Electric Dreams

Big Dreams and Nightmares: A Journey through the Night Forest

Geoffrey H. Smith 

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Smith, Geoffrey H. (1997 October). Big Dreams and Nightmares: A Journey through the Night Forest. Electric Dreams 4(10). Retrieved July 26, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams  

Oh fearful nature! oh tremendous bond!
Of the wood that grows with the ideal
The goddess bathes in the starlit gulf!
Wild nudity of the dark Diana
Who, seen from afar and through the darkness,
Causes monstrous tress to grow on the brow of the rocks!
Oh forest!

Victor Hugo
`Le Satyre'

The Witch in the Woods: A Nightmare

It is night. I wander through a forest, alone, not knowing where I'm coming from or going. After a long time, an old woman suddenly appears in my path. She is a witch. Glaring at me, she says that when the moon is full and high overhead, at midnight, she will come for me. As suddenly as she appeared she disappears. I wander on. Much later I come across a circular clearing in the forest. I go to the center of it where there are some large rocks. It is then that I notice the full moon, straight overhead, and remember the crone's words of warning. I am terrified. I notice how utterly exposed I am in this clearing, with nothing but dense forest surrounding me. My terror becomes so great that I start to think, How can I get out of here? Then I remember I am dreaming, that "I" am lying on the top of a bunk bed, my brother in bed below me. "I have to wake up," I think. I decide if I hit the rock hard enough my brother will notice me having a nightmare and will wake me up. I begin hitting the rock. Then I awaken.
End Dream

The dream above was a Big Dream. A Big Dream differs from ordinary dreams. Ordinary dreams seem to have something to say to us about our attitudes, feelings and behaviors around the time we have the dream. By that I mean it pertains to a few days, weeks or months before the dream and possibly after it as well. But a Big Dream informs us about our entire life, including past, present and future. Like a birth chart in astrology, it speaks to our destinal pattern. It has a prefigurative quality about it often not recognized until months or years later that impart to it a numinous, archetypal quality. For many years now I have felt that this one dream has a special significance. I keep returning to it and each time I always find new and richer meanings in it. But though I had this nightmare 27 or 28 years ago, it was not until the last several years that I had an "Ah-ha" experience an intuitive flash of understanding about it. What follows is some recent amplification of this nightmare I had when I was 10 or 11 years old, the only dream I have never forgotten. I don't the foregoing forth as a final analysis; nor am I even certain I have found the single, most important meaning of this dream. The dream is a sort of delightful labyrinth which I can explore again and again, each time taking away some new facet of meaning.

The Dream Ego

The first and most obvious element in the dream is the dream ego, the "I" figure. In most cases, the dream "I" feels the same age as the waking ego, and that was true this case as well. I was 10 when I had this dream, and so the dream ego too is a boy of 10. The fact that he does not know where he is going or where he is coming from indicates that he is totally lost. He is not hiking or strolling or walking he is wandering. This gives us a clue to the state of the dreamer and dovetails with the locale of the dream: the forest.

The Forest

The forest is often referred to as an apt symbol for the unconscious. In it lurk all types of creatures, some wild and threatening. In myths and fairy tales, it is sometimes a place of loss or misfortune. Dante wrote in his famous work, The Divine Comedy, of having gotten lost in the "wood of err"; it was in the forest that Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the Wolf; and numerous fairy tales feature the forest as peopled by witches. In this case the forest would seem to represent the unconscious, particularly in its more menacing aspects, full of unknown creatures and creeping, crawling things.
In many legends and fairy tales the forest is populated by strange and menacing creatures, (witches, dragons, giants, bears, etc.) "symbols of all the dangers with which young people must deal if they are to survive their rites of passage and become mature, responsible adults."1 [Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism (New York: Penguin, 1992), 141.] In dreams the "dark woods" can represent a disoriented period, or simply the unconscious, which is populated with myriad energies and archetypes which often "dis-orient" (run counter to) the ego's habitual attitudes and behaviors.
Often the forest represents the feminine as perceived by a young boy or man: a disturbing territory as yet unexplored. The forest contains many creatures like the ocean (another symbol of the unconscious) harmless or dangerous, which may yet enter our conscious (dayworld) personality.

