Jungian psychotherapist Barbara Platek explores the ways the appearance of animals in the dreams of women evokes the power and potency of the deep feminine and its connection to body and instinct. This article was originally published in Psychological Perspectives in 2008.
Instinct As Guide: Animals in Women's Dreams
by Barbara Platek
And so it is Goldilocks who goes to the home of the three bears, Little Red Riding Hood who converses with the wolf, Dorothy who befriends a lion, Snow White who talks to the birds, Cinderella with mice as her allies, the Mermaid who is half fish. (And when we hear in the Navaho chant of the mountain that a grown man sits and smokes with bears and follows directions given to him by squirrels, we are surprised. We had thought only little girls spoke with animals.)
--Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature
Not long ago I found myself growing increasingly alert to the presence of animals in women's dreams (my own included). I began to notice, for example, that my clients (predominantly female) would often bring an animal dream to session within a short while after beginning therapy. Perhaps there was something in our initial interactions that gave rise to these dreams, I am not sure. I do know, however, that there was often a palpable hush that fell over my therapy office as we strained to catch site of whatever creature--bear, cat, horse--was slipping silently through psyche's terrain.
I decided to follow my attraction to dream animals by collecting dreams of women that featured animals in some way. I placed no restriction upon the dreams--though I did ask for those that especially moved, awed, touched, or inspired. In each case, I found the dreams, and ensuing conversations, profoundly stirring on a number of levels. I was reminded again and again that the appearance of animals in dreams carries power and numinosity. Perhaps most striking to me was the fact that each of us often reacted to the dream conversation as though we had encountered a real presence--a living animal--with its own guiding intelligence and energy.
I believe that there is something about encountering our own nature in dreams--as imaged through animal form--that can stop us in our tracks, causing our senses to become alive and alert, much like real-life encounters in the outdoors. I agree with James Hillman that "animals wake up the imagination. You see a deer on the side of the road, or geese flying in formation, and you become hyper alert. I've found that animal dreams can do that, too. They really wake people up. Animal dreams provoke their feelings, get them thinking, interested and curious."
Several years ago, while sitting at the water's edge in Mendocino, California, my daughter and I were startled by the sudden appearance of an otter popping its sleek, furry head up from the waves not 10 feet from where we sat. The feeling was much like that described by Hillman: a sense of encounter, of visitation, which for a moment brings awareness of continuity and connection with that mysterious realm we call nature. In that split second encounter, a corresponding note was sounded within my soul: I felt myself to be immediately and unquestionably alive. I believe that much the same experience occurs when we meet animals in our dreams.
Animal dreams can refund our sense of participation in embodied life. They can show us where we have gone astray--as when we seem to fall into disharmony with a particular animal. They can also remind us of instincts and powers we already possess or could bring into being if only we would trust our animal-like nature. Animal dreams seem to communicate something from the ancient vestiges of our functioning on earth--all the head knowledge in the world can't match the sheer vibrancy and power of our own animal. Or, as Jung once said: "The instincts are a far better protection than all the intellectual wisdom in the world."
In speaking with women about their animal dreams, I found, almost without exception, that they took these dreams extremely seriously. It was as if some part of them knew, without necessarily having ever read Jung or a dream book, that contact with their own animal life mattered--that paying attention to the animal, in whatever manner they could (in imagination, art work, body movement, journal exploration) was vital to their health and well-being. Like the shaman or those on a native vision quest, these women for whom turtle or horse or duck came to visit seemed to sense the importance and honor of the encounter.
One of the great fortunes in my life has been the ability to live in the woods. My house, tucked in a pine forest and overlooking a pond, has large glass windows through which I often catch site of deer, chipmunk, squirrel, and woodchuck. Their activity mirrors my own: As I cook dinner, I can see deer sipping water at the pond's edge; as I clean my living room, I notice squirrels collecting nuts for the coming winter; and perhaps most magical of all, as I feel shifts of consciousness in myself, I sometimes catch a glimpse of blue heron alighting on the pond or small red fox skipping across the front yard.
That I am able to live so close to nature is especially poignant to me, as I have lived so much of my life feeling disconnected from my own rhythms and instincts. I am keenly aware that my desire to explore women's animal dreams is intimately linked to a desire to find some deeper connection to my own nature. It is as if, in experiencing animals in dreams, I am also glimpsing the possibility that the power of nature--that which our ancestors experienced under the open night sky--still exists both within and without my own life.
I am reminded that Jung built himself a tower, in part to be alone with nature--to gather wood for a fire on which to cook, to take long walks in the woods, to carve images in stone and play at the water's edge. These moments of dipping into the stream of natural life seem to help heal the effects of a fragmented, overly technology-driven life. They remind us that we are part of a far bigger reality than that shown on television or transmitted across the Internet.
