I’ve never warmed to those dream diaries that tell you that a snake is a phallic symbol, losing your teeth means you’re stressed out or worried about mortality (big surprise) and dropping a handkerchief means you’re worried about money (or something).
We all have our own language of symbols. Take the snake for instance. When I was little we used to stomp through the tall grass to let the snakes know we were coming. (This told me – snakes are dangerous, but they really just want to avoid you). I went to a reptile park at school camp once and we all sat around in a circle while a massive python slithered around in the grass. One kid panicked and moved away, at which the snake made a determined but short-lived break for it. (Snakes can be quite docile and they prefer to be free). And on another school excursion we all patted a snake, which felt a little like a warm, braided carpet – until the keeper realised it was shedding its skin and was likely to bite us through sheer sleepy grumpiness. (Snakes have changes in mood). There’s so much more complexity to an actual snake than is suggested by the phallic interpretation (not to say it’s never relevant).
Sometimes our symbols come from the imagination of others. I have terrifying owl dreams, although I’m really quite fond of them in waking life. I suspect it’s something to do with my childhood reading of Alan Garner’s magnificent Owl Service, plus the sinister little death owls in the Titus Groan books (Athena’s lurking there somewhere too). I think it would be fascinating (for the dreamer anyway) to keep a dream diary for a year and make your own dream dictionary based on your associations, your symbols.
Of course, we do inherit collective symbols but there is so much more richness to be added through the ways these images intersect and contradict our own lived experience.