By now almost everybody owns at least one piece of jewelry featuring a dreamcatcher or its elements, like feathers and beaded fringe, but what does a real dreamcatcher mean, and what is it for?
The dreamcatcher has become the most highly recognized symbol of Native American heritage in the west today, but before it became trendy or desirable, this sweet little trinket actually had a meaningful purpose. Although there’s argument over exactly which tribe was the first to use dreamcatchers, the tradition spread throughout many different Indian nations in the course of the twentieth century, and ultimately remains very similar across them all. Basically, while the women of a tribe continued with their work, the infants of every family would often accompany their mothers on cradle boards. Essentially, the baby would be swaddled tightly and their swaddling wrapped around the cradle board to hold them relatively still. Originally the dreamcatcher would be hung over the cradle board to keep the infant amused, its feathers or fringes dangling in the wind. It was also believed that the dreamcatcher protected the infant from harm by catching or warding off negativity.
Gradually, this legend evolved, and dreamcatchers would be hung over the beds of both infants and older children to catch their nightmares or negative dreams. This is more easily understood once the elements of the dreamcatcher are explored more deeply. The circle itself in many ways represents the circle of life and the cyclical nature of all things. To many Native American tribes, this was symbolic also of the life giving sun, the nurturing earth, and the moon which lights the pathways of spirit after the body has died. The webbing too has a significance, in most cases representing the web of life, as woven by nature’s great teacher, the spider. Many dreamcatchers that are woven with only a single bead resting amongst the threads directly show this link, as the bead itself is symbolic of the spider.
Lastly, the feathers that hang from the bottom of the dreamcatcher signify the traits that all parents wish to instill in their children. Traditionally, an eagle feather would be hung from the hoop for boys to impart courage, whilst an owl feather would be hung for girls to impart wisdom. In popular tribal mythology, the feathers also served the purpose of filtering good or happy dreams directly to the dreamer.
The basic concept is that the great web catches the would-be nightmares, holding them fast until break of day, while the good dreams are allowed through and slide down the feathers and into the mind of the sleeping child. Then, at the first rays of daylight, those harmful dreams that have been held by the web dissolve in the sun.
In recent years, these beautiful handmade trinkets have grown to garner mass appeal, and are now used to ward off the nightmares of children and adults alike. Quite a noble purpose for such a small and simple novelty.