A few days ago, I was listening to Johnny Cash sing "Oh, What a Dream." I'd heard the song before but hadn't really paid close attention. This time, however, I literally had to stop in my tracks as I started concentrating on the lyrics. It's one strange little song. And it led me on a strange little journey. . .
Cash originally recorded the song at two different sessions in July and August 1958. (Those dates will be important later on.) Evidently, he wasn't satisfied with either version, so he recorded it again in March 1959, changing the name of the song to "You Dreamer You," and making some minor adjustments to the lyrics. This version (the weakest of the three, ironically) was released that same year and reached #13 on the Country Charts. He even performed it on a 1959 episode of the Chevy Show.
But it's the original 1958 song, "Oh, What a Dream," that usually gets anthologized. Here it is:
Oh what a dream, oh what a dreamSo, what's going on in this song?
I dreamed I walked in a field of flowers, oh what a dream
The houses all were silver towers, oh what a dream
Beside the road an angel sat
I said Hello and tipped my hat
And stopped when I saw her smile
And sat me down a while, I sat me down a while
Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
I tried the angel for a kiss, oh what a dream
But she turned away and my lips missed, oh what a dream
She said, sir, I'll have you know
I met you just a while ago
You're welcome for to sit
But calm yourself a bit, sir, calm yourself a bit
Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
I fell in love like 1, 2, 3, oh what a dream
I asked the angel to marry me, oh what a dream
She said, sir, I can't marry you,
But I'm a dream that can come true
There are dreams of much my worth
That live upon the earth, sir, live upon the earth
Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
Then I awoke and found my love, oh what a dream
As heavenly as the one above, oh what a dream
We'll marry in a sea of flowers
Home will be a silver tower
They'll be heaven in my life
With an angel for a wife, with an angel for a wife
Oh what a dream, oh what a dream
First, Johnny Cash is in a dream state. The landscape of this dream is somewhat unusual, as the houses are all "silver towers," which sound urban, yet he's walking through a bucolic "field of flowers." He encounters an angel. This particular angel has taken the form of a woman, a pretty girl, as it were, who causes the wandering Cash to interrupt his journey (Where's he going anyway? Is he just ambling around some like Buddhist pilgrim?)
"Angel Playing a Flageolet," by Edward Burne-Jones (1878) National Museums Liverpool.
Aroused by the angel's beauty, Johnny quickly desires physical connection and tries to kiss her. (This is one fast mover.) She rebuffs his efforts, however, and tells him to cool his jets. It's too late, though - Cash has fallen in love with the angel and wants to marry her. Maybe it's genuine love. Or maybe he bodily craves the girl-angel so much that he's willing to marry her, knowing it's the only way he's going to get her into bed. In any case, she says she can't marry him. (This follows Matthew 22:30, which says that angels do not marry.)
The angel, now assuming the traditional role of messenger, then tells Cash that there are similar angel-women walking the earth. When Johnny awakes from his dream state, lo and behold, he finds a woman "as heavenly as the one above." (Is she in bed with him? How did she get there?)
The story takes one last unusual turn. The sexual-spiritual tension that was building up in the dream seems to resolve itself in a real-life happy ending, wherein the flesh-and-blood Cash and his angel-woman get married. Why, then, do they return to the landscape of his dream? In fact, the terrain has grown even stranger than before. Their home will be one of those "silver towers," but now they're getting married in a "sea of flowers." What had been a "field," something hard and of the earth that one can walk upon, has now transformed into a watery garden-scape. Did Cash come back to earth, marry an angel-woman, and then ascend with her into some spiritual plane? (The Waters of Heaven, perhaps?)
Whatever the case, Cash ultimately achieves union between the spiritual and the earthly - "There'll be heaven in my life with an angel for a wife."
This little mystical tale got me thinking about other stories of earthly human beings having romantic or sexual contact with angelic or supernatural figures.
There are at least three such episodes in the Bible:
- Genesis 6:1-4 - "(1) Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, (2) that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose. (3) Then the Lord said, 'My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.' (4) The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown."
