By Jesper Toad
Nigel Jackson’s book Masks of Misrule contains a piece entitled the Ceremony of the Red Bones (1996, pp. 93-106).. It is prefaced by material revolving around the ordeal of initiation. The experience of initiation invokes a shift in relationships and the individual’s way of being in the world, regardless of whether this experience is earned through the process of study and achievement and enacted in ritual, or occurs spontaneously through dreams or other liminal experiences (Eliade, p. 33 1964). The follow account documents a transformational dream experienced by the author:
I am a soldier on patrol on the edge of the village, in that place where the cultivated fields give way to the wild. A shallow ditch separates new wheat from a wall of trees. A small grave yard is placed here, by the green fields, at the edge of human habitation. I pace my patrol at dusk, and as I walk the perimeter I peer into the gloom beneath the eaves of the ancient forest. I can sense a threat, the eyes of the predator upon me, but I cannot tell from what direction the attack may come.
Suddenly, and before I can react, a great she-wolf, eyes blazing yellow, leaps from the underbrush. Her teeth catch me in the throat, and with a great heaving snap of her jaws and a gout of blood, my head is severed from my body. My body is merely meat, and the she-wolf settles into her meal.
But the head rolls across the ground, toward the grave yard, and the ground gives way to a great sloping decline descending into the underworld. As the head rolls it sheds it mortality: hair scatters in all directions, the eyes roll from their sockets, and skin and muscle peel away, all lost on the journey downward. The skull, now white and shining, rolls through the shadows until it comes to a flat place: here a circular labyrinth winds in great loops, the paths demarcated by a multitude of skulls, each gazing inwards toward the center. My skull rolls inward, upon the meandering paths, rolling, rolling inward, until it comes to rest in the heart of the labyrinth. I have come to the center, to the place where all the ancestors watch and witness.
The dream shifts. I am myself now, no longer a soldier, and I am wandering through the avenues of an old style carnival with tents and side show attractions. I stop at a puppet show, located to the left of me. Before the curtain appear three poorly crafted puppets, each a skull with a hinged jaw and comically overemphasized eyes and teeth. These three disembodied heads begin to sing a song about a soldier who met a grisly fate at the maw of a she-wolf. The curtain opens and other puppets take the stage and act out the story. After the curtain closes on the puppet narrative I resume my wandering through the carnival.
A short ways on and to my right fortune teller’s tent presents itself. In front of the tent is a small table, with a tall brass candle in a holder and an eyeless skull perched atop a book. As I begin to pass by the skull turns to me and begins to speak, relating the now familiar story of the soldier who lost his head to the she-wolf. At the end of the skull’s narrative I awake. The illuminated numbers on the clock read exactly 12:00.
Although I realized the importance of this dream, it wasn’t until later in my life that I could more completely acknowledge power and implications contained by the images. Working with the text of this dream, I realized that the liminal elements–the motifs of death, transformation, transition, and rebirth in the underworld—all suggest an initiatory significance.
According to Jung, when we fall into a dream the first element presented to our dream senses is a sense or idea of place. In this dream, the domestic, signified by the cultivated fields and the distant township, juxtaposes the wildness of the impenetrable dark and sinister forest, far from the safely locked doors and shuttered windows of the town. In the opinion of the author, initiation into the mysterium pulls us into the space between the domestic, cultivated, safe folds and fields, and the untamed, unpredictable, and perilous wilds. To be an initiate of the mysteries is to walk widdershins on the edge of things, eyes askew in both directions, within the perimeter of the shadows cast by the central fire burning in the heart of the community, but not so deep in the dark that our belonging to the community is obscured. This is, I think, the nature of the esoteric practitioner, to hover near the margin of social norms, tight against the invisible membrane that divides the cultivated from the wild, the concrete from the imaginal, the manifest from the un-manifest, the wake from dream, and that which is seen from that which is unseen.
The initial statement of place that begins a dream is coupled with in introduction of the dream figures, or dream protagonists. The apposition between the edicts and structures valued by society and the laws of the wild are further reflected in the dream figures of the soldier and the she-wolf. Not unlike an officer of the law, the soldier patrols the margins of the village, protecting and upholding the social and cultural structures that hold the community together. He holds back the seemingly unpredictable and savage wild, lest it ravages and destroys the elements that comprise the structured civilization contained within the safety perimeter. The soldier cannot breach the boundary without taking with him the elements that create the very domesticity and culture that he so zealously guards.
