* * *
“From spark, from ember I raise up the Warm One
As the Lady in the House Below would raise him;
In the Gudeman’s name I raise him,
And this good home I give him.”
-The ule or Fire Charm from The Witch Dreams by Robin Artisson
“Master mischievous and misshapen,
Giving power to sorcerers in sacred dreams,
-From The Elphillock Charm
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Pre-Modern Witchcraft and the World of Sleep and Dreams
The most profound difference between modern witchcraft and the witchcraft of Early Modern Europe lies in the primary experiential stage that the witchcraft itself is encountered upon. For people practicing most of the forms of modern witchcraft, the primary encounter with “The Craft” lies within ceremony and ritual; “magical tools” with elemental associations are utilized within circles drawn and ‘quarters’ called, either indoors or out- and this is because most modern witchcraft is a recent decendant of European ceremonial magic, albeit a simplified form of ceremonial magic blended with heady doses of spiritualism, Neopagan Goddess worship or the worship of other divine figures from pre-Christian times, and a vaguely Eastern-flavored brew of “all is consciousness/energy” mentalism-monism and ideas of spiritual development through karma.
But the people living before the Industrial Revolution (and some living for a good while into it) who were mediators of the complex cultural phenomenon of historical witchcraft primarily encountered the agencies and powers that stood behind witchcraft in sleep, in vision, and dreams. This difference, and the many reasons why it is critically important, can never really be emphasized enough.
For many modern witches, regular Otherworldly contact and congress is sought or initiated “from their own side”- through their own visualizations of divine or otherworldly beings, wed to exercises of will and speech through invocations. The mainstream path to modern witchcraft itself is largely inaugurated through personal interest, the seeking of books, teachers, or working groups, and an eventual arrival at some form of initiation. One might even initiate oneself, declaring their belonging to modern Witchdom (again in a ritual or ceremonial context), and proceeding along from that point in a free-form, self-guided manner.
There can be no doubt that pre-modern practitioners of the countless forms of Early Modern Witchcraft also utilized invocations in the attempt to gain the attentions of familiars and helping spirits, or even other spirits perceived to be more powerful. The critical difference again brings us back to the world of sleep, dreams, and the visions that may occur within these compartments of experience: Pre-modern Witches often encountered the spiritual forces that endowed them with their future power in dreams or visionary states that came unbidden, unsought, or which arose during times of great peril or trauma.
Their ongoing experience of spirits or otherworldly beings likewise continued through special forms of dreaming and trances found in or between the various stages of sleep. Some of these dreams or visionary states could have been intentionally provoked through certain techniques or the use of certain substances; others may have been just as spontaneous or unchosen as their initial “witch dreams” were.
Pre-modern Witchcraft’s relationship to the reality of dreams, alongside the visionary conditions provoked by hypnagogic paralysis and lucid dreams, is finally emerging into the mainstream of scholarship, and it’s about time. Emma Wilby’s groundbreaking work The Visions of Isobel Gowdie offers a thorough analysis of the reality of Dream Cults, alongside very thoughtful arguments and pieces of evidence that the origin of many of the accounts given by witches of spectral travel to Sabbats and meetings with spirits (including the spirits of deceased humans) originated in their own dreams. Edward Bever’s seminal work The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe is likewise an encyclopedic walk through the consistently-emerging solid connection between accounts of Witchcraft and witch-experience and the shadowy-but-universal reality of sleep and dreams which we still have little understanding of in the year 2020.
Beyond these two sources mentioned, I have amassed a small library of writings on the connection between Early Modern Witchcraft and the phenomenon of sleep and dreams. My own personal practice of sorcery or witchcraft, and those of my closest allies, has come for years to focus upon the strange world of dreams and the occult techniques and pathways to unsealing its hidden potentials. We figured out long ago the critical distinction between the “two stages” of witchcraft-experience that I gave above.
My forthcoming work The Witch Dreams will be a practical manual I have prepared detailing how a pathway to understanding and attainment was (partly) accomplished through the ancient arts of dream incubation- particularly the incubation of Initiatory dreams. It will also reveal the extent to which certain dream-related states make other spectral feats both possible and effective in ways anyone alive in our modern world would consider rare, indeed. In my recent work An Carow Gwyn, I give a very detailed discussion on using dream-states for fundamental acts of sorcery and spirit-contact. My essay here today intends to ultimately detail a potent (and very accessible) practical technique that strange-souled people (or people of any interior proclivity who engage in some interanimistic lifeway of friendship with spirits) can use to increase Otherworldly connection, contact, and sensitivity.
Let me clear up some very important points, here at the beginning. The idea that Pre-Modern Witches or the widespread (and many-shaped) phenomenon of Witchcraft could have been primarily focused around dream-states, trance states, or extraordinary states of mind and soul that came about through sleep and dreams, is not the same as saying “witchcraft was all just a bunch of people dreaming stuff up.”
As I hope I will show (and as only extraordinary experiences can truly teach), dreams are not merely meaningless mind-noises that echo through a person’s head in the night. I have done a thorough analysis in multiple writings of my own of the association of dreams and the world of dreams with what Anthropologists call the separable soul or the “Free Soul”- the aspect of the human psyche and body complex that can activate and move through various relational conditions during sleep, during traumatic moments, or even near-death moments.
My extensive personal practice has revealed and manifested consistent experiences that can most simply be explained through reference to this model or this anthropology, experiences whose features line up with the reports of informants from primal cultures around the world, and with what can be surmised from Early Modern European and Early American folklore regarding the apparent presence or activity of the Free Soul. The idea that one of our souls activates and has encounters in dreams, and that dreams (and states related to sleep and dream) can be portals to extraordinary encounters with spirits or Otherworldly beings is easily one of the most universal and ancient beliefs known to humankind, and this is because it is backed by hundreds of thousands of years of direct experience across all cultures.
In dreams, and particularly the special dreams whose nature or character stand out or apart from ordinary dreams, we are face-to-face with an ancient phenomenological encounter that has served as the trans-cultural origin of organic human spirituality since the dawn of our human time. Sorcery, or Witchcraft (which in its pre-Modern forms originally referred to special abilities or insights gained by men or women who made extraordinary relationships with spirits or other-than-human powers) has spirit contact at the heart of its entire central endeavor.
