Moving to Ursula: Dream Wisdom and the Sacred Feminine by Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD

For the last seven years, I have been conducting research for my book Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams, which is about to appear courtesy of Ayin Press.  On this writing journey, I’ve interviewed seventy dreamers, and have studied pre-modern dreams from texts of ancient Israel and ancient Sumer to dream accounts of women kabbalists and Chasidic masters.  I’ve also sat with my own dreams and their odd truths. Many of the dreams I’ve encountered express powerful visions of the feminine. I find these often odd and eerie visions particularly useful in expressing “the multiplicity of experiences of [the feminine]… rather than an imposed definition of those experiences…”[i]

For example: a dream of a woman sneaking into a synagogue and stealing a Torah, while the presiding rabbi winks. A dream of a mother writing in a basement next to a goddess shrine, while a patriarch bustles about upstairs.  A dream of a mechitzah (barrier between men and women at prayer) crumbling.  A dream of dancing women who become waves on an ocean.  A dream of an order of priestesses entering the underground passages beneath their temple. Each of these dreams, with their compelling visual images, speak truths that society has suppressed, just as dreams may speak to us of personal truths we have avoided. Dreams provide us with new and profoundly sensual language for the real.  In this way, dreams are potent allies of those seeking to liberate themselves. 
 
Within my own spiritual tradition, working with dreams feels like a particularly feminist act given that the Hebrew Bible relates only the dreams of men: Jacob, Joseph, Pharaoh, and Solomon, for example.  Scholars have suggested that this is not happenstance—that biblical authors assigned the extraordinary power of dreams to men only.[ii]  Nevertheless, this attempt to exclude women from the status of dreamers did not last. The Talmud and midrash tell of women dreaming and bringing their dreams to dreamworkers. Later, in sixteenth century Sfat, Jewish women share their dreams, and work as dreamworkers.[iii]  These dreamworking women have inspired me to follow in their footsteps, and my own dream journeys have enriched my life.

 
Let me give an example of one of my dreams that offers a mythic window on the sacred feminine:

My wife, daughter, and I are visiting a small town called Ursula. A friend is taking us around to visit the local attractions; she has a daughter who plays with my daughter. In the town of Ursula are sacred caves open to visitors; we walk through them. There are sacred grottos in the caves, with eerie-looking statues in them, maybe of Ursula herself.

When we get to the gift shop at the end of the cave journey, I buy some artifacts in the stores to remind me of Ursula. After we leave the cave, I talk to my wife and my friend about wanting both of our families to move to Ursula. My friend suggests that we move to Boulder and says there is plenty of space there, but I say that I want to move to Ursula.


Ursula means “she-bear,” and one of the ways of understanding the town, cave, and statues in the dream is that they hint at the Great Bear, the wild Goddess. From the Celtic Artio to the Greek Artemis to the Korean Ungnyeo, the sacred female bear is a widespread image.  In Hosea 13:8, God is compared to a bereaved she-bear.  And, what may be important, in understanding the images of this dream, is to know that when I was in my twenties, I developed a fascination with paintings of Saint Ursula. 

According to Christian legend, the British princess Ursula traveled with 11,000 virgins on pilgrimage to Rome.  The women went on to Cologne, where they were all martyred.  A number of paintings depict this unfathomable number of women on their pilgrimage.  As I discovered versions of Ursula in a variety of art museums, the image of 11,001 women on the move, together, was deeply touching to me. (My fascination with these paintings of a huge group of women on a journey surely has some connection to my later work with Jewish priestesses of the past and present.) 

In the dream, I return to my interest in Ursula, except now she is inside a cave—a place where one meets the elemental powers of the earth.  The statues in the caves appear almost like stalactites—formed by humans but also by the land itself.  The Ursula of my dream is both the Great Bear—a more-than-human being—and Ursula—the sacred feminine in human form.

My dream has seamlessly merged an image of “sacred woman” with an image of  “bear” with an image of “earth mother”—a multifaceted vision of Goddess—and perhaps of myself.  In the dream, I seek to purchase items in the gift shop to remind me of this vision.
 
In the final dialogue of the dream, I say I want to move to Ursula.  Looking back on this, I perceive my wish to live immersed in traditions of the sacred feminine.  My friend suggests that instead I move to Boulder. There is in fact a large Jewish community in Boulder that I love, so the friend is giving me good advice. Or, perhaps one might even say that Ursula and Boulder are the same place, since the divine feminine is so frequently entwined, in myth, with the embodied earth.  We are all connected to the earth, no matter our gender—and, the earth and the Goddess go together in much ancient lore.  But in the dream, I am firm in my desire to move to Ursula—to find a home in this vision of the cave-bear-earth-woman.  Though Ursula’s legend is not from my home tradition, my dreamscape seized on the word “Ursula” to describe the kind of world I was looking for.

