Dreams and Visions of the Night

“Piers Plowman,” considered by many to be one of the greatest works of medieval English literature, tells the story of a series of dreams experienced by Piers (Peter) the Plowman. This image is the only known depiction of Piers and shows him dreaming; the manuscript comes from the late 1300s and belongs to Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Dreams and visions while sleeping have long fascinated us. Modern psychologists use dreams to help us unlock the mysteries of our inner emotional life: what frightens us, what do we yearn for, how do we see ourselves in relation to those around us, who is important to us and why. To ancient and medieval people, dreams were glimpses into the future and ways to travel far without leaving the comfort of our beds.

In Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, Marina Warner tells us that “Oneiromancy, or divination through dreams, was a practice throughout the ancient world and cultivated in Egypt: Joseph interprets dreams in both the Old Testament (Genesis 40-41) and the Koran (Sura 12).” Many features of dreams–suddenness and vividness, fragmentation, episodic structures, displacements in time and space, instability of bodies–are common throughout fairy tales and legends of all people.

In stories such as the Arabian Nights, fairy tales, or Piers Plowman, dreams can reveal something true that is happening now or is about to happen. Dream experiences can actually take place and dreamers can awake with a new ring or some token that convinces them that the dream experience actually happened.

The interaction and interrelationship of reality and dreams is explored in modern films as well as legends or tales. Marina Warner suggests that both The Matrix (1999) and Inception (2010) depict one dream world inside another “until the notion of verifiable reality disappears into an abyss of multiple reflections.”

We sing with children, “Row, row, row your boat… life is but a dream,” but dreams can illuminate aspects of our lives that would remain otherwise dark, unexplored, unacknowledged–and therefore all the more powerful over us. I know that if I focus on the emotional content of my dreams — rather than the surface elements that are not always recognizable — that I can appreciate and come to grips with something my sleeping mind is struggling to grapple with. By dreaming and by acknowledging our dreams we can be free of those dark forces and choose our own paths forward.

NOTE: I just had a great conversation about writing with Rachel Hardcastle on her podcast. See it here.

Windows of Christ Church Cathedral

A window of stained glass in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

Anothr stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)

The first version of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin was built of wood just after AD 1028 by the Viking king Sitric Silkenbeard–doesn’t that tell you a lot about him already? It sounds like he could have been Santa Claus! The stone church which is still standing was built by Strongbow and the English in AD 1170 as part of their attempt to invade and subjugate Ireland. The beautiful stained glass windows we see today were installed during the renovations of AD 1871-1878.

Traditionally, the stained glass windows of Gothic churches depict saints or biblical scenes that tell contrasting stories or somehow comment on each other. For instance, a scene of the Last Supper would often be depicted together with a scene of Moses feeding the people with bread from heaven in the desert or a scene of Eve coming from the side of Adam would be matched with a scene of the Church coming from the side of Christ on the cross. The windows in the nave of Christ Church depict fascinating pairs of saints that are not often paired together.

One window pairs King David playing his harp mourning the death of his friend (lover?) Jonathan with Jubal the great-grandson of Adam who was said to have invented musical instruments like the harp [top photo above]. Another window shows Noah blessing his son Shem after the Flood together with Melchizedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem blessing the patriarch Abraham [bottom photo above]. Another window in the cathedral pair depictions of Adam naming the animals with the murder of Abel, the first shepherd, by his brother Cain.

The unusual pairs of scenes in the windows of Christ Church Cathedral (Dublin) are a fascinating series of sermons in colored glass that illuminate often-ignored aspects of the lives of the characters depicted.

Noah Gets Drunk After the Flood

These mosaics in the narthex (vestibule) of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice illustrate part of the story of Noah.

Most people recognize Noah. He built the Ark to save the world from the flood, right? He collected all the animals, two-by-two, and loaded them onto the ark so that they could ride out the flood in safety and after the flood was over, he released them to repopulate the earth. What else is there to know?

Noah’s story continues after the end of the flood. When Noah and his family (wife, three sons, and their wives) came out of the ark, the earth was devestated. One of the first things they had to do was begin farming so that they could have something to eat. As part of the farming project, Noah dug a garden and planted grapes. When the grapes were ripe, he harvested them and made wine. When the wine was ready, Noah began to drink it. And drink it. And DRINK it! The first recorded instance of drunkeness! He got drunk and passed out naked in his tent. Naked.

His son Ham walked into the tent and saw his father naked. He went out and told his brothers Shem and Japheth what he had seen. Rather than leave their father laying naked, Shem and Japeth went into the tent, walking backwards and holding a cloak in front of their eyes so that they would not see their father naked. They covered Noah with the cloak and walked out again. When Noah woke up, he knew–apparently without anyone needing to tell him–what had happened. He was so furious at Ham’s behavior that he cursed Ham’s son Canaan.

Ham had seen his father naked. Not only did he do nothing to cover Noah but he went out and told other people and made fun of Noah for lying around drunk, passed out, and naked on the floor. Because Noah seemed to know what had happened, even without anyone telling him, early Jewish commentary thought that Ham had sexually abused his father in some way that left physical evidence behind and suggested that he had castrated his father. Since he had made it impossible for his father Noah to have any more children, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan with slavery to insure that Ham had no legal, property-owning descendants. (This idea was used to justify the Israelite occupation under the leadership of Joshua of the area known as Palestine or Canaan after the Exodus. Since Ham’s descendants were also thought to have populated Egypt and the rest of Africa, the curse of Noah was also used by preachers and politicians in the American South to justify the race-based slavery there.)

Early Christian preachers thought that Ham’s mockery of Noah was more important than “having seen his father naked.” Ham made fun of his father’s shame in public, prefiguring the ridicule Christ would face when dying on a cross. Since Christians respect Christ’s flesh like Shem and Japheth respected the flesh of their father, Ambrose of Milan argued, they too will be blessed. Reluctant to imagine that Noah, a savior like Christ, had been raped or castrated, Christian interpreters offered comparatively mild interpretations of this passage. Still, they were also convinced that Ham—and by extension his son Canaan—were wicked and deserved the harsh punishment they received.

For more about the ways the story of Noah and his sons, read here.

On the roof of the narthex (porch) of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice are a series of gorgeous Byzantine-style moasiacs illustrating stories from the Old Testament, beginning with the Creation and continuing with the Tower of Babel, the Flood, the lives of Abraham and Joseph, concluding with Moses leading the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land. The mosaics were made during the 1200s.