And dreams can be a powerful and accessible method of spirit contact- of creating and maintaining relationships with spirits. In full truth, dreams always were so; in the accounts of every primal people contacted in the last handful of centuries, Anthropologists have consistently found their understanding of dreams to be intrinsically tied to their understandings of spirits and human contact with spirits.
Of course, creating and maintaining relationships with spirits isn’t something that only “witched” people did in ages before now. In the Pagan past, the cults of local spirits, the cults of Ancestors, and the cults of may other entities of that sort required communities of humans to create and maintain relationships with them- relationships that were demonstrated and maintained through certain customs and practices. The presence of these relationships had many different degrees of impact upon the ordinary and extraordinary mind-states of all the members of those communities. It formed a silent, wordless interanimistic background which made their belonging to a place or to their own communities a powerful and even sacred matter.
Spirit-contact is not just for witches or sorcerers; it is for all humans who hearken to the critical importance of interanimistic relationship with the powers of places in the modern day, and the importance of reverencing the great Indwelling powers of the majestic landscapes, skyscapes, waterways, and the Netherworldly landscapes that we all “dree our weird” upon: the places to which we belong, and within which we unravel and wear out our human Fates in life and death.
The perspective I always approach these matters from is simple: the witches of the Early Modern period (and doubtless the witches from every culture who existed in the centuries before them) sometimes experienced extraordinary dreams (or through dreams, extraordinary conditions of mind) that were points of contact between them and other-than-human tutelary entities that they had relationships of power-exchange or information-exchange with.
They sometimes incubated or induced these dreams or states; sometimes they came unbidden. Their initial encounters with the spirt-world through these dreams or states were often enough not provoked by any ordinary means, though some might have sought out power through sorcery or witchery, and been taught by others how to incubate dreams of an initiatory character.
I take the position that all dreams have the potential to be of an extraordinary type, and anyone who can dream can potentially incubate or provoke dreams that become points of contact between the human world and another world entirely: the extra-sensory world or continuum indwelled by what we can call “spirits”. This continuum of reality is part of our life-world. It is not wholly separate from anything; it is an integral part of the world of our ordinary sensory experience.
The spirits who dwell in this range of extraordinary encounter may seem “supernatural”, but they are every bit as natural (in a broader sense) as the other living beings we encounter in our ordinary daily lives. Their motivations and ways of interacting with the relational world that we all inhabit are unique to them, but spirits are not all the same; they have an infinite range of motivations and different powers of communication and interaction. The same could be said of the human and animal persons that wander through the more familiar world of our ordinary senses.
From Fantastic Flights to Fantastic Delusions
The idea that the reports of Early Modern witches- who claimed that they “flew forth” in the night and interacted with spirits (recall the oft-repeated report of “flying to the Sabbat”)- might have been based on things they experienced in dream-states is not a new idea. While it seems that witches, or those accused of witchcraft, were often enough literally believed by some local authorities when they said they “flew through the night” or traveled to far-away lands to join in demonic revels, throughout the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries the notion that witches were dreaming their experiences was suggested more and more frequently, and gradually became the chief “official” explanation for the phenomenon.
And it’s not hard to see why cultural authorities would finally conclude that witch-flights and other spectral encounters were occuring in the dreams of these men and women. In 1663, in the small town of Wildbad, Germany, an eight-year old boy named Hanss Ferner was arrested for witchcraft. Hanss confessed that he had flown to a place of music, dancing, and feasting where the Devil met him, and that he had given the Devil his allegiance. Hanss described the Devil as a black-skinned man with horns, and further reported that his own mother and grandmother (and lots of other people) were present at these celebrations.
Hanss’ Devil was apparently quite amiable; he carried Hanss on his shoulders and gave him large quantities of bread and meat- a feasting menu that Isobel Gowdie likewise reported when she was in the halls of the Elf Queen and King. Hanss called the Devil his “father”, and was in turn called “son” by the same.
This was of course enough to get anyone arrested in those days, and depending on where you were, could lead to being executed. Hanss was arrested and placed into a cell, but he swore that he was still traveling at night to the place where the Devil and other witches were- so the local authorities had Hanss watched in shifts, all around the clock. Hanss was watched while he slept, and his observers took notes of the struggles and sounds he made in his sleep. He woke after being watched all night, and reported his nocturnal journeys, the same as always.
The people watching Hanss sleep through the night knew he hadn’t left his cell. And the case of Hanss Ferner is certainly not the only case in which the authorities realized that witches- or people accused of witchcraft- were reporting physically being somewhere else when everyone knew (for certain) that they were not. This did lead, quite early on, to a lot of theological and legal debating and cultural soul-searching.
If these witches were not actually flying off to meet the Devil, or the Queen of the Fairies, or the dead, what was happening? Different explanations arose; in some places (and particularly early on) it was believed that the Devil or other spiritual agencies (none of them seen as “good” by Christian cultural authorities) were taking the souls of witches from their bodies for their nocturnal excursions. This explanation maintained the gravity of the crime of witchcraft, and still allowed for people to be executed at times for making such reports. Others suggested that witches were being given “hellish dreams” or visions by demonic forces, which could still be seen as dangerous or criminal enough.
Other explanations ranged, as you’d expect, from delusions to outright insanity. Over time, European authorities (starting on the Continent, and gradually moving outward) began to dismiss “spectral evidence” gained from confessions that were believed to be drawn from dream-experiences. In some places, such confessions were no longer believed or entered in as evidence of witchcraft or demonic doings. They became a matter of “deluded women” who “believed they flew at night with Diana or Holda”, or “madmen who say they dream of the Devil and flying through the air in their sleep.”
Ironically, it was these same skeptical authorities that not only (eventually) brought an end to many of the trials and executions of witches, but who laid the foundations for another kind of skepticism prominent today: the idea that psychic, visionary, or mystical phenomenon is all “in the heads” of people claiming to have such things. By being “merely” a product of the minds of men and women, the reality of these matters was condemned to insignificance or meaninglessness, at least with regards to community affairs, to legal issues, and other interpersonal dimensions of social life. It was shunted off to a place where it was no longer felt to be a danger or a threat, nor indeed to have any power at all.
