Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions: The Early Modern Atlantic World

Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions: The Early Modern Atlantic World

by Ann Marie Plane

In Europe and North and South America during the early modern period, people believed that their dreams might be, variously, messages from God, the machinations of demons, visits from the dead, or visions of the future. Interpreting their dreams in much the same ways as their ancient and medieval forebears had done—and often using the dream-guides their


In Europe and North and South America during the early modern period, people believed that their dreams might be, variously, messages from God, the machinations of demons, visits from the dead, or visions of the future. Interpreting their dreams in much the same ways as their ancient and medieval forebears had done—and often using the dream-guides their predecessors had written—dreamers rejoiced in heralds of good fortune and consulted physicians, clerics, or practitioners of magic when their visions waxed ominous. Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions traces the role of dreams and related visionary experiences in the cultures within the Atlantic world from the late thirteenth to early seventeenth centuries, examining an era of cultural encounters and transitions through this unique lens.

In the wake of Reformation-era battles over religious authority and colonial expansion into Asia, Africa, and the Americas, questions about truth and knowledge became particularly urgent and debate over the meaning and reliability of dreams became all the more relevant. Exploring both indigenous and European methods of understanding dream phenomena, this volume argues that visions were central to struggles over spiritual and political authority. Featuring eleven original essays, Dreams, Dreamers, and Visions explores the ways in which reports and interpretations of dreams played a significant role in reflecting cultural shifts and structuring historic change.

Contributors: Emma Anderson, Mary Baine Campbell, Luis Corteguera, Matthew Dennis, Carla Gerona, María V Jordán, Luís Filipe Silvério Lima, Phyllis Mack, Ann Marie Plane, Andrew Redden, Janine Rivière, Leslie Tuttle, Anthony F. C. Wallace.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Offering what is arguably the first comparative examination of dreams, prophecies, and visions in the early modern Atlantic world, this path-breaking volume is truly without peer. Starting with Anthony F. C. Wallace's excellent prologue, its individual essays explore the complex and often conflicting somatic cultures of both natives and Europeans with particular emphasis on the political and religious uses of dreams on both sides of the Atlantic, their place in the conquest and conversion of the New World, together with the role of dreams, nightmares included, in the construction of the early modern self. All told, this important collection is must reading not only for historians, but also pyschologists and pyschoanalysts, and for that matter anyone—and who isn't?—interested in the complex, often disturbing, but always fascinating and revealing character of dreams."—Richard L. Kagan, Johns Hopkins University

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Read an Excerpt

Foreword: Xanadu: Dreams of the Dark Side of Paradise
Anthony F. C. Wallace

Some years ago, when I was a freshman at Lebanon Valley College, I took the required introductory course in English literature. The professor, who happened to be my father, required the class to memorize what he called "neck verses," brief passages from important writers, that hopefully would help us to remember some of the common literary heritage, and also would serve as badges of identity, rather like military dog tags, identifying us as members of the educated (i.e., English-educated) community. Some lines from S. T. Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" have stayed with me:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome-decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.

Inspired by her "symphony and song," he would build that pleasure dome, but would terrify those who saw him, a demon with
flashing eyes, [and] floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

"Kubla Khan," one of the gems of English literature, belongs in a volume exploring the importance of dreaming in the early modern Atlantic world. The verses were composed in a dream. According to his own account, after taking an "anodyne" (he was addicted to laudanum), Coleridge awoke remembering a poem he had composed in his sleep. He began to write it down but was interrupted by a visitor, and by the time he returned to his desk, he had forgotten the rest of the two hundred or so remaining lines. The classic study of the sources of the language and images in Coleridge's poem is The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, by John Livingston Lowes, a collation of the writings, mostly travel literature, from memories of which Coleridge had selected the elements of composition. Lowes's 650-page mountain of literary criticism itself has been repeatedly reprinted, as recently as 2008.

As Lowes properly points out, the "magical synthesis" was "joiner's work." Coleridge's dream was evidently the product of work, the putting together of items from a jumble of disparate elements into a construction that satisfied him as a writer. Anecdotal accounts of intellectual and scientific discoveries made in dreams also point to the dream as real mental work trying to solve a problem preoccupying the dreamer. And the essays in this anthology reveal dreamwork as the source of religious and social innovation. I would speculate generally that the dream is mental work in which the brain sifts through mountains of mnemonic debris, searching for the solution to a pressing personal or professional problem that has proved to be insoluble by conscious effort. Some dreams remain garbage, but a few constructions have promise, and if they deal meaningfully with issues important to the dreamer and to a larger community, they are taken seriously (whether or not they are acceptable). Seen in this perspective, the dream is a random search for an alternative survival strategy when standard plans have failed and thus can be seen as an adaptive evolutionary device, biologically wired into the brain, like the capacity for mutation in the genome. But Lowes avoids giving psychoanalytic or other interpretations of the meaning and function of the dreams that he examines. We shall approach those issues later when we return to Coleridge and his world.

