According to the most popular presumption, dreams are not what they seem. They stand
for something else, so they must be deciphered to discover exactly what it is. The
interpretation of dreams has been with us since the dawn of recorded history. However,
there's an alternate approach that stretches even further back in time. It's the assumption
that at least some sleeping events are literal rather than symbolic. The dreamer exists and
travels in an actual world. This perspective is commonly called the OBE, or out-of-body
experience. Flying dreams have bounced back and forth between literal and symbolic
explanations. They are claimed by both camps: ordinary dreams and extraordinary. Thus,
they are uniquely positioned to serve as a transit from one to the other and back again.
There are distinct differences between these two perspectives of consciousness. For one
thing, with an OBE, the emphasis is on a *body*. And often, more than one. However,
that body doesn't necessarily have to be pictured as a human body. After all, a human
body can't fly in the waking world, can it? But something else truly can, something we
see with our very eyes, talk about and, most importantly, portray for other people to see.
When we do picture it, we imply the idea of flight, whether it be the obvious sort or a
type that's hidden from physical sight.
Picturing the OBE
When Calvin Hall used his statistical content analysis technique on a large batch of
dreams in mid-twentieth century, it revealed that the most commonly dreamt animal was
a bird. That's reasonable, since there are more species of bird than any other animal on
Now, if you were going to depict a human in flight, how might you go about it? If you
were writing or speaking about such an experience, you could be quite straightforward.
You'd tell your audience, "I was flying." But if you had no written language, or preferred
the visual mode, then the best representation would be a picture. A painting that displays
an elaborate landscape would do; you could just add a human figure suspended in the
sky. However, if you wished to indicate the idea of flight in general, the more appropriate
choice would be something succinct, like a sign or logo. The shortened pictorial version
of the OBE puts the human shape together with the shape of something that can truly fly
in the waking world. And what's the most common flying creature? A bird, of course.
There are several ways you could connect human and bird. You might draw a human
figure atop a bird or other flying conveyance. Shamans throughout history report that
they have ridden eagles, drums, clouds or horses in the sky on their altered state journeys.
Even today native peoples like the Carib, New Guinea and Eskimo take these "magical
flights." The Chinese preferred to ride dragons, though. The Greeks and Hebrews favored
On the other hand, you could combine the human and flying creature together. One way
would be to retain the full human figure, along with arms and hands, and attach wings to
the back. This might render the figure more like an insect than a bird. Still, you'd get the
idea across. However, if you based your picture on a truly altered state experience, rather
than a romantic reverie, it's more likely you would *feel* like a bird aloft. And birds
don't have hands.
In New Guinea, a man of the Sambia people had a such an experience. "I climb up a
pandanus tree...there is a bog below," he reported. "The bog rises...I am scared...then I
look at my hands and they turn into bird wings. I fly into the air and land atop a tree. I see
the bog and it subsides into place. I awake with a start.'
Cross-cultural studies indicate that about 9/10ths of native peoples profess a belief in the
out-of-body experience even today. In the past, the ancient Egyptians believed in a "ba"
or soul. A painting from about 1250 B. C. shows the unmoving physical body lying
prone, while the ba is represented as a second body, with wings spread, hovering above
it. Only the face of the ba is human; the rest of the body is a bird. Awareness of two
bodies is very characteristic of the OBE.
The Egyptians also did just the opposite. They created many images of bodies that had
bird heads, while the rest of the body remained human. These figures may have actually
depicted priests who donned bird masks as part of a religious ritual.
On the wall of one deep cavern from the Upper Paleolithic Age (at least 15,000 B. C.),
bird and human are combined this way. In the Lasceaux cave is a painting of a man that
specifically portrays the idea of flight in an altered state of consciousness. He is lying
down, with an erection, indicating that he is either in trance or is sleeping, and he has a
bird's head. In that prone position, he pictures himself bird-like. Because he lies near a
wounded bison, there has been speculation that he is a shaman of the hunt, viewing the
bison like a bird would, aloft, from an out-of-body perspective.
The doubling of bodies is depicted, too. There is no second human body in the Lasceaux
cave painting, but there is a second bird. Next to the man with the bird's head is a staff
with another bird atop it. Why wouldn't there two human bodies, like in the common
image of the OBE? Simple. If the man was a shaman, he had only one human body - the
sleeping one. His other body was a winged creature. Shamans are "shape shifters,"
turning into a bat, bird or insect in order to fly.
