Not Just Gorgeous Décor
Dreamcatchers are recognized around the world as protection from nightmares, and many homes today have at least one hanging on a wall somewhere. But what are they, why do they look the way they do, and what do they really mean?
Dreamcatchers come in all colours, shapes, and sizes and there are as many diverse styles as there are makers creating them. They are widely appreciated as pieces of art or décor, but many people have no idea of the background or significance of dreamcatchers. In this article, I will relate my experience to you based on the teachings I have received, and hopefully lead you to a new appreciation of these wall hangings.
Where Did They Come From?
It has come to be accepted that dreamcatchers began as an Indigenous sacred object in North America. As different tribes migrated across the continent before colonization, they were able to share knowledge and stories, resulting in adaptations of legends over time and based on their contacts. As a result, different nations have varying opinions on the dreamcatcher legends and locations of their origin. No version can be considered more accurate or correct than another because they all resulted from and contributed to the greater body of traditional knowledge. The one aspect that all legends share is the meaning of a dreamcatcher and the structure that forms its general appearance: There are distinct and mandatory components that are needed to create a traditional dreamcatcher, and each performs a specific purpose.
The structure, the legend, and the meaning of a dreamcatcher are intertwined and cannot be separated. So in order to fully understand the meaning of a dreamcatcher and its components, it is essential to know the legend behind them. Native American culture brings us several popular legends, and here I'm going to give you the first one that I learned and the one that resonates most with me:
One day, a spider was quietly spinning her web in a little boy’s willow hoop. The boy saw this and moved to kill the spider, but the boy's grandmother stopped him. She used the opportunity to provide a teaching about the beauty of nature and the importance of all creatures great and small. Together they watched the spider create the web and the grandmother reminded the child that all of creation is connected and every being deserves respect for the important role it plays – whether we can see what that role is or not.
The spider was very grateful that her life was spared, but she was also touched by the tenderness the grandmother displayed and the wisdom of her words. The spider was pleased to see that the sacred teachings are still being passed to young people, so she revealed her true self to the grandmother – she was Spider Woman, also a grandmother, and a powerful guardian spirit responsible for protecting and teaching the people.
"Our people are spreading throughout Turtle Island in all of the four directions" Spider Woman said. "It is getting more and more difficult for me to reach all of the Creator's children each night to pray over them for their safety from the evil spirits and bad dreams of the dark. As thanks for saving my life, I give you the gift of this web and the knowledge of how to weave it. Add hide strips, feathers and stones to the ring and web to attract the night spirits and dreams. Hang it over the bed of the boy, and it will protect him while he sleeps.” As the grandmother took the web, she heard Spider Woman's voice continue: "The good influences will slip through the centre hole - which is the heart of the web - and down the feathers to our precious sleeper, but the bad ones will be caught and trapped in the web until Grandfather Sun burns them away each morning. When you see the feathers move, you will know that another spirit has found the web. Pass this knowledge on to the people to help me protect them at night."
As Spider Woman moved away, the grandmother knew she had an important task ahead of her. She brought this teaching to the people, who began making dreamcatchers for their nighttime protection.
Structure of a Dreamcatcher
Although there are as many different varieties and types of dreamcatchers as there are dreamcatcher makers, all traditional ones have the same four basic components: the ring, the web, beads, and feathers. Each component has significant meaning and function and fulfills a role from the legend.
Originally, the ring was formed of a twisted willow sapling in the form of a circle, sometimes wrapped with laces of animal hides, but today many different items are used. The main function of the ring is to support the structure of the web, and it is always a ring shape. The circle is very prominent in Native culture as it symbolizes equality, unity, and the continuous flow of life. It reflects the shape of Mother Earth as well as the circular nature of the various cycles we experience in life: the turning of the seasons, the path that the sun and moon travel, and the cycle of life itself.