It was no longer seen as possible that a man or woman could actually harm another person, merely because they dreamed that they had shot them with a magical arrow, or killed them in a dream-visionary state. It was no longer seen as credible that a person was actually in league with the Devil merely because they dreamed they had met the Devil.
We have all inherited this same skeptical worldview today, though we’ve gone even further than the Early Modern skeptics; in the halls of our own sciences and academic institutions, we’ve also banished devils, demons, ghosts, fairies, and witches altogether. Most Early Modern skeptics still believed in different aspects of the basic Christian theological worldview; they still believed in God, and that the Devil or demons were probably real. They simply doubted that peasant men or women from rural backwater villages could actually be meeting such beings in their dreams, or conducting direct pacts or working relationships with them. The modern world has dismissed even The Devil himself, replacing him with brain chemistry, schizophrenia, repressed urges and drives, and fear of the darkness in ourselves and in our culture.
The Devil, for us, is now relegated to the status of “psychological archetype”; he is a function of psychology, an image of the “shadow”, the embodiment of our condescendingly-labeled “animal nature”, the bearer of our violent proclivities, of our addictions, of our greed, or perhaps just a remnant of Early Modern superstition. In my mind, this is a dismal end for The Devil. It’s the end you’d expect for the transparently culturally-manufactured Theological Devil, for he was always a needful product of the over-rational Christian conquest of the worlds seen and unseen.
But the Folkloric Devil– the Devil or Master-spirit who emerges as a very fluid mask for earlier spirits and powerful entities venerated or known in pre-Christian cultures- he was tossed out with the bathwater, too. And since it was He who witches and sorcerers from so many times and places were often enough actually encountering, and since His existence is not a matter of institutionalized religious manufacture but an organic product of countless millenia of visionary experience, you can be sure that He’s still around. I know from my own personal experience that He is.
Some wonder if this entity- or the wide range of entities attached to him- can play any kind of positive, needful, or practical role in the interior or relational lives of modern people. This is a question that only modern people could ever ask, and it shows the extent of their disconnection from the earlier world of spiritual-ecological relationship. The question is never whether or not spirits can serve our collective human ends, or nurture our fragile modern human psychology in some “positive” way. If spirits exist- and they do exist- then they have a share of this world, and are kin (on some level) to all the other beings who come from this world.
We organically owe them recognition, a degree of general respect, and we’re very unwise to ignore them, or seek to domesticate them or “use” them just to further our human agendas. If they are there, then we must relate as well as we can with them. In exchange, some may help humans to learn more about what it means to belong to our world, or more about the Unseen reaches of our world. They may endow some humans with healing or harming powers, or special insights.
Spirits can do this; they are capable of interpsychic communication, and most are very aware of hidden dimensions and realities of this cosmos that even the most brilliant human minds cannot comprehend. And many can use our dream-states as experience-regions through which they can reach out to us and communicate with our souls via asserting various influences upon the shapes of our dreams.
This reality of spirit-relating is as old as mankind. And I think that should provoke a bit of “Sympathy for the (Folkloric) Devil”, and all that he represents. If we wish to use him as some kind of icon (never forgetting that He is also a Person, and the spirits clustered in his entourage and relational systems are also Persons), he is best understood as an icon of our shamanistic past, an icon of a time when humans, their dreams, and the spirits that fill our world existed in a cycle of conscious co-creation, co-singing, co-experiencing, and co-operating for various personal or collective ends, on both sides of the Hedge.
Towards the Death of Dreams
Our modern cultural “intellectual elites” (our academics and scientists) dismissing the Devil, right along with God, angels, demons, fairies, and spirits as a whole, did not empty out a world that was subsequently found to be lucid and explicable to them. They have not come near to understanding the reality of human consciousness, nor its many mysteries. Their (predictable) attempts at creating reductionist, materialistic models to explain the existence of consciousness have yielded nothing but unsubstantiated claims; some have given up and actually taken to insisting that consciousness isn’t real at all.
My purpose here isn’t to cast more (well deserved) scorn upon the laughable lostness and blindness that characterizes the mainstream of our modern intellectual stalwarts. They still manage to manufacture enough miraculous technologies which our populations greedily snatch up, more conveniences and technical addictions which, though they yield a negative and non-sustainable impact upon our world, still keep everyone shrugging and agreeing that the scientists must be doing something right, and that their mechanistic explanations for everything must be somehow correct, even if scientists can’t quite explain all the details. The covert logic, I believe, is “if they can make rockets and smart phones, they must be onto something.” The other logic appears to be “well, they’ve invented more life-saving and convenience-granting stuff than anyone else in any age of the world, so… we’re with them.”
And besides, certain cultural dogmas are programmed into everyone from kindergarten, and rejecting them too publicly might get you socially executed: scientists have the hallowed scientific method which is the key and gateway to anything that is really real– and if there’s something it hasn’t explained yet, it will. You just have to be patient. There’s peer review, the ultimate act of learned collective discernment, to keep us safe- to make sure we always have the best possible truth about anything… or at least the truth that will declared acceptable to express trust in for the time being.
The modern religion of Scientism is quite a show, and while it’s busy putting on performances and throwing techno-bread to the insatiable crowds, it’s also intrinsically tied up with our legacy of Western rationalism, colonialism, and fatal near-sightedness to the greater, deeper needs of our intricate living environment. In this sense, Scientism and our chief intellectual institutions of academia and science today are products (ultimately) of Christianity. What we call secularism is likewise a product of Christianity, and secular humanism a continuation of the myopic anthropocentrism of the same.
Despite what the modern myths that have been created say, there was no heroic, dogged team of brave skeptics and scientists who were just “ahead of their times”, and who challenged Christian superstitions and finally managed to banish the Devil and his imps and demons from our cultural psychological stadium. Some abstract class of “scientists” or “rationalists” didn’t evict God and the Devil from the Western world; Christian culture itself lost its overall deeper belief in them and let them fall by the wayside. Collapsing social orders and extreme social revisions, alongside endless religio-political social strife and enormous economic transformations in Early Modern times lie at the heart of why the Devil lost his place in the details of life.