In the dreamwork language that I use, the cave is a version of what I call the Place—a landscape in a dream that embodies the sacredness of divine presence.  The Place is not a character but an immersive environment: a house, a castle, an ocean, a forest.  In my dreams, I often find that the further I get underground, the closer I get to what feels holy, and in this dream, that pattern manifests in the grottoes of the cave.  

In my understanding, we often find guardians in such sacred dream places.  The Ursula of my dream, who appears in the cave statues, offers me protection and shelter, and also companionship, since the Ursula of legend travels with many companions.  I am with my daughter and with friends in the dream, and this companionship too is deeply comforting.  In “moving to Ursula,” I am also giving my daughter a new world to live in.

The Dream of Saint Ursula

Accademia – Sogno di sant’Orsola – Vittore Carpaccio, 1495

Postscript: I didn’t know until recently that Ursula herself was a dreamer.  According to legend she had a prophetic dream regarding herself and her companions. There is a famous painting by Vittore Carpaccio called “The Dream of Saint Ursula.”  

May we find inspiration in the dreamers of old. May we be wise dreamers. May our dreams send us on needed journeys.  


[i] Jill Hammer, “Wedding the Dragon: The Powerful Feminine as Seen in Jewish Women’s Dreams,” in The Journal of Lesbian Studies, vol. 22 no. 4 (2019)

[ii] Scott Noegel.  “Maleness, Memory, and the Matter of Dream Divination in the Hebrew Bible,” in Perchance to Dream: Dream Divination in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, eds. Esther Hamori and Jonathan Stokl (Atlanta, SBL Press, 2018), p. 61-90.

[iii] Tirzah Firestone, The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom (HarperOne, 2004), p. 226-233; Vital, Hayyim. “Book of Visions.” In Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets, edited and translated by Morris M. Faierstein. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999.

Book Announcement:

Jill Hammer’s new book Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreams, has just become available from Ayin Press! Undertorah takes readers on a journey through the root systems of the dreamworld. Drawing on a deep knowledge of ancient Jewish dream practice, world wisdom traditions, and contemporary ecotheology, this hybrid work of mystical scholarship combines personal narrative, multi-voiced oral history, and a somatic alternative to more symbolic methods of dream interpretation. A practical and paradigm-shifting guidebook for individuals and communities, Undertorah offers a transformative approach to contemporary dreamwork, grounded in embodied experience and ancestral wisdom, that connects us to spirit and inspires us to heal our world. You can order the book here.

BIO: Rabbi Jill Hammer, author, scholar, ritualist, poet, midrashist and dreamworker, is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion (www.ajrsem.org), and co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute (www.kohenet.org). She is the author of the just-released Undertorah: An Earth-Based Kabbalah of Dreaming as well as other books including Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer YetzirahThe Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All SeasonsSisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries.  She lives in Manhattan with her family.



Categories: Dreams and Dreaming, Feminism and Religion, General

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I love so much in your post — all the dream images of women resisting patriarchy, the honoring of women dreamers, your recognition of the wisdom of dreams, the power of your dream of Ursula and the interweaving of the cave and bear images and their meanings. What an empowering and wise post. Thank you. I look forward to reading your book.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. What a fascinating post! There is too much to respond to here. You are writing a book. I was longing for wilderness and became obsessed with the black bear that eventually resulted in my moving to the mountains. My PhD is in ethology – and what did I study? Why black bear of course. The bears have been leading me ever since I came here almost 40 years ago – the bears and my dreams…The Great Bear circumnavigates the northern sky – my absolutely favorite constellation. The bear took me to ground, taught me to love my body, helped and helps me still to work with what is. I continue”to find a home in this vision of the cave-bear-earth-woman.” Thank you thank you thank you… I love this post! May the Bears be with you…

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Sara, how amazing to hear about your journey with the Bears! I will ask my publisher about plans for a Kindle version; no doubt there will be one in not too long…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I saw parallels everywhere in your post! And, as a student of mythology I am familiar with most of the Great Bear stories – The bear as She goddess was probably the first female goddess to be worshipped in the Northern Hemisphere – cave paintings date her at least 50,000 years ago!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Hooray for publication! What a thrill for you. And what a fascinating post. Wonderful feminist dreams in a world of patriarchy and misogyny. Maybe we can all move to Ursula and live with the protective She Bear Goddess. I knew about the history of St. Ursula and her virgins. Yes, it’s awful, hideous, but it’s also typical of medieval church history.

    Yes, let us all move to Ursula and live in peace with each other. Bright blessings to you and your good work.

    Liked by 2 people

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