Mayan Dream Interpretation
Growing up, Mayan children are encouraged to remember dreams, and visitors among the Lancandon Maya have been surprised to be greeted in the morning with the question ‘what did you dream?’ The Maya believe dreams may contain important information for the dreamer, but they also understand, as have cultures throughout the world, that dreams must be interpreted to tap into their rich informational content.
Western scientific dream interpretation was defined by the work of Sigmund Freud, whose rules included interpretive devices such as reversal and metaphor. These devices of Freud’s are both found in the Jewish Tanakh/ Christian Old Testament. The dream of Pharaoh (Gen 41: 14-25) is an example of reversal, where a dream of an abundance of grain warns of drought and famine. The dreams of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2: 31-45 and 4: 19-37) are examples of metaphor, such as the towering tree cut down, symbolizing the fall of a king. The Maya use these same devices, although they may at times prefer the word ‘prophecy’ to ‘metaphor.’ Dreams also may represent actual objects and events, though at times in bizarre ways.
The Christian Bible contains many examples of dream messengers bringing warnings and advice to earth. Examples include Joseph advised to not divorce Mary (Mat 1:20-21), the Magi being warned to not return to Herod (Mat 2:12), Joseph before the flight to Egypt (Mat 2:13) and Pilate’s wife being warned about her husband’s fate (Mat 27:19). Mayan dreamers likewise experience visitations that they see as coming from outside their own subconscious minds. Lineage shrines and ‘dream houses’ are built in places to facilitate dream contact with an ancestor. A spirit companion, or Nahual, a spirit representing a day sign and attached to a person at birth, may also meet with the dreamer, or with the Nahuals of other people within the dimension of sleep.
Because geographic location, the day of the dream within the sacred Mayan calendar, and the day and year of the dreamer’s birth, all influence the Nahuals and the interpretation of a person’s dreams, the interpretation itself becomes an exercise in the cosmovision of space-time. Meanings are influenced by the space-time thread that moves through the tapestry, called ‘pop,’ or mat, of a person’s life. Gifted Mayans are identified and trained by their spiritual communities to learn and practice complicated systems of calendric divination and dream interpretation. These persons, once trained and initiated, are called ‘day keepers.’ A person’s birth date and year (Nahual sign), character, dreams, and even certain illnesses, can mark a person as chosen for this calling.
There is no sense among the Maya that dreams or prophecy represent a fate that is out of their hands. Humans are agents of change, and co-creators. The symbolism behind sacrifice and the practice of ‘feeding the gods’ represents a pragmatic view of shared responsibility between the human and the divine, and impacts several areas, such as stewardship for the environment. Barbara Tedlock, trained as a Quiché day keeper, tells the story of a man who dreamed of a frayed rope – a clear dream symbol for a snake in Mayan interpretation. When the next day passed and he saw no snake, he reasoned it slithered away because he was making too much noise (Tedlock, Ethos, Vol 9, No 4: Winter 1981 pp 313-330). I have seen a priest negotiating with a Nahual to reach a good agreement.
Most dreams among the Maya are understood to be just dreams, products of our minds that may be interpreted in the context other dream parts or a person’s situation, and may be useful in a therapeutic way. Other dreams, however, are special. They contain shared dream symbols, and represent a conversation contact with other people, both alive and dead, who, like the angels of the Bible, bring new knowledge to the dreamer. This is their belief, and it has helped keep the Maya a cohesive and living culture through centuries of genocidal warfare.