This Christian culture didn’t spend its first 15 centuries cultivating a deep understanding of pre-Christian spiritual beliefs or worldviews; it didn’t have an anthropology of the soul that was in any way adequate to the task of describing the richness and depth of human dreams, trances, and interior-type experiences. If anything, Christian traditions and cultures from their foundation have been profoundly distrustful of their own ‘mystics’ and visionaries.
When God and the Devil were kicked to the margins, the over-simplified Christian notion of the soul was too, and any possibility of comprehending the true depths and nuances of dreams went with it. The soul or psyche became nothing but the mind, and later that mind was itself viewed- as it is now- as a mere epiphenomenon of the brain, electrical and accidental synaptic noise, or accidental self-awareness arising from meaningless and random combinations of chemicals.
And so we sit here, now, with dismissive guesses about the role and meaning of dreams in our embodied existence. We fruitlessly seek to understand them by primarily observing the brain’s chemical and electrical behaviors in sleep, not heedful that dreams (like any other phenomenon of experience) are co-created by much more than a single organ in one part of the body.
Before I can set to the task of giving some instructions on how to use certain states of sleep and dream for extraordinary purposes (including a specific technique that I have utilized, whose efficacy is well-verified) we will have to briefly analyze some aspects of how sleeping and dreaming seem to regularly manifest within our human experience. I will do the unthinkable and draw upon not only anthropology and experiential-metaphysical angles on sleep and dream, but also share some observations into the biology of the same- biological observations won for us by scientists who are making a brave (but I fear futile) effort to win their own kind of answer to these mysteries.
In the interests of clarity, I will say it simply: I do not believe that dreams are meaningless. I do not believe they are simple rehearsals of worries from our wakeful hours, nor random emergences of anxieties, desires, or cultural materials that we have ruminated often upon. I do not believe that dreams are mere evolutionary junk side-effects that came along with developing a big brain, and the supposed power of special creativity or imagination that comes with such a brain.
And I do not believe that dreams happen “merely in the head” or in the brain. When you wake up from a dream, and tell others a story of it (after reconstructing the memory of the dream filtered through your own rational, breathing mind) you are not sharing a dream; you are sharing an account of a dream that you experienced, which is itself an event that took place within this world.
That your body and your organs were part of the system that aided a dream-event to arise within the world is without a doubt, but they are a small compartment within the multi-compartmented system that makes dreams possible. What we experience when we dream is a thing- or a complex of things- that must necessarily arise from many other conditions and factors, some of them existing (perceptibly) within the organs of your sensual embodiment, and many of them extending quite a bit beyond the ordinary boundaries of your body. We ordinarily interpret dreams as entirely subjectively-generated phenomenon, and yet they arise at the behest and under the influence of many intersubjective forces. Meetings with spirits within dreams would indicate that some aspect of dreams is transpersonal, or that more than a few aspects of dreams may be.
Dreams are relational, systemic experiences that deeply involve the body and one of our souls. They rely on many factors, but chiefly the existence of the separable soul/free soul and its relationship to the very seat of our conscious awareness, alongside its inherence in a surreal world that is ordinarily invisible to us. As countless primal voices have made clear, what happens to the free soul always impacts the body, for the body is a sensual expression of the free soul. Sleep and dreams (as they relate to the free soul) can and do have measurable and fairly consistent biological impacts on the body. And yet, dreams themselves are too complicated to discern the full reality of their nature simply by observing the body. More scope is needed.
The Four Stages of Sleep
When we lie down to sleep, it doesn’t take long for us to enter into the first stage of sleep, which is the hypnagogic state. This state is characterized by the sensation of relaxing and “drifting off”, or drifting “deeper down”- of the many sensations of falling asleep. Depending on how tired a person is, they may pass through the hypnagogic state very rapidly. But most of the time, people have a short while of drifting, of experiencing chains of free-association thinking, which can include thoughts about the day just ended, or anxieties or expectations for challenges that will await the next day.
Eventually, this free-association type thinking begins to give way to images- one may begin to “see” images from the day just finished, or any of a vast range of random images that can surface during this time. In this state, a person has fallen into what amounts to a very real and potent trance; it is a liminal state, a transitional state in which one is neither awake, nor asleep- unawake and unsleeping. If one were to enter the hypnagogic state with any measure of mental energy, one might use this state for some very profound works of spirit-contact, which is what this essay is ultimately about, at the practical level: hypnagogic prayer and invocation. This we shall discuss soon.
If one has a measure of mental energy- if one is not “dog-tired”- the hypnagogic state is often characterized by visualizations and interior visions of many different varieties. Artistic inspiration can be sought- and is often reportedly found- by artists in this state. Associations can sometimes spontaneously emerge between different topics and subjects that create surprising links and suggest solutions to difficult problems. Time appears acclerated in the hypnagogic state; auditory and visual hallucinations can occur.
The name “Hypnagogic” means “Initiator into Sleep” or “Sleep initiator”- and in simple terms, this condition acts in the way a human initiator might act when leading a candidate for initiation into a chamber of the mysteries. The hypnagogic state is a border-place, “neither here nor there”, in which the subtle influences of the Unseen world can impress themselves on the not-yet-fully-faded conscious mind. And the conscious mind at this stage is “dulled” a bit, put partly out of commission or relaxed, such that it becomes surprisingly receptive to things it never would have been open to before.
Every “schema” of something so organically intrinsic to our entities (like sleep) always has an overlap with a larger cosmology. Sleep and dream have often been compared to the rhythms of life and death, and for good reasons. The Hypnagogic state is a parallel to the transition-state between being alive and being dead, which all must experience one day. In that state, we are not yet fully dead, but no longer able to return to the fully integrated, ordinarily operating condition of life.
In this state (not surprisingly) dying people report visionary encounters, report seeing spirits or deceased persons, or report coming to terms with life and death as a whole, as though they were in a place of profound realizations. I poetically refer to the hypnagogic state as Twilight Sleep.
