Animistic and shamanistic cultures from around the world place a high value on dreams, which many believe to contain messages from the otherworld and influence individual and tribal destiny. Carvings in caves at Creswell Crag in Derbyshire (11-13BC) and Cathole Cave on Gower (12,500BC), and antler headdresses from Star Carr in Yorkshire (8,700BC) suggest the ancient Britons possessed a shamanistic culture and would have valued their dreams.
The first written evidence for Celtic beliefs about dreams comes from Roman historians. In his De Anima (2BC), Tertullian says, ‘It is often alleged because of nighttime dreams that the dead truly appear, for the Nasamones receive special oracles by staying at the tombs of their parents… The Celts also for the same reason spend the night near the tombs of their famous men, as Nicander affirms.’ This shows there existed a tradition amongst the Celts of sleeping at the burial place of one’s ancestors to receive prophetic insights. This is echoed in Irish literature when Muirgen sits at Fergus’s gravestone and, in the space of ‘three days and nights’, Fergus recites to him ‘the whole Táin’.
Justin records the appearance of a goddess in the dream of the Gaulish King, Catamandus, before he launched an attack on Massalia in Greece, in his Phillipic Histories (2BC). ‘He was terrified in his sleep with the dream of a woman with a fiercesome expression. She told him that she was a goddess. He immediately sued for peace with the Massaliots. He then asked permission to enter the city in order to worship their gods. He went to the temple of Minerva, and there in the portico he saw the image of the goddess that he had seen in his sleep.’ It seems likely the ancient Britons experienced visions of their deities and ancestors in their dreams too.
Some of the most intriguing evidence for Romano-British beliefs about dreams comes from the Temple of Nodens (3-5AD) at Lydney, overlooking the Severn. The structure of the temple and its surrounding buildings have led scholars to suggest it was a centre for healing and dream incubation.
The temple consisted of a central cella with the north-western end divided into three chambers and an ambulatory with seven projecting chambers. It seems likely the chambers housed representations of Nodens. Within were mosaics decorated with dolphins and sea-serpents. Nodens is depicted on a mural crown driving a chariot pulled by sea-horses with wind-spirits and triton-like figures. Offerings of coins and bronze statuettes of hounds were found in the temple, some at the bottom of a funnel leading into a shallow pit. This iconography suggests Nodens was associated with weather, the sea and Annwn, ‘the deep’ (the Brythonic otherworld).
Other buildings include a guest house, baths and a dwelling on the west side divided into cells. Scholars believe the cells were used as a dormitory for dream incubation. Pilgrims arrived at the guest house, bathed, made offerings to Nodens in his temple then retreated to the dormitory and entered a healing sleep in which they received a vision from Nodens. An inscription mentioning ‘Victorinus inter(pret)e’, an ‘interpreter of dreams’, suggests the pilgrims’ dreams were interpreted by a priest.
The existence of the temple of Nodens as a centre for dream incubation shows the Romano-British people held a strong belief in the healing power of dreams. Nodens was venerated as a dream-god. His connections with Annwn and the sea mirror his presidence over the watery and transmutable depths of the dreamworld, which we still refer to by the nursery-rhyme name, ‘the Land of Nod’.
Connections between dreams and inspiration from the otherworld are evidenced in medieval Wales. In his Description of Wales (1194), Gerald of Wales speaks of Awenyddion ‘people inspired’ who ‘when consulted upon any doubtful event… roar out violently, are rendered beside themselves, and become, as it were, possessed by a spirit.’ Their answers are ‘nugatory’, ‘incoherent’ and ‘ornamented’ yet ‘the desired explanation’ is conveyed in ‘some turn of the word’. Afterward they are ‘roused from their ecstasy, as from a deep sleep’. Gerald says the Awenyddion ‘speak by the means of fanatic and ignorant spirits’ and their ‘gifts’ (ie. inspiration and prophecy) ‘are usually conferred in dreams’. ‘Awen’ means ‘divine inspiration’. ‘Awen I sing,’ says the legendary bard, Taliesin, ‘from the deep (Annwfn) I bring it.’
