There’s a popular idea that you can decode dreams in the same way as you might translate from a foreign language, by using a symbols dictionary. If you’ve ever tried it, you may have found it less than enlightening.
The point about symbols is that, unlike signs, they have no fixed or universal meaning. For example, a dog would mean something very different symbolically to someone who has been bitten as a child and always avoided them, and a dog-lover brought up in a dog-loving family.
For me, roses always carry connotations of my grandmother’s garden – the smell, the velvety petals, the dark dusky colours – and they have added resonance from all the happy and sad occasions when I played in her garden as a child. Roses are, for me, what madeleines were for Proust.
For someone whose first real awareness of roses was as lovers’ gifts, they might be a symbol of romantic love, or they might conjur negative memories for someone whose abusing partner always bought roses to express remorse, for example.
Meaning isn’t only different for different dreamers; it evolves over time within the individual consciousness. The same person who thinks of roses as symbols of love and romance at twenty might also associate them with violence and betrayal at forty.
When I was a child, I ate some berries which made me very sick, and got into a lot of trouble for it. Berries meant Bad. My first encounters with wild blackberries and blueberries were deeply mistrustful, but ultimately positive, so now berries have much wider symbolic potential.
In the same way, a culture’s symbols are always developing. The swastica carried positive significance before the Nazis adopted it as their emblem. The Union Jack has been tainted by association with extreme right-wing groups in the UK.
When I was a child, cigarette-smoking was considered a healthy activity, associated with youth, beauty and the great outdoors. Now, all those connotations have completely disappeared.
The objects in dreams don’t have a set meaning; they have personal resonance. If you want to understand more about them, don’t look in a book of definitions. Look in your own life and experiences; notice your own emotional responses to them.
Having said that, there is a kind of dream book which can sometimes throw some light on what dreams mean. I’ll be blogging about it next week.