Dream symbols and their Origin


Ch.: "I see a lime-green cactus without any thorns. It has this characteristic rosette shape out of which smaller and smaller leafs grow. On top of the plant is a wonderful pink flower. While I am looking at it bewildered I hear a voice that says: "Whoever sees the basic material of dreams can read them like storybooks." I wake up and am happy about this friendly message.”


Dreams are a visual language

Before one starts thinking about dream symbols one should think about the nature of the dream language. Our word language is based on sound vibrations which follow a linear flow. Our words are formed with sound modulations which build our language. Sometimes there is also language in our dreams. Primarily, however dreams are an imagery. Imagine you were deaf and dumb but had something like a computer monitor on which you could create pictures without having much effort. Now think of a situation where you want to say something like: “I'm hungry.” How would you illustrate that message? Or “I'm scared.” How would you express that without using sound vibrations? You could only speak in an image sequence. How would you choose this sequence?

It is highly interesting to think the other way around. Not as the interpreter but as the speaker. The human race is using this language since millions of years and even today people who try to interpret dreams pay too little attention to the fact that dreams mainly use this optical language. The many peculiarities of dream content are caused by this special language.


Dream symbols and the world around us

The center of our organic grown conscious is the brain. This organ is located in a bone shell and must paint a picture of our surroundings with only a few sensors. The number of sensory input must be kept low. All the dots, curves and color patches that are registered by the eye represent a huge amount of information. The bigger the amount of information the longer it takes to process them. Because of the large quantity of input the brain forms a number of layouts. The information flow into them and form the whole. These layout are not only form elements but also filled with emotions and put into a relationship grid. We find them in our dreams as symbols. If we think of dreaming as a neurological process these layouts are probably being related to other layouts.


The Hierarchy of Symbols

In the introduction I tried to portray the symbols as a product of a cerebral process. If this is the case then one can assume that there has to be a hierarchy in the meaning of the symbols. It is essential for the brain to quickly decide what is important and what is not. This decision is made very fast and only after the object came into main focus it gets analyzed closer. That means only after something seems to be important one takes a closer look or listens more carefully. Furthermore are the symbolic contents structure elements and have to form according to rules which are the same for all human beings. These symbolic elements form with options established by evolution. With the help of simple questioning we come to a scheme that shows us which elements are essential for the surviving of an organism (here mankind). We can conclude that the human himself is the most essential element. He stands in the center of his own interest and therefore also in the center of all symbol forming. This focal point which is the human himself is not only a philosophical abstract but a physical structure with options for actions and perceptions. The organs that make action and perception possible are the interface between environment and human. The human being assesses the environment with these organs. For this reason the top hierarchy of symbols consists of contents that contain our anatomy and sensory organs. The actual environment is being judged from this point of view.

An example: At first glance the four cardinal points seem to be logical and natural. There are two directions namely where the sun rises respectively sets. The other two indicate where the sun stands in zenith direction and of course the contrarily direction. Due to this no one doubts that this classification is a cosmic natural fact. Indeed the sun is moving on circular arc and appears at different places around the year. Actually there are no real four cardinal points. From this perspective mankind is “freezing” the dynamic movement of the sun and forms it into a cross whose centerpiece is himself. From this viewpoint he is splitting up the world in four directions and zones. In this case we have a symbolism that results out of the human anatomy and depends to the top symbol hierarchy. It is a structure-forming orientation element that is being projected upon the environment.

Garden of Eden with the rivers Euphrates, Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel


Now I want to introduce a classification of symbol hierarchies which is a classification of symbols ordered by relevance regarding structure recognition, orientation and life relevance. Indeed there is a certain arbitrariness in this scheme. The fact that this is not a mathematical formula but a classification causes this arbitrariness.

  1. Body based symbols

  2. Symbols formed by general environmental structures

  3. Symbols from our civilized everyday world

  4. Symbols from our individual life experience


1. Body based symbols

Space and time orientation

Origin and root of our orientation and judgment of the world is our body. Our bi-symmetrical shape has two main directions of operating and (visual) perception. There are also two intermediate regions. These two main directions are the degrees of freedom of our two-dimensional world namely the surface of the solid ground. There are more directions that we can somehow perceive which however do not below to our habitat. These are up and down. We can only look up to the sun, to the stars and clouds and the birds. What is underneath our feet stays hidden.

  • Action

    - We move forward and in forward direction we can preferably use our hands.

    - Backwards we have the opposite case. We can hardly move or act backwards.

  • Perception

    The ability to act in forward and reverse direction is reinforced by the eyes:

    - We see and recognize in forward direction therefore the conscious is assigned to this direction.

    - We cannot see in backward direction that is why we feel threat and insecurity from there. Backward direction is assigned to the unconscious.

    The side regions are intermediate regions respectively transition areas. This affects the ability to act as well as the optical perception and the symbolism.

  • Space-interpreted time symbolism

    - In forward direction lies the path we want to go. (future)

    - Behind us lies the path we have already treaded. (past).

Further examples will be given in the following chapter “The basic order of symbols”. These will be mixed with the symbols that have their roots in general environmental structures.


2. Symbols formed by general environmental structures

We could read off a huge amount of symbols from our environment. The program in our brain which is responsible for decision making regarding priorities, has to find the priorities in the elements of the environment.

What is important in our environment is being decided by our biology. Important to us are those elements that are essential for our existence. Some of these environmental conditions have been critical to our species and its evolution chain for millions of years. These conditions have been incorporated into the instinctive behavior and also were decisive elements for the physical designs of creatures. Because of their archaic meaning these symbols will be named as “cosmic” symbols.

Some important symbols in this category:

  • Dark and bright polarity

  • “Heaven” and “hell” (order and chaos) of the top/bottom symbolism

  • General topographic conditions

  • The four elements with their transparency

Examples will be given in the chapter “The four elements”.


3. Symbols from our civilized everyday world

These symbols are standing lower in the hierarchy than the “cosmic” symbols. Example for the dominance of a “cosmic” symbol over a everyday world symbol: We are in a room maybe a basement or a living room. The most important thing for the classification (conscious or unconscious) are the light conditions. Light depends to the second hierarchy level. The light however is only a “cosmic” aid and subordinated to the eyesight and its resulting recognition.

  • Habitats (streets, houses etc.)

  • Transportation (by foot, car, train etc.)

  • Obstacles and aids for pathfinding

  • Communication elements like radio, telephone etc.

Examples can be found in the following chapters with the priority themes:

“The human habitat”, “Locomotion and dealing with life”, “The path”, “Human figure”, “Animals in dreams”, “Plants in dreams”, “Threshold”, “Threshold guardians”, “Symbols of inner maturation”


4. Symbols from our individual life experience

These are not only single symbols that everyone has to discover on their own. Rather more there are also nuances of symbols of higher hierarchies. We should not forget that symbols are built from our individual experience and therefore always contain a personal touch.


© Alfred Ballabene (Vienna) translated by Seth