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Dream DNA: Personal Mythology and the Narrative Elements of Taemong

The term taemong refers to Korean conception dreams that forecast not only the births and genders of children, but their personalities and career paths as well. In Korea’s not-so-distant past, it was thought that in order for a child to be born, he or she must first be dreamt.[1] In this respect, taemong might be considered a form of history written in reverse—that is, in projection of an as yet unfolded life. By the same token, these birth dreams comprise not just the personal histories of those who are dreamt, but also their rich collective oral histories: the binding, defining stories and narrative phenotypes of the individuals who make up families, extended families, communities, regions, and the entire nation.

While taemong remain part of a vibrant culture of dreaming in Korea, some suggest that the tradition is diminishing in importance. What follows draws from five years of ethnographic research (collecting taemong) and practice (interview, transcription, illumination, analysis) in the university classroom. Primarily influenced by the theories advanced and data presented in Fred Jeremy Seligson’s Oriental Birth Dreams (1989), Eileen Stukane’s The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy (1994), and Mark Brazeal’s Full Moon in a Jar (2011), this study attempts (1) to demonstrate and describe the characteristics of taemong through the identification and analysis of eighteen fundamental narrative elements; and (2) to help preserve and reinvigorate the tradition in Korea and introduce the practice of taemong around the world; and (3) inspire those who have taemong to inscribe them, and those who do not, to conceive of and compose their own.

Simply put, through discerning and documenting taemong and their narrative elements, this project aims to read—and to write—stories of conception in order to understand them as what David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner call “personal mythologies”[2]—vehicles for the making of meaning both social and personal.

The eighteen narrative elements of taemong are:

1. Suddenness

2. Brightness, Brilliance, Illumination (Heavenly Light)

3. Enormity (Size), Miraculous Proportions

4. Abundance, Proliferation, Fecundity

5. Vividness, Apex of Experience

6. Certainty

7. Sense of Awe (Entrancing, Mesmerizing)

8. Unforgettability

9. Bodily Incorporation

10. Return to the Primordial (Garden)

11. Merging (Compression, Bridging) of Heaven and Earth

12. Choice/Decision-Making

13. Calmness in the Face of Fear/Danger

14. Reciprocal Gaze

15. High Contrast

16. Intermediary Figure

17. Care/Love

18. Concentric Surrounding

1. Suddenness

Perhaps the most ubiquitous element, suddenness, serves a dramatic function, compressing time like the cinematic jump cut and allowing for astonishing, often surreal juxtapositions:

My Dad was driving alone and suddenly a red cat appeared on the passenger seat. He thought it adorable so he took the cat to my Mom and the cat licked the back of her hand.[3]

Still, the effect of suddenness is undermined by its announcement. Things often feel more sudden without the word “suddenly”:

I was on some sort of farm. There were many trees surrounding me and I had no idea where I was. So I kept walking without any clue where I was going. Suddenly, in my hands was a beautiful pink peach. I looked around and noticed it was a peach orchard but the one I held was the most beautiful and plump peach I have ever seen. It was so bright and so beautiful I could not look at it directly.[4]

The magic (or high-technology) of these dreams lies in the sudden appearance of the cat and the peach, as if teleported. Dreams are neither random nor illogical; they have their own logic, which is non-chronological.

2. Brightness

The final sentence of the previous dream introduces our second element: brightness, brilliance, illumination. As taemong flow from the yang (pure light/life-energy)-yin (darkness/birth cavity) process of bringing the child’s soul (“Heaven’s ‘ghost’”)[5] into the mother’s womb, it is no accident that they are bathed in heavenly light.

Sometimes this light is so bright the dreamer cannot look at it directly:[6]

I was in my old house where I was born. My mother came up to me and gave me a diamond ring. It was so bright that I was not able to look at it directly.[7]

Implicit in such radiance is an encounter with the divine, and the inability of human beings to perceive fully the omniscient, omnipotent forces of the universe.  Such dream experiences are lambent anointments; they mark the dreamer’s pregnancy as an elevated state of being, even more apparent in birth dreams in which mothers encounter queens, kings and presidents,[8] or become royal figures themselves.[9]

The divine light of taemong thus mirrors Jonathan Edwards’ in its transformational qualities[10], and is similarly conversional—not for religious purposes, but for how it makes possible the transition from one life stage (child) to another (mother).[11]

3. Enormity

The third element of enormity (miraculous proportions) often serves a symbolic purpose, as in popular singer Nelly’s music video “Only Just a Dream,” in which the size of the wedding band—greater than that of the car he drives—represents the psychological weight and significance of the marriage commitment.[12] This function, occasionally inverted, results in incredibly smaller-than-life objects, greatly inspiring Surrealists’ and their aesthetic predecessors’ stylistic penchant for hallucinatory effects.