The Crone-Witch

As a small child, some years before I had this dream, we used to have an au pair who would tell us that if we were not in bed and asleep at midnight a witch would come and get us. The au pair had apparently caught my brother and I on one of our late night kitchen raids for crackers and sought to dissuade us from this activity. But the witch became a threatening figure early on for me, one I associated with midnight. Later, much later, I would learn that midnight has been called "the witching hour" because it is presumed to be a time of special psychic power, when witches can more effectively cast their magic spells. The Witch in his dream was an old woman. In traditional (European) witchcraft, the crone represents the Goddess in her destructive aspect, also known as Hecate destroyer of men as well as the Goddess of crossroads and magic. As the goddess of crossroads she holds special power over mens destinies. Traditionally, pagans would leave an offering to her at a crossroad, that she would bless them with a safe journey. Most Jungians have viewed the Witch as representing the negative mother archetype, i.e., the unnatural mother who clings to her children, is overprotective and somehow smothers or disables them with her love. Certainly this is one way of explaining the frequency of the witch appearing as a negative or scary figure in dreams and fairy tales.
On the other hand, Clarissa Estes has seen in the Witch a "wild woman" archetype which is essentially positive for women and which they should embrace as a positive manifestation of female power. I embrace this latter view. I view the Witch as healer, midwife and priestess, not as a wicked devil worshiper. However, the witch in my dream was terrifying from the point of view of the dream ego. This is important. Whatever "The Witch" might represent to me today, she was perceived as threatening in the dream.

In many myths the hero or heroine is called to adventure by a transcendent being. The call symbolizes the crossing of a threshold, an initiation, which typically involves a death and a rebirth. The death aspect letting go of the old ways is often if not always perceived by the ego as dangerous and threatening.

Like every dream symbol, the Crone-Witch has a negative and a positive side. She is a wisdom figure, a guide the Wise Old Woman; yet she can be a negative mother who captures and binds her children. One is naturally reminded in this vein of Ananke, a Neoplatonic-Pythagoroean title of the Goddess who governed the world according to karmic law another name for Fortuna or Fate. "Stoic philosophers made Ananke . . . the supreme all-ruling principle, with authority over even the gods."2 [Walker, Barbara. The Women's Book of Myths and Secrets (New York: Harper, 1983), 28.] Interestingly, the Buddha taught that karma fate accruing from our actions over innumerable lifetimes was prior to all gods, and that even the gods were subject to karma.

The Circular Clearing

The clearing is definitely man made it's shape is too circular, and the earth too hardened, flat and devoid of vegetation to occur naturally. This suggests it is a place of ceremony, especially since the circle has traditionally been used for ceremonial purposes, in Native American, Western Magical, Native European and other traditions.

The circle constitutes an age-old symbol for wholeness and unity. Jung often interpreted circles and mandala figures as symbolizing the Self the authentic self which often opposes the ego, seeking to augment or enlarge the ego's necessarily one-sided viewpoints. It is interesting that the symbol for the Sun is a circle with a dot in the center, which, when viewed from above, perfectly describes this dream circle. Thus we have a symbol for the Sun on the ground, amidst the dark forest, and above, at the zenith, is the Full Moon. However, the circle can also represent the uterus, hence The Mother. This interpretation accords more with the feminine symbolism of the rest of the dream. It would be better to call the dream circle a place of power, of ceremony and initiation.

The Stone

Stones, mythologically, have often been viewed as embodying special power. As a child, I loved exploring the granite boulders near Frog Lake, in the Sierras. There was a majestic, solid quality about them. Stones are still placed over graves to symbolize respect for the dead. They are often viewed as reservoirs of spiritual energy, for example, Stonehenge in England. Probably their durability makes them apt symbols of immortality. Their significance may be linked to the fact that upon touching them the dream ego "woke up" within the dream.

The Full Moon

The Moon has, in the West, long symbolized the original matriarchate: the feminine realm of life including feelings, intuition, The Mother, psychic powers, the unconscious, Eros. Because women's menstruation cycles occur in rhythm to the cycles of the moon, women were viewed as especially linked to the Moon. Also, symbolically, the Moon is associated with water and with the earth elements traditionally viewed as feminine while the Sun was associated with fire and air traditionally viewed as masculine. Astrologically the Sun represents the Self, the Moon the Unconscious. The Sun is God, the Moon, the Goddess. The Full Moon is viewed by witches as a time of fulfillment and great psychic power. The Full Moon represents the Goddess as Mother, Selene or Diana.

The Bed

Henceforth I had not considered the bed as an element in this dream, but since the dream ego was aware of being in bed during the end of the dream, the bed must also be viewed as part of the dream.

The bed is a place of rest and restoration as well as a mysterious place where we enter the underworld of dreams every night. In the latter sense it is a sort of cauldron of regeneration out of which we are reborn every morning. Later in life, the bed comes to symbolize sex as well.

My Brother

My brother, Michael, must also be considered a part of this dream, since the dream ego was aware of him toward the conclusion of the dream. A brother is often viewed by Jungians as a Shadow figure. In this context, the brother is viewed as one who could possibly intervene and liberate the dreamer from a nightmare. Michael, as a Thinker type, also stands for Logos; while I myself, a Feeler, am more identified with Eros the realm of poetry and the imagination. Yet this realm can be overwhelming, so I must have adequate recourse to a tough, highly developed intellect, so as not to get overwhelmed in feeling.


