Anatomy of Dreams

by Gail Tyson

Voluptuous in sleep, her clay body curls on one side, threatening to topple the low, flat couch beneath her. Haunches jut into the air, mammoth breasts swell beneath one immense arm. Upon the other rests her head. The Dreamer of Malta’s lush contours embody, for me, the power of inviting and revealing sleep visions. Spellbound by a chance encounter with her image, in 2010 I began sharing with others my nightly imaginings. Did the prehistoric sculptor who carved her perceive, as I came to learn, that the whole body dreams?

She slept six thousand years until her discovery in 1902, when construction workers unearthed the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum—a labyrinthine underground temple in Paola, Malta. Archeologists discovered the small figurine of the Dreamer in the Oracle Room off the main hall. The chamber’s limestone walls, washed in red ochre, was one of several spaces devoted to ritual activities. The presence of the statuette, according to Malta’s National Museum of Archaeology, suggests these ceremonies included dream incubation—praying for guidance about how to treat ailments or what course of action to take.

I studied all this and more from 2012-14, when I attended dream leader training at the Haden Institute in North Carolina. Incubating dreams, practiced also in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, became a healing art in Greece five centuries before the Common Era. Pilgrims flocked to shrines dedicated to the god of medicine, Asclepius; by the second century CE, these shrines across Ancient Greece numbered three hundred. Today dream groups like mine exist worldwide.

What dreams dwell within this Maltese figure? Contemporary science has documented how the body remembers trauma, even if the mind suppresses it. Is she, like me, dreaming her way through a landscape of mourning? But the human psyche also has the capacity to heal and strengthen and conceive new extensions of itself. Perhaps the Dreamer is imagining a way out of a personal dilemma. Or her sleep visions could lead to creations that benefit society, like dreams that inspired the development of insulin, the sewing machine, or the periodic table. Perhaps most well-known, James Watson’s dream of two snakes intertwined in an ascending helix helped inspire the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.

Much like a temple unearthed, the drives and instincts buried in our unconscious can reveal themselves in dreams. To mystics, artists, and dream practitioners, these revelations animate what is taking shape in us, what we are becoming. This certainly occurred to me when puzzling images guided me through heartbreak. For a year after my husband died, I dreamed about hybrid creatures: elephant-stingrays, a bird-cat. They told me I was a hybrid, a mixture of the woman I used to be—wife, lover, half of a whole that vanished—and the person slowly emerging. Could I learn to integrate the strength of an elephant with the agility of a stingray? To metabolize grief with the lightness of birds? Navigate solitude with the dexterity of a cat?

Dream images hold the potential to shape loss that is still unspeakable, to make a person who feels shattered begin to mend. Early on I dreamed that the elephant-stingrays’ babies were crying, barricaded on a high shelf, but I could not hear the sound. Terrified that heartache would consume me, I barred my suffering, silenced it. Seven months later, the bird-cat nestled on my thigh. Finally I could hold that hybrid potential—serene and sensual—close to the core of my womanhood, could begin to imagine how that essence might come back to life.

Images that our psyches birth in dreams can be formative, but only if we listen to them, especially with our hearts. Emotions like fear, joy, anger, and sadness arise in the body, and they take form and speak to us during sleep as images. The word emotion—derived from the sixteenth-century French émotion, which means “moving, stirring, agitation”—implies the movement of energy. Embodiment through poems, visual art, or movement, as I was to discover, is a way to enliven that energy. Waking one day with a numinous dream, I wrote it down. Its architecture formed a mandala, the classic Tibetan meditation symbol, which in dreams represents our inner quest for wholeness:

I am in a house under renovation as workspace. The rooms open onto one another, mostly empty, but filled with a sense of purpose.

I come to a square, interior room that enchants me. It is built entirely of glass, surrounded on all four sides by a two-foot strip of lawn and greenery. The space holds only a large chair, covered in light blue and adjustable, so I could sit up or lie prone. The room suffuses me with its serenity.

A strong urge to re-create this dream space as a sculpture drove me to purchase green and blue clay and a square glass container. As I squeezed and molded the green clay into miniature trees and shrubs, fixing them in a border around the box, the dream’s energy hummed inside me. And when I placed the blue clay chair in the center of the box, tranquility flooded my heart. As I did in my dream, I thought, I want to stay in this room the rest of my life.

Of course I cannot. However, by contemplating this sculpture from time to time, I can recapture the serenity that my slumbering body felt. Integrate the peace of being fully grounded in myself and belonging to something larger. And discern the desires incarnated by the Dreamer of Malta—and each one of us, in flesh.


Gail Tyson’s flash prose has appeared in Citron, Ekphrastic, and Lampeter Reviews, Foliate Oak, and Peacock Journal. In 2020 Shanti Arts published her chapbook, The Vermeer Tales. Recent and upcoming work appears in Wild Word, The Rockvale Review, and Still: the Journal. An alumna of Stanford’s Creative Writing Program and the Dylan Thomas Summer School at the University of Wales, she has attended juried workshops at Collegeville Institute, Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference, and Rivendell Writers Colony. 

Image: Jr Korpa