincoln 2: Parental Concern

“Think you better put “Tad’s” pistol away.  I had an ugly dream about him.”

Abraham Lincoln, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Volume 6, Note of June 9, 1863.

Lincoln sent this brief note to his wife Mary regarding their youngest son Tad, ten years old at the time.  No details are given about this “ugly dream,” and apparently no details were required.  Mary would have immediately understood her husband’s worry, accepted its source, and taken the necessary precautions.  Lincoln’s parental anxiety dream, in today’s language, represented “actionable intelligence.”  Mary took great interest in dreams and other kinds of unusual psycho-spiritual phenomena, and historians have blamed her for her husband’s dalliances with the supernatural.  But I think we should credit Lincoln with possessing at least as much innate dreaming power as any other human, including the capacity of his nocturnal imagination to simulate realistic threats to himself and his family.  The psychological potency of dreaming appears very clearly in Lincoln’s brief report.  The “ugly dream” provoked greater awareness of a danger to one of his children, and it prompted greater vigilance in his waking life to defend against that danger.

Abraham Lincoln 3: Who Is Dead in the White House?

“About ten days ago I retired very late.  I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front.  I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary.  I soon began to dream.  There seemed to be a death-like stillness about me.  Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping.  I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs.  There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible.  I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along.  It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break?  I was puzzled and alarmed.  What could be the meaning of all this?  Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered.  There I met with a sickening surprise.  Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments.  Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully.  ‘Who is dead in the White House?’ I demanded of one of the soldiers.  ‘The President,’ was his answer; ‘he was killed by an assassin!’  Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd.”

Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: HarperPerennial, 1994), 425-426

During the second week of April 1865, a few days before his assassination, Lincoln told this dream to his wife, his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon, and one or two other people sitting with him in the White House.  According to Lamon, who wrote down the conversation immediately afterwards, a downcast Lincoln said the weird dream had haunted and possessed him for the past several days.  Mary and Lamon both became alarmed at the ominous implications, and Lincoln tried to reassure them by saying it probably meant nothing.  He doesn’t seem to have believed that himself, though.  Death by assassination was a real and constant threat; Lincoln knew for a fact that Southern sympathizers were plotting to kill him.  He also knew from his close reading of Shakespeare and the Bible that especially memorable dreams can portend the imminence of death.  His earlier night visions focused on the well-being of his children, but now his dreaming imagination turned to the dangers looming over his own life.

After Lincoln was shot the night of April 14, an anguished Mary was heard to exclaim , “His dream was prophetic!”

Abraham Lincoln 4: Victory

“At the Cabinet meeting held the morning of the assassination, it was afterward remembered, a remarkable circumstance occurred.  General Grant was present, and during a lull in the discussion the President turned to him and asked if he had heard from General Sherman.  General Grant replied that he had not, but was in hourly expectation of receiving dispatches from him announcing the surrender of Johnston.  ‘Well,’ said the President, ‘you will hear very soon now, and the news will be important.’  ‘Why do you think so?’ said the General.  ‘Because,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘I had a dream last night; and ever since the war began, I have invariably had the same dream before any important military event occurred.’  He then instanced Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, etc., and said that before each of these events, he had had the same dream; and turning to Secretary [of the Navy] Welles, said: ‘It is in your line, too, Mr. Welles.  The dream is, that I saw a ship sailing very rapidly; and I am sure that it portends some important national event.’”

Francis Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1866), 292.

Here’s an instance of pre-battle dreaming, an apparently frequent occurrence in Lincoln’s life as military commander of the Northern army.  He had learned to associate the dreaming image of a ship speeding across the sea with the imminent arrival of momentous news, and on this Good Friday morning of 1865 he felt the impulse to share his dream omens with his military commanders.  The final triumph of the Union over the Confederacy lay just weeks away, and Lincoln knew the war had been won.  His optimism seems tragically misplaced in light of his murder that very night, but I’m more interested in his imparting of oneiric wisdom to the victorious generals.  In speaking so openly about his dreams as legitimate sources of warning and knowledge that helped him in his efforts to keep the Union together, Lincoln offered the generals gathered around him (whose company included Ulysses S. Grant, the man who would be President from 1869-1877) an example of truly visionary leadership.  He also offered to the rest of American history an example of someone who relied on his dreams to help him overcome the most serious challenges in both his personal and collective life.

But Lincoln did not say…

“My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last, best hope of earth.”

This quote is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but that’s apparently incorrect.  I could not find it in any of Lincoln’s known writings, and several Lincoln scholars agreed that the sentence is apocryphal.  The last six words, without the comma, appeared at the conclusion of Lincoln’s address to the U.S. Congress on December 1, 1862.  The meaning and spirit of his actual words point to an idealistic hope for America’s future that has long (but not that long) been associated with a special kind of dream:

“We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free–honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just–a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.”