Dreaming is an integral part of Italian folk magic. Many stories about the founding of churches, feast day celebrations, and mutual aid societies begin with a dream in which a saint or Madonna asks for veneration. Likewise, many families have their own personal stories about about the power of dreams which contain visions of deceased loved ones who give warnings or advice.
When I perform lectures about Italian folk magic to Italian-American audiences in New York, dreaming is the most popular topic. It particularly resonates with Neapolitan-Americans, many of whom have stories about their mothers and grandmothers interpreting signs from dreams.
But for some of us, dreaming doesn’t come naturally. A lot of Americans struggle with insomnia or inconsistent sleep cycles. Some people don’t even believe they dream at all!
In this post, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite tips for improving your capacity to dream deeper. By “dreaming deeper”, I mean you’ll dream more often, remember you dreams better, and increase the likelihood of encountering spiritual entities in your dreams. Some of these are generic tips; others have a specifically Southern Italian flavor.
You can use any of these tips alone or in combination. Everybody is different, so it may take some experimentation to find what works for you. Thankfully, we get a new chance to hone our skills every night.
First, let’s start with the most fundamental step:
1. Set an intention. Why are you interested in dreaming deeper? Have you had particularly beautiful or enlightening dreams in the past that you would like to return to? Was there a deep dreamer in your family that you particularly admired? Once you have connected with your desire and your intention, say it to yourself: “I want to dream more.” “I want to remember more of my dreams.” “I want to receive a message from a spirit guide in my dreams.”
Improve your sleep.
If you don’t sleep, you won’t dream. Unfortunately, may of us need to consciously make sleeping a priority if we are going to improve the quality and the quantity of our sleeping hours.
2. Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. This includes TVs, cell phones, computers, tablets, etc.
3. Sleep in the dark. Unless you are living in a rural area, you probably have a lot of light pollution coming in through your windows. Consider light-blocking curtains. Most of us have several little flickering lights in our homes: the modem, the alarm clock, the cell phone notifications. Try to remove them from your sleeping area, or cover them up so they won’t disturb you.
4. Exercise daily. There is no better sleep than the sleep that comes after a day that has been physically satisfying. If you are not currently physically active, consider incorporating more movement into your day. If you need some motivation to get to the gym, remember that you have something to look forward to. In my personal experience, the dreams which follow the first workout after a long sedentary period are especially intense.
Drink a cup of herbal tea before bed.
There are many herbs marketed as “dream herbs” online. But I like to stick with simple herbs that grow locally. Of course, that will vary from region to region, but the following are fairly common options for those of us living in the continental United States:
5. Mugwort (leaf). This close cousin of wormwood, the absinthe herb, has a similar reputation for producing trance states and intense dreams. It can be brewed into a tea or burnt as incense to fumigate your bedroom before going to sleep.
6. Dandelion (leaf or root). Humble dandelion is an extraordinarily giving plant. Every part of its body, from root to flower, is medicinal. And its leaves or root can be brewed into a tea reputed to enhance psychic abilities.
7. Calamus (root). This herb has a particular reputation for bringing on lucid dreams. It can be cold-brewed into a tea to take out some of the bitterness.
Drink a shot of amaro before bed.
Amaro is a generic term for a group of bitter Italian liqueurs. (Did you notice how bitter the herbs mentioned above are? Bitter herbs tend to be associated with psychic phenomena.)
8. Strega. A classic! “Strega” means “witch” in Italian. Brewed in Benevento, the famous Campanian city of witches, this is probably the sweetest amaro you will find. The bright yellow color and the witch on the bottle will charm anyone.
9. Sibilla. Another amaro named for magical women! The sybils were believed by the ancient Greeks to give oracles. Their prophetic power came from chthonic deities, that is, deities concerned with the underworld.
10. Averna. This Sicilian amaro is a personal favorite. Bittersweet and lovely, it shares its name with Lake Avernus near Cumae, West of Naples. The ancient Greeks who settled in Campania identified Lake Avernus with Acheron, a river which exists both physically in northwest Greece and mythologically in Hades.