Nonetheless, the impact of living in a culture that denigrates and ignores nature is tremendous--particularly for women. Because women's bodies are tied to natural rhythms--the mysteries of menstruation, conception, and birth are, after all, mysteries of body and blood--the demands of a heroic, patriarchal, superachieving society are especially wounding. In a world where the reality of nature is not honored, it is difficult for women to find ground upon which to embrace the rhythms and nuances of their own bodies.
I believe that it is at this point--when the split between women's own nature has grown so painful and dominant--that the appearance of animals in their dreams can be remarkably profound. Just as the sudden encounter with a helpful animal can serve to guide and reassure the heroine of fairy tales, so, too, the experience of an animal dream can remind the dreamer that something inside still has access to the deepest layers of instinctual wisdom. No matter how alienated they may feel at a conscious level, they carry within them the potential to access the power and healing of the archetypal feminine that remains alive within the unconscious.
There are many images through which the archetypal feminine can emerge in women's dreams. It may reveal itself as a priestess or female lover, as plants blooming or a strong tree bursting through the family home. Hurricanes may come, shattering the old assumptions of the father/husband world. Or the dreamer may receive a gift--perhaps a precious ruby ring presented by a wrinkled crone.
Whatever the particular image, when women are called into a relationship with the feminine ground of their being, they are simultaneously called into a deeper relationship with our own instincts and emotions. Dreams of animals can assist women in their process to retrieve that connection consciously. Animals are canny and alert; many can see in the dark. Perhaps most importantly, they are pure, in the sense that they are unable to be other than who they truly are. Unlike women, who may attempt to be "more like a man," animals cannot be anything other than themselves.
Just as animals seem to "sense" when something is amiss--dangerous weather on the horizon, dangerous humans in the vicinity--so, too, do dream animals have an unerring sense of danger when it comes to the choices we make in our own lives. A striking example of this occurred my practice, when a woman told me that she needed to cut back on our therapy time together in order to help out financially in her marriage. She came to the following session with a dream of a small woodland animal--a woodchuck, she thought--caught in a hunter's trap with a damaged leg. This woman "knew," even without working on the dream with me, that the decision to halt or limit her therapy time would be hugely injurious to her own nature.
I agreed with my client. My sense was that this dream came to warn her: to show her, through the image of a wounded animal, the potential for deep wounding to herself. It is not difficult to imagine the "hunter" in the dream, the one who sets traps, as some form of negative masculine energy who would impose his own aggressive, killer instincts upon the rhythms of nature. In my client, as in many women, this energy manifests in the set of "shoulds" that imposed upon her a sense of duty to the marriage rather than a fidelity to her own process. But what of the particular small animal caught in the trap, the woodchuck?
In his book Animal Speak, Ted Williams notes the following about the woodchuck: "The groundhog or woodchuck is a burrowing rodent, actually a member of the squirrel family. It has chisel-like teeth, and it lives at the edges and open areas of woods and forests. It is known for its digging and tunneling ability . . . . Groundhogs go into a true hibernation and spend about four to six months in that condition."
To be groundhog-like, then, might suggest a state of burrowing down into the psyche--tapping into the unconscious through dreams and imagination in order to more deeply hear into oneself. The act of digging beneath the surface is suggestive of the work of therapy. Similarly, the image of hibernation suggests, first, an ability to pull away from the demands of outer life and go inward, and second, the possibility of finding nourishment within oneself. We might view the woodchuck in the trap, then, as an imaged response to this women's stated intention to cut back on her therapy. That is to say, she is brought into an emotional recognition of the harm that would befall the more introverted part of herself, should she "give up" the time and space she had created to delve into her own psyche.
The need to descend into the deeper layers of one's being in order to find sustenance and direction echoes ancient feminine initiation rituals. From Inanna's descent to the underworld to the ancient ritual of the Thesmophoria or the initiation ceremonies at the Villa of Mysteries of Pompeii--all portray the archetypal need women feel to pull back into themselves periodically and plumb their own depths. Even as I write these words, I am aware of my own need to forego my addiction to having a clean house or serving breakfast to my family (who are perfectly capable of slicing their own bread and placing it in the toaster) in order to write this piece. Whereas our culture overemphasizes the feminine virtue of caretaking and being all things to everyone, female animals know when enough is enough and are quite capable of turning their backs when the time is right. So, too, the psyche seems to encourage women to claim the right to their own time and process--to nurture themselves on a soul level.
