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The Last Wave: The Archetype of the Tidal Wave


Archetypal Astrology, Movies and Dreams

‘The Last Wave’: The Archetypal Tidal Wave

Cathy Pagano


 "There are times when people need stories more than they need nourishment, because the stories feed something deeper than the needs of the body." 

                                       Charles DeLint, The Onion Girl


Aphrodite and the 9 Muses

While we all have the potential to tap into the Creative Imagination, not all of us can do it in equal measure.  Each of us has different talents.

Our best storytellers have the gift of tapping into our archetypal foundations and passing on their understanding of it to us through songs and stories that open us to cosmic truth on a heart level.  

Peter Weir is one of these great storytellers.  His movies include:  Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, and Dead Poets Society.

The Last Wave: An Archetypal Movie about a Change in Consciousness

Peter Weir’s 1977 movie The Last Wave is a moody, mysterious story about personal and cultural change.  Two men from different worlds are confronted by a mystery;  they both respond to it with honesty and integrity.  This mystery seemingly centers around a mysterious death involving Australian Aborigines.  But the real mystery forces one of these men to confront a rejected part of his inner psyche, an aspect of human life which western man has worked hard to make irrelevant.  

It is the mystery of the psychic dimensions of life, our sixth sense that opens us to unseen realities, which are considered ‘primitive’ by rational standards.  Our left-brained culture often chooses to ignore and vilify the reality of this right-brain imagination.  This story points out the fact that without both views of life, we die.

The movie opens with the arrival of a wild thunderstorm - both in the Australian desert and in the city.  Children are playing outside a one-room schoolhouse in the desert when it suddenly starts to pour – and then to hail.  The baseball-sized hail draws blood from one of the children.  Then we see people in the city, dealing with the downpour in a more frenetic way, going about business as usual.  Only the Aborigines take notice that something out of the ordinary is happening.  From these beginnings, the rains continue to fall throughout the story, soaking the atmosphere of the movie as much as the landscape.   The land is being inundated.  The waters of life are calling out.  Who will listen?  Who will answer their call?

Water is an ancient symbol of the Great Mother, the feminine womb, the fertility and fountain of life.  Life first arose in the oceans of the Earth.  And without water, we die.  Water is also symbolic of our feeling function, those gut feelings about what is right or what is wrong. The waters in this movie symbolize the unseen psychic realms that surround us, both the unconscious and the realm of dreams.   From its beginning scenes, the movie painfully depicts how the dried-out landscape of Western culture is being inundated by these unseen realms. Since the movie takes place in Australia, Mr. Weir brings us this message through the Dreamtime of the ancient Aborigines.  

Dreams, intuitions, feelings - these are aspects of our western psyche which have been repressed since the Age of Enlightenment.  Women, more often than men, are connected with our feelings and intuitions, even though we have been trained to ignore them through ridicule and disbelief.  In the 70s, women were re-discovering the ancient Goddess, as well as reclaiming her ancient powers of emotional intelligence and visionary intuition.  It is the realm of Feminine Consciousness which is operating when we talk about dreams and visions.  Another example of how most feminine gifts and talents have been vilified and rejected by our patriarchal society!  The exciting aspect of this is that these feminine functions of the human psyche will be growing stronger within all of us during the next 14 years, as the planet Neptune moves through the sign of Pisces (see the end of this article).  If we work with these energies, we can create a new world.  If we continue to fear them, we will be overwhelmed by them. 

Back in 1977, writer and director Peter Weir explored these concepts in The Last Wave through his male characters.

Peter Weir, in an interview with Judith M. Kass in New York City in 1979 said:

“I suppose I've been shaving some mornings and I've watched water coming out of the tap and I've thought, ‘It seems to be under control’. What if I couldn't turn it off and no plumber could? We think we have nature under control. Disasters always happen in Third World countries; in my part of the world we're OK because we've organized things. We wouldn't permit a cyclone to hit the city. It seems to me we've lost touch with the fear of nature.  More than the respect for it, because there are too many poems written about the respect for nature. To be absolutely dead scared.  Tonight, we could leave this building and there’d be a special kind of wind blowing. If that wind is howling with a voice like the voice of a person, a four-year-old child might say to us, "The wind's talking to us," and we'll say, "No it isn't, don't be silly. It's just howling around those wires." Organize his imagination, everything's under control. It's just part of something we've lost touch with, another way of seeing the world. It was part of a balance of things, a balance within us, and we've eliminated it since the Industrial Revolution and it's forcing its way back. People make movies about it, write books about it. Often they're junk. Children are born with it, with this balance. We teach it out, but it'll find its way back with some of us.”

