Divine Madness: Shamanic Dreaming, Dionysus & Pathologizing Soul

c. 2000 by Maureen B. Roberts, PhD

Some of my most powerful soul retrieval and deathwalking work is done in dreams. In connection with my work with schizophrenia sufferers, many of whom are sensitive, brilliant and artistic young men, I recently had a Monty Pythonish dream in which a terrified teenage boy, who had turned ‘mad’ and run away into a dense tract of forest, was being pursued by a group of white-coated psychiatrists wielding hypodermic needles. They couldn’t see him as he hid in the dense thickets, at which point I offered to find him and calm him down through shamanic intervention. The psychiatrists, out of (what I picked up empathically as) fear and envy, rebuffed the idea and said something like, ‘Who do you think you are, claiming you can do what we can’t?’

I calmly waited at the edge of the forest with an intuition that the boy would eventually come to me, then I adopted a second guise and ventured forth as a Wolf, in order to find and shepherd him toward my waiting human self. The boy, still on the run, eventually came blundering out and ran almost into my arms. He was terrified, wild-eyed with a psychotic stare, and had potentially dangerous claws and a half animal-like appearance. I had to hold his gaze firmly and not waver from it for an instant, as I talked and half sang in a soothing way to the soul cowering in terror behind the stare. (The secret language I used was the Old Gaelic-sounding tongue I always use in shamanic work.) I could feel his pain and held him with compassion, risking the claws, which he didn’t use. Upon seeing that I was as mad as he was and dressed in wolfish animal skins, he calmed down and at last was at peace.

His parents then arrived on the scene and I gently steered the boy back to them and said, “Call me if you need any more help.” The psychiatrists looked on dumbfounded, disoriented, drained in power and embarrassed. (As a note on my unwillingness – in this instance – to deal with the situation unaided; in some dangerous cases of psychosis, it’s risky for shamans to follow alone into the unconscious; part of them needs to keep a healthy distance from the archetypal material – that is, at least one dream or waking personality must – if they’re to avoid draining their energy by having to tackle these destructive forces head-on. This is where shamanic guides, or the power to shapeshift into other forms, are indispensible help and protection.) Interestingly, the night before I had this dream, I dreamed I was taking home orphaned baby orangutans who had nowhere to go.

Facing Wild Dionysus

Generally speaking, in working shamanically with debilitated schizophrenia sufferers you have to be able to meet persecuted Dionysus as Dionysus if you’re to quell the fear, which is all too often the fraternal god Pan running away – in ‘pan-ic’ – from persecuting Apollonian medicine. An insightful friend commented on these two dreams as follows:
First she is taking orphaned orangutans home for temporary protection, much like she protects and tries to heal the schizophrenic patients. With the ‘wild child’ in the second dream, it is she who looks as mad as the child, yet she is the only one who can pull the child out of the forest through her ability to reach the archaic depths.

The same friend – an apprentice shaman whom I’m teaching – soon afterwards had the following dream (which I have permission to share):
My house was on fire. In the dream I cannot find water to put the fire out. After the fire I am looking everywhere for my four cats, hoping that they got out alive. My favourite, whose name is Monkey, comes out of the woods running to me. I am so happy he is OK. I find the three females curled up at the back steps to the house. Next I wake up and feel as if my body is on fire. I decide to get up and go to the kitchen for a glass of water. On my way back to the bedroom, I see a strange light coming from my son’s room. I walk in to find an old Owl lamp has fallen on the floor. The light has melted the shade and the carpet, which is smoking and just short of flaming up. Next to this is a loaf of bread torn into pieces and spread about. This is Monkey’s doing, since he is always dragging the bread off if it is left on the counter.

Animal ‘Lunar-cy’

As an aside comment, like Jung I steer clear of assuming that what he called ‘interpretation on the subjective level’ is the only valid, or useful approach to dreams, hence my emphasis – increasingly nowadays – on the suggestion that the dream simply amplifies, dramatizes, mythologizes, or ‘re-presents’ an actual situation, as indeed I feel the schizophrenia dream did. Dreams as a ‘soul soup’ have no problem with mixing the ingredients of personal, symbolic, mythic and objectively real into one alchemical cauldron.

Reflecting on the dream through tossed in reflections rather than attempts to interpret, there is here a lot of Hellish fire, destruction, dissolution and alchemically transforming heat – perhaps as a prelude to rebirth – in the dream. As well, many animals, such as snake, toad, cat, wolf and bat are habitually relegated to the Devil’s camp, or feared realm of shadow, largely because they’re citizens of rejected Dionysus and the Underworld, the Abyss of impassioned ‘dis-integration’, where we encounter the dark divine.

The dream, as the dreamer and I shared, celebrates the wild, multifarious drama of ‘dis-ordered’ soul and its Dionysian undermining of the opposing tendency toward Apollonian light, order, calm and reunification. Monkey, like the wild child of my dream, comes running out of the woods to the dreamer. The ‘3 sleeping female cats’ outside on the back steps from a straightforward Jungian angle suggest a still unconscious, rejected trinity of feminine Dionysian energy. The Owl lamp suggests the associated need for more nocturnal animal wisdom as the shedding of a more lunar light (note the suggestive play on words here: ‘shedding of light’ as ‘falling lamp’). And ‘lunacy’, of course, comes from ‘lunar’. The loaf torn and spread about by Monkey casts shades of the sacrament of Communion, in which Christ as Dionysus is torn to pieces, dramatizing the explosion of the isolated ego throughout Nature. Bread spread about also feeds the birds, who in shamanic work in turn nurture soul by mediating between Otherworlds and embodied consciousness.