Two of the eleven stories in The Mabinogion (1350) are based on dreams. In The Dream of Emperor Maxen, the Roman emperor, Maxen, falls asleep whilst out hunting. In his dream, he journeys from Rome down a river valley, over a mountain-range, then aboard a ship across a channel to a castle where he sees a beautiful and lavishly-dressed maiden. Afterward, Maxen becomes love-sick and is advised to return to where he fell asleep and send his messengers along the route he dreamt. They find the maiden (‘Elen Luyddog from the Island of Britain’), then Maxen follows and marries her.
In Rhonabwy’s Dream, Rhonabwy falls asleep on an ox-hide for three nights and three days. He undertakes a dream-journey to Rhyd-y-groes on the Hafren, where Arthur’s army are preparing for the Battle of Badon against the backdrop of mythic figures decked in regalia passing with their armies. As Arthur and Owain play gwyddbwyll, messengers report a battle between Arthur’s men and Owain’s ‘ravens’ and Arthur ends it by crushing the chess pieces. Afterward, the Saxons call a truce and Arthur’s followers ride away to Cornwall.
Both stories feature dream-journeys across the physical landscape which may be rooted in shamanistic beliefs about the soul leaving the body and travelling the world whilst a person sleeps. In each story, dreams fulfil a prophetic function. Maxen is shown his wife-to-be and how to reach her by a dream. Rhonabwy’s dream mocks the trappings and in-fighting of Arthur’s court, illustrating the dangers of Llywelyn ap Iorweth’s ambition to become an Arthurian-style ruler during the reign of Madog ap Maredudd (1130-60).
Rhonabwy’s Dream, where Rhonabwy unwittingly chooses to sleep on an ox-hide because barn floor is riddled with fleas and soaked in cattle-piss, parodies the Irish rite of the tarbhfleis ‘bull feast’ wherein a bull was slaughtered then eaten by a seer who slept in its hide and dreamt of the identity of the next king of Tara.
Within Brythonic tradition we have a rich seam of material referring to dreams. Throughout hundreds of centuries, dreams have been highly valued as communications from the gods, spirits and ancestors, originating from Annwn, ‘the deep’ (later the Land of Nod).
It is notable that the dreams which have been recorded reflect the concerns of the aristocracy: the fate of kingdoms. Unfortunately we have no information about the dreams of ordinary people or about everyday dreams. However, we can surmise that, like us, our ancestors also dreamt about being late for their jobs, not being able to find a toilet, or getting halfway through a poetry recital and realising they had no trousers on…
It is surprising that from an animistic culture we don’t have any records of dreams featuring messages from nature. In my personal experience, it is more common to receive communications from animals, birds, trees, plants, insects etc. than directly from the gods (although some creatures may be acting as messengers on their behalf) and these are just as valuable.
Dreams can also be messages from the human body or psyche. Frustratingly we don’t know how dream interpretation worked at the Temple of Nodens, but I can’t help wondering whether it bore some resemblance to today’s practices of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.
The archaeological and textual information we possess provides clues about how we might build a practice of dreamwork focusing on Nodens as a dream-god presiding over the Land of Nod and an openness to messages from the natural world and from ourselves. Both polytheistic traditions and contemporary psychology can inform such practices. I combine prayers and offerings to Nodens with keeping a dream journal and researching the meaning of my dreams.
Improving dream recall means when dreams come through from the divine realm we have a better chance of remembering them. It is also important to act on and honour dreams: if a place seems significant find and visit it, if an image calls to be shared share it, research that strange word that didn’t make any sense. By affirming the significance of our dreams we show our commitment to building a relationship with Nodens and the potent depths of the dreamworld.
*Edited in response to comments 06/01/2017
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Caitlin Matthews and Jane Dagger, ‘Temple of Nodens Incubation’, Hallowquest
E. Etlinger, ‘Precognitive Dreams in Celtic Legend’, The Celtic Seer’s Source Book, (The Orion Publishing Group, 1999)
Gerald of Wales, The Journey through Wales / The Description of Wales, (Penguin Books, 1978)
Greg, ‘Dreams and Visions‘, The Way of the Awenydd
John T. Koch (ed), The Celtic Heroic Age, (Celtic Studies Publications, 2003)
Nimue Brown, Pagan Dreaming, (Moon Books, 2015)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Thomas Kinsella (transl.), The Tain, (Oxford University Press, 1969)
William F. Skene (transl), The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (Forgotten Books 2007)