Dreaming Cities

In Timothy Knab’s A War of Witches, dreaming plays a central role, though I imagine it can seem peripheral and atmospheric for most westerners on a first read. A kind of memoir of Knab’s time as an anthropologist in rural Mexico, the book represents Knab’s seemingly incidental apprenticeship under two curanderos and the version of the indigenous “folk” practices Knab wound up doing.

The title directs initial focus in the memoir. I don’t want to call it a novel or a report, though reflection might be more apt, and I can imagine creative non-fiction types wishing they’d studied some anthropology along the way. But that War of Witches points to an historical incident from 50 years prior to Knab’s time amongst native Mexicans in San Martin. However, the book is interesting for other reasons for someone who’s a practitioner.

Firstly, Knab’s accounts of his experiences of the four kingdoms or realms of Talocan—the Aztec underworld—should encourage practitioners to consider how directionality and similar spirit kingdoms appear in their own cultural practices. The practitioners in the text often have to work within the spiritual hierarchies of this directional view of the other world, including appeals to one of the regents to return a lost soul or for justice—the justice of hell might be one way to consider it, or at least the justice of the underworld. I couldn’t help but think of the Four Kings in the Western magical tradition, and the kingdoms themselves also bespeak of fourfold divisions that find expression in legendary remnants like the Four Cities of the Tuatha and similar approaches to directionality in practice. The four jinn kings of the directions come to mind. That directionality and its relationship to the spirit world seems very much grounded in the local landscape, even as that landscape extends into the broader world beyond San Martin and its environs.

Secondly, the text emphasizes the role of dreaming in magical practice. Dreaming-related tech in the text include incubation, use of power sites, ritual use of plant and other allies, and use of ritual intention (including prayer, obsessive focus, and image magic—including some local adaptations of the cults of the saints and their synthesis into the contemporary version of indigenous cosmology). In many ways, lacking conscious psychical ability, Knab best experiences the San Martin spirit world—or the spiritual reality of San Martin and its countryside—through his dreaming. Indeed, he experiences the kingdoms through dreams while working to anchor results into waking life.

Notably to me, he also has dreams about things going on back at his university, and he even seems to dream of the spiritual dimension of a tenure-track committee discussing his work, including a female colleague who takes on curiously witchy agency in this brief scene. I believe, if I remember correctly, that the text floats the idea that some persons can be witches in the dreaming/spirit world but not know it in the waking world. But in these university dreams, the environment is perhaps more mundane compared to the rich mercurial environments of the Mexican countryside—the university seems more institutionally dreamlike, though with metaphorical flourishes. But the implication is that his urban university environment has its own spiritual reality, as well.

Now, despite what one may think of Knab’s narrative and rhetorical agenda, A War of Witches gave me a lot to think with. I had no desire to imitate and appropriate Knab’s representation of native Mexican practices, but I could feel how I had already been haphazardly doing, often “unconsciously,” similar things. And I couldn’t help but have it in mind as I had several dreaming and journeying experiences of my own—or in reflecting on others.

I had always found the Four Cities of the Tuatha, as a mythic reality (if not physical in my waking reality), something weighty in my imagination. It struck a particular chord in my thoughts whenever I read about them, but I couldn’t anchor those feelings to anything concrete, and I lacked the guidance or tech to pursue answers for myself. My return to practice began with directional workings, with the Four Feri Guardians as described in T Thorn Coyle’s Evolutionary Witchcraft, which (for me) eventually wound up sliding into the Four Kings/Regents. (It’s all star-stuff anyway.)[1] And around the time of the 2016 American election, I dreamt of four cities.

This is UPG territory here, but in my dream, I was standing in a hub where roads from four different cities came together, and this hub was a circular stone space built upon a lake (or an island on a lake). I realized I’d been there before, but more escaped me. To one direction, I could make out a city of vaguely northern European architectural stylings. (I am horrible at classifying architectural styles, so—that’s all I got for you.) Opposite it was something more ancient American—indigenous was my sense, but I can’t tell you if it was a particular culture. I remember I was in this hub with a handful of other persons, and soldiers from the American city had noted us and prepared to assail us. In another dream, I had a sense of another city—a far more modern metropolis of skyscrapers, hovercars, and shit like that. One-part Blade Runner and one-part Fifth Element.

Anyway, in the midst of the incoherence that the 2016 election was desperately trying to inflict upon me, I was dreaming about Four Cities. And my sense was that these Four Cities were also broadly emblematic, archetypal, of human cities—at least from my perspective of cities, which is admittedly quite limited. I had the sense that these were the cities we live and think in, in which we inspirit.

Now, in trying to connect better with my local place and land spirits, I have sought to discern who’s who. I had the sense a while back of three primaries—“Old Wood Father” and “Clay Mother” (the land’s kinda thick with clay with sand in many places—ancient sea beds in previous ages), and the “Serpents Coiling through the Earth.” Those serpents are the creeks and “cricks” cutting through the earth in the region, children of the river in many ways. That river runs through much of the state, and it’s named after the Holy Trinity. I went looking for the indigenous name a while back, and I found it: in the broad swath of Texas I’m in, the native Caddo called the Trinity Arkikosa. Which is a fantastic name.

I live not far from a rather pretty brook, one of these children as it turns out, and I came to know her, was introduced to her, and she appeared both as the brook but also as a serpent. And from her, she was amenable enough after some kindnesses to help me get a sense of Arkikosa, mom.

Arkikosa and I had a conversation, and I need to go pay her a visit in person. I mean, I’ve been to the river before, but not to Arkikosa. I’ve been waiting for a good time (delaying in part—it’s been cold and there’s that edge to spirit contact that can be rather unnerving).

Anyway, recently, in the wake of my work this last week, my dreaming has wound up being very busy, and I have found myself dreaming about particular cities of the imagination. My sense is that they are “American” and older, but quite bright and open. In one in particular, I found myself in a market on the streets, and two natives passed by me, speaking in a language I didn’t understand (which caught my attention in the dream). One of them was a younger man, and the other an older fellow. And the older fellow started shouting at the younger Arkikosa! Arkikosa!

In the dream, I was very much, Wait, I know that name! I grabbed the older man and asked him who he was, and he laughed, spoke in the language I didn’t know, and he seemed to contract into a dark-skinned goblin-like figure, an uncanny small arm reaching towards my ear, and I tried to paw him away, and I woke up—

I woke up to hearing Attend to me! Attend to me! And not in his voice.

I think Arkikosa is wanting me to get on with it.

Anyway, my dreaming went on, and as it did, I have dreamt of similar cities and hidden cities a lot the last several days. I dreamt of how the red light of the full moon in eclipse did something that allowed a sunken city to be seen under a lake, and I remembered how laser topography allowed a Maya city to be rediscovered under the Guatemalan jungle recently as special light revealed another lost city.

And—much as I bookended this post with Knab’s A War of Witches at the beginning, I got a head full of takes on Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine in my dreaming.[2] (Also, duh, spoilers follow.)

Gun Machine is a crime novel Ellis sets in Manhattan. And just as Knab’s text features a dreaming-slant on San Martin and its countryside and what the text frames as Talocan, Ellis’s novel shifts often between four slants—I might call them hyperthick/mythical Manhattans. Firstly, there’s the normal consciousness level.

Secondly, there’s the level occupied by the serial killer known as “The Hunter” throughout the text. The Hunter thinks of himself as an indigenous Manhattan tribesperson who negotiates a mash of pre-European Manhattan Island terrain and metaphoric understandings of its modern physical reality. And he’s frighteningly adept at doing so. The Hunter stalks his prey, killing them using very intentional and ritually-loaded firearms while assembling these firearms, after the murders, into a magical apparatus that the Hunter intends will do something akin to what the Ghost Dance movement wanted. That is, once his “gun machine” is finished, he will activate it and magically restore Manhattan Island to its pristine, mythical state.

In pursuing his murders and his agenda, the Hunter acts with almost supernatural acumen. However, the Hunter is revealed to be a mentally ill not-indigenous veteran whose mental illness was weaponized by corrupt interests. Ellis very pointedly stresses the Hunter is not native American but an traumatized veteran who needs actual help (apparently, far too many readers wanted to treat the serial killer as the hero of the novel). I would argue that the Hunter’s perspective—the “city” through which he journeys and draws power from—has a reality that’s evidenced by his prowess in many ways. Ellis uses the Hunter to comment on the different kinds of cities and landscapes we are surrounded by, as you’ll see below, and I don’t want to diminish the novel’s rhetorical agenda with the Hunter because I think it’s on point. However, I couldn’t help but recognize that the Hunter’s perspective of a mythical Manhattan Island overlaid—or emerging out of—the physical landscape of the city—resonated strongly with me as I woke up from my own dreaming on these themes. Ellis emphasizes that mythic register with allusions to Homer, amongst others.

Thirdly, there’s the protagonist’s perspective, that of Detective John Tallow. Tallow has an encyclopedic knowledge of Manhattan’s history as a city, of the timelines and stories of its streets, buildings, and more over the last century. His is the myth of Manhattan as the city of the past, the Manhattan of old school detective stories—not the pristine landscape the Hunter sees and journeys within—but of the city as it is and has been. And in that sense, Tallow seems to “journey” as well through a “dream” of Manhattan, and his facility in doing so helps him try to uncover the conspiracy in the novel and stop the Hunter. While his perspective of the city lacks the metaphorical “depth” (or perhaps time depth and potency?) that the Hunter’s offers him, Tallow remains capable of negotiating and navigating those historical, legendary, and mythical layers of Manhattan in far more physical reality functional ways than the Hunter.

Fourthly, Ellis gestures to the digital city, including the growing digital surveillance and the city’s internet presence, especially given the financial district’s data processing obsession. And indeed, one of the novel’s antagonists—one of those who have weaponized the Hunter and who suffers from the Hunter’s greater cunning—is very much attentive to that imaginal layer of the city, that digital level. And it is only because Tallow chooses to use that part of the dream of Manhattan against the Hunter that he’s able to catch and stop the Hunter.

But all of these mythical, imaginal, spiritual aspects of Manhattan came upon me as I woke up from dreaming about ancient sunken or otherwise hidden cities where strange goblin men scream the name of river spirits to get my attention.

All of which is to say that I’m not going in with some kind of faux-Mayan or faux-Caddo practice here. I’m doing what my senses and practice have led me to and using the tools I have to work with from my own intuition and that of the Western tradition—hell, more Jung and Trithemius than Castaneda—and at that point, I am trying to keep in mind that I’m engaged in interdimensional—or Dreaming if that’s more your jam—diplomacy. I am a pale blonde witch trying to suss out the landscape I grew up in, even as I have tons of mythical baggage I’m bringing along. But the fact that there’s a shape of Four Kingdoms, Four Cities, of Dreaming Cities and landscapes in the first place gives me a lot to think about and with. I’m not dealing with Falias, Murias, Gorias, and Findias—I don’t think—or maybe not in the way that Lady Gregory very briefly gestured at them.

Featured Image: 2532354 | Pixabay

[1] I have my own UPG about Zenith and Nadir in the Anderson Feri system, and I’ll remind folks that I just have what I’ve read from Thorn and online about that tradition. I make no claims about any initiatory status.

[2] It’s okay. He’s read Star.Ships.

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