Shamanism & Dionysus

The shaman’s visionary wildness, animal cunning, authority and energy come from having befriended both her demons (the personal shadow) and Dionysian energy, which inflicts – among its other initiations – a rending yet tenderizing sword run through the heart. The shaman thus typically lives at the extreme edge of Western society, given that the latter in privileging the (opposite) Apollonian light of rational ‘civilization’, has patronized, rejected, stigmatized, persecuted, incarcerated, medicated, lobotomized and suppressed its untamable opposite, often in the name of ‘medicine’, though in reality in a frantic and fearful effort to keep Dionysus at a safely sedated distance.

One of the challenges that faces us today – as James Hillman so eloquently argues in his The Myth of Analysis – is thus the reclaiming of Dionysian consciousness, supplemented, I suggest, by our openness to embrace and celebrate its bliss, ambivalence, hunger for depth, androgyny, irrationality and divine terror. In this connection, Jung pronounced that ‘the gods have become diseases’, ruling no longer from Olympus but from the Underworld depths of bodily instinct and the unconscious.

Importantly Hillman, like Jung ever seeking the god in the illness, shrewdly spots Dionysus as essentially feminine in hysteria, which in some ways is the extraverted complement of introverted schizophrenia (hence the link between schizophrenia and shamanic initiation). Hillman then cleverly draws on the cultural bias innate in Apollonian medicine’s persecution of Dionysian ‘sickness’, or ‘abnormality’ as a basis for contesting the entire ‘myth of analysis’ – the presumption that pathologizing, or fragmented soul needs fixing up – or band-aiding through drugging, patronizing and reunification.

In a roundabout way, the contesting of this archetypal ‘fantasy’, or lopsidedness thus awakens us to what I explore in detail in my own work: the pivotal link between shamanism, multiple soul and pathologizing Dionysian consciousness. Conversely, positive thinking – as a psychological ‘theory’ – assumes that anything that’s broken, or off-centre (eccentric!), or suffering, or in darkness, depression, neurosis, or metaphoric death needs to be immediately centred, resurrected, unified, or brought into the light of health. This is precisely where, as I have discussed elsewhere, shamans need to discern between needed soul retrieval, called for when the ‘patient’ is genuinely helpless, and the need to honour soul’s need to embody the mythic wound and embrace its cycle of death and rebirth, rather than shun the dark, painful, ‘dis-illusioning’, ‘dis-integrating’, or dangerous phases and faces of the myth.

Bearing these cultural biases in mind, we surely need to take a fresh look from an archetypal perspective at the entire issue of healing, wounding and diagnosis in order to challenge and question the archetypal biases that underly all our pronouncements of normal, sick, sane and healthy to begin with. This is precisely what archetypal psychology is about – what I call ‘reflective deconstruction’ as an alternative to being unwittingly ruled by unstated assumptions based on archetypal biases which we cannot avoid, so might as well try to understand.

Shamanism as Voluntary Psychosis

To start with, is dissociation (therefore) always synonymous with soul loss? Dissociation by definition is a disorder, since the latter means “lacking in order or coherence”, but is disorder – in which Dionysus usually lurks – inevitably, as we usually assume it to be, pathological? Perhaps we have been oversimplifying or unwisely generalising in assuming that dissociation in all situations need to be remedied, hence that from the shamanic angle the mislaid soul fragment always needs to be immediately retrieved.

Shamanism, after all, although it has been written about by Westerners largely with Apollonian reason and reflection, is primarily dissociated, or Dionysian in experience, from schizophrenic initiation through to its practice as a ‘voluntary psychosis’. Accordingly, the reservations I have about much ‘urban’, or Westernized ‘shamanism’ is that it often excludes an appreciation of Dionysian consciousness – which is irrational, ecstatic, emotional, sometimes hysterical, frenzied, disordered, highly energetic and creatively mad – and instead tends to hover within the safer confines of rationality, sober methodology, embodied, calm and single-minded focus. As Jung lamented, our real god is respectability. In other words, Dionysus as an equally valid mode of consciousness is sometimes ousted by what can amount to a diluted, overly sane and respectable distortion of the vivid power, rarity and divine madness of the shamanic vocation.

There’s a huge difference in this sense between talking about Dionysus – from a safe and respectably civilized distance – and meeting the God face to face, then becoming her/his mediatrix. The latter is indeed risky business. Schizophrenics, ‘mad’ artists and shamans embody both Dionysian dispersion and (at other times) Apollonian focus. If you want to observe Dionysus, god of ambivalence, you will therefore find her/him in Dali, Goya, Brueghel, William Blake’s visionary rantings, the dreams and visions and voices of schizophrenics, the drunk’s violent rampage, the hysteric’s frustration at our overly sanitized and patriarchal culture, the Madwoman’s maenadic rage at the rape of Mother Earth, my own ecstatic trance in which I become the drumming pulse of the Cosmos and the animals, stars and stones I am one with.

On the other hand, if you want to actually meet Dionysus face-to-face, you must embody such divine madness yourself. The difference is similar to the distinction between finding out information about an ocean’s currents from reading a map, or from hearsay, and diving in the deep end, then learning to swim – or risking death by drowning. The divinely mad, though, can breathe water in place of air at the dark depths of the ocean, as I often do in dreams. For them, fear of drowning has itself been drowned in the Dionysian wine of symbolic death, embraced in the service of pathologizing soul.

Text c. 2000 Maureen B. Roberts
from Re-Visioning Soul Retrieval: Creative Bridges Between Shamanism & Archetypal Psychology Not to be reproduced whole or in part without the author’s permission.

Maureen Roberts, PhD is an initiated Celtic shaman, artist, musician and Jungian therapist who practices in Adelaide, South Australia. She guides Vision Quests, runs a Schizophrenia Crisis Helpline and is Facilitator of the Centre for Jungian & Shamanic Studies.
e-mail: nathair@optusnet.com.au