Die and Become! Till Thou Hast learned this, Thou are but a dull guest on this dark planet. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There was an antiquated belief that if you dreamed you died in your sleep then you would actually die in waking life.
Of course, this is an old wives’ tale but there is something unsettling about witnessing death in a dream.
And something wise.
Let’s face it, death is a taboo subject in our culture. And many of us are ill-prepared for that final journey into the unknown.
But engaging with the ‘symbolic deaths’ like our shadow or darker parts of ourselves that need to go can be a powerful experience.
When we face death in this way, a new part of us can be reborn.
Alchemy: Death symbols as shadow stuff
The Alchemists actually rejoiced when death showed up in dreams. The more repugnant the better. The Alchemists actually rejoiced when death showed up in dreams. The more repugnant the better. For them it was the prima materia or ‘first material’ before being separated into the four elements: earth, fire, air and water. Death is one of the most powerful tools for personal empowerment, transformation and healing. It was where the “gold” was located.
Dr. Carl Gustav Jung rediscovered that bridge between alchemy and psychology and thus voraciously collected alchemical works of antiquity, uncovering the treasures or “gold” buried underneath the complex symbolism.
Jung discovered the alchemical processes like mortifactio or putrifactio (death and decomposition) were prevalent in working with prima materia or shadow stuff. Dreaming of rotting corpses, decomposed material, worms, swamps (even decapitated heads!) were seen an indication that you were ready to work on part of the self that were rigid and needed transforming.
This symbology also included the dreaming of fecal matter.
What could be more poetic than a poop dream? That icky act we would rather not speak about was actually celebrated by the Alchemists. It represents what we need to let go of–what is repulsive and shameful— unconscious material that needs to be looked at and transformed. (see also Ryan’s article on urine dreams).
Excrement is fertilizer after all and what is more potent for growth than that!
Sometimes animals were the prima materia in dreams like the (gold!) dung beetle who feeds partly or exclusively on feces. As the holy scarab in Egyptian mythology of death and rebirth who is tied to Khepri (“he who has come into being”), the god of the rising sun, this is a poweful energy of transformation.
An example of a poop dream I received recently:
I am with two young girls and we are entering a building that is made for healing. We try to find a bathroom but it is not private. There are people here and the stalls have no doors or privacy. Then I find that the door to the bathroom leads to another door that is more private bathroom.
We can all go in together. The toilet is almost three feet above the ground and I climb on top and to my shame fill up the bowl with poop! What’s even more mortifying (Alchemy!) is that I cannot flush it down. The girls come over to investigate which makes me uncomfortable though they are not. They want to help.
I realize that I pushed the half flush button (which is black) like you find in Europe and I needed to push the full flush, white button. I push it and it works! The girls are happy and I am relieved…
Looking at this dream, I realize that an uncomfortable area in my life is asking for help or assistance. I often feel vulnerable and overly concerned for the other which often results in me not fully communicating my needs (half flush) and the need to fully commit and speak my truth (full flush). The young girls feel like the budding parts of myself (prima materia also includes dreams of children) that are becoming conscious of this material and are supporting me. In alchemy the black and white usually indicate an integration is taking place.
Kill or be killed
Sometimes it is too difficult to “own” our shadow stuff –both the flaws and the gold which might not necessarily be mutually exclusive. And that part needs to be “killed off.”
Robert L. Johnson writes so eloquently of this in his book Owning Your Own Shadow: “Curiously, people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides. To draw the skeletons out of the closet is relatively easy, but to own the gold in the shadow is terrifying. It is more disrupting to find that you have a profound nobility of character than to find out you are a bum. Of course you are both; but one does not discover these two elements at the same time.”
This projection of shadow stuff is powerfully illustrated in our dreams when we decide to commit, witness a murder or become the murder victim ourselves.
It is important to note who or what is doing the killing, paying close attention to characteristics. If it is a vampire, are you dealing with lifeless, bloodsucking energy in your life?
How about a family member or a childhood friend? Perhaps there are parts of life or patterns that need “killing off” in terms of character traits/people/situations/habits that no longer serve.
Once we face our fears and become conscious, we can “transform the energy.”
Perhaps the dream is something bigger than you: A spiritual calling into the larger Mysteries that may require a sacrifice.
Such “Big Dreams” include death and rebirth themes or visions like being swallowed by a sea monster, dismembered and put together again or struck by lightning, drowned or burned alive!
And still others, their rite of passage may have been an illness, accident or near death experience that evoked strange dreams, prophetic visions and spontaneous healing abilities.
Overall, initiation dreams can be scary for most people who fear making dramatic life changes that often may call for a sacrifice in the form of jobs, loved ones and belief systems or a complete change in way of life.
Preparing for Death
The most profound reason we might dream of death is to prepare for our own.
Tibetan Buddhists view death as a natural state and envision the afterlife just like a dream. This is clearly illustrated in the most famous text of Padma Sambhava in the 8th century A.D. The Tibetan Book of the Dead or the Bardo Thodol is an actual guide book to prepare the dying for the afterlife.
The Bardo Thodol teaches that once awareness is freed from the body, it creates its own reality as one would experience in a dream. This dream occurs in various phases (bardos) in ways both wonderful and terrifying.
So whether we like it or not, death is all around us and a fact of life. But hopefully when Death comes knocking in your dreams, perhaps you will be ready to answer the door and welcome her with open arms and a change of heart.
Remember our dreams will always guide us towards our fears so we may face them and grow from it.
Have you witnessed death in a dream?
In what form?
How did it affect your life?
Please share your experinces and thoughts with comments.