When the descent of the hypnagogic state is over, we enter into nREM sleep, or as I poetically call it, Deep Shadow. nREM sleep is the most ancient form of sleep, and is known to occur in reptiles, birds, and mammals. When we are in the nREM state, we have no conscious awareness of it. This is the great “dark void” that we spend most of our sleep in, but it has a very critical role in our health. When we enter the Deep Shadow, our bodies begin to undergo the needed biological regenerations that we require to live.
The brain’s activity changes dramatically in nREM sleep, and mentation is either absent, or reduced to a very simple, primal level- and is often repetitive. Bever notes that in this state, “the body replenishes and restores itself in a variety of ways, repairing damage, growing new tissues, and resupplying itself with chemicals depleted during wakefulness. The limbic system is active, but forebrain activity is low.” Some dreams can rarely occur during nREM sleep, but “it is usually brief, closely connected to waking concerns, and verbal and conceptual rather than visual and emotional.”
nREM sleep is as critical to maintaining our lives and health as getting adequate food and hydration. This “plunge into the darkness”, in which we become “void of self”, is a needed regeneratory experience, which creates a profound parallel with the process of dying. When a dying person finally passes the threshold of death, the release and permanent loss of the breath soul leads to a loss of consciousness. Something about the dreaded “darkness” of losing the breathing self, and the fear we have of eternal loss of consciousness, hides a reality that is tied to regeneration.
I am reminded here of a story I once read, in which a dying elderly grandfather was spending time with his young grandson. The grandfather knew he would likely die that very night, but his grandson, bouncing around with the fresh and abundant energy of extreme youth, was unaware of this. When bedtime came, the grandson didn’t want to go to bed, but his grandfather helped to tuck him in. The grandson complained about having to go to sleep, and the grandfather gently told him “You need your sleep, and I need mine.”
This is a very profound story, obviously, for in the fewest possible words it captures an organic reality of how necessary the “deep shadow” is- both for people sleeping, and for those who have passed beyond the boundaries of the breathing, waking world. What regenerates us in a nightly small death rehearsal may point to a deeper cosmological reality that waits to regenerate us beyond the larger death. Both require a surrender of conscious, ordinary aspects of experience.
At various points during nREM sleep, birds and mammals enter into a stage of sleep called REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep. It is during one of these REM sleep sessions that most of our dreams occur. REM is a very strange state, for brain activity during REM changes drastically from the near non-register of nREM, into a condition that is very similar to being awake.
The breath soul that ordinarily vitalizes and controls the body in times of being awake has become paralyzed by the time a person falls into nREM sleep, and so during REM, the portions of the brain that control motor activity are (normally) shut off. If they were not, people would physically act out their dreams. Bever mentions that cats whose brains lack the mechanism of “shut off” paralysis get up during REM sleep, and stalk, capture, and devour invisible prey.
REM sleep is the central mystery of most sleep and dream studies. Studies show that theta waves are very active in REM- the waves most active when critical matters of survival are being focused upon in a creature. Dreams that arise during REM sleep are often of a visual and emotional nature- and very often far beyond rational rules and expectations. Bever reports that in REM sleep, “higher executive systems which normally imbue human thought with logical coherence and propositional structure, and constrain perceptual possibilities on the basis of established knowledge of the world are switched off. Production of aminergic neurotransmitters, which play a role in maintaining focused attention, stops, while large amounts of cholinergic neurotransmitters, which promote diffuse associations, are produced.”
Further, Bever points out that the right cerebral hemisphere becomes more active than the left, putting the part of our brain responsible for sequential-temporal processing at detriment. He says “the limbic system and associated areas that play a central role in emotion, memory, and visual and auditory associations are more active than during waking… and finally, mentation during REM takes the form of complex, episodic, vivid, emotionally charged multisensory experiences, in other words, what we think of as dreams.”
Bever concludes, in line with the research he utilized in his own work, that REM sleep serves a critical function in human health and in the human ability to relate to our human and other-than-human world: the brain might be integrating into itself things that it needs to learn, or “coding in” new things that have been learned during the day- things necessary to survival and thriving. In this way, REM sleep may be when the brain trains itself, creating new neural architecture to embody new knowledges and interaction-strategies. People who have recently studied or set about trying to learn complex bodies of knowledge will have longer and more intense REM sleep at night.
Those who cannot, for some reason, enter REM sleep in a normal, healthy way (or who get deprived of it) are apparently not as able to learn complex material, and they “recall material of personal and emotional importance more poorly, show greater emotional brittleness, and exhibit a “rebound effect” of increased REM sleep when allowed to sleep uninterrupted.” It’s worth noting- and telling- that younger creatures remain in REM sleep for longer periods of time, and more frequently than adult creatures.
Human infants, likewise, have been shown to REM often, and display a wide range of emotions and facial expressions that they clearly demonstrate in REM, long before they socially demonstrate them with other humans. Dreams shape us, and help to make us who we are. We learn and change through them.
I call REM sleep by the poetic name Visionfast– the time of vision-strength, when the free soul, itself connected to the emotional and surreal, non-linear depths of our deeper entities, becomes active. The rational and measuring breath-soul is entirely out of commission during most REM sleep, leaving only the free soul’s strange perceptions and adventures in a timeless or time-meaningless condition. But visions- whether they are communications from spirits or simple reconnections to the Unseen- are always about learning and further development of connection or insight on some level.
Visionfast corresponds cosmologically to the stage after death in which the free soul, no longer bound to the breath and body it once sensually manifested, becomes aware again of the deeper world and relational system that is its origin and home.
In An Carow Gwyn, I discuss the “two sleeps” method of obtaining lucid dreams- which is to say of obtaining the experience of regaining a degree of conscious awareness and seeming control when you are in the condition of Visionfast. To become lucid in a dream is to have a small portion of the breath soul awaken and permeate the experience, allowing for more consciously-directed activities and efforts, while you are submerged perceptually in the surreal world of dreams and visions.
How such a thing is possible should be quite clear at this point; after completing a cycle of sleep, and waking up well-regenerated, returning to sleep allows a person to carry a significant portion of energy into the sleep state. This excess energy of the body corresponds to a kind of excess energy of awareness and attention- and when the Visionfast/REM state begins, and the brain’s activity corresponds closely to being awake, that excess energy can birth a wakeful or lucid overlay on the experience.
