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The Iroquoian Dream Theory and How to Get Away with Sleeping with Your Neighbor’s Wife

  • Maureen Elsberry

When we close our eyes and enter REM sleep, the world we perceive subconsciously manifests itself into a variety of forms: dreams, nightmares, and bizarre schizophrenic images flashing behind our eyelids. The majority of mankind has, at some point, battled the question, what do they all mean? 

Revered psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that dreams symbolize our unconscious wishes and desires. He tended to lean heavily on perverse interpretations and associated most symbols as being sexual in nature. He was far from alone in his theory. The five tribes comprising the Iroquois nation in the Northeastern area of the United States have held an intricate and elaborate belief system centered on dreams since the Seventeenth century. 

The historical religious and spiritual implications of the Iroquois relied around the soul’s desires. They believed that, if the secret desires of the soul went unmet, the soul would go on a rampage against the body and cause sickness and even death. However, if the soul’s desires were met, then it would remain satisfied and complacent. It was through dreams these desires were expressed, and so the Iroquois relied on interpreting these messages to make decisions on everyday life.

During the Midwinter Dream Festival, individuals would share their dreams and then wait for interpretation from members of the community. The person that came the closest to interpreting the dream accurately received the distinct pleasure of helping the dreamer act out those lurking unconscious wishes. 

It was not uncommon for dreams to represent torture, personal loss, and sexual desires. Jesuit priests studying the Iroquois reported that acting out dreams of a sexual nature often resulted in “therapeutic orgies.” And while monogamy in a marriage was expected, satisfying a dream exceeded that notion in importance. Perhaps even more disturbing is the report of a warrior dreaming that he was held captive and burned. Naturally, to squash that from becoming a reality, the people burnt their captives and lit the dreamer on fire, only to top it off by eating a dog.

The system seems like it could be rife with abuse. What would prevent someone from “sharing” a dream under false pretenses? “I had a dream that everyone gave me all their money, so . . . fork it over.” Allegedly, citizens were so afraid of public disapproval that they rarely went against their code of honor. 

After European fur-traders introduced alcohol into the mix, the code-of-honor got a little blurred. It became the state that, while under the influence of that dark temptress known as rum, rowdiness was overlooked simply because they felt its power was beyond that of human will. So, let me get this straight . . . you can get wasted and act like an idiot and then tell your community that you had a dream you slept with the married woman down the way, and then she is delivered to you on a silver platter? High-five Iroquois!