A medicine man in Central Australia had a "shape shifting" experience that shifted right
back again. He dreamt that he went out-of-body. His soul was at first transformed into the
shape of a feather and the wind blew it to the west. It "rolled over, disappeared in the
sand and went right in under the ground." When he came out of the ground, he looked
like himself, in waking life. The medicine man flew up to the Milky Way, to a black hill
called Talarara, "where the souls always fly to when they go up to the sky." He flew from
one point of the Milky Way to the other before coming back into his body at daylight.
Actually, an out-of-body human can be represented as a bird, period. It's pretty difficult
to tell if that bird is symbolizing a human aloft and not the physical animal, unless,
perhaps, human and bird are depicted together in the same two-dimensional painting. For
three-dimensional creations, the two images are usually merged. From archeological digs
around the world, there are iconographic representations of humanoid figures with wings,
bird heads, bird bodies, bird feet or some other combination. Such images have been
sculpted in stone, etched on rock cliffs and baked in clay. It's usually assumed that these
were gods, goddesses, angels, demons or other denizens of the inner realms. However,
there's reason to believe that some of the depictions were of actual humans, with bird
parts symbolizing their out-of-body flight.
Excursion of the Spirit
"If the sleeper sees things which meet his desires, that is because the soul, knowing all
forms, can, when it is purified in sleep from the defilements of the body, float at ease
over everything that it desires to possess, although it well knows that in the waking state
it could not enjoy such a privilege." So wrote Mas'udi Ali ibn Husayn of Bagdad (946-
974 A. D.). "It is thus that a man sees himself flying in the air, although in reality he does
not possess the ability to fly. He really only sees the form of flight, without bodily
participation, as he knows it is not executed before his eyes, but his thought, concentrated
on this operation, acquires enough force to make it really sensible to him."
Besides Mas'udi and the Egyptians, many people have described an OBE as an excursion
of the soul or spirit. The idea is that whatever transpires in dreams and nightmares is the
soul's actual experience and it is an idea found worldwide. This belief in a soul is
supported by very realistic nighttime events. While the physical body remains
motionless, the dreaming spirit-body is nonetheless capable of movement.
Tribal people as far flung as the Azande of Africa, Cuna of South America, Rigo of New
Guinea, Lepcha and Burmese of Asia, the Huron, Seneca and Iroquois of North America
and the Pokomam of Guatemala believe that the dreamer's soul leaves the body at night.
It roams in different places, near or far, familiar or unfamiliar, as if it can glide on the
wind. About half of native peoples who were surveyed believe that only special people,
like a shaman or medicine man, can have an out-of-body experience. The other half
believe an OBE is a possibility for nearly everyone at some time or another. I vote for the
Where do out-of-body travelers go? Their dreaming bodies visit places near and far,
realistic and fantastic, colorful summerlands and bleak grey netherworlds. For the ancient
Assyrians, the dead were like birds, covered with feathers. Although the bodies of the
deceased may lie as if they are sleeping, yet in sleep dreamers can interact with these
individuals as if they were still alive. When the deceased are encountered on the journey,
the experience may well engender a belief in an afterlife.
In the Kiwai tribe of New Guinea, the land of the hereafter is considered to be an
underworld. One tribesman, sick unto death, was told by his people, "You died
yesterday." He had dreamt that while visiting the netherland, he was kicked from behind.
He flew up and landed where he was lying in the physical world and thus returned to life.
Some sleepers travel in an alternate reality, such as to the realm of the gods or ancestors
or the after-death state. Others travel within what seems to be the physical world. One
Kwakiutl dreamer from the Pacific Northwest stated, "In my dream I flew upwards. It
was as though I was going to the place where the stars were showing in the daytime. I
saw all around our world. Then I wished in vain to go down again. I was not able to do
so. I was very afraid. Then I awoke."
The Rarçmuri (or Tarahumara) Indians of the Sierra Madre mountains in northern
Mexico seem to fly much closer to the ground. They consider dreams to be the activities
of a person's principal soul during sleep. When they are unencumbered by the bodies in
which they live, these souls can travel very fast and even fly. The small whirlwinds that
speed across the desert countryside are said to be souls in transit.
Some cultures draw no sharp distinction between the world of dreams and the world of
waking life. After an African chief dreamt that he had visited England and Portugal, he
awoke, dressed in Western clothes and described his trip to his people. They greeted him
and congratulated him on his safe journey.
No matter what the form the dreaming body takes, whether it be human, bird, feather or
whirlwind, it is capable of flight. If it's depicted for the rest of the world to see, would the
artwork look like a person, an animal, a bird-part or even a simple spiral? Any of these
are possible, and more. When we look at pictographs on stone, images on pottery or
drawings on cave walls, we are tempted to popular conclusions. But perhaps, with first-
hand experience of dreaming flight, we might interpret such images through new eyes, as
evidence of humans describing their out-of-body adventures.
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