Twisted and woven animal sinew or reed strands were the first dreamcatcher webs. In modern times many people use any sort of cord, thread, or yarn. The web is of course, the gift that Spider Woman gave to us to sift and filter the nighttime spirits and forces that produce our dreams. The hole in the centre of the web symbolizes the Creator as the heart of everything and it is the doorway through which the good dreams pass to the dreamer. Any unfavourable energies that could do harm or lead us astray get caught in the web to be burned away by the sun each morning. This means only positive and helpful forces reach the sleeper to impart pleasant dreams or productive thoughts.
Tied to the ring in varying numbers and locations are segments of cord or lacing adorned with feathers. They acknowledge that spirits move invisibly through the air and they are used to attract and gather roaming spirits in the night. Good energies that make it through the web travel from the centre hole down the feathers to enter our dreams and provide inspiration. If you see a feather moving, you know that another vision is traveling to its destination.
“Beads” is a generic term for the stone, glass, wood, shell, crystals, arrowheads, or other small talismans that are embedded in the web. Each has its own purpose and meaning with some of them being very personal. The number of beads included can also be important. In some cases, only one bead is included to pay homage our Grandmother Spider Woman who gave us this gift of protection. In other cases, one of the significant numbers in Indigenous culture are represented, for example: four seasons and directions, seven sacred teachings, eight represents the spider, 13 lunar cycles, or any other number meaningful to the individual.
And the Vital Component…
The most important element of a dreamcatcher is not a physical one. It lives in the heart of the maker and is guided by the answers to their prayers made before and during the creative process. The accumulated knowledge of generations of ancestors is woven into the dreamcatcher and is the fundamental element in its creation. The true beauty and meaning of the finished product is found in the guidance provided spiritually.
Knowing one of the legends and the symbolic significance of the parts of a dreamcatcher, we come closer to seeing its meaning as a very spiritual gift. Not just anyone can create a dreamcatcher, it is an ancient custom steeped in tradition and the knowledge is handed from teacher to student with loving intention. An initial cleansing takes place and throughout the process of collecting materials and assembling them there is prayer and contemplation. The finished product ends up being a physical depiction of the prayers and the love of the maker for the recipient, a marriage of the physical gifts of Mother Earth and the intangible spirit realm.
I am continuing to learn and evolve, and with each new dreamcatcher I tie, I feel there is an opportunity and a lesson for me. I have taken all of my teachings and interpreted them into my version of a dreamcatcher, always following my heart. I have never seen a web made with my method: tying many tiny knots rather than just twisting the web together, but I feel it is right, and that I wouldn’t have had the idea if it wasn’t meant to be. This exclusive technique takes a lot more time, but it makes the web far more stable, and I believe that it locks my prayers into the fibres. My dreamcatchers are made to last a lifetime, and their meaning is rooted in long-standing traditional knowledge in today's context.
What About Man-Made Materials?
Changing times and technologies provide different modern materials for us to use to create more contemporary dreamcatchers. Many of us do not hunt for food, so we do not have hides or sinew available, and lack of access to nature prevents us from collecting and harvesting feathers, shells or stones, and saplings. The wide range of commercially available resources has nearly no limits. Rather than diminishing the message, this is a great evolution that provides a sustainable expression of ageless teachings. Using today’s supplies, we are able to keep this tradition alive. Because the main component of dreamcatchers is spiritual, the emphasis on the nature of the materials isn’t as crucial.
Although I sometimes use materials like brass rings as a ring frame instead of a sapling, and artificial suede or leather made from recycled plastic instead of animal hide, I still use our ancestor’s methods and prayers with each one I create. I respectfully follow their design because it is what was given to us by our Grandmother Spider Woman and handed down from generation to generation. I don’t think these dreamcatchers have any less meaning than the ones I make with willow and deer skin, because my heart is in all of them.
The next time you see a dreamcatcher think of the legend, notice the different parts and put the puzzle together. Now you have a good starting point of what dreamcatchers really are and what they really mean.