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Perpetua's Last Dream

Dreamed 203 AD by St. Perpetua of Carthage.

BACKGROUND

Perpetua was a young woman in Roman Carthage who converted to Christianity, and was condemned to be fed to wild beasts in the arena by the Roman authorities. She dreamed this in prison, scheduled to die the next day.

DREAM

...I saw in a vision that Pomponius the deacon had come here to the door of the prison, and knocked hard upon it. I went out to him and opened it. He wore a white robe, and shoes curiously wrought. He said to me: "Perpetua, we await you; come." And he took my hand, and we began to go through rugged and winding places.

At last with much breathing hard we came to the amphitheatre, and he led me into the center of the arena. And he said to me: "Be not afraid; I am here with you and labor together with you." And he went away. And I saw many people watching closely. Because I knew that I was condemned to [be eaten by] the beasts, I marveled that beasts were not sent out against me.

[Instead] there came out against me a certain ill-favored Egyptian with his helpers, to fight with me. Also there came to me comely young men, my helpers and aides. And I was stripped naked, and I became a man. And my helpers began to rub me with oil as their custom is for a [wrestling] match; and over against me I saw that Egyptian wallowing in the dust.

And there came forth a man of very great stature, so that he surpassed the very top of the amphitheatre, wearing a robe, and beneath it, between the two stripes over the breast, a robe of purple, and he wore shoes curiously wrought in gold and silver. He bore a rod like a master of gladiators, and a green branch whereon were golden apples. And he besought silence and said: "The Egyptian, if he shall conquer this woman, shall slay her with the sword; and if she shall conquer him, she shall receive this branch." And he went away.

And we approached and began to buffet one another. He tried to trip up my feet, but I with my heels smote him in the face. And I rose up into the air and began so to smite him as though I trod not the earth. But when I saw that there was yet delay, I joined my hands, setting finger against finger of them. And I caught his head, and he fell upon his face; and I trod upon his head.

And the people began to shout, and my helpers began to sing. And I went up to the munerarius and received the branch. And he kissed me and said to me: Daughter, peace be with you. And I began to go with glory to the gate called the Gate of Life.

IN THE MORNING

And I awoke; and I understood that I should fight not against beasts, but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory.

NOTE

Even a pagan like me finds this a moving dream from a woman willing to die for her beliefs. But don't let that fool you into thinking its appeal would be universal. How would, say, a 15th Century reader view this gender-bending, magic-working dream? Perpetua might get martyred all over again. How about a disciple of Freud in 1910? The prospect of being lectured for years on a couch about "penis envy" almost makes martyrdom sound good.

My point: we can't assume we're the only era that lacks cultural blinders. The historians I've read who comment on this dream all seem to look for symbolism and miss its searingly clear emotional point. To read such an experience and not be moved is to eviscerate it. For it aspires to move others as well as comfort the dreamer herself.

Do I mean the text aspires to inspire, or the dream itself? Can dreams intend? Of course. Though Western scholars steeped in Freud have found it difficult to accept, intent (and concern for others, for the community) are proven facts in shamanic traditions (and lucid dream research). And as a dreamworker and shaman, I find Perpetua's last dream quite shamanic:

  1. It's vivid, detailed, dramatic (and therefore almost certainly REM)
  2. It's very coherent (difficult to achieve in REM, and thus a sign of a major dream)
  3. Perpetua transforms bodily
  4. Perpetua shatters her gender role (going from a proper lady to a male fighter in a few lines)
  5. S/he wrestles with evil for the sake of all, not just for herself
  6. Perpetua levitates and masters a sort of spiritual kung fu
  7. She's blessed by a dream-being who gives her a treasure.
The dream does four jobs at once: inspires her community, effectively prepares her for physical death... but also prepares her for spiritual and literary immortality. And it worked: eighteen centuries later, Christians still read of her, and historians still analyze her dreams. But not only historians and Christians can claim Perpetua for their own: shamanic dreamers can too.



LISTS AND LINKS: facing death - courage - religious dreams - Christianity - you are lunch - bouts and duels - sports - I'm just not myself today! - gender-bent dreams - flying dreams - a modern dream of gladiating giants: not good and evil, but sacrifice and self-interest, in China and America

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