Animals in Dreams

Below is the section on animal dreams from my video talk for the IASD Australian Regional Conference held last week in Sydney.  I would be very interested in hearing from people whose dreams include types of animals NOT mentioned in my findings, to help us develop an even broader sense of oneiro-zoology (yes that’s a made up word!).


Animals: I searched the SDDb for many different types of animal-related words, but I’m sure I missed some, so this is an area needing improvement.  What I found in this study [of 2087 total dreams, 1232 female and 855 male] was 16% of the female reports and 14% of the male reports including at least one animal reference.  Consistent with what previous researchers have found, the children’s dreams in my sample have a higher percentage of animal references (24% for the girls, 20% for the boys).  Does this mean children are “closer” to nature than adults?  Perhaps.  It does seem that a higher proportion of animals in children’s dreams (or should we say a diminished proportion of animals in modern Western adults’ dreams?) is a stable pattern across many studies.

The animals that appeared most often were, in order, dogs, cats, horses, bears, fish, snakes, birds, and insects.  The first three—dogs, cats, and horses—are among the most familiar domestic animals.  Bears are NOT domestic animals, and they actually appear most often to be aggressive, threatening creatures in dreams.  Among different types of fish, sharks appear frequently like bears, as frightening predators, putting the dreamer in the harrowing position of prey, the hunted.  In other dreams, however, ocean dwelling creatures like whales and dolphins reveal an amazing intelligence that teaches the dreamer something new about the natural world.

Dreaming of Nature and the Nature of Dreams

The First Australian Regional Conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams starts on April 19, and I have prepared a video talk for the conference titled “Dreaming of Nature and the Nature of Dreams.”  The talk can be found on Youtube, and the statistical data I reference can be found in Google docs.  More info about the IASD and the Australia conference is here.

I start the talk by briefly mentioning some of my early writings about the interplay of dreaming and nature: a 1991 article “Quest for Transformational Experience: Dreams and Environmental Ethics,” my doctoral dissertation/1994 book The Wilderness of Dreams and its notion of “root metaphors,” Herbert Schroeder’s chapter on dreams and natural resource management in my edited 1996 book Among All These Dreamers, the study of politically conservative and liberal people’s dreams and views of the environment in 2008’s American Dreamers, and Dreaming in the World’s Religions, also in 2008, with several stories of the inspirational roles that dreaming play in the nature awareness of indigenous cultures in the Americas, Africa, and Oceania.

The main focus of the talk is the findings I’ve made about the statistical frequency of nature references in dream content, using the word search methods of the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb).  For this presentation I created a baseline sample of 2087 dream reports of more than 50 words but less than 300 words in length, from a total of 1232 females and 855 males.  The sample includes children, college students, and adults.  All are American and all are educated and/or computer literate.

Using tools on the SDDb that anyone can access, I studied these 2087 dream reports for references to the following categories of nature content: Weather, fire, air, water, earth, flying, falling, and animals.  (Can you guess which of the four classic elements (fire, air, water, earth) appears most often in dreams?  Can you guess which animals appear most frequently?) After laying out my findings I discuss the technological and political issues involved in bringing the insights of dreaming to bear on waking world environmental problems.

About halfway through the talk, our cat Strauss makes an appearance over my right shoulder.  It was a sunny day by Portland, Oregon standards, and the local birds were very active outside my window.  It was hard not to look at what he was looking at!


The Interpretation of Snake Dreams: A Short Film

By far the most frequent question that leads people to this website is, how do I interpret my weird dream about a snake?  I’ve written some general answers to that question, and when possible I’ve offered people specific responses to their dreams.  Now, thanks to the video creativity of Ed Kelley, I have a new resource for people who are interested in snake dreams.  Ed directed, filmed, and edited a short film titled “The Interpretation of Snake Dreams” in which I discuss the multiple meanings of snake dreams through history and in different religious traditions.  I hope this work will give people new ways to understand and explore the presence of numinous serpents in dreams.   Do not expect a simple instructional video.  If you have had a powerful dream of a snake and found your way to this site, I trust you will recognize something of your experience in this film.

How to Interpret Snake Dreams

I’m amazed at how many people have powerful dreams about snakes.  Serpents are truly the most memorable creatures of the dream world.  Their presence in a dream is almost always vivid, mysterious, and attention-grabbing.   

 When asked how to interpret people’s snake dreams, I struggle to say something that’s helpful without imposing my outsider’s view on the dreamer.  I can make general statements about traditional symbolism, but that always runs the risk of leading the dreamer away from the specific details of his or her experience, where the deepest personal meanings may often be found.

 As an alternative way of answering people’s questions about snake dreams, here is a dream I had a few weeks ago, on the night of February 25, plus the journal entry I wrote following the dream.  As you can see, I don’t come to a final conclusion about the dream’s message.  Instead I free associate about the personal web of memories and feelings that seem related to it, letting the power of the dream serpent guide my reflections.

 Title: The Big Green Snake Could Actually Eat Me

 I’m out on a green grass field….In the bushes nearby I see a snake….it has a big green head, in the green foliage of the bushes….I’m scared and start to run, but the snake quickly comes after me….It wraps itself so its head is looking at me around my left shoulder….I realize it’s big enough to eat me, actually….I try to figure out what to do, how to keep it from squeezing and eating me….It hasn’t made a move to try doing that, but I’m scared it might….