I did not come to my first big insight into the prefigurative quality of this dream until at least 20 years later, after I had done a lot of dream work. I knew intuitively that the number 12 was very significant in the dream, because the witch had told me she would come for me at midnight.

As I contemplated midnight and the number twelve, I realized that midnight and the number 12 were particularly significant in this dream because:

it was at age 12 that I entered puberty, crossing the threshold of sexual awakening;
12 midnight is when the new day begins;
12 midnight is the "witching hour,"a time of spell-casting and enchantment.

It is around age twelve or thirteen that many cultures have coming-of-age ceremonies for youngsters. This age is a significant milestone marking end of childhood, probably in large part because of the awakening of sexuality. When I combined all these elements awakening sexuality, midnight as the witching hour, and the association of the number 12 with transformation (i.e., both when the new day begins and when a child becomes an adult), I realized that the crone in the dream was referring to a psychic event which was to happen when I turned twelve. The dream was both a prophecy and, perhaps, a warning.

What happened when I turned twelve? I was horrified by the emergence from my unconscious of an overwhelming compulsion to wear my mother's clothes. I was shattered. Week after week I indulged in what seemed a degrading ritual: putting on my mother's clothes. A spasmodic act of pleasure was followed invariably by waves of shame and guilt. I could not understand my desire. It was like being possessed.

By the time I made this interpretation of the dream, I had for years pursued a fascination with witches. I considered historical witches as persecuted victims of a sexist and life-negating Church; and I viewed the re-emergence of the witch since the rise of contemporary feminism as a positive force in our world. Among the goddesses I studied, Diana was and remains my favorite. She has long been associated both with forests and both the waxing and full moon. She was also considered an aspect of the Trivia or Triple-Goddess: The Maiden (Diana), Mother (Selene) and Crone (Hecate). Diana was known from ancient times as Queen of the Witches.

Another aspect of this dream must be considered: the fact that I never forgot this dream. Most dreams are written, as it were, in disappearing ink; they are difficult to remember for a few minutes, let alone a few hours, and the great majority are forgotten entirely after a few days or weeks unless written down. This dream appears particularly portentous when I realize that I could not have forgotten this dream if I wanted to. It was as though it were engraved on my psyche, permanently branded into the neurochemistry of my brain so as never to be forgotten. (It took twenty and more years for me to see the obvious link between these two facts.) In a very real sense, I felt possessed when I snuck into my mother's room and "borrowed" one of her satiny slips. And after enjoying a solitary act of spasmodic pleasure I felt an enormous shame. Who was I, that I found this enjoyable? Some kind of freak? Yes, the Goddess had come for me. I was hers. Every pretty girl I saw was no mere girl but the original Maiden Goddess.

In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore, an archetypal psychologist, discusses the notion of the Wounding Healer. He states we should not view our psychological symptoms as diseases requiring a cure but deities masquerading as symptoms. Rather than try to eradicate symptoms, we should discover their meaning. I believe this approach makes the best sense, not only of this dream but of many events in my life.

All human symptoms and problems, when they are taken to their depth and realized in a soulful way, find their ultimate solution in a religious sensibility (75).

The notion of divinely inspired dreams is steeped in antiquity. While some Greek writers, including Democritus and Zenophanes, dismissed the importance of dreams, most Greek writers believed all dreams were of divine origin. But this was not only a pagan belief. The Bible is replete with examples of dreams that were taken by the dreamer as messages from God, such as Jacob's famous dream of the ladder (Gen. 28:12). I have come to believe that the Goddess visited me in the form of the crone in my dream to give me a message. As in most dreams, The Mother speaks in riddles. She does not speak the language of the linear mind but the rich poetry of the soul with all its images and feelings. Why did she come as a crone? Probably because a crone is a figure symbolic of women's wisdom but also of death and rebirth. While all witches have mythological associations with metamorphosis and transformation, the crone especially connotes a metamorphosis involving a death and rebirth, a theme which is involved in initiation ceremonies the world over.

In a very real sense, the Maiden took possession of my psyche when I turned twelve. I still wear women's clothes. I am 38 years old and may soon live full time as a woman. Attempts to "purge" or "cure" my condition have long since proven futile. Did the Goddess send this dream to give me a clue I could later use to unlock the mystery of my identity? To reassure me that my feminine gender identity was destined and disabuse me of any notion that it was a "personality disorder" subject to "cure"? I believe so.

But the ultimate source and purpose of this dream will remain shrouded in mystery. It is better that it should remain so. Its imagery and emotion are so rich and evocative that I may return to it again and again, like a pilgrim to his vision of god, for guidance along life's journey.