To give a personal example of a dream as an effort to solve real problems, I will cite the dream told me by a friend, an American Indian herbalist ("medicine man"), who was widely respected by both White and Indian clients. In his youth he had a dream in which a woman dressed in white stood before him, holding a basket, covered with a white cloth. She said the basket contained a plant that would provide a sure cure for tuberculosis. But she only showed him the roots; the leaves remained concealed. When he and I were out driving he would now and then say "stop!" and jump out of the car, to run into a field to uproot a plant. But it never was the right one.

The chapters in this volume reveal in fine historical detail the importance of dreams on both sides of the Atlantic, among both Europeans and Native Americans, and also explore the ways in which local culture and social and cultural differences affected the response to these dreams. It is a large task, made difficult by the scholar having to plunge into a turbulent semantic ocean. The word "dream" is difficult to confine to the nighttime sleeping experience; our writers include waking visionary states and religious experiences; and it is impossible to exclude daydreams and even literary fantasies whose content resembles, and overlaps with, dreams in sleep. And the word has come into secular usage to refer to conscious plans, ambitions, hopes, and utopian political principles, as in the phrase "The American Dream" (of material success), or in Martin Luther King's iconic words, "I have a dream . . ."

In most of the indigenous Native American societies considered here, as several of the authors emphasize, the traditional theory of the source of dreams is spiritual communication. The dreamer lives in a world that includes all the elements of Creation in a great Cycle of Being. Consciousness, memory, emotion, and spiritual power are not confined to humans but are shared by other animate and inanimate entities. These beings are not divinities but fellow creatures who can communicate with humans in various ways including dreams that foretell the future, diagnose and lend power to treat disease, locate lost objects, give advice on human relations and behavior, and establish ties between spiritual entities who may serve as guardian spirits, or medicines, or, if properly treated, as food; even the human soul itself can express its unconscious wishes in dreams. Some persons—and species—have a special gift for sending and receiving these spiritual communications.

In the European, Christian societies who made contact with the New World, dreaming was less a conversation between humans and a surrounding universe of sentient companions than the intrusion of information, guidance, and prophecy from a pantheon of supernatural beings. Only humans had souls. God and his saints and angels, on the one side, and the devil and his legions of demons on the other, sought to save these souls for heaven, or seduce them toward hell. Different nations and denominations saw each other as human agents of these two spiritual armies. Christianity sought to impose the immutable rule of God's law; Lucifer demanded allegiance to his own hellish order. Dreams were weapons on this cosmic battlefield.

The unpredictable, novel solutions to human problems provided by dreams on both sides of the Atlantic were, as our authors have painstakingly revealed, subject to different sorts of regulation. Perhaps regulation is too strong a word for the Native American approach. On some occasions dreams were ritualized, the dreamer given a program, as it were, of what to expect, as in the guardian spirit quest where the youthful aspirant fasted, in isolation, in uncomfortable places, in anticipation that his spiritual guide would recognize the sincerity of the youth and reveal himself. Among the Iroquois, obscure dream wishes were most spectacularly revealed in the Feast of Fools in the annual Midwinter Ceremony, to be diagnosed and satisfied. Medicine societies were founded by dreamers who were told the way to cure disease. And the authority of the dreams of prophets like Handsome Lake was widely recognized.

In Europe, on the other hand, dreams—especially prophetic dreams—were subject to the scrutiny of authorities both lay and ecclesiastical. The Inquisition subjected dreamers to interrogation and sometimes torture in order to ascertain the orthodoxy of the message and its source in heaven or hell. The records of the Inquisition provide valuable information on the commerce in hallucinogens, particularly the black market in ointments containing atropine, whose consumers were preprogrammed to experience aerial transport to ceremonies at witches' covens. Possession by evil spirits was (and still is) countered by the ritual of exorcism (unlike the acceptance of ritual possession in indigenous African religions). The induction of visions by the use of psychotropic drugs in our own day has given rise to—or rather, continued—the business in drugs of all kinds, from the amanita mushrooms of northern Eurasia, the hashish (cannabis) or marijuana of the Near East, the drinking of ether in English slums, on to derivatives of the coca leaf and poppy. It might be worth noting that Sigmund Freud began his exploration of the psychodynamics of dreaming while he was investigating the properties of cocaine. Alcohol might as well be included here; one recalls William Hogarth's "Gin Lane." It has been suggested that the original addiction of Native Americans to European whiskeys was prompted by alcohol's supposed potential for inducing dreamlike states of dissociation. Seizure of the New World may have been significantly aided by the sale of commercially produced alcoholic products to Native Americans who paid for these products by the sale of land and choosing sides in European wars. A similar charge has been laid against British imperial interest in opening the Chinese market to opium from India and forcing land and political concessions in the process.