Just as Easter Island “was magnified to an enormous size in ‘The Surrealist Map of the World,’ where countries and continents… were allowed to assume a size that corresponded to the attraction they held for the Surrealists,”[13] so does the principle of attraction operate for the dreamer when things expand in taemong:

I am walking down the road, when I see a wooden wheelbarrow. I approach it to see what’s inside, and as I do, I see two big fruits the size of a person’s tummy—are they watermelons? But when I get close, I find out that they are peaches. Two peaches so big that I mistake them for watermelons. They are not fully ripe. The color is pink and white with a bit of green in it. I pick up one of them and bring it with me.[14]

4. Abundance

The fourth element of abundance (fecundity), like the third, involves magnification and hyperbole; it simply achieves expansion through proliferation rather than the amplification of a single object. The following taemong is unique in that it starts with abundance and ends with enormity.

The Treasure Box

There is a small wooden box, no bigger than the palm of my hand, on my bed. Its lid is decorated with a beautiful golden dragon symbol, and there’s a nice smell coming out of the box—the smell of wild flowers. I know I have to open the box, and I carefully lift the lid. As soon as I open the lid, countless fruits and vegetables come flooding out of the box. I first attempt to gather as many of them as possible in my skirt and put them back in the box, but it’s no use. However, there’s a particularly large cucumber among the fruits, and all other fruits and vegetables are slowly pulled towards the cucumber and eventually become assimilated with it. As it absorbs more, the cucumber grows bigger and bigger, and starts glowing brightly. Eventually, the cucumber turns into a shape of a winged baby boy.

The multiple fusions and metamorphoses of this dream are remarkable, from various fruits and vegetables to a single giant cucumber, into a dragon-boy. It can be most illuminating to hear how the dreamer makes meaning of the dream:

I gave birth to a healthy baby boy a few months later. I was sure he was going to become a great man, because he came from a box with the symbol of dragon on it. He’s now working at Kookmin Bank, which I believe fits the description of a “great man” because nowadays it’s so difficult to get a job. However, he absolutely detests vegetables, and I think it’s ironic considering his taemong.[15]

Abundance in taemong is an externalization of the condition of pregnancy—in this case, a veritable cornucopia of procreation.

5. Vividness; 6. Certainty; 7. Awe; 8. Unforgettability

The following taemong is remarkable in that it not only provides an example of the fifth element—vividness (apex of experience)—the sixth—certainty—the seventh—awe (mesmerizing)—and arguably, the eighth—unforgettability—as well as at least three others. In fact, most taemong are comprised of multiple elements; hence their recombinant nature:

My dad was taking a walk. He went deep into the mountains and stopped. The mountains were full of beautiful bright-colored flowers (white, yellow and pink). There were hundreds and thousands of them. He was so shocked not only to see so many flowers but also to smell the most redolent scent he ever smelled in his life. He couldn’t close his mouth. Immediately after he woke up, he knew that this was a taemong.[16]

As Fred Jeremy Seligson clarifies in Oriental Birth Dreams—the only English-language, book-length study of taemong—vividness, certainty and unforgettability are intimately intertwined: “Usually there is no doubt in a dreamer’s mind when she (or he) has a birth dream, and it is so vivid and revealing that she can never forget it.”[17] The parenthetical here is worth noting, as—contrary to Kelly Bulkeley’s assertion in Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion (2016) that “men’s dreams rarely have this motif” (of pregnancy and childbirth)—while the majority of those who have conception dreams are most likely women, it is not uncommon for men to have taemong, and their experiences in doing so can be very powerful indeed.[18]

As such dreams make possible the continuation of family lines, the community and the nation, they are also what Patricia Garfield terms “cultural pattern dreams,” or “dreams required by society.”[19]

7. Awe (2)

There is something of the sublime in the seventh element of awe (mesmerizing).