It is in this state of lucidity that I believe “out of body” projection and travel (“Shimmering”) can perhaps be launched or created- a thing I discuss in An Carow Gwyn. Some very fortunate people have (for whatever reason) a simple trait or proclivity towards provoking lucid dreams frequently, with or without any special efforts.
The final state of sleep- the Hypnopompic state (which I call the Rising Light state)- represents our transition out of sleep and back to the waking world. Like the hypnagogic state or the Twilight Sleep, the time of the Rising Light is a very liminal time. It is another liminal-transitional stage, and like those sinking in the hypnagogic descent, a person in the hypnopompic state can see and hear visual and auditory hallucinations, can see jumbled images or hear strange sounds, and gradually becomes aware of lying in bed, and of being awake again. Hypnopompic means “sleep guide”- though it is a guide that takes one away from sleep and towards waking.
Awakening means re-integrating with the ordinary world of sensual encounter and expeirence. It is a re-assertion of the breath soul’s control over the body, and a resuming of the brain’s ordinary daily functioning. During the times of hypnagogic descent and hypnopompic ascent, a very special thing can occur- the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. This condition (often thought to be very painful or frightening) occurs when a person discovers that they have mentally awoken, but their bodies are still paralyzed in sleep.
They may believe they are awake- and may feel in every way fully awake, but in reality they are still in a form of sleep, and in what I would call a powerful trance. Some people attempt to understand (and treat) sleep paralysis as a medical condition, but I think this fails to capture the entire portrait of the experience. I am one of the people who is prone to sleep paralysis, and though I did “suffer” from it initially, as a young adult, I rapidly learned to utilize it as a means of gaining out of body experiences.
The folklore connected to sleep paralysis is very telling and interesting. I wrote a treatment on it in An Carow Gwyn, and even gave a technique for consciously provoking a state of sleep paralysis, with the intention of using it as a “launching point” for lucid dreaming and out-of-body travel. Julian Goodare and Margaret Dudley wrote a superb essay entitled “Outside In or Inside Out: Sleep Paralysis and Scottish Witchcraft“, which gives the best treatment I’ve ever seen of the historical connections between the sleep paralysis experience, accusations of witchcraft, and reports of supernatural encounters.
Those “trapped” in sleep paralysis often report feeling a malevolent or treatening presence in the room with them, an evil or dangerous being approaching their bed or standing over it, who sometimes exerts a painful pressure on their chest. The extreme fear that people feel in this state can be an overwhelmingly negative experience, but in reality, the “sleep paralysis demon” or the “old hag” who was thought to attack those in their beds is a hallucination born from what is called threat hypervigilance, a state in which your emergency-wracked midbrain interprets any sound in your room at all as a potential threat, or simply imagines a threat, in an attempt to panic itself into waking up.
The painful pressure in the chest- thought in ancient times to be a sign that a spirit was stealing vitality from a person- is in reality born from the fact that in sleep our breathing slows down, and the (uncomfortable) pressure on the chest is natural; we are just ordinarily asleep before it appears, so we never feel it.
I certainly believe- from personal experience- that episodes of sleep paralysis can be times in which spirits can be encountered. Not all experiences of “the old hag” can be explained merely by negative reactions to the biological stresses of sleep paralysis. It can simply be hard to discern the presence of actual spirit-beings from the emotional extremes of fear and anxiety that occur at such times, and regularly generate a sense of a (threatening) presence near to the sleeper.
Eventually, awakening means re-integration with the breathing world. Re-integration, in the wider cosmological sense, refers to the wandering soul or free soul finding a new home, a new condition of stable interaction in line with the fateful powers influencing it or compelling it. This may be conceived of as a wandering soul coming to rest with its kin in a subtle condition beyond this world, or deep within the metaphysical depths of the world; it can refer to the free soul arising as a spirit-being of some sort after its post-death transition and metamorphosis; it can mean the wandering soul has re-expressed itself sensually in a more tangible form, or even refer to the idea of “rebirth” into another human shape, or into an animal shape, or the many other possibilities that lie beyond our range of easy knowing.
Prayer and Invocation in the Soul’s Twilight
Utilizing the Hypnagogic State- the Twilight Sleep that we pass through every time we lie down to sleep- for sorcerous and otherworldly contact/communication purposes is very powerful, and very easy. One needs no special tools, no special preparations, no special anything at all except a mind and body that’s ready to go to sleep. The only thing you need beyond that is a small or a somewhat significant amount of energy; this technique cannot be used if you are feeling extremely tired or worn-out.
When I say “a small or somewhat significant amount of energy”, I mean the kind of energy you have when you go to bed when you know it’s time to sleep, or when you feel the need to turn in, but before you’re completely exhausted. Those who make it exhausted to their beds every night will have to leverage whatever changes they can make to their daily activity cycles, to allow themselves to reach bed with something other than a dead soul and the desire to drop down and pass out.
You will need one very important intangible thing to accomplish this work. You will need an image: an image of the Otherworldly being or beings you are attempting to make contact with and communicate with. Whether or not this technique could be used on a being who is breathing and living in this world is a conversation for a future essay; for now I can say that it is likely possible to contact the free soul of a human or animal with this technique, but at present, our discussion must be about Otherworldly entities.
The image you will need can be found in several ways. But it must be gained or found– it cannot be simply made up. The ideal image is one you will have gained through a visionary experience or a dream in which you are very certain you met an Otherworldly being. How that being (or beings) looked in your dream or vision is the image you will have to utilize in this technique.
Images can also be found in traditional sources- normally folkloric, historical, or mythical sources- that describe the appearances of Otherworldly beings. Earlier in this essay, I talked about Hanss Ferner and gave his account of how the Devil appeared to him. From his description, you could build an image to use if you were going to use this technique to attempt to reach out to the Folkloric Devil. But the same is true for any of the countless descriptions we have in history and folk-accounts from people who met Fayerie-entities, the Queen of the Fairies, and so forth.
