Tag Archives: James Hillman

Minoan Snake Goddess Image

“Snakes. Why does it have to be Snakes?”

The dreamworld without snakes would be something like a non-dairy milkshake. The prevalence of snakes in dreams – by far – exceeds the interest of the dreamer in reptiles. And maybe it is just the population I work with (mostly people in recovery from behavioral addictions). However, there are books, websites, and even fan clubs surrounding snakes in dreams. Kelley Bulkeley devoted a chapter to snake dreams in his book Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey,  where he notes that “analysis studies performed by Robert Van de Castle indicate that even in the dreams of modern Americans, who presumably have little direct contact with snakes, these animals appear with surprising frequency.”  The novelist D.H. Lawrence was more succinct, saying “a rustle in the grass can startle the toughest ‘modern’ to depths he has no control over.” (Apocalypse, 1932).

There is something universal about snakes that attracts some and repels others, but leaves few people indifferent. Indiana Jones knows which camp he favors. Not a fan. “Snakes,” he says, just before he is lowered into a chamber with a few thousand asps and cobras, “Why did it have to be snakes?” Something deep within us, despite our relative lack of contact with them, does not like snakes. They have “bad press,” especially in the Western world, perhaps, where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths can all trace original sin to the snake. Bruise the heel for generations forward, and all that stuff. Jung would probably say there is something deep in the collective unconscious of mankind that does not like a snake, just as Robert Frost tells us “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  Now there are exceptions to the rule; many that like snakes, often these people have a few snakes at home and multiple tattoos of them. And often those are people who have been through a good deal themselves, people who know the underworld journey, people who know what it is like to claw their way out of a tight spot.

Snakes and the Underworld: Hillman

The underworld journey, indeed. A client recently came to me with a dream in which snakes were coiled around each forearm, biting into her wrist. She went to her brother for help, and he became frustrated both with the snakes (and his inability to help) and the

A Minoan snake goddess figurine, circa 1600 BC
A Minoan snake goddess figurine, circa 1600 BC

client, whom he told to “stop fidgeting around.” I suppose he could have told that to Indiana Jones with no effect as well. What she and her brother shared in real life is the loss of a sister, who lives now in the underworld, daily pulling at each of them, a biting, painful reminder of the seriousness of life and the finality of death. In her dream, there was no conscious awareness of her sister, yet processing the dream reinforced the significance of the coming birthday of her sister and the coming anniversary of her death, both on her mind and that of the family this time of year. Last year, four women shared one evening in a small group about snake dreams they had had – recently. They shared their dreams in sequence – two were positive, two might be called negative or dreams where fear was present. Many dictionaries will tell you the meaning of snake, but James Hillman (Inner Views) will tell you, “the moment you’ve defined the snake, interpreted it, you’ve lost the snake, you’ve stopped it . . .  keep the snake there, the black snake…see, the black snake’s no longer necessary the moment it’s been interpreted, and you don’t need your dreams any more because they’ve been interpreted.” Hillman urges us to keep the snake alive by meeting the snake in its world – often the underworld, and not dragging it into the light where we lose its meaning. The task was not to find one meaning for Snake, but allowing each of these women to become snakekeeper, a snake goddess, or a snake charmer, as the case may be.

James Hillman (1926-2011)
James Hillman (1926-2011)

Hillman also said (June 2010 at a Library of Congress Symposium on the Red Book) that “Fantasy as imaginative activity is the direct expression of psychic life, and they are identical with Jung’s quote with the flow of Psychic energy.”  For fifty years of Freud in America, a snake dream led to the inevitable phallic image and repressed sexuality embodied in it. We have grown out of that form of reduction and back into the primacy of the image as teacher. Hillman urges us to let the snake be a snake, do not dare reduce it to a sex part, the source of evil in the Christian World, or even the image of healing that winds around the caduceus. Admire the Snake in snake, and let it as image retain its identity and control over the message it brings, whether that be venom or medicine. So ends a brief post, and mostly just an excuse to put up a picture of James Hillman and to reinforce his message. Good night, Dr. Hillman.