When awe manifests as hypnotic, rooting the dreamer to the spot, it not only recalls Hypnos, the personification of sleep and half-brother of Thanatos[20], but also marks the taemong as a dream within a dream. The imagery of the following taemong echoes both the entangling song of the Sirens and Odysseus lashed to the mast. It also presents a contest between birth symbols for the right to be born:

My mother was walking through the forest picking flowers when she came across a wolf. He stood there, growling at her and baring his teeth, and she was so frightened she couldn’t move. Then a giant snake came slithering across the forest floor, and coiled itself around the wolf’s body. The snake and the wolf fought with each other, while my mother stood there – both frightened and mesmerized. They fought and fought, and then the wolf bowed its head to the giant snake, who slithered over to my mother and wrapped itself around her. She wasn’t as scared then, but quite amazed and curious about the snake.[21]

As expectant mothers “are in awe of their pregnancies,”[22] it stands to reason that this sense of awe would manifest as powerfully in dreams as in waking life. When a mother is mesmerized in taemong, it reflects a physical power of attraction, a magnetism between mother and child:

On the rooftop of our villa, I am doing my laundry. After finishing, I reach over to hang the soaked clothes on a hangar to dry. At this moment, I notice a beautiful tiger swallowtail resting on the tip of the hangar. The butterfly has charming blue wings that are more attractive than sapphires. The swallowtail is so beautiful that I call my husband up to the roof to appreciate its beauty together. My husband says, “This swallowtail is so beautiful. Let’s keep it.”

He approaches the butterfly gently, but fails to capture it. The blue tiger swallowtail flaps its wings gently and flies over on top of my husband’s head and hovers there. Its wings start to glow. Then it starts to gleam. Finally, it becomes resplendent and I just stand there in awe.[23]

9. Bodily Incorporation

Along with suddenness, perhaps the most common taemong element is that of bodily incorporation, which occurs when the birth symbol enters—literally or figuratively—the body of the mother. Classically, she catches the child in her chima, or skirt. Taemong present a wide spectrum of incorporation ranging from occupation of the same plane/space, to intimate touch, to ingestion. Now and then this appears as an inversion, the baby symbol swallowing, biting (or licking) the mother. While the licking in this recurrent taemong could be read as cleaning (care), the mother is clearly in the position of prey:

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright

I always see a baby tiger stuck beneath the wooden floor (the house is a traditional Korean one). It has a blazing yellow coat with striking black stripes, and definitely is a shy one, I can tell. I try to call it out but it doesn’t want to come over—the baby tiger just stares at me with its big black eyes.

Then one day, the baby’s gone and there’s only a full-grown she-tiger. It is not stuck beneath the floor any longer, it doesn’t hide; instead, the tiger sneaks in through the main gate and tries to enter the bedroom. I try to lock the door, terrified by its size and magnificence, but only in vain.

Then there is a stream of light piercing behind the door, and the tiger pushes its way in with the light behind its back. The tiger knocks me down, mounts me, and starts to lick me all over my face and neck. And strangely enough, I feel neither afraid nor unpleasant.[24]

Taemong are replete with anthropophagic pregnancy metaphors. In explication of Bakhtin, Christina Cheng Min Bing elaborates how “both ‘cannibalism’ and ‘carnivalism’ have “certain parodic features” which “dissolve the boundary of the self through the physical or spiritual commingling of the self and the Other.”[25] As the tones of such ingestions are by and large positive, or comedic, one could argue that bodily incorporation via ingestion takes place in the carnivalist spirit of role inversion—especially when the ingestion is inverted.

The following tiger dream is remarkable for its shallowness of incorporation, which is achieved through the opening of the window and the oral (vocal) contact of dialogue. In it we also see how the birth symbol can determine the physical characteristics of the child:

My father had a taemong of me. He was in his bed reading a newspaper and my mother was sleeping right next to him. All of the sudden he heard someone knock on the window and he saw a pink tiger with long eye lashes knocking on the window. My dad opened the window and asked the tiger “Do you want to come in?” but the tiger refused to come in the house and it told my dad “Good job.” I was born, having the same long eyelashes as the tiger in the dream.[26]

10. Return to the Primordial (Garden); 11. Merging of Heaven and Earth

The tenth element involves a return to the primordial, often in the form of an Edenic garden or familiar childhood place. The Garden of Eden, what Daniel Lioy terms a “primordial sanctuary,” is, as well as being the site of the birth of mankind, fundamentally a place of safety. Such garden spaces are “sacred points of contact”[27] that comprise, as Meredith G. Kline elaborates, “a vertical cosmic axis” and “metaphysical link extending from earth to heaven.”[28]

Gardens in taemong thereby represent “a physical localization of the axis mundi,” or hub of the universe.[29] These spiritual spaces of florid growth and “dynamic union,”[30] manifest in and beyond Judeo-Christian thought, “making possible travel between higher and lower realms” are apparent in the world tree (banyan, Christmas), world pillar, cosmic axis, etc.[31] Such bridging structures as the cosmic tree, or cosmic ladders like Jacob’s or Tom Petty’s in the music video “Runnin’ Down a Dream”[32] compress space, resulting in the eleventh element: the merging of Heaven and Earth. Accessing through its roots the center of the Earth as a source of nourishment, the bridging function of the tree is umbilical.[33]