11. Fernet-Branca. There’s no mythology behind the name, but Fernet-Branca has a very distinctive taste that I associate with Hades, the Greek underworld (and the god thereof). It is bitter, almost crypt-like, but with notes of mint.
Make time for “women’s work”.
“Women’s work” is a category of domestic labor which is traditionally assigned to women. Anthropologist Judith Brown was the first to note that, for a culture to retain a woman’s labor during her childbearing years, it would need to provide her with tasks which were compatible with childcare. Compatible tasks have the following qualities: “the participant is not obliged to be far from home; the tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions, and is easily resumed once interrupted.”
Incidentally, these qualities are also qualities which tend to produce spontaneous trance states. I have a hypothesis that this is the reason why traditionally, Southern Italian women were more likely than men to have visions of the Madonnas, saints, ancestors, and other spirits.
12. Spin yarn. This can be performed by hand with a drop spindle and distaff or on a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel of course features in fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty and Rumplestiltskin. The distaff is so intimately connected to womanhood that it can be used as an adjective meaning “of or concerning women”. For example, one’s maternal lineage is also called the “distaff side”. (The male lineage is called the “spear side”.)
13. Weave fabric. Weaving is an extraordinarily sacred task, and the production of fabric is one of the few ways in which women in the ancient Mediterranean world were able to earn their own income.
14. Pray the rosary. Finding fancy new prayers is always fun. But the simple, well-known prayers of the rosary are particularly apt for inducing trance precisely because they are so repetitive. Praying the rosary before bed can open you up to interesting dreams.
Listen to a Southern Italian lullaby.
15. Nonna Nonna. This lullaby from Cancello Arnone in Campania was recorded by friend of Italian Folk Magic and general linguistic hero Alberto Esposito. (Psst, we'll be exploring this one in depth in a future post!)
16. Ninna Nanna. The lyrics to this lullaby come from Carpino in Puglia. It was recorded by Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, one of my favorite bands.
17. Hymn to Hypnos. Some folks may disagree with me, but I consider this to be the OG Southern Italian lullaby. It comes from a collection of prayers to the gods known as the “Orphic Hymns”. These hymns were employed by the cult of Orpheus, prophet and musician, which flourished throughout ancient Greece and Magna Graecia.
Keep track of your dreams.
When you pay more attention to your dreams, you will start to dream more.
18. Lie in bed to remember your dreams. Lying still in bed will improve your dream recall. (On the other hand, if you wake up from a nightmare in the middle of the night and you are concerned that you will return to it if you fall back asleep, the best thing you can do is shake your head and body up a bit. I was really glad to figure that one out as a kid!)
19. Write your dreams down in a journal. Having a journal devoted specifically to dreams is best. It becomes a kind of talismanic object, and keeping it on your nightstand is a ritual in its own right.
20. Keep track of moon phase and sign. Dreams on a full moon or new moon night may be particularly intense.
21. Keep track of your menstrual cycle day. If you menstruate, you may notice patterns in your dreams during your monthly cycle, due to regular hormone fluctuations.
Borrow some techniques from the lucid dreaming community.
Even if you’ve never heard of it before, chances are you have experienced at least one lucid dream. These are the dreams in which you become aware of the fact that you are dreaming. At that point, anything can happen: you can fly, shape shift, talk to the other beings in your dreams, etc. Incidentally, the types of adventures that are possible during lucid dreams seem to overlap with the traditional powers of "shamans" across many cultures.
Some people enjoy lucid dreams for recreational purposes (when else will you get to fly?), others for spiritual development. Here are some techniques taught for bringing about lucid dreams. Note that these must be practiced habitually for a few weeks in order to work:
22. Flick a light switch on and off. If the ambient lighting doesn’t change, you are dreaming.
23. Pinch your nose. If you can still breathe, you are dreaming.
24. Try to read some text. If it changes on you while you are reading it, you are dreaming.
25. Disrupt your sleep patterns. If you wake up and go back to sleep during the night, you are more likely to have lucid dreams or to remember your dreams, depending on what your intention is.