The other tradition that our authors rightly emphasize, however, is the gradual development of schools of thought that recognized dreams not as communications or intrusions by outside spiritual entities but as products from within. Freud, who has inspired a vast—but diminishing—scholarly and popular following, falls outside the time period of this volume. But as the authors point out, recognition of dreams as voices from within was not uncommon before Freud. One of Coleridge's associates, Joseph Priestley, in 1802 published an article in an American medical journal arguing that dreams were indeed the residue of memories unconscious in the waking state, physically recorded in the brain, which he suggested forgot nothing. And the similar Iroquois concept of dreams as the wishes of the soul of the dreamer himself, anticipating the psychoanalytic interpretation of dreams, does belong to the Atlantic world, and descriptions were of course transmitted to Jesuit and other Catholic seminaries in Europe. The recognition of the process of self-revelation in drug-induced dreams—"in vino veritas"— is an old forerunner of the experimentation with the use of LSD and other now-proscribed drugs as a means of opening the gates to the inner world. When medical experimentation with such drugs was still legal in the 1950s, when I was employed as an anthropologist in the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute, LSD, mescaline, and atropine were being rather casually administered as research aids in the production of temporary model psychoses. A complementary anthology on the business of making and selling oneiric drugs might properly follow this excellent collection of essays on the social and cultural context of dreaming.

But let me return to Coleridge and "Kubla Khan." Coleridge and his friends provide a fascinating case study of the theme of this anthology, the role of dreams in the formation of the new Atlantic world. Coleridge belonged to a community of romantic poets in early nineteenth-century England who looked forward to an egalitarian and peaceful world guided by reason, science, and personal spiritual conscience, rather than by old establishments of political and religious orthodoxy. Their names are familiar: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, William Blake. Shelley's wife Mary Wollstonecraft, famous for her novel Frankenstein, was the daughter of the radical social reformer William Godwin and after Shelley's death a friend of utopian socialist Robert Owen. But the intellectual leader whom they all seem to have admired was Joseph Priestley, the celebrated dissenting clergyman and a founder of the Unitarian Church, experimental chemist who discovered oxygen and other gaseous components of air, and was a supporter of the American and French Revolutions. His admirers in America included Franklin's American Philosophical Society and members of the Society of Friends (Quakers), whose founder, George Fox, one may recall, had been inspired by a vision of blood running in the streets of "bloody Litchfield." Among Priestley's chemical discoveries was nitrous oxide (N2O), "laughing gas," which before being widely adopted as a dental anesthetic was used by many, including Coleridge and Southey, as a hallucinogen. Priestley's own comments on laughing gas and dreams were published in the first American medical journal, the New York Medical Repository. The power of nitrous oxide in inducing spiritual enlightenment was later celebrated by the American psychologist William James in fulsome language: "With me, as with every other person of whom I have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination."

But on a larger stage, the pantisocratic movement was enduring the failure of European society to live up to romantic expectations. In Xanadu, Coleridge heard "ancestral voices prophesying war." Dreams of a new heaven on earth, inspired by the progress of science, the philosophies of the Enlightenment, and the democratic revolutions in America and France, were followed by the Terror in France. Xanadu had beena dream of progress dying on the dark side of paradise.

In 1791, Priestley's sympathy for the revolution in France led to the burning of his house and laboratory in Birmingham and his flight to the United States, where his sons had already bought three hundred thousand acres of land in northern Pennsylvania. Rather than remain in Philadelphia, the political and intellectual center of the new nation, Priestley chose instead to move to a frontier settlement, Northumberland, on the north branch of the Susquehanna River, directly above the forks and across from the site of the former Indian town of Shamokin, which had been the gateway for theTuscaroras and other Indian refugees fleeing north from southern wars to shelter in Iroquois territory. After the Indian wars began, from 1763 through the American Revolution, Shamokin had been the site of Fort Augusta, a massive fortification whose walls and towers were perhaps a quarter of a mile square. There, across from Shamokin, Priestley built what has been called a "stately mansion" (still standing) that on its completion would be the nucleus of a utopian socialist community. Coleridge and Southey planned to follow Priestley with ten other couples to found a "pantisocratic" colony, but their plan fell apart, a victim of financial insufficiency and disagreements between Coleridge and Southey on philosophical and family tensions (they had married two sisters).