The Orange Tree

I see an orange tree planted in the middle of my living room. The oranges are huge and ripe. Its roots have destroyed most of the living room, making a hole in the couch and crushing the television set, but I do not mind. I pick up a tin bucket from the kitchen. I pour water in the bucket in order to water the tree. I water the tree. The tree starts dancing, thumping its outside root on the ground and waving its branches. Leaves start to rain down. I open the windows and the front door of the house so the wind can blow away the leaves. The green leaves dance in mid-air along with the wind. The leaves leave the house while they shake their bodies. The tree is bare but still dancing. I look down at its roots. The large oranges are rolling on the ground, some come near and encircle me. One of the oranges hops towards me. I grab it and cuddle it in my chest.

My daughter became pregnant and soon she got a son. This little boy loves music and always moves his body to the rhythm.[34]

Man-made technology and furniture are no match for nature. This “living room” is literally the source of all life.

Heaven and Earth may also be brought into contact when mountains meet the sky, as in the Kiowa legend of Devil’s Tower.[35] In this taemong, the mountain actually falls out of the sky:

All of a sudden vast amounts of gold begin to fall from the sky and on a table it piles up in the shape of a mountain. Astonished by the sight, my mother spreads open her arms wide to take the gold, not leaving a single piece. She hugs them to her chest and wakes up. (She had a boy).[36]

12. Choice

While dreamers in taemong gratefully receive their children, they are rarely passive; close observation reveals the prevalent twelfth element of choice (decision-making). Even if the choice is between two apples, three peaches or a school of fish, such choices reflect the wishes of the dreamer, and thus indicate agency. When the dreamer defies expectations, such as the suggestion or offer of a dream intermediary, the sense of self-determination is even stronger. Taemong give way to taegyo (practices of and guidelines for pre-natal education and development); decision-making begins at the moment of conception.

Through making such decisions in the text of the dream, dreamers inscribe their lives and the lives of their children on the world, creating their own personal mythologies.[37] In this taemong, the dreamer chooses not to accept what is immediately offered, seeking higher ground to realize her wish of bearing a daughter:

My mother was climbing a mountain. While climbing, she met an old man who was carrying an A-frame on his back. Inside it there were many eggplants. People believe that if you pick an eggplant, you’ll have a boy. But my mother didn’t grab the eggplants. (She also believes that if she had picked the eggplants she would have had a boy). After passing by the man, she climbed up to the top of the mountain. What she saw was an endless river full of big carp. The size of the carp was like that of a human. One of the carp jumped into my mother’s skirt and she had me.[38]

Yet dream decisions are not always made by the parents:

I am sitting on the floor of my room. I look, and there is a small cobra sitting next to me. I say small, because he was not as large as an anaconda. But he was not so small as a lizard. I guess you could say he was medium sized. He is sitting straight up and staring at me. The rest of his body is coiled into a pile. His face is perfectly round and he looks right into my eyes.

I wasn’t afraid but I did not particularly like snakes, so I picked it up with a dustpan and threw it outside. But when I returned to my room, the cobra was there again, exactly where I had left it.

This is the taemong that my mother dreamed before the birth of my older brother. He is the middle child. He keeps to himself but is playful.[39]

While one can read the cobra’s behavior as playful, it also reflects an indomitable desire to be born. Such dreams suggest the possibility that childbearing is a mutual enterprise, as much that of the children as their parents. It also shows that children have the power to override their parents’ choices—perhaps even to choose their own parents.

13. Calmness in the Face of Danger

Another taemong element which offers therapeutic value in waking life is the thirteenth: calmness in the face of danger. It is also a form of contrast, as the dreamer tends to shift from a state of emotional distress to one of placidity:

A boar broke through the fences of our home and stood still in our yard. Initially, I was scared—but seeing that it did not seem threatening, I walked out and embraced it. It stayed calm.[40]

Such initial fears in taemong could represent the fear of childbirth, or of “passage into adulthood” by becoming a parent, with all the responsibilities that entails.[41] The ways in which taemong dreamers face danger recall Patricia Garfield’s “confront and conquer” method, distilled from Senoi dream practices, of turning dream enemies into dream friends, which is strikingly similar to those of cognitive behavioral psychology.[42] According to Garfield, facing one’s fears in dreams represents growth, making possible the unification of one’s personality, or self.[43]