Another woman, also struggling with issues of time and energy for herself versus her relationship, work, and friendships, had the following dream:
I'm at a big party. The place is big and open and on two levels. There are lots of people milling around. I am walking down some steps to the lower level. I sense that [boyfriend] is in front of me in the distance. I become self-conscious that I am following him around. I don't want to be tagging along. Then I suddenly become conscious of the fact that I am not tagging along. In fact, we had started out together and I had gotten distracted and waylaid and now I am behind him trying to catch up. This knowledge hits me like a revelation. I know that he really wanted me alongside of him and that the feeling of tagging along is a distortion on my part. Then I see lobster parts--I associate them with eating lobster. It is a turtle--very small. I look at it. It is on its back and it looks right in my eyes with an open softness that takes me in. It looks directly at me and waves. I feel my heart melt. I am surprised and deeply saddened that I didn't realize that creatures had such consciousness and could connect with us so directly, eye to eye, heart to heart. I look at the face and realize that it is very ancient. Just as I am struck by this knowledge, I hear a voice clearly say: "Take nothing from this earth that you do not really need." I see the earth as from a distance. It is red and yellow--hot, dry, and somewhat depleted. I see and feel the significance of my current actions.
In speaking about the dream, the woman began to realize the significance of the shift in perception that it portrays: the realization that she has not been left behind by her partner (but rather had temporarily lost track of him in her distraction). In the process, she also got in touch with old feelings of abandonment that were easily transferred onto the current relationship. But what of the vision of the turtle and the parched earth that seem to emerge in response to her inward shift of awareness in the relationship?
We know that turtles have the ability to withdraw into their own "house," which they carry with them everywhere they go. They have an extremely slow metabolism and move quite slowly, as well. Psychologically, a turtle might symbolize the ability to withdraw into ourselves, to slow down, to feel our own interiority and sense of boundaries (within our own shell). Perhaps the appearance of the turtle in this woman's dream is an invitation to enter or reclaim an ancient part of herself--one that she recognizes in a heartfelt way--that would allow her to journey more deeply into the reality of her own being as separate from her relationships. This invitation seems to be underscored by a warning--to take nothing from the earth (the outer world) that she does not need, as there is danger of some huge depletion. The tendency toward extraversion (the party) and being too other-focused (concern about catching up to the partner) seems to want to be balanced by some deep withdrawal into a feminine, more protected part of herself.
Turning attention toward ourselves, nourishing and nurturing ourselves at a soul level, honoring and accepting the rhythms and needs of our own psyches and bodies--all these connect us, as women, to a more feminine ground within the psyche. Many fairytales and myths show images of the feminine need for waiting, gestating, brooding, reflecting, and so forth. So, too, animal dreams seem to guide women toward living more harmoniously within their own feminine bodies.
Another dream, very beautiful and clear, came from a woman in her 50s. The dream had occurred several years prior to her sharing it with me for my research. Despite the fact that it was no longer "fresh," however, the power and poignancy of this dream remained for her:
I am traveling on a long journey with a horse. The horse tells me that our journey will take years, and that we will travel over varied terrain, sometimes sleeping on rough ground, other times traveling in comfort. At the end of the journey, he/I will give a spiritual discourse. The horse tells me that he is physically sick and that the only danger to me in this journey is that he may die before it is completed. And, indeed, he is hospitalized but decides he really doesn't want to be in the hospital and therefore escapes so that we can continue the journey.
As it turned out, this dream correctly anticipated (by at least a year) a subsequent diagnosis that may, in fact, cut short this woman's time on earth. The fact that her own body/dream mind could "know" something about a medical condition of which she was unaware was very much a part of her experience with this dream. She was especially moved by the realization that her horse, her own nature, was quite wise and capable of relationship. As she described her habitual way of being, she acknowledged that she had long taken her body for granted, denying its existence and needs, focusing primarily on spiritual concerns and ideals. Coming into awareness of her horse as a living, caring being was part of an overall shift toward taking better care of herself physically--toward recognition of the value of her own embodied life.
According to Regina Abt, "carrying and drawing man, the horse works for man. In this function, it corresponds to the physical, instinctive energy, to sexuality, hence to the entire domain of Mother Nature's body and instinct." (Abt, Bosch, & MacKrella, 2000, pp. XX). It was precisely from this domain of "Mother Nature's body and instinct" that this woman had felt herself cut off. Following the dream, and the subsequent diagnosis, she was literally forced to bring more attention to this area of life. In the process, she began to slowly soften her attitude toward the rhythms and needs of her own female body. The experience of encountering her inner horse--and sensing its dedication, wisdom, and love--was profoundly moving for this woman and continues to inform her decisions and approach to life even today.
