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Dream catchers are based on the Native American tradition of hanging a symbolic web over a sleeping person to protect him or her from bad dreams. They consist of a circular wooden hoop containing a handcrafted web design with a center hole. The bottom of the hoop features two or more dangling feathers. Hung above the dreamer, the web filters dreams from the night air, letting only the good dreams or important messages through.
There are many beautiful legends tracing the origin of dream catchers, which can have a bearing on how one works. The Lakota, for example, believe good dreams are caught to become part of the web of life, while the bad dreams slip through the center hole. The Navajo, Ojibwe and Chippewa legends hold that the web catches the bad dreams, preventing them from passing into dreamtime, while the good dreams slip through the center. In these legends, morning sunlight purifies the web of bad dreams. Children's versions, fashioned with the latter legends in mind, have a feather at the center hole so that the good dreams can slip down the feather into dreamtime.
Traditional dream catchers have eight points where the web attaches to the circular hoop, representing the eight legs of the spider. The spider is symbolic of female creative energy, wisdom and learning. In Native American culture, It is particularly important to hang one of these hoops over cribs in order to protect babies from bad dreams or "bad air" (bad energy). They are made of all natural willow hoops and sinew webs, and are not intended to last. By the time the child is grown, it is customarily replaced with a new one for his or her next cycle of life.
Though the idea of dreams has been stressed in these devices, their ultimate meaning appears to be broader. The Lakota legend holds, for example, that during the course of a lifetime, many forces come into play that can block awareness of the Great Spirit. Faith in the Great Spirit causes the dream catcher to hold not only good dreams, but also good visions, ideas, and opportunities to help people achieve their ideals and goals. These hoops are not just for sleeping, therefore, but are totems believed by some to concentrate good energy and neutralize negative energy.
Today, dream catchers have been adopted and popularized in Western culture as New Age tools and decorative objects. They can be found online and in specialty gift shops.