14. Reciprocal Gaze

Turning to face another figure in a taemong increases the likelihood of the fourteenth element: the reciprocal gaze. Taemong are famous for the clarity of vision with which their dreamers keenly perceive. When the dreamer is by the observed likewise perceived, the vision—and the dream—is raised to a power:

Grocery Shopping with the Red Dragon

My mother was shopping in the grocery store, buying her usual groceries. Just as she was about to pay for the things, she heard a commotion outside. Along with the other shoppers, she went outside to see what the problem was. There was a gigantic, red dragon. Its scales were shades of different colors of red. Its eyes were deep black, and it had long, dark whiskers. Everyone stared at it in amazement but they were scared. My mother, too, was scared, but the dragon met her eyes and did not move its gaze away. My mother woke up, told this dream to my father. The next night, my mother had a similar dream. My grandparents were very excited when they heard about my mother’s Taemong, because they strongly believed a dragon would mean they would give birth to a general. To this day, they have high expectations for me.[44]

The meeting of eyes is a meeting of minds; the two become one through the windows of their souls.

Like the gazes of the spectator and the painter in Michel Foucault’s analysis of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, taemong are shared visions, arising as much from the imagination of the child (dreamt) as the parent (dreamer). As Foucault states, “the observer and observed take part in a ceaseless exchange.”[45] In contrast, the shared visibilities of taemong—as opposed to those described by Foucault—are compatible. Perhaps this is because they occupy the same plane—or is the dream “screen” analogous to Velazquez’ canvas? Like the painter in Las Meninas, it is through the reciprocal gaze of the dragon that the dreamer is “seized hold of,” and “forced to enter the picture.”[46] Thus the spectator (or dreamer) not only becomes a part of the spectacle being viewed by that which is dreamt, but becomes the spectacle of the spectacle—or becomes the spectacle at the moment the spectacle becomes the spectator. Or perhaps, in the reciprocal gaze of the birth symbol, the spiritual connection between the parent and child is realized, and both—the distinction between dreamer and dreamt no longer so important (as a shared dream, both parent and symbol both dream and are dreamt)—rise above the level of spectacle.

Foucault’s study also offers a clue as to why light plays such an important role in taemong: light bathes both the dreamer and the dreamt, making them visible to each other in the same light. There is something important about the dreamer “observing herself being observed” by the birth symbol, “made visible to his eyes by the same light that enables [the dreamer] to see him.” “In Dutch painting, it was typical for mirrors… the brightest of all framed images… to play a duplicating role.”[47] Might the mirror of dreamer and dreamt, an image framed by the taemong, account for the duplication of its narrative DNA? Here one could read the “disappearance of the subject” and “representation freed from what was impeding it” as fundamental conditions for survival through procreation and the extension of one’s lineage (via elision of the ego, metempsychosis, etc.). Perhaps the “purity of form” that is thereby achieved is what allows the child to be conceived.[48]

15. High Contrast

The fifteenth element, high contrast, manifests in taemong in many ways. While most notable in shifts of light and color, it is also apparent in tone, tempo, atmosphere, emotional and psychological states. Such chiaroscuros lend dreams a sculptable solidity of form, infusing them with volume, texture and dimensionality in decidedly cinematographic fashion. Like suddenness, high contrasts tend to create dramatic effect through juxtaposition. As Bruce Elder states in Dada, Surrealism and the Cinematic Effect, “Objects… are transformed by the light falling on them… high contrast also serves to link juxtaposed images, and those linkages contribute to articulating a continuous rhythm.”[49]

Notice the contrasts of water and air, height and depth, rising and falling, darkness and light (sky), grace and power (as well as calmness in the face of danger and the reciprocal gaze) in this taemong:

As I am walking alongside a lake, I see the clear sky suddenly change dark. I try to get a better look at what is happening above. From high above the sky, I spot an enormous dragon gracefully, yet powerfully, make its way towards the lake in front of me. It sinks in the lake and pulls out its head and looks at me directly in the eyes. Strangely, despite its vast size and figure, I don’t feel afraid.[50]

16. Intermediary Figure

Element sixteen, the intermediary figure, appears in taemong to assist the dreamer, offering or gifting her the birth symbol. While the most common are the Samshin Halmoni (three-gods grandmother) and her counterpart, a white-haired, bearded grandfather, intermediary figures also appear in the form of the dreamer’s mother, father, grandparents and other relatives.

