Dream Catcher

The neuroscience of our night life

Myth and Dream

Are dreams the sources of myth?

Many people who have enjoyed and studied both myths and dreams have noted how similar they are in so many respects. Both involve narratives about a hero (the dreamer for dreams and some heroic or supernatural character for myths) interacting with fantastic beings in both commonplace and surreal surroundings. In both myth and dream the laws of physics are not always respected. Bizarre things happen and there is often a struggle, a climax and then a kind of resolution to the story told in myth and dream.

While there is little doubt that myths and dreams share many features I was never impressed with arguments that dreams are the source of myths or vice versa. There are as many dis-similarities between myths and dreams as there are similarities. We have to respect the differences in order to understand each in its own right.

Nevertheless as I learn more about myths I am becoming more impressed by the similarities than the differences. I think, in particular, so-called trickster folktales/myths may even share causal relations with dreams—though of course I cannot specify the exact causal connection as of yet.

How can a cultural phenomenon like a myth—a set of stories told round campfires or enacted in dance and ceremony or celebrated in religious rites; how can these cultural entities create a dream? Presumably dreams are influence by social learning just like any other part of human psychology so it is not so far fetched to think that myths can influence dream content.

Could it be the other way round as well? That dreams influence social behaviors of groups? I invite the reader to do an experiment. Read a bunch of trickster tales from around the globe and see if you don't agree with me that they are curiously dream-like, unlike many other mythical forms.

An individual living in a hunter-gather group of a few hundred souls has a dream wherein he breaks social taboos. Since dreams are involuntary products of the Mind/brain this individual can bring his dream to the campfire, share it with others and not be held responsible for its contents. Thus the dream offers a vehicle for pushing the boundaries around social norms. When several individuals bring such dreams to the campfire and the dreams are synthesized and retold the following year they become the beginings of a myth.

Most interesting for me is that the trickster myths and garden variety dreams both involve what would ordinarily be called immoral behaviors. While a dreamer may dream of sleeping with his sister-in-law he would not do so in reality or while the dreamer may engage in physical aggression he would not do so under ordinary circumstances in waking life. Similarly, in trickster tales the trickster regularly defies social norms, breaks social taboos, has sexual relations with relatives, and generally creates mischief of all kinds. The Algonquin trickster Manabozo, for example, commits incest with a sister and chooses his wife in a menstrual tent—a definite violation of social norms for the Algonquin.

But at the same time tricksters also bring innovations to the tribes; things like fire, ceremonies, magic medicines and the like. Do similar innovations occur in dreams—perhaps innovations or benefits for the dreamer?

 

Patrick McNamara, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and the author of numerous books and articles on the science of dreams.

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