It is the she-wolf that unexpectedly breaches the barrier, initiating the exposition of the dream, tearing apart the static relationship between the wild and domestic, the beast and the soldier. She leaps and snuffs out the human life, bringing with her action the terror of the unknown, a red flush of murder, and the taste of fear. However, she is only following the demands of her own nature: she must feed, hunts for her pack or her offspring, or defends her own territory from the encroachment of a perceived enemy. Her wildness, her savagery, and the in-human laws she follows leads her to disregard the boundary that separates the domesticated from the feral. Depth psychologist James Hillman might suggest that this dream beast is a manifestation of a familiaris, a soul-brother or soul-doctor that has an understanding of the laws that govern the night, the pale, the wild, and the underworld (Hillman, 1979, p. 105). This spirit animal in this dream is the guardian of the wild, walking on the margin of the forest, just as the soldier is a guardian of his domestic world. She is the feral initiatrix, and the soldier the initiand. Her attack initiates a change in status of the soldier and serves as a transformational passage between the worlds of the wild and the town.
However, the attack upon the soldier is not the climax of this story. As initiatrix, the she-wolf opens wide the life to new possibilities and the culmination of this dream, the peripeteia, is the rolling descent into the labyrinth and the confrontation with the ancestors. This boundary crossing, and the power of the hot red fountain of sacrifice, activates the liminality of the space between. The ditch between the cultivated fields and the dangerous gloom beneath the trees gives way, and a portal to the underworld yawns wide, swallowing down the soldier’s noggin. As the head rolls down into the underworld it experiences a further dissolution: the fleshy bits wear away until all that is left is the immortal, enduring skull. The lasting image in this dream is of the soldier’s skull in the center of a great labyrinth of skulls, the focus of the empty gaze of many ancestors. The mythologems of death, dismemberment, the descent into the underworld, and communion with the spirits or souls of the mighty dead are all a part of the cannon of shamanistic initiatory experiences (Eliade, pp. 33-34, 1964). In such an initiation the individual has made the ultimate sacrifice of the self. This notion of the self, this persona or mask, tears asunder, exposing to the initiate the truth of who they are, and who they are not, beneath the narrative of personality they have woven for themselves. Once revealed in this manner to themselves, they must endure the scrutiny of those that have gone before. This is ecstasy in a very literal sense of the word—to exist or be removed outside of oneself—is a transcendent experience that fulfills one of the ultimate aspirations of our magical and esoteric practices.
This shift into a second locale is significant. The labyrinth occurring in this dream is a circular unicursal figure based on a seed pattern that consists of a central equal-armed cross-shaped component with four seed points: seven circuits or pathways are formed by connecting the terminal ends of the cross and the points, creating a mandala-like figure with a hidden fourfold demarcation. The labyrinth’s path leads both to and from the center where the soldier’s skull sits enthroned. These meanderings of path can be viewed as a metaphor for the digestive process, like the coiling serpentine path of the intestines.
The soldier’s circumambulations of the labyrinth lead him closer to the goal of psychic development of the self (Jung, 1961, p. 96). The soldier in the dream narrative has died, the she-wolf has devoured the meaty physical part of his being, his identity has been obliterated with his face, and he finds himself interred in the spiraling bowels of the underworld; these are the transformational elements of an initiation—the destruction of the old body and way of being and the resurrection of the individual within a new, previously unrealized center of power (Moore, 1990, p. 6). The latter part of the soldier’s journey, within the curves of the labyrinth, is witnessed by the empty gaze of the ancestors. Eventually he take his place among them, in the center of the circle.
The final stage of the dream narrative, the lysis, concerns itself with the resolution or result of the dream story (Jung, 1960/1974, P. 81). The third shift of location occurs, and the dream self is strolling along the un-natural sights and sounds of a carnival. The atmosphere of this location is full of the strange and bizarre; a liminal, between-place civilized people sometimes dare to stray into in an effort to catch sight of the macabre, titillating, and frightening. English gains the word carnival from a circuitous route from the Latin caro, or flesh, and is related to the word incarnate—and, appropriate to this dream narrative, disincarnate. Carnival once was a time that the community came together to eat quantities of meat. During Christian times this occurred as a preparation of fasting before Lent; in pre-Christian times carnival may have been celebrated with a sacrifice, and a sharing of meat with the divine (Walter, 2014, p. 26). Within this liminal place related to the eating of flesh, the main narrative arc of the dream is twice repeated, as if to emphasize the importance of the dream, each time with fewer images involved. The initial dream presents itself with a cinematic quality, like most visual dreams. The first of the subsequent retellings uses visual puppets and a chorus of macabre puppet skulls, and is told to amuse an audience of children. This retelling is amusing, theatrical, and the blood and gore of the wolf attack is artistically buffered and minimalized. The second retelling is completely oral, relying only on words to convey the narrative, and all the while the animated skull relating the story is supported by a book, a thing of paper and words that long outlives the author. There seems to be a process here relating to the action of the dream, and how the story will be remembered in the context of time as the narrative of transformation to be related at the time of carnival.