- Genesis 19: 1-5 - "(1) And there came two angels to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom: and Lot seeing them rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face toward the ground. (2) And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night. (3) And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat. (4) But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: (5) And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.
- Jude 6-7 - (6) And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. (7) Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.
Some argue that the first episode doesn't refer to angelic or supernatural creatures, that the Nephilim are simply exceptionally big humans. (One theory suggests that they were the Neanderthals.) But in all other Old Testament passages, the term "Sons of God" refers to "angels" (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Psalm 29:1; 89:7; Daniel 3:25.)
What's interesting in the second episode is the physicality of the angels. We tend to think of angels as ethereal beings of pure spirit, but these two eat the unleavened bread Lot serves them and lay down in his house to rest.
And, of course, Christianity itself is founded upon the story of a supernatural being impregnating an earthly, unmarried virgin, producing a flesh-and-blood son who's both human and divine. (Was Jesus a Super Nephilim?)
Modern cinema offers similar stories of angels and humans having romantic contact. Off the top of my head I can think of three: Wings of Desire, City of Angels, and The Bishop's Wife. And there are other scenarios in which non-angelic supernatural beings fall in love with earthly women. In Death Takes a Holiday, Death himself falls for the beautiful Grazia. On television, "Angel," a supernatural creature of the vampire variety, has romantic/sexual entanglements with a girl mystic (vampire-slayer variety) named Buffy. And, of course, Dracula and all his incarnations involve desired union with female mortals.
Notice, however, that in all of these cases, the angels or supernatural beings are men and the earthly object of their desire is female.
In Johnny Cash's version, however, this gendered power structure is reversed. It is the female who is supernatural and holds power over the human male. The force of desire still originates in the male (what can I say, men are dogs), but he's no longer in control.
There are tales in various spiritual traditions of supernatural women becoming involved with male humans. The most famous example in the west is that of Lilith, a Mesopotamian female demon who was often a seductress. And in the Middle Ages, the Succubus was a demon in female form supposed to have carnal intercourse with men in their sleep.
Evidently, if a woman has supernatural power and bodily desires a man, she's evil. While a male supernatural being can have sexual union with an earthly woman and be, well, God. Or an angel. And/or a Nephilim, "mighty men . . . men of renown." Ah, patriarchy.
In "Oh, What a Dream," however, Cash turns this patriarchal convention on its head. While a female angel does appear to him in a dream, and there is physical desire on his part, she's not evil at all, but remains pure, rebuffing his sexual overtures. She performs her role as messenger and ultimately leads him on the path of love and a spiritual-earthly union in his awakened state.
In this regard, Cash's story resembles one from Tibetan tantra, in which Naropa, the 11th-century mystic, achieves enlightenment after encountering a female spiritual being called a dakini in his dreams. (Granted, in at least one version of the legend, Naropa does have carnal intercourse with the dakini, but that's not unusual for Tibetan tantra, which believes that sex can be a path to enlightenment.)
So, was the Main in Black a practitioner of Tibetan tantra? Doubtful, right?
Except. . . doesn't the phrase "sea of flowers" suddenly make sense when one considers the sacred lotus, which floats on top of the water?
If Cash wasn't referring to Tantric Buddhism, and I didn't think he was, what was the origin, I wondered, of imagery such as "silver towers" and a "sea of flowers"? I decided to do some investigation. Perhaps the terms came from mythology. I looked for the two phrases together in a number of scholarly databases, including JSTOR, MLA International Bibliography, Project Muse, Répertoire International de la Press Musicale, International Medieval Bibliography, and The Bibliography of Asian Studies.
I turned to the internet. Surely the web would reveal something. Google Books alone comprises over 7 million books, from ancient kabbalistic texts to thousands of recent books on Tantric Buddhism. And, according to a Netcraft Web Server Survey in February 2007, there are 108,810,358 distinct websites out there. Somebody somewhere had to have written about "silver towers" and "sea of flowers." Perhaps I could figure out their origins.Incredibly, as it turns out, there were only two items on the web that contained both phrases: The lyrics of Johnny Cash's song. . . and a utopian science-fiction novel published in the Soviet Union in 1957: Andromeda: A Space Age Tale, by Ivan Yefremov. [Full-text version in English.]