I am walking in the forest alone. It is a sunny day. Abruptly, an old woman appears in front of me. She gives me an apple as big as a soccer ball. The apple is red, shiny, and looks delicious. I bite the apple. I am satisfied.[51]

Sometimes the intermediary figures specifically instruct, advise, and even command the dreamers:

White Chestnut

My mom is walking in a forest, but it is winter. Everything is white. As she steps on snow, a Samshin grandmother appears. She tells my mom to open her hands, and when she does, the grandmother gives my mother a very white chestnut. When my father heard about this dream, he knew they were going to have a daughter. I was born very white compared to other babies.[52]

The next taemong is notable for its dreamer’s sense of compulsion[53]—a feature of taemong which may appear frequently enough to be added to the list of elements:

I was walking in a garden and I see an elderly woman (a halmoni). I continue walking, trying not to make a fuss, but the old woman walks up to me. In her hands are a giant watermelon and a peach. I take them both, not because I don’t want to be rude, but because I feel like I need to hold them. I gave birth to two sons.[54] 

Intermediary figures—all midwives—call attention to the transactional nature of conception, the collaborative, negotiated outcome of multiple binaries: mother-father, parent-child, yin-yang, Heaven-Earth, etc. In this sense they are also dream helpers and guides like Dante’s Virgil and Lucrecia de León’s Ordinary Man.[55]

17. Care/Love

As Seligson explicitly states, taemong are “stories about love,” and love is the source of birth and all birth dreams.[56] One of Eileen Stukane’s informants describes her pregnancy dream as a bodily personification of “a tremendous feeling of love.”[57] Thus, the seventeenth element: the care that is love.

My mom is in a plains area, like a field, and they are harvesting red peppers [고추] which are all the same shade of red; not even a single green one can be pin-pointed. So, she is walking around looking and admiring these red peppers and she comes across this huge one that is distinctly bigger than any other pepper around it. It is a beautiful, vivid red and she can’t take her eyes off it. She goes towards it and picks it. She is holding it in both hands as if it were really fragile and something that could easily break if she dropped it or held it too hard. And she just admires it.

The fact that there was a field of peppers rather than one or two may contribute to the fact that it was a girl and not a boy. The big pepper that her mother had found was a beautiful red showing the gender of the baby. The way her mother was admiring it showed that she would love her significantly once she was born.[58]

In these images of tenderness and care lies the recognition of the vulnerability of the child, a being which must be nurtured and protected. The sensitivity, concern and gentleness conveyed through the mother’s treatment of the baby symbol well-describe Jiddu Krishnamurti’s definition of love, which is unconditional[59]. The mother’s concern also indicates the precious value of the child as tangible investment in perpetuation of the family line. Such ginger gestures of prenatal care and feelings of love could be considered rehearsals for—or indeed the first stages of—taegyo and child rearing.

A Day Spent With the Snake

My mother was cooking dinner in the kitchen. She had all sorts of vegetables and meat beside her, ready to be boiled, fried, and grilled. The fresh air and late afternoon sunlight coming through the open window made her feel relaxed and happy. As she began to chop the vegetables, humming, a green snake slowly slid in through the window. At first, my mother was a bit startled, but since the snake did not seem to mean any harm, she became relieved. The snake moved around the kitchen very slowly, and she felt that it was doing so for her sake, trying not to surprise her. She picked up some meat that she had already minced before and fed the snake. After finishing this little meal, the snake snuggled at my mother’s feet and took a nap. Careful to not wake it up, my mother finished cooking and as she moved to the dining room to place her meal on the dining table, the snake followed her, slithering. The snake stayed by her feet until she was done with her meal.

When my mother was finished with her dishes, the sun had already set and it was dark. She didn’t want to send the snake out into the darkness. She wanted the snake to stay with her. So she let the snake come into her bedroom. As she lied down on her bed, the snake slithered into her blanket as well, and she woke up.[60]

This taemong is outstanding for its sense of interconnectedness in reciprocal care. The snake moves slowly for the mother’s sake, and the mother takes care not to wake it, to make it feel comfortable, and at home.