Perhaps one of the most striking discoveries for women who have placed great value on head knowledge at the expense of instinct and feeling, is that the body and its instincts actually carry wisdom and intuition. Far from being a dumb lump of matter that needs to be starved or exhausted in order to conform to some ideal standard, our bodies actually contain the life and intelligence we need to become more authentically in tune with our feminine natures. In learning to trust our own animal, we can feel ourselves guided into a more grounded relationship with our deeper selves.
In my own life I have struggled a great deal with being able to stay close to my impulses and intuitions--finding, instead, that I am often pulled into activities and experiences that meet the demands of either internal or external pressures. Identified for many years as a "father's daughter," it is difficult for me to put aside the demands of a driven, animus-oriented consciousness to listen to the small voice of my feelings and body. Not long ago, I had this dream:
I am in a class or lecture setting, when I notice two dogs leave the room via the back door. I am aware that they have left, but tell no one. Instead, I stay where I am, pretending not to "know" that they have gone. Later, I see an old friend. I expect her to criticize me for not alerting someone to the fact that the two dogs had wandered off somewhere in the building. Instead, she looks directly at me and asks "How do you really feel?"
Barbara Hannah suggests that dogs are domesticated and dependent upon us in every way. In other words, they live quite close to us and often have a strong eros attachment to and from us, as well. Says Hannah: "The dog instinct has an unerring flair . . . . We must trust it in the dark unconscious, for it sees far better than we do there and its interests are usually identical to our own" (p. X).
To my view, dogs are utterly faithful: They bond with us and will travel great distances to return to us if separated in some way. Psychologically, the image of the dog, with its unconditional love and fidelity, suggests precisely the sort of energy that is required to "sniff" out our direction in life, to live close to ourselves as who we truly are, to follow and love our own journey without regard for collective pressure and conformity. In my dream, then, the fact that the dogs slip out the door while I remain seated, unwilling to either follow or comment upon their disappearance, suggests a tendency in me to place more value on appearances (in this case, some classroom "knowledge" perhaps) than on following where my energy or attention really wants to go. This is underscored by the friend asking "How do you really feel?"
To remain without the dogs is essentially a betrayal of my own nature. The vitality or feeling has left a situation, but I am unwilling to follow, choosing instead to pretend as though everything is "fine." I believe that this is exactly the type of position that women find themselves in when they have grown separate from their own true natures. Their dogs have run off, but they continue to will themselves on, regardless.
At this point, the dream acts in much the same way as a dog might: It comes as an instinctive response to a situation that is out of balance. Our own nature rises up, sticks its nose in our face, and says "Look here, don't you see what's happening?" If things are really out of whack, the dream might portray our animal as attacking or harming us in some way (or being harmed). On the other hand, the dream might come with a powerful numinosity (as with the woman's horse dream) that acts like an invitation back to what is true and meaningful in the life.
The specificity and uniqueness of how each of us will reconnect to our own nature are as varied as animal imagery itself. Although I had space to write about only a small number of dreams, in actuality I received a great deal more--dreams of kittens, lions, snakes, birds, ancient unrecognized animals, domestic animals, wild animals, and imaginary animals. In every instance, the dreams and attendant conversations opened onto a landscape of surprise and wonder, as we found ourselves catching a glimpse of the mysterious currents of natural life running beneath daily experience.
The opportunity to sit with women and their animal dreams, as well as to work carefully with my own dreams of animals, has been deeply meaningful. Each time, I was reminded of the power and potency of the deep feminine and its connection to body and instinct. Each time, I was brought into a closer relation with my own sense of femaleness and its corresponding echo in the dreams and lives of the women who were gracious enough to entrust their stories to me. As Russack suggests, "The reality that comes from sharing the power of the animal and the dream world makes our life feel natural." I am enormously grateful for all the many moments of "feeling natural" that we were able to share.
Abt, R., Bosch, I., & MacKrell, V. (2000). Dream child: Creation and new life in the dreams of pregnant women. Einsiedeln, Switzerland: Daimon Verlag.
Griffin, S. (1978). Woman and nature: The roaring inside her. New York: Harper &Row.
Hannah, B. (1992). The cat, dog, horse lectures. Wilmette, IL: Chiron.
Hillman, J., & McLean, M. (1997). Dream animals. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Jung, C.G. (1976). The visions seminars. (2 vols.). Zurich: Spring.
Russack, N. (2002). Animal guides in life, myth, and dreams: An analyst's notebook. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Williams, T. (1993). Animal speak: The spiritual and magical powers of creatures great and small. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.