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“The Land of Ur: Dreams, Myths, and the Collective Unconscious”

Keith Penniman 7/24/05, revised 4/7/13, 6/17/18


            Today I invite you to join me on a journey into the world of dreams, myths, and what Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” I don’t usually remember my dreams, or give them too much thought, although once when I was a teenager I kept a journal of my dreams. I learned then that the key to remembering dreams was to write them down immediately, before they had sunk back into the subconscious. So, that’s what I did with the dream I want to tell you about today, an odd dream I had several years ago.

            In my dream I was traveling on foot in wintertime with a small group of people. We were fleeing a war (what war I don’t know), trying to return to the Land of Ur (spelled U – R). I don’t know the identities of the people I was with; I had the sense that they were not close relations, but rather acquaintances – perhaps a customer in the grocery store where I was working at the time, perhaps a neighbor from childhood. Near the end of my dream, which is the only part I remember, we came upon a river that was flowing with ice–not frozen solid, but thick with chunks of ice moving rapidly underneath a narrow footbridge, which was also covered with ice and extremely treacherous. We knew that falling into the river would mean certain death, but we had to cross that bridge to get back to the Land of Ur, which in my dream was in northern Vermont. (As you’ll soon discover, my dream geography isn’t very accurate.) 

The Dream Continues

            First a woman in our party crossed the bridge, then myself. On the other side we entered a building, a rustic barn or shack with no door. From there we watched another man in our party attempt to cross, but he slipped and fell into the river. I reached down from the opening of the building, my arm somehow lengthening magically, grabbed him by the arm, and pulled him inside. We stripped off his wet, freezing clothes and wrapped him in a blanket. Then I woke up with these words clearly in my mind: “We must return to the Land of Ur.”

            As I wrote down some notes about my dream, I was very perplexed by this Land of Ur. I had no idea what it meant, where it was, or why I remembered it so clearly, right down to the spelling. I looked it up and discovered that Ur was a city in ancient Mesopotamia, first settled more than 6,000 years ago. Its ruins are known today as Tall al Muqayyar, in Iraq. The Book of Genesis refers to the city as “Ur of the Chaldeans,” the birthplace of Abram, later to be called Abraham, the first of the Hebrew patriarchs, who lived in the early second millennium B.C.E. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are known as “Abrahamic religions” because they all share his monotheistic faith. So it was probably in the Bible where I first encountered the name Ur many years ago, though the memory was buried deep in my subconscious. Genesis 11:31 says, “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.”

            The verse is a bit confusing because the English word Haran refers both to Abram’s brother and to the city where the family settled. Located in modern-day Turkey, Haran is the place from which Abram received his famous call from God, to “leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)

Back to the Land of Ur

            This morning, however, I would like to take you back briefly to the Land of Ur, often referred to not only as the birthplace of Abram, but also of civilization itself: Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers” Tigris and Euphrates. It was here that a people known as the Sumerians first developed farming, and a system of wedge-shaped writing known as cuneiform. More than 4,000 years ago, Sumerians living in cities like Ur had developed paved roads, the arch, schools, epic literature, law codes, banking, and great temple-towers, called ziggurats.



        The Ziggurat at Ur is the most well preserved monument from this remote age of the Sumerians (see drawing based on the 1939 reconstruction by Sir Leonard Woolley). It is a massive, stepped pyramid about 200 feet by 150 feet at its base, rising in a series of successively smaller platforms to a height of 64 feet or more. It was constructed with a solid core of mud-brick covered by a thick skin of burnt-brick to protect it from the elements. 

            The Tower of Babel referred to in Genesis 11:4, “a tower that reaches to the heavens,” was also a ziggurat, the ziggurat of Babylon, a colossal structure that rose to a height of nearly 300 feet during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II. 

            The ziggurat at Ur was the principal center of worship of the Sumerian moon god, Nanna, the supreme deity of measurement and calendar calculations; the god of time. The staircase leading to Nanna’s temple, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, was a link between the earth and the heavens. In fact, the word “ladder” in Jacob’s dream may also be translated as “stairway” or “ramp.” Perhaps the image that Jacob dreamt of was a ziggurat like the ones in Mesopotamia, his grandfather’s birthplace.

            Jung regarded dreams as important manifestations of the unconscious mind, which need to be integrated with the conscious mind in order for a person to achieve individuation, or wholeness. “If we meditate on a dream sufficiently long and thoroughly,” he said, “if we carry it around with us and turn it over and over, something almost always comes of it.” [“The Practical Use of Dream-Analysis,” Collected Works, 16, par. 331] 

An involuntary and spontaneous psychic product

            In her Introduction to Jung’s Psychology [1966], Frieda Fordham says, “A dream is an involuntary and spontaneous psychic product, a voice of nature; and is usually obscure and difficult to understand because it expresses itself in symbols and pictures, like the most ancient writing, or the complicated letters which children sometimes enjoy producing, with drawings replacing the important words.”