Storytelling, in either waking or dreaming life, reflects the soul’s deepening of experience and revealing of unconscious elements to the conscious mind, all in the service of creating an increasingly structured and consolidated identity (Moore, 1990, p. 5). Part of my process of working with the material and text of a dream is to write it into a specific poetic form. I find the restrictive meter and rhyme required for some styles of poetry often condenses the dream to its figurative and argumentative core and clarifies the central archetypes, constructs, and constellations of the dream narrative. The narrative style of this dream text appeared most suited to a ballad form, including alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and trimeter, and an alternating A-B-A-B rhyme scheme. The last stanza of the ballad the soldier’s skull imparts a vital message, encouraging us to engage the world not as a collection of end products, but by experiencing, submitting, and being aware of the transformative journeys of the soul.
The Soldier’s Tale
The soldier with his sword unsheathed
Upon the field of green,
His death he knew would be ungrieved,
That much had been foreseen.
But plowed he forward through the field,
‘Tween bone yard and the chase,
Not knowing that the trees concealed
A beast both vile and base.
Ancient and grizzled, rolling eyes,
Great chops of yellow’d gnash,
No sooner soldier did it spy
From the shadows did it lash.
It lept at him from out the dark,
The howling hulk a blur.
Dire fanged death it struck its mark,
In throat its teeth interred.
The soldier’s cry a crimson flood,
His beating heart it ceased;
The horrid beast engorged by blood
Plied red jaws to the feast.
It gobbled flesh and snap’d the bones—
Consuming all it could—
It left the head to roll alone
And slunk into the wood.
His grinning face it peeled away,
All aptitude had fled.
Toward the near necropolis
The soldier’s noggin sped.
With each turn the flesh unknotted:
A corps perdu! Atone!
Eyes, brains, lips, and tongue outwitted,
‘Til all that’s left was bone.
He rolled into the charnel home
Between the mourning stones,
A whitened skull with polished dome
Bereft of cries or moans.
Into the catacombs he fell:
His ancestors await,
That he might find a place to dwell
In honor of his fate.
The labyrinth, it welcomed him:
Of kindred skulls built round,
In seven circuits twisting grim,
Within the core path wound.
He took his place within their rank,
The center occupied,
His truth amid the dim and damn’d
Enshrined and beautified.
O traveler, the secret seek,
The mizmaze walk and hear
The dogged lipless soldier speak:
“Engage your path and never fear!”
The experience of initiation invokes a shift in the relationship with the world. In this dream the soldier has thrown off life, been thrown out of time and space, and rolls into a moment of eternity. Like the Buddha, he has transcended life. However, in the lysis of the dream, his lives on in the world in the story told at carnival. As Campbell remarks in the Power of Myth, the Bodhisattva, an individual whose being is illumination, and maintains an awareness of his or her relationship with eternity, does not withdraw from the world, regardless of the horrors that it might hold, but instead regards the horrors as a manifestation of the spirit of the world, the animus mundi (Campbell, Moyers, & Flowers, Ep. 2, 1988). Engaged in the game of life, these theophanies are experienced as aesthetic, beautiful, wondrous things, regardless of all life being filled with hate, sorrow, and greed.
Campbell, J, Moyers, & B. Flowers, B. S (Ed). (1988). Joseph Campbell and the power of myth: Ep.2 The Message of the myth. Initial broadcast June 21, 1988 on PBS.
Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: Archaic techniques of ecstasy (W, R. Trask, Trans.). Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Hillman, JH. (1979). The dream and the underworld. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Jackson, N. (1996). Masks of misrule. Freshfield, UK: Capall Bann Publishing.
Jung, C. G. (1961). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York, NY: Random House.
Moore, R., Gilette, D. (1990). King, warrior, magician, lover: Rediscovering the archetypes of the mature masculine. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins.
Walter, P. (2014). Christian mythology: Revelations of pagan origins (J. E. Graham, Trans.). Rochester, VT.: Inner Traditions. Original material published 2004.