Dreams are Alive: The Dream is Always Now

It is not what is said about the dream after the dream, but the experience of the dream after the dream. A dream compared with a mystery suggests that the dream is effective as long as it remains alive.

– James Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld, p. 122

I am grateful to living people with vibrant souls who have occasionally sat with me and my dreams. These include Steve Aisenstat, who introduced me to the phrase “Dreams are alive” in 1998, Nancy Gallindo, who has organized several retreats in which I have been able to live with dream in a vibrant landscape, and Burger Vaughn, who taught me there is no such thing as a clock when sitting with someone else’s dream. And from Jim Hillman, in lecture, in print, and in the few candid informal conversations I was fortunate to have, I learned that the dream image is not something to be wrestled with in the dark to bring captive into daylight. One meets the dreams on the terms of the dream, or as Steve Aizenstat says, “we meet the dream in the way of Dream.”

In the earliest nightmare I recall:

I am in a cellar of an old, old building. The cold floor is made of concrete, and it is dark except for the small light, surrounding me, like a spotlight. It is like there is a circular balcony above me, I am in a dungeon, and there are a bunch of men in black robes above, each calling me guilty.

I could not have been more than about four years old, but I have always thought I was younger. Immediately I sought refuge in my parents bed, seized with terror. Notice how in the dream above, I am speaking in first person, present tense, as though the dream is happening now and unfolding before me in real time. Sometimes this is hard: dreams do not always seem to happen in sequence. Time is “unstuck,” like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. But in recalling, retelling, or writing a dream, my mentors have encouraged me to treat the dream like a living thing, not speaking of it as dead and past. Speak like it is alive and in the room, now.

Not until many years later reading Henry Charles Lea’s Inquisition of the Middle Ages did this scene seem powerfully centered in another time. Maybe I had recently seen an old movie about a dungeon. Was this nightmare a manifestation of Original Sin? Maybe I had upset a parent in toilet training, hence the feeling of guilt. Very hard to reconstruct now fifty years later what was going on in my very young life in terms of “day residue” or stressors. But the dream is clear and has a time and a life of his own, and serves something as a touchstone to key times in my life when the dream made its meaning more and more available to me. In the living image of the cellar in the living image of the council still sit I, or the living image of “I.” Not all dreams stay so fresh:


One clap of day and the dream
rushes back
where it came from. For a moment
the ground is still moist with it.
Then day settles. You step onto dry land.

Morning picks out the four
corners, coffeepot, shawl of dust
on a cupboard. Stunned
by brightness, that dream —
where did it go?

All day you grope in a web
of invisible stars. The day sky soaks them up
like dreams. If you could see
in the light, you’d see what fires
keep spinning, spinning their mesh of threads

around you. They’re closer
than you think, pulsing
into the blue. You press your forehead
to the cool glass.

They must be out there in all that dazzle.

Chana Bloch Ms. Dumpty

When I sit with a client, as I have for fifteen years now, exploring their dreams, I ask them to tell the dream “as though it is unfolding before you right now, in first person and in present tense.” I don’t always correct them when they lapse into third person (or occasionally second person, “you walk into a large room and you see purple curtains all around . . . .”) There are exceptions to this – sometimes a person does not have a dream ego present, watching the dream as though it is a play or a movie in front of them. Mostly, retaining the reference of the dreamer in first person keeps them rooted not just to the action of the dream, but their feelings and thoughts as well. Present tense, though, is the more important element. Working with a single dream over time allows a person to see how even a single image from the dream can, without changing, deepen its meaning for the life of the dreamer.


Clock and Writing PadWrite down the last dream you can remember. Don’t worry if you can’t remember a dream from last night or this week, write down any dream you can recall. It’s okay to practice getting it in the right order or to leave parts unstuck in time. When you are finished, proofread to make certain you have used first person and present tense. Read the dream aloud, and as you do so, notice any emotion that comes up that you did not recall when writing the dream out originally. Now that you have a revised dream in front of you, ask, “what did this dream (or image) mean to me when I had the dream? What does it mean to me now? In a later blog, we will talk about dream councils, and how a dream image may become an important voice in helping you make sense not just out of your dreams but out of your life.