18. Concentric Surrounding

This last (but not least) eighteenth element of multiple/concentric surrounding was discovered during the taemong workshop Kimberly Mascaro and I conducted in June, 2017 at the IASD Conference in Anaheim, California, after reading this taemong:

During her honeymoon, my mother dreamt she was at a beach shore and saw far away a group of dolphins. She followed them inside the ocean but did not feel any panic. She could actually breathe underwater. As she approached the dolphins, they gathered around her in a circle and started to dance. One of the dolphins came inside her arms and danced. Then I was born.[61]

During the discussion period, Christopher Sowton, ND, of Toronto, kindly suggested that the multiple layers of surrounding could be another narrative element. Here these layers appear on both sides of the walking dreamer, then in the fence surrounded, in great detail, by even more flowers:

I was walking along a road where both sides were covered in colorful flowers that hung and drooped in cascades just like the wisteria flower. It was a marvelous sight and I couldn’t take my eyes off all the pretty shades. At one point there appeared a brick fence surrounded by a bed of more flowers. These were shaped like sesame leaves but their petals were thick and crimson and transparent. Only in a dream will I ever see such a wonderful sight again.[62]

What occurs in such dreams may be considered the opposite of marginalization. Being surrounded in such a manner places the dreamer at the center.[63] The more levels of surrounding, or concentric circles, the more the dreamer is protected, supported, nurtured and elevated (made royalty).[64] In such images there is something of the deep comfort and security of being swaddled by a loving family, community, society and nature. The concentric circles may also be viewed as ripple effects emanating from the dreamer. In this sense, each pro-creative dreamer is the source of all life (human and artistic).

Concerning the circularity of the surrounding layers, Kimberly Ann Johnson’s discussion in The Fourth Trimester proves informative:

A rite of passage is not a linear path. The rite of passage of motherhood is a series of concentric circles and spirals. Pregnancy itself has the three phases of separation, transition and integration, and being in labor has these phases as well… We may disintegrate and reintegrate at various points of the journey.[65]

Yaoliang Song and Benjamin Alexander’s The Deified Human Face Petroglyphs of Prehistoric China provides a useful link between concentric surroundedness and brilliant illumination, detailing how rock carvings in the Dabagou Valley of Langshan depict a pregnant woman whose

oversized belly… comprises three perfectly concentric circles. Close to the left and right of the woman are two suns casting their rays onto her. In prehistoric Chinese culture, concentric circles are synonymous with the sun… The theme exemplified by the pregnant sun woman is birth. The organ of human birth, the female womb, is identified with the source of all births in the natural world, the sun. The petroglyph links the [sun and human survival] with a wonderful structural coherence. This is among the most metaphorical and beautiful representations of “heaven and man are one.”[66]

For these prehistoric peoples, both life and cosmos obey the same rules; they are interchangeable. Hence, these petroglyphs [and these taemong] serve both to illustrate philosophical views as well as celebrate life.[67]

Another example of this element may be found in Sandy Falk’s The Jewish Pregnancy Book, which offers a “birthing support ritual” in which “six close friends or relatives” should be seated around the mother in the form of a “six-pointed star magen david, star of protection and blessing. Everyone else should sit in concentric circles…” during which the following blessing is recited: “May all [mother’s name] circle of loved ones keep her in their hearts and prayers during this precious time of anticipation.”[68]

In citing the birth of Israel within “the womb” of Egypt (Psalm 114); the swallow’s young within the egg, within the swallow, within the nest, within the temple (Psalm 84); and reading the line “deep calleth unto deep” (Psalm 42) as a mother communicating with the infant she carries, Richard Murray explores concentric-procreative patterns in Biblical verse “ladder structures” as a form pre-natal imaging technology[69] reminiscent of Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred.[70] While his associations often appear to unfold according to dream logic, Murray’s iteration of poetic “ladder structures” (in the Psalms and Shakespearian sonnets) inspires an image which may be useful in further exploring taemong concentricity.[71] 

Could it be that the spiraling, ladder-like structures of taemong are not patterned on DNA, but that DNA owes its construction to these narratives of the self? Is it possible that the linguistic, the poetic—prefigures the genetic, the biochemical? Each and every taemong is unique, and each birth dream a repository of inherited, mnemonically compressed genetic narrative material designed to insure the survival of families, communities, even nations. Tracing the recombinations of such material could make for an illuminating genealogical study.

What is the difference between a life story and a life? How might the lives forecast in taemong be imaginatively—if not genetically—engineered? For those of us whose taemong have been lost, or were never dreamt—there is now hope. By selecting any number of the eighteen elements of taemong and interweaving them through imaginative inscription, we might be able to compose a dream that whenever read, recalled or told, reconstitutes and revitalizes our lives.

1. Fred Jeremy Seligson. Oriental Birth Dreams. Seoul: Hollym, 1989, p. 15.

2. David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner. Personal Mythology. Santa Rosa: Elite Books, 2008, p. 5.

3. Anonymous student writing, 2015.

4. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

5. Seligson, 15.

6. Like Moses’ inability to look directly at the face of the creator.

7. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

8. Seligson, 185.

9. Eileen Stukane. The Dream Worlds of Pregnancy. Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1994, p. 112.

10. Michael J. McClymont and Gerald R. McDermott. The Theology of Jonathan Edwards, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 373-388.