As a sorcerous practitioner, I have obtained over the years more than a few Familiar Spirits that I met and created relationships and agreements with in visionary states. I keep their images in my mind, of course- how they revealed themselves to me- for use in techniques like this. But not everyone is a sorcerous practitioner, and those who are not still have enormous resources to draw from to reach out to spirits, through the accounts of their appearance in folklore. Those who practice the Ancient Fayerie Faith (to make an example) have an enormous gift in the form of The Romance of Thomas Rhymer– a lengthy and deeply descriptive romance that I give (and analyze thoroughly) in An Carow Gwyn.
In that romance, the appearance of the Fayerie Queen herself is described in exhaustive detail. That image of her can be used by a member of the Fayerie Faith, in conjunction with this technique, to reach out and potentially establish deep contact with her, and the spirits close to her.
I will give the step-by-step instructions for the Hypnagogic Prayer technique now, and follow the instructions with a detailed analysis- and a checklist of ways you will know that you have succeeded at using this technique.
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THE METHOD OF HYPNAGOGIC PRAYER/INVOCATION
1. Lie down comfortably, close your eyes, and focus for about a minute on the sensation of your body, lying in bed.
2. Relax for another minute or so, but have a caution- depending on your level of energy, only two or three minutes in a comfortable position in bed can cause a rapid descent into the hypnagogic state. You want to begin descending into the hypnagogic experience-level, but you have to be very aware that you’re doing it. You must be mindful of what’s happening to your mind and body. Most people don’t pay attention at this time, when lying in bed, and so they slip into the hypnagogic condition unawares, pass through it relatively quickly, and then fall into the unconsciousness of deep shadow.
3. When you can tell that you’re relaxed and feeling slightly “sinky”, you will have to use your powers of visualization. This technique makes use of intentional visualization or envisioning. You must visualize yourself taking a journey to reach a dwelling-place, where you will meet the entity or entities you are intending to reach out to. It’s best if you’re walking on this journey, and best if their dwelling-place is in some wilderness area. You can “see” whatever you require, but these are the basics.
Let yourself experience the sensations of walking, as you move along whatever trail, road, or through whatever landscape you need. It’s best to visualize this happening at night, because the darkness means you have less details to worry about visualizing in the landscape around you. At some point- and don’t let the visualized journey be too long, else you may fall asleep– you will see yourself reaching the house, cottage, cave, castle, riverbank, forest (or whatever) where the being or beings you’re seeking out dwell.
4. If you must knock or do something to gain entry to a building, do it; the door will be opened for you, or someone will come and let you in, or you will be called in or invited in somehow. If there’s just a cave or something, go in. The entity or entities you are trying to reach will be there, looking just as your image of them depicts. Begin a conversation with them- but this is a special conversation.
This conversation is like a strange (and I think fun) game. When you speak- whether you are speaking a greeting, or responding to things said to you, you must always greet or respond exactly as you would “in real life”, if you found yourself in the physical presence of this being or these beings. There is no room here for anything else- treat this visualized conversation/interaction as though it were 100%, absolutely intersubjectively real.
You are visualizing this conversation, and that means You will decide what the being or beings you are meeting will say to you, when their time comes to speak or respond to you. You must judge- based on all that you know about the folkloric, mythic, or legendary character of this being or beings- what they would most likely say, at any given time. And then you have them say those things to you.
At the beginning, it’s easy; you will make some kind of greeting, and their return greetings are easy enough to imagine. But as the conversation continues and develops, then perhaps you must be careful. They will, at some point, inquire about why you traveled to see them, and you must answer very honestly regarding what your true goal for the visit is. You probably will (at some point) ask them questions or seek help regarding some topic or issue. How they respond again is something you’ll decide- but right about this point, you should notice some odd things beginning to happen.
The time you took to visualize your journey to the dwelling, and the time you’ve spent having the conversation that you’re creating with this envisioned being, was time you were sinking in hypnagogic transition. More time may have passed than you realized, when you busied yourself with a focus on the visualizations. By the time the conversation is happening, you may feel like you’re slipping into an actual dream of this conversation. Things may be easier to visualize than you expected, or things may become vivid.
But more than that, you may find that you no longer have to decide very much what your conversation partners are saying in response to you- you may find that, without much effort on your part, they make responses that you didn’t consciously plan to give them, using words and phrases that you didn’t spend much time planning to put in their mouths, if you planned it at all.
This is a good sign- a sign that you are in a potent trance state. I think of it as a cognitive form of “automatic writing”- call it “automatic thinking” if you like; you begin by creatively conducting a conversation for two or more parties (yourself and your Other or Others) but then, as your hypnagogic state deepens, the conversation begins to take on a life of its own. You might find that “They” say things to you that suddenly make you remember things you haven’t thought of in a long time; that’s a good sign. You may make connections you hadn’t made before.
If your conversation partner or partners direct you to do something, or ask you to accomplish a task, do it. They can even ask you to leave the meeting place and come back after performing an action elsewhere, or retrieving something. That is all fine and well- it doesn’t have to happen, but it might.
5. By this point, you will probably be very near to falling asleep. You will want to continue conversing with the one or the ones you came to visit, and let yourself fall asleep from within that conversation, or from within the experience wherever you happen to be. You won’t remember the last thing you said to them, or that they said to you; you will simply black out, fall into deep shadow, and be within your nREM sleep state. And with that, the technique is finished.
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It might seem like a bit of an anti-climax to just black out in the middle of a conversation with an envisioned being or beings, but there are special reasons why this is important. First, let me say the most critical thing I can at this point: when you creatively visualize a conversation between yourself and some powerful Otherworldly being or beings, you must remember You are creating it. You are not, within the boundaries of your hypnagogic state, actually speaking to them in this exchange. And yet, you must speak as though you are, and allow them to respond in as realistic a way as you can creatively imagine.
Because the whole visualized interaction is itself a prayer. It is itself an invocation– by being in the powerful trance-state of hypnagogia, and creating this visualization while using a real image of real beings that you either gained or found, you are sending out a signal of types to them– seeking their attention, and demonstrating what kinds of things you’re wanting to ask them. In the liminal state of Twilight Sleep, your whole visualization is a beacon to them, containing your desires and needs.