 Journal: This dream came the first night back from week-long family vacation, after a long drive and getting back into household duties.  During the day I enjoyed some fun creative work, but also some stress about tasks to do this coming week.  The snake is very big, and in my mind while dreaming I’m thinking out the physical details of how it would successfully consume me.  At the same time, I’m aware the snake has not yet harmed me.  I sense it may simply want to get close to me and check me out.  I can’t outrun it, I can’t fight it—I’m in its power.  Yesterday I read the first chapter of Harry Potter 7, in which Voldemort’s snake Nagini is invited to eat a person V has just murdered.  Nagini is portrayed as being about the same size as the snake in my dream.  So I’m like V, with the snake my close companion?  Or am I about to be a victim of V and what he represents?  All the green: it’s late winter/early spring around here, so lots of green foliage in our garden at home, and at the beach house while we were on vacation  —  Feb. 25 is the birthday of an old girlfriend, I just realized that  —  first love  —  an anniversary dream?  —  an early emergence of serpent power in my life?  Yesterday was like other days at the end of a vacation, feeling like a pivot time; I’m anxiously getting ready to spring back into action  —  and I have a lot of action awaiting me  —  a time of massive transition  —  creative potential  —  will the snake eat me, or won’t it?  Does it matter?  I’m wrapped up in its power, now and perhaps forever.  I don’t have a sense of the snake actually touching me; it’s coiled around me, but not binding me, just close enough so it’s head can get close to mine.  Its eyes can look into mine. I definitely feel it’s trying to connect with me, size me up.

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history and psychological theories about them, scroll down the list to see this post.  (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)  Also take a look at the comments, which include dozens of snake dreams people have shared that I’ve commented on.

If you’d like to know what Carl Jung said in The Red Book about the symbolism of snakes, see this post.

If you’d like more information about actual snakes, check out the website of the East Bay Vivarium.

Dreams in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A dream researcher friend asked if knew anything about the role of dreams in Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” since she could not find any good info on the web.  Here’s my response, which she suggested I post:

One way to think of this play is as a commentary on the glorious folly of love.  Shakespeare is saying that love is like a dream—it radically changes our perception of reality and other people, it compels us to behave in ways that are foolish and irrational, it’s wild and magical and unpredictable, and it ultimately must yield to the sovereignty of the waking social order (as the end of the play makes clear).

After Bottom has returned from donkey to human status he says some funny things about how crazy and unbelievable dreams are, which is extra amusing and paradoxical because we in the audience have just seen that his “dream” of being an ass was indeed real (IV.ii.203-222).

One of the young lovers, Hermia, has an alarming dream about her beloved Lysander smiling cruelly while a serpent bites her breast (II.ii.144-150).  Her dream turns out to be an accurate “threat simulation” reflecting Lysander’s sudden change of heart towards her.

When all the lovers awaken toward the end, they marvel at their strange nocturnal experiences, and say some nice things about sharing dreams with each other (IV.ii.189-202).

Add to this the fact that the play was originally intended to be performed on midsummer’s night, traditionally a “dreamy” celebration of the shortest night of the year, when people stay up and carouse about till dawn.

And in the final lines of the play, the mischievous Puck asks the audience to pretend they’ve been asleep the whole time, dreaming the spectacle before them (V.i.429-430).

All in all, it’s a play that emphasizes the powerful emotional truth of dreaming and the energizing tension between dream desire and waking structure.

Thanks to Justina Lasley of the Institute for Dream Studies!


Snakes, Dreams, and Jung’s Red Book

People have reported dreams of serpents and snakes throughout history in cultures all over the world.  In terms of Jungian psychology, snake dreams have a powerful archetypal quality.  They give people an extremely memorable and uncanny experience of the “otherness” of the collective unconscious. Jung has a few things to say about the symbolism of serpents and snakes at various points in The Red Book:

“The serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life.” (247)

“Why did I behave as if that serpent were my soul?  Only, it seems, because my soul was a serpent….Serpents are wise, and I wanted my serpent soul to communicate her wisdom to me.” (318)  (This comment comes after a long dialogue in active imagination with a great iridescent snake coiled atop a red rock.)

“I have united with the serpent of the beyond.  I have accepted everything beyond into myself.” (322)

“If I had not become like the serpent, the devil, the quintessence of everything serpentlike, would have held this bit of power over me.  This would have given the devil a grip and he would have forced me to make a pact with him just as he also cunningly deceived Faust.  But I forestalled him by uniting myself with the serpent, just as a man unites with a woman.” (322)

“The daimon of sexuality approaches our soul as a serpent.” (353)

These passages make it clear that Jung regarded snakes both negatively and positively, both as “chthonic devils” (318) and as indispensable guides for the soul.

From a Jungian perspective, snake dreams offer people the dangerous possibility of connecting with the wisdom of the collective unconscious and drawing strength from its archetypal energies.

If you’re interested in learning more about snake dreams in history, scroll down the list to see this post. (titled “What Do Dreams of Snakes Mean?”)

If you’d like ideas about how to interpret snake dreams, see this post.

For more information about actual snakes, take a look at the website of the East Bay Vivarium.