11. Stukane, 31.

12. Nelly. “Only Just a Dream.” 2010, 4:02. Posted September 21, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6O2ncUKvlg

13. Kristoffer Noheden. Surrealism, Cinema, and the Search for a New Myth, London: Palgrave, 2017, p. 87.

14. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

15. Anonymous student writing, 2017.

16. Anonymous student writing, 2017.

17. Seligson, 27.

18. Kelly Bulkeley. Big Dreams: The Science of Dreaming and the Origins of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 169.

19. Patricia Garfield. Creative Dreaming. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995, p. 88.

20. Hypnos, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Hypnos.html (accessed May 21, 2018).

21. Anonymous student writing, 2017. It is worth noting the supplication of the wolf, as well as the double-binding of the snake.

22. Stukane, 113.

23. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

24. Anonymous student writing, 2017.

25. Christina Cheng Min Bing, “Colonial Stereotyping and Cultural Anthropology.” Volume 2 of the Proceedings of the International Comparative Literature Association “Literature as Cultural Memory.” Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000, p. 140.

26. Anonymous student writing, 2017.

27. Daniel T. Lioy, “The Garden of Eden as a Primordial Temple or Sacred Space for Humankind,” https://www.sats.edu.za/userfiles/Lioy,%20Garden%20of%20Eden.pdf, pp. 25-26.

28. Meredith G. Kline, https://meredithkline.com/klines-works/articles-and-essays/space-and-time-in-the-genesis-cosmogony/.

29. Lioy, 26.

30. Mircea Eliade. The Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1987, p. 21.

31. Ibid., 20.

32. Tom Petty. “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Posted November 22, 2009, 4:39. Posted https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1D3a5eDJIs

33. Ibid.

34. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

35. N. Scott Momaday. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991, p. 8.

36. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

37. David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner. Personal Mythology. Santa Rosa: Elite Books, 2008, p. 5.

38. Mark Brazeal. Full Moon in a Jar. Undergraduate Thesis, 2011, p. 89.

39. Anonymous student writing, 2015.

40. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

41. Stukane, p. 31.

42. Garfield, pp. 140-145.

43. Ibid., 37.

44. Anonymous student writing, 2017.

45. Michel Foucault. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon Books, 1970, p. 4.

46. Ibid., 5.

47. Ibid., 6.

48.Ibid., 15.

49. Bruce Elder. Dada, Surrealism and the Cinematic Effect. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015, p. 211.

50. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

51. Anonymous student writing, 2017.

52. Anonymous student writing, 2018.

53. The opposite of choice.

54. Anonymous student writing, 2016.

55. Robert Moss. The Secret History of Dreaming. Novato: New World Library, 2009, p. 164.

56. Seligson, 15.

57. Stukane, 55.

58. Anonymous student writing, 2017.

59. Jiddu Krishnamurti. Think On These Things. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989, p. 190.

60. Anonymous student writing, 2018.

61.Anonymous student writing, 2016.

62. Anonymous student writing, 2018.

63. “The center of attention is a logical place for a pregnant woman,” Stukane, 112.

64. Stukane, 112.

65. Kimberly Ann Johnson. The Fourth Trimester. Colorado: Shambhala, 2017, p. 206.

66. Yaoliang Song and Benjamin Alexander. The Deified Human Face Petroglyphs of Prehistoric China. New York: SCPG Publishing Corporation, 2015, p. 337.

67. Ibid., 339.

68. Sandy Falk, Rabbi Daniel Judson and Stephen A. Rapp, The Jewish Pregnancy Book. Woodstock: Jewish Lights, 2003, pp. 45-6.

69. Richard Murray. “The Growing Pregnant Womb Hidden in the Psalms (and in Shakespeare).” Retrieved May 21, 2018.   https://scripturefinds.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/the-growing-pregnant-womb-hidden-in-the-psalms-and-in-shakespeare/.

70. Jerome Rothenberg, Technicians of the Sacred. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017, pp. xxx-xxxix.

71. Murray, May 21, 2018.  

Loren Goodman is the author of Famous Americans, selected by W.S. Merwin for the 2002 Yale Series of Younger Poets, and Non-Existent Facts (otata’s bookshelf, 2018), as well as the chapbooks Suppository Writing (The Chuckwagon, 2008) and New Products (Proper Tales Press, 2010). He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and English Literature at Yonsei University/Underwood International College in Seoul, Korea, and serves as the UIC Creative Writing Director.