In Chapter 2 of Yefremov's story (On the planet - Epsilon Tucanae) , I read the following:
The five people of Earth gazed in silence at that astounding new world. . . . On the sea-coast opposite the statue, carved silver towers marked the beginning of a wide, white staircase that swept boldly over a thicket of stately trees with turquoise leaves.Later, in Chapter 11 (Island of Oblivion), one of the five people from Earth, a man named Mven Mas, encounters a beautiful but unusual girl in "a sea of flowers." He's immediately drawn to her, gazing "admiringly at her graceful figure."
Finally, in Chapter 13 (Angels of Heaven), a woman historian from Earth, Veda Kong, has an ancient romantic melody stuck in her head, which makes her think of angels:
"Angels-that's what religious Europeans in the old days called the imaginary spirits of heaven, the heralds who made known the will of the gods. Angelas meant 'herald' or 'messenger' in the ancient Greek language. It's a word that has been forgotten for centuries...." Veda shook off these thoughts while she was at the station but they returned to her in the coach of the Spiral Way train.Strangest of all, however, was the fact that the novel Andromeda is about people from Earth journeying into space on "Cosmic Expedition No.37," aboard the "First-Class Spaceship Tantra."
Something sounded familiar. I went back to the Wikipedia entry for dakini.
In the Tibetan language, dakini is rendered Khandroma which means 'she who traverses the sky' or 'she who moves in space'. Sometimes the term is translated poetically as 'sky dancer' or 'sky walker'.Woah. So, was Ivan Yefremov also a practitioner of Tantric Buddhism?
How was it that the only two references I could find to "silver towers" and "sea of flowers" came from a novel published in 1957 and a song recorded in 1958? And why did both seem to have connections to Tibetan tantra and a female dakini who leads human men to a higher spiritual plane?
Was it possible that Cash had read Andromeda: A Space Age Tale?
Not unless he could read Russian, because the first English translation didn't appear until 1959, after he had already written and recorded "Oh, What a Dream."
- The Main in Black was a Soviet spy who could and did read Russian, including utopian science-fiction by his friend and fellow practitioner of Tibetan tantra, Ivan Yefremov.
- Johnny Cash and Ivan Yefremov did not know each other, but both were visited around the same time by a dakini in the form of their "muse," who whispered mystical tales to them in dreams.
- Cash encountered an East German in a bar in Berlin. Germans love country music, so he or she would've been trilled to meet the Man in Black, and he or she, being an East German, may have been reading Andromeda at the time. He or she could also have been a practitioner of Tibetan tantra who would've been able to pick up on the motif in Yefremov's work and imparted it to Cash.
- Both Cash and Yefremov may have been influenced by a common source, probably Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was undoubtedly familiar with tantra and dakinis, and who used "silver towers" to describe Athens in section V of his long poem "Ode to Liberty," as well as "the unfolded flowers beneath the sea" in section IV, when writing about the waters around Greece. One of Yefremov's earlier novles, The Land of Foam, dealt with Ancient Greece. And, as a utopian, he may have appreciated Shelley's poem about humankind's progress towards Liberty.
- There is absolutely no connection whatsoever between Cash and Yefremov. It's simply a coincidence that the terms only show up in their work. (Except the dakini says "There's no such thing as coincidence.")
What does it all mean? I have no earthly idea.
Except male humans still dream of having sex with angels, as seen in a recent discussion on one of the forums at BeliefNet.com
Cash and Yefremov have both moved on to their own "silver towers," taking with them any secrets about their mystical connections.
One must come to one's own conclusions. Love. Love is the path. Of that much, I'm sure.
Next up, I'll take a look at the Zoroastrian implications in Cash's "Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog."