"Bodies of water" - The Dream and the Underworld by James Hillman

I like James Hillman's writings, even though I often find them disturbing and not so easy to read if you don’t know what he refers to (here : alchemical psychology). They always bring new perspectives into my thinking and imagination and seem to be echoing deeply within me. In his book, The Dream and the Underworld, he brings new perspectives to the “conventional” interpretation of dreams. Here is for “water”.

Bodies of water

Concerning bodies of water in dreams (oceans, rivers, lakes, pools, baths), let us bypass the symbolisms of lustration and baptism, of doctrinal wisdom and uterine mother, and also the too general meanings of life energy, Mercurius, and the unconscious. Instead, let us take a lead from Heraclitus (frg. 36) : "To souls, it is death to become water ...," and (frg. 77, Freeman): "It is delight, or rather death, to souls to become wet..." Jung has expanded upon the death of the soul through water in his classical work on the Rosarium Philosophorum (CW16) where he offers a host of remarkable psychological insights on the many implications of water. There, too, he refers to Heraclitus.
If we connect Heraclitus' statement about water and death with the familiar alchemical motto-"perform no operation until all has become water"-then the opus begins in dying. When a dream image is moistened, it is entering the dissolutio and is becoming, in Bachelard’s sense, more psychisized, made into soul, for water is the special element of reverie, the element of reflective images and their ceaseless, ungraspable flow. Moistening in dreams refers to the soul’s delight in its death, its delight in sinking away from fixations in literalized concerns.
Entering the waters relaxes one’s hold on things and lets go of where one has been stuck. The “waters” that one goes into may be like a new environment or a new body of doctrine that wraps one round and which may both hold one up or suck one into its deeps. It may be like a new sexual relationship , in which the naked body is immersed, a river that carries one rushing along (Poseidon was a river and a horse), or on which one floats feeling a deep and moving support.
Because initiation into the water usually brings a refreshing new liquidity, dream interpreters have identified water with emotion (affects, feelings), but the movement has an impersonal elemental quality, as water itself does. If one looks carefully at the dream, the emotion is usually located in the dry ego-soul as it dissolves, not in the waters, which often are simply there, cool, dispassionate, receiving.

So the image-soul’s delight is the ego-soul’s dread. In dreams, it fears drowning in torrents, whirlpools, tidal waves, which again interpreters (have they such dry souls ?) often translate to mean the dreamer is in danger of being overwhelmed by the unconscious in an emotional psychosis, flooded with fantasies – no ground, no standpoint. Heraclitus, however, like alchemical psychology, sees death in water as a way of dissolving one kind of earth while another kind comes into being. Fragment 36 (Freeman) continues :

To souls, it is death to become water;
To water it is death to become earth.
From earth comes water, and from water, soul.

Literal fixations in earthbound problems do stop the soul’s movement, and so “it is death to become earth”. The soul does want to flow on and move through. Now since death also means the perspective of soul, these very same fixations put soul into earth and earth into soul, giving to matters a new psychic sense. A psychic matter forms, i.e., “from earth comes water”. We begin to see and feel psychologically what matters in the soul’s fixations. This regenerates water, as well as soul.

Literalizations that kill the flow and bury the soul always need dissolving; at the same time what is dissolved always finds new earthworks to stop flow. This is an ever recurring process, as in alchemy, describing a cycle of soul-making, for which dissolution in water is necessary. To fear the dream’s waters is to fear being surrounded and sunk into the body of this cycle in which the soul delights.


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