The first story was a dream. The first storyteller, the Dream-maker. Long before words. Long, long, long before complex language, or tools, our deepest ancestors were dreaming.
The proof is obvious: your dog, or mine, curled in slumber, her paws quivering with what is clearly a sleep-paralyzed chase, her bark muted to a chittering whisper. But you know she is on the move, deep in dream, chasing rabbits, or another dog. Dreaming is such a universal experience we recognize it immediately.
And so of course, the first story would be a dream. A narrative born in the inner world, in the dark quiet of sleep. It stands to reason, then, as at least a possibility, that the first, primary impetus to tell a story came from dreaming. (There is, of course, another impetus, and that is the lie. I am intrigued by the curious juxtaposition of the these two possible roots of story, the dream and the lie.)
All other information necessary to a life of foraging and hunting and bonding surely did not need complex language. One need only observe the family of deer immersed in the green shadows of the forest, immediately wary of my proximity, still as statues. They are attuned to their environment and to each other with incredible precision. Or observe the crows, cawing on the wing. They are certainly communicating, but they are not telling a story. Their language is rooted in the present. Or even a mother with her baby. It is not yet complex language that she wraps around her infant, but the coos and lulls of her voice.
So yes, we communicate in all manner of ways besides words. But how can anyone, human or otherwise, communicate the story of a dream without language? It is an entirely subjective experience. It is a thing that lives inside us and cannot be born into the outer world without language, without the voice, without story.
Whether or not dreaming created, at least in part, the necessity for language, it seems incredibly likely that our deep ancestors developed a practice of telling these dream-stories. I would even argue that dreaming––and sharing dreams in particular––are one of the foundations of the development of the human experience.
Dreams, after all, can contain some pretty potent information. Dreams of the deceased, dreams of plant medicine, dreams of future paths—these would have been incredibly important to our ancestors, and would likely have been revered and understood to be of great importance. It seems likely that the development of ritual and shamanic medicine sprang from communal dreamwork.
That we have lost our capacity to share our dreams in a meaningful way, and even more so that most of us no longer collect them from our sleep, speaks to a collective lost self, for without our dreams we lose some connectivity to the very spiritual forces that brought us into a shared experience of story.
But here’s the thing. The marvelous thing. And here I will step away from speculation on the origins of story, and step into the territory of my own belief, born of my own direct experience. Dreaming springs from consciousness, and all living things are endowed with consciousness. All living things dream, and all life is dreaming itself forward. And even more marvelous: we can dream together.
If ever there was a practice that could renew the bonds we have with all of life, a practice that could snap us out of the illusion of the individual, it is collective dreaming. (The premise is simple, a group intends to dream about a particular problem, something that needs healing. They record their dreams and meet the next morning to share them, and dig into them for their meaning.) In collective dreaming we rediscover the spiritual forces that brought us into their story.
But let’s just begin at the trailhead of this vast dreaming wilderness. The season of dreaming––of long nights and rest––has arrived. We can come to the path of this season with questions, simple or burning. We can be like the ants, steady and small, carrying our one pearl, over valleys and under rivers, out into the Cosmos. We can make an offering, then, to the Great Bear of the North, Ursa Major:
Give us the dream we need. Give us the story we can’t see. And we will bring it back to our world.