“The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” – Joseph Campbell
The irrational narratives we call myths and dreams have fascinating parallels. Both are often characterized by awkward transitions, strange juxtapositions, and surreal and fantastic imagery. Delving into the world of myth or dreams requires suspending our rational judgment and having faith that there is something worthwhile to be gleaned.
In The Power of Myth, a series of filmed interviews for PBS that took place between 1985 and 1986, journalist Bill Moyers asked renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell how a myth is different from a dream. Campbell responded, “Oh, because a dream is a personal experience of that deep dark ground that is the support of our conscious lives, and a myth is the society’s dream. The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.”
After hearing Campbell’s quotation, I thought it might be interesting to use dream work techniques to explore myths. I took a practicum with Terry Ebinger, a dream specialist and depth psychological educator (and a friend). She introduced me and other participants to an exercise that seemed well suited for exploring a myth.
During the practicum, we paired up and took turns sharing a dream with our partners. Utilizing shamanic drumming, Terry helped us go into a trance state and then guided us to enter into our partner’s dream. The dream evolved in a way that was unique to our psyche, and gave us fresh perspective, which we could then share with our partner—the original dreamer.
After the practicum, I chose the myth of Medusa as someone else’s dream that I would enter, and the myth became meaningful to me in a surprising way.
The Myth of Medusa
Medusa, you might recall, is a Gorgon—one of three monstrous sisters with snakes for hair and the power to turn onlookers to stone. Unlike her sisters, Medusa—in some versions of the myth—starts out as a beautiful maiden, who is later cursed by Minerva. The other trait that sets her apart from her sisters is her mortality. This makes her the vulnerable target of the hero, Perseus, who hunts her down and decapitates her. One version relates that, at the moment of her death, the winged-horse Pegasus sprang from her neck.
To prepare for my dream journey, I familiarized myself with all the known references to Medusa that have appeared in surviving ancient literary texts and chose the variation with which I felt the most affinity. Ovid says that Medusa is violated by the God of the Sea in Minerva’s shrine. The goddess happens upon the scene, shields her virgin eyes, and then punishes Medusa for defiling her temple. She turns her “lovely hair to loathsome snakes.” Hesiod, centuries earlier, describes a very different scene where Poseidon (Neptune) “lay” with Medusa “in a soft meadow and among spring flowers.”
Because I love Ovid’s poetry and appreciate his exploration of how crises transform us, I decided to go with his version in which Medusa is raped.
I wrote out the myth as if it were Medusa’s—in the present tense, as a first person narrative. Once the narrative was clear in my mind, I put on a shamanic drumming recording and used a shamanic journeying technique to help me get into trance: I imagined swimming into the depths of a natural pool and tunneling through the sandy bottom until I emerged into the dreamscape.
Dreaming the Medusa Myth
I find myself in Minerva’s temple. The early morning light is soft and gray, and the marble around me is cool to touch. I welcome the solitude and silence. I’m apparently there to write because I have a notepad and pen. Then Neptune enters. I’m aware that the rape scene comes next, but the thought is so horrific that, much like a lucid dreamer, I speed up the narrative, allowing Minerva to enter quickly and deliver her curse.
I can feel the snakes, heavy on my head and writhing. With their shifting weight, it’s hard to balance. Tusks protrude from wounds in my face. As the dream morphs I’m aware that people turn to stone when they look at me because they are petrified by my hideousness. I try to find solace in the company of my Gorgon sisters, but they were born monsters and don’t empathize with my fate. I become isolated. Suddenly Perseus is chasing me—even he can’t stand to look directly at me and instead uses his shield to keep track of my cloudy reflection. I am aware that I’m pregnant with Neptune’s child, which makes it hard to run. Strangely, in the split second before I die from that swift, clean stroke to my neck, I’m aware that a winged horse springs from my blood. I feel light and free. Something beautiful in my spirit has been trapped, but now it it’s free to fly.
Interpreting the Dream
There is much I can say about this mythic dream, but it’s the ending that holds the most meaning for me. Until my experiment, I had never given much thought to Pegasus’ part in the myth. Like most who are familiar with the story, I had been most intrigued by Medusa’s beautiful locks being turned into snakes. I decided to use another dream work technique to explore the significance that the winged horse had for me.
For a suitable technique, I turned to an audio lecture, The Beginner’s Guide to Dream Interpretation, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. She suggests recording a dream, making a list of all of its nouns, and writing an association for each one. She then suggests reading the dream back, replacing the nouns with the associations. I selected the noun, “horse” from my Medusa dream, and re-wrote the end of the dream by replacing the word “horse” with my personal associations:
Strangely, in that split second before I die from that swift, clean stroke to my neck, I am aware of childhood memories springing from my blood: those summer mornings in Tahoe—the sun filtering through the amber canvas of the tent, the hot chocolate and old fashioned donuts before riding lessons, the smell of hay and pine needles. I feel light and free. Something beautiful in my spirit has been trapped, but now it’s free to fly.
Estés also encourages dreamers to ask of a dream, “Where is this happening in my life right now? Or, where ought this be happening in my life right now?” Dreaming the Medusa myth leaves me with the essential questions: What is it that I need to cut off, or eradicate, in order to free my spirit? I also consulted with Terry, who suggested that I consider ways my animal nature might take flight, if only I could get “out of my head.”
I invite you to give this experiment a try with a favorite myth or fairy tale. I’d love to hear about it.
The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyer, Chapter Two: The Journey Inward (transcript of the original filmed interview)
Theoi Greek Mythology, offers the best online, comprehensive reference guide to Greek and Roman mythology.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 4. 770 ff (trans. Melville).
Hesiod, Theogony 270 ff (trans. Evelyn-White).
Terry Ebinger, dream specialist and depth psychological educator. You can get on Terry’s email list by writing to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Beginner’s Guide to Dream Interpretation, audio lecture by Clarissa Pinkola Estés.