            “The first step in understanding a dream,” she says, “is to establish its context. This means unraveling its network of relationships with the dreamer and his or her life, and discovering the significance of the various images it presents… Dreams can be interpreted on an objective or on a subjective level. In the first case the dream is related to what is going on in the environment; the people appearing in it are taken as real, and their relationship to…the dreamer are analyzed. In the second case the dream figures are taken as representing aspects of the dreamer’s personality.” So, for example, in my dream, the man who fell into the river could represent a real person in my life, or could represent a projection of myself, so that I was actually saving myself from something within myself.

            Fordham continues, “Some dreams have considerably more than personal significance; such dreams are often vivid, and make use of surprising and even incomprehensible symbols, and their relationship to the dreamer is difficult to trace. These Jung classes as collective dreams, and to understand them use must often be made of historical and mythological analogies to find what the symbols meant to other people in other times.”

The Collective Unconscious

            They emerge from what Jung called the “collective unconscious,” a deeper level of the psyche than the personal unconscious. Whereas Freud treated the unconscious as a collection of repressed traumatic experiences from childhood, Jung theorized the existence of archetypes, elementary ideas and symbols which have developed over the millennia and which we inherit through the unconscious mind from the cumulative experience of the human race. He wrote, “The collective unconscious…appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious.” [“The Structure of the Psyche,” 1927]

            Jung thought that archetypes enable people to react to situations in ways similar to their ancestors, and that the collective unconscious contains wisdom that guides all humanity.

            According to Joseph Campbell, preeminent scholar of comparative mythology, “All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes. The differences in the costumes are the results of environment and historical conditions.” [Power of Myth (PM), Anchor Books, 1991, p. 61]

            “It may seem strange at first to think that these [collective dreams] could have any relevance to ourselves;” says Fordham. “We have cut ourselves off from the past to such an extent that it is difficult to realize that the experiences of remote people can still have meaning for us. Yet it is so; unconsciously we still think like our distant ancestors, and to understand this is to deepen our experience, open up new possibilities, and give us the stability and vigour which come from discovering our roots.”

Crossing over difficulties

            Which brings me back to my dream journey to the Land of Ur. I have, as Jung said, carried it around with me and turned its images over and over in my mind. I recognize some of its symbols, like the bridge. There are times in each of our lives when we need to cross over some great difficulty or danger, perhaps to reach a new stage in our life’s journey. The image of being pulled from the water and stripped literally to one’s “birthday suit” strikes me as an experience of rebirth. My dream’s destination was the birthplace of Abraham, the cradle of civilization, the dwelling place of the Sumerian god of time. So perhaps the Land of Ur is the Source of life, to which I must someday return.

            I was also struck by the parallel between my dream, in which I was fleeing war, and the war that was taking place at that time in Iraq, the modern-day Land of Ur, and elsewhere in the Middle East. The roots of these ongoing conflicts have as much to do with politics and economics as with religion, and yet the failure of many Christians, Jews, and Muslims to honor their common source only polarizes the situation. I am reminded of what Joseph Campbell said about the civil war in Lebanon in the mid-1980s: “There you have the three great Western religions… and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.’” [PM 26]

Every mythology

            “Every mythology,” says Campbell, “has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field… brotherhood in most of the myths I know of is confined to a bounded community. In bounded communities, aggression is projected outward… The myths of participation and love pertain only to the in-group, and the out-group is totally other.” [PM 28]

            What we need instead is a mythology of love that is planet-wide, that knows no boundaries, that is, well, universalist (with a small “u”). The seeds of this mythology are present in many religious traditions, if only the hard casings surrounding them would open. In Buddhism, all beings are Buddha beings. Central to the teachings of Jesus is a saying found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke: “Love you enemies… You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens. [God] causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. Tell me, if you love [only] those who love you, why should you be commended for that? …To sum up, you are to be unstinting in your generosity in the way your heavenly Father’s generosity is unstinting.” [Matthew 5:43-48, Scholars Version (SV)]

            That last admonition from the Gospel of Matthew is commonly translated, incorrectly, I would argue, as “You…must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [RSV] What a different impression that makes! In Luke’s gospel Jesus says it a little bit differently: “Be merciful [or compassionate], even as your Father is merciful.” [Luke 6:36, RSV, SV]

            On this Father’s Day, may we be reminded of our common Source, and keep alive the dream of world community, where no one is left outside the circle of human love and compassion. Amen.

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