Whether or not a description of the plans for Priestley's mansion had reached Coleridge by 1794, when construction began, or later, the poem "Kubla Khan," written in 1797, would seem on its surface to be a dreamwork seeking to resolve issues relating to the pilgrimage to America to join Priestley. The imagery has an uncanny resemblance to Priestley's actual estate. The great Kubla Khan is of course the great Priestley, the sacred river Alph is the Susquehanna, the "pleasure dome" ("dome" in the archaic usage) is the mansion, the "walls and towers" suggest Fort Augusta, and the "twice five miles of fertile ground" is just about enough to suit a commune of pantisocrats. With respect to the river that plunges into "caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea," it is perhaps too much of a stretch of divination to point out that a few years later (well, actually as I recall in the 1950s) the north branch of the Susquehanna River broke through the river bed into the hundreds of miles of subterranean gangways, hundreds of feet deep, in the anthracite coal region west of Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. But on another level, the imagery of an ejaculating river and its waters descending through a dark romantic chasm would seem to be sexual and personal to Coleridge, and the fearsome drug fiend relates to Coleridge's use of opium. The structure of the poem displays together a scene of peaceful heaven followed by the dark side of war (Coleridge had fought briefly in the war against France in 1793), and he was haunted by a depressive conviction (perhaps exacerbated by a veteran's post-traumatic stress disorder) of humanity's incorrigible original sin. Amid the tumult of the sacred river's fall into the lifeless ocean, Kubla heard "ancestral voices prophesying war."

But there is another dream story that may provide a more nitty-gritty illustration of the mutual, but ambivalent, accommodation of transatlantic Indian and English dreamers. In the colonial era, an Iroquois "viceroy" was deputized by the Grand Council of the Confederacy to supervise Indian refugees seeking to settle along the north branch of the Susquehanna. He was an Oneida named Shikellamy. His white counterpart was the Pennsylvania "interpreter" Conrad Weiser. They became friends and a frontier legend links them in a story about their dreams. Its meaningfulness at the time, apocryphal or not, is attested by the fact that the same story links other notable pairs, including the Crown's Indian agent, Sir William Johnson. In any case, it was native etiquette not to ask a friend directly for a gift, but the wish could be expressed in a dream. "Conrad," said Shikellamy, "I dreamed that you gave me a new rifle." So the rifle was forthcoming. Later Weiser said, "Friend Shikellamy, I dreamed that you gave me an island in the Susquehanna River." (Possibly the large island between Priestley's future mansion and Shamokin.) And so Weiser acquired some Indian land. Then Shikellamy said, "Brother Conrad, let us never dream together again." A few years ago, the same story was told to me, adjusted to twenty-first-century circumstances, but with the same punch line.

Years later, one of Shikellamy's sons from Shamokin, Logan, launched a bitter frontier war in Ohio (Lord Dunmore's War), in which he sought to avenge his kin murdered by the infamous Paxton Boys and White thugs. Later hebecame famous as the author of "Logan's Lament," celebrated by another of Priestley's friends, Thomas Jefferson, as an example of Indian eloquence. He refused to sign the peace with the whites, but added sadly, "I had even thought [dreamed?] to have lived with you."

Today there is a bronze statue of Shikellamy standing on the land of Weiser's homestead in Berks County, a historic site maintained by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Shikellamy is carrying a peace pipe, not a gun. And there are no Indian reservations in Pennsylvania. But there is a little park at Shamokin, dedicated to the memory of Shikellamy, and across the river stands Priestley's mansion. A part of Xanadu remains.

Meet the Author

Ann Marie Plane is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. Leslie Tuttle is Associate Professor of History at the University of Kansas and the author of Conceiving the Old Regime: Pronatalism and the Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern France. Anthony F. C. Wallace is University Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several distinguished books and many articles. Known for his pioneering work in medical anthropology, particularly the history of revitalization movements, Wallace lives on the border of the Tuscarora Reservation in western New York, where he began his fieldwork over sixty years ago. He has made major contributions to several distinct subfields in history and anthropology, but in Native American studies he is perhaps best known for his work Death and Rebirth of the Seneca.

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