Up until now, we have necessary been concerned with forms of writing, from ancient epic to the medical literature and dream books of the ancient and medieval worlds. Obviously we have been engaged in cross-cultural comparison, but now we approach this with a very big difference: the comparison of living cultures, what cultural anthropologists do. This week we will take a look at two main examples of dream cultures from the anthropological perspective: the Aborigines of Australia and the Tzotzil Maya of Mexico.
On Tuesday, we will engage with the very broad and challenging concept of the Dreamtime or the Dreaming in Australia, a contested concept that unifies much of Aboriginal culture in a unique complex of ideas that include creation myth, ritual, music, dance, and the heart of tribal identity. For a brief explanation meant for Aboriginal children, see this short video presentation, which includes a short explanation followed by a song performance. Next, the chapter from Lynne Hume’s book, Ancestral Power: The Dreaming, Consciousness, and Aboriginal Australians, will go into greater depth on the complexity of what the Dreaming entails. This will form the basis of our discussion. But if you are curious about Aboriginal culture, you might watch the documentary, The Men of the Fifth World. The question worth addressing is how such an integrative worldview challenges Western notions of temporality, consciousness, and experience. For more on that, you might also read Sylvie Poirier’s A World of Relationships: Itineraries, Dreams, and Events in the Australian Western Desert (U Toronto P, 2005).
On Thursday, we’ll skip to another continent to look at a people much studied by anthropologists, the Tzotzil Maya of Chiapas, Mexico. We begin by reading the introduction by Robert Laughlin to Mayan Tales from Zinacantán: Dreams and Stories from the People of the Bat. Laughlin spent a lot of time interviewing members of this community, and was an anthropological linguist whose work on the Tzotzil language has been very important. His collections of dreams and stories make very interesting reading, but it is important to put them in context. After you have read the introduction, read the stories and dreams of Xun Min (pp. 73-87). Next, the essay by Kevin Groark, Taking Dreams Seriously: An ontological-phenomenological approach to Tzotzil Maya dream culture, will go into a lot more depth analyzing the worldview of the Mayan dreamers. If you understand Spanish, you might enjoy watching this documentary film (2008), which highlights many aspects of life in Zinacantán.
While we don’t have time enough to go into it, I also recommend an old classic that bridges the gap between anthropology and psychoanalysis, George Devereux’s Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (1951), a detailed account of Devereux’s treatment of a Native American who suffered serious neurological symptoms following an accident that fractured his skull. The book includes lengthy discussions between the two men that deal with dreams and the cultural differences between Plains Indians and the Whites running the country, and was originally well received as an attempt at psychoethnography. The detailed nature of this account lent itself well to a screen writer’s ambition to tell the story, and in 2013 the director Arnaud Desplechin released Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, with the part of the patient played remarkably by Benicio del Toro.
A good general guide to current thinking on the anthropology of dreaming can be found in the collection New Directions in the Anthropology of Dreaming, edited by Jeannette Mageo and Robin E. Sheriff (Routledge, 2021).