Now, whether or not they receive it or respond to it, is up to them. Their response can come in two different forms, at two different times:
1. They can infiltrate your hypnagogic state itself, usually near to the end, and cause the visualized conversation you’re having to take surprising, unexpected turns. If you find this happening, or find yourself “seeing” or “hearing” things you didn’t expect to see or hear in your visualization, particularly meaningful things to your present concerns, goals, or problems, this may have happened.
2. They may appear in your dreams later- in your first or second REM state of Visionfast- and speak directly to you, or simply shape those dreams to show you things you need to see, to answer the concerns or desires you brought to them in your visualization.
One or both of these things may happen, or neither may happen. You never can tell until you try it. This hypnagogic prayer technique is a form of dream incubation; it has the potential to incubate potent dreams of communication, communion, contact, or messages from the beings you visualized in your Twilight Sleep.
When you fall asleep in the middle of your visualized conversation, if you had gained the attentions or influences of the entity or entities you were seeking, then don’t worry at all about it; your free soul will continue having the interaction you were just visualizing with them. Your breath soul has simply finally lost consciousness, but your dreaming soul is just fine. What your dreaming soul might be learning in communion with them will be outside of your conscious awareness temporarily, but you might see hints or direct visions of it in later dreams. The goal to “make contact” and commune is all that matters- alongside the hope of receiving insights and dream-visions.
If for any reason you find yourself failing as you try to do this visualization-sequence, beginning with your walk to the meeting-place, it is a sign that you don’t have the mental alertness or energy needed for the technique. There’s nothing wrong with starting over if you find that you’ve lost the visualization, but if you find that you have to start over multiple times and can’t make it far, stop trying. You don’t have enough energy. You may have gone to bed more tired than you realized. Try again another night.
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I have a few tips for making this whole process much easier, beyond what I’ve already given. The last time I performed this technique (and you can do it as often as you want, though understand that “doing it simply to do it” isn’t likely to yield much in the way of results) I visualized a journey to a cottage in the forest. It was snowy, and it was nighttime.
As much as you can, have your visualized journey happening in a seasonal setting that matches the one around you in the real world, at the time you do it. If it’s a snowy winter where you are, let your journey happen through a snowy winter night. Also, let small details aid you. I know what my snow boots feel like when I have them on. And I know what they sound like when they crunch through slushy or stiff snow. I was able to “feel” and hear that in my visualization, which made it seem very real to me.
When I arrived at the cottage, a dead woman opened the door to let me in; she was a servant or attendent to the One I was there to meet. There was a fire in the hearth, and I could see that orange glow through the windows as I approached to knock on the door. The moment she let me in, the feeling of the warm inside, versus the cold on my face outside, was very pleasurable and noticeable. If you’ve ever passed from a chill cold outdoors into a warm house, you know this feeling. When I felt that, it made the whole environment of the cottage interior seem very real, like a real space of interaction.
Bring in little elements like this- sensations that are easy to “visualize feeling.” They add a reality element that is very conducive to the experience. Remember that trying to over-visualize details is not good; you are already “on a clock”, as it were- no one’s hypnagogic state lasts for very long. Taxing your mind which is already on a ‘down slope’ with too much visualization can ruin this technique. When I stood in the cottage I traveled to, it was lit only by firelight in a hearth, and candlelight. That means it was largely shadowy- and that means less details to visualize, both in the environment, and in the beings you’re talking to, whose images you place within the setting.
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This technique of Hypnagogic Prayer has many layers of use. One of the primary effects of using it on a regular basis will stem from how it orients your soul towards Otherworldly beings, and to subtle contact with them. This makes “waking world” intuitions and feelings of connection stronger, over time. This is important not only for the sorcerously active people of our world, but for anyone who maintains relationships with spirits in the modern day.
We may desire friendship, empowerment, or relationships from spirits or beings we gain or find images of; this technique can unlock the potential of that. We may need guidance or help from spirits that we have long-standing relationships with, and who we have encountered in previous visionary states and conditions; this can help to facilitate that. Seeking dreams and visions of guidance is as old as humankind; this technique is another manifestation of that seeking.
A Final Word: Hanss The Devil’s Son
Earlier in this essay I gave the story of Hanss Ferner, the eight-year old boy who claimed to have met the Devil and pledged his allegiance to him back in 1663. Hanss reported, in the course of his various confessions, that the “Black Man”- the Devil- had been appearing to him for some time before he (Hanss) gave him his allegiance. He had apparently been pestering Hanss somewhat, appearing to him at different times and scaring him.
Hanss didn’t turn himself in after he made his deal with the Devil; his case is unique. Hanss was in custody when he claimed to have traveled to the demonic feasting place, and made that offer of himself to the Black and Horned Man. Not only was he in custody, but he was being observed around the clock.
For the people (then and now) who take the story of Hanss and use it as a way of dismissing the claims of witches (for people today still insist on dismissing dreams as potential vehicles of power and relationship), a strange detail emerges from the story of Hanss Ferner. While he was being observed in his sleep, he was seen to struggle and call out early in the night, and then later in the night. Upon awakening one morning, he reported (with fear) that he had pledged himself to the Devil- and that a celebration had been thrown in honor of his pledge.
After feasting with the Devil, the Devil flew Hanss back “home”- but before Hanss parted company with him, he expressed to the Devil that he was afraid he’d never be able to go to heaven now. The Devil became quite angry and stabbed Hanss in the foot. He awoke crying and in pain.
The Barber-Surgeon of the town, along with the town scribe and two other men examined Hanss and found that he had a cut on his foot, in the same place that he said the Devil had stabbed him. No explanation is given in the records for how Hanss could have gotten the cut, and the men who did the examination had no answer.
For those worrying about Hanss, his family was investigated, but no one was arrested or charged with anything. The local magistrates and judge were not willing to believe Hanss on the basis of his reported experiences, as they had obviously happened in dreams. I suppose they just ignored the mysterious foot injury, and really, it’s hard to blame them.
Hanss was found to be a “very bad boy”, a troubled boy, an immoral boy, and his family system (upon investigation) was found to be broken and troubled. He was sentenced to be beaten, to “impress upon him the wicked depravity of magic”, to be “scolded for his slanders”, and to have the town preacher visit him regularly to “lead him in earnest prayer.”
And with that, Hanss Ferner leaves the pages of history.