            Our imaginations have been colonized by our western culture’s insistence on rationalism as the sole source of wisdom and knowledge.  It will become our undoing unless we free up our imaginations and listen to our dreams once again.  This is the journey of our movie’s hero, David Burton, a white lawyer who finds himself caught up in a murder mystery involving a group of Aboriginal men.  The death and even David’s involvement in the case is mysterious, since he is a corporate taxation lawyer, not a defense attorney.  He nevertheless takes on the case, and immediately both his professional life and his personal life begin to unravel. 

            Plagued by visions of water and recurring dreams about a mysterious Aboriginal man who shows him a rock with ancient inscriptions on it, David’s rational world further crumbles when he meets Chris, the man in his dreams, one of the men accused of murder.  Chris becomes his gateway into the world of the Dreamtime, when he brings an old shaman, Charlie, to David’s house.  When David asks Charlie about tribal matters (a taboo which is the reason the original man was killed) Charlie tells him, “Law is more important than man.”  


            Charlie tells David a deep truth about the Aborigines and about all ancient peoples.  For them, law is more important than a single person.  Ancient cultures developed their sense of identity through their tribal stories and hidden rituals. The wisdom of the ancestors was embodied in the tribe’s myths and legends.  Each person lived according to these tribal and often cosmic laws.  To step outside these laws could bring destruction not only to oneself but to the whole tribe. This makes every member of the tribe responsible for all the tribe.

       This is tribal law.  Charlie kills the man who broke the taboo by stealing one of the tribal power objects.  He kills him in the Dreamtime to protect the ancient ways.  Chris and Charlie try to get David to back off from his defense for them, that they are tribal people still living in Sydney. The whites don’t know this and the Aborigines want to keep it a secret.   But David, in his zeal to save them, won’t listen to them.

             This is an apt metaphor for what Western culture has done to the world, because our rational standpoint has often cut us off from life and led us to ignore the cosmic laws of Nature as well as the tribal laws of others.  And so we bring disaster upon ourselves and our world.  Charlie, as the tribe’s shaman, is making sure that his world and its mysteries stay safe. The men are prepared to go to prison to protect the tribal laws.

             But our western ways have already infiltrated the ancient ways. While David feels he is serving the cause of justice, he is breaking the barriers between two cultures.  It is Chris who helps him – Chris who comes to him in his dreams and shows him the stolen object. Chris and David become the vehicles, the twin souls, who bring about a new possibility for both cultures.  

Here we have two men: one white, one black; one tribal aboriginal, one highly sophisticated Western civilized man. Both fine men. One of them has material wealth; one has spiritual wealth. I wanted my lawyer, with his material wealth, with his humanitarian principles, to, firstly, glimpse with his mind that there was another lost dream, or spiritual life, and then to touch it.  (Peter Weir interview)

David does just that when he won’t let go of the mystery.  Chris tries to mediate between the old ways of the shaman and David’s western ways.  When he explains the Dreamtime, David asks him, “What are dreams?” and he answers, “Dreams are hearing, seeing, feeling ways of knowing.  Dreams are the shadows of something real.”  Now we get to the essence of the story.  How can modern man accept the reality of the Dreamtime – or even his own dreams?  David’s response to this issue is central to the story.  If he can accept the dream reality, something important will change.

            When David seeks out the old shaman who has been terrorizing his family, trying to stop David from using the argument that this was a tribal killing, he has to face the BIG question of life. He finds Charlie, seated on the floor of an empty room in Sydney; when confronted, Charlie rocks back and forth, asking David over and over again, “Who are You? Who are You?  Who are You?  Are you a fish?  Are you a snake?  Are you a man?  Who are You?  Who are You?  Who are You?”  Charlie is at a loss to know who David is, and can only confront David with his own mystery.  Can our inner dreamer really trust our ego to listen, to understand and to act in the whole's best interest?  Or will we have more of the same?

            Later, David’s stepfather, a minister, reminds him that when he was a child, he used to be a dreamer. He told his parents that people came to take him to another world while he slept.   But after he dreamed his mother’s death, he locked that part of himself away, hidden so deep he forgot about it.  Such a beautiful image for western man, who has cut himself off from the power of dreams and visions in his search to control life and nature!  At the point in the movie where the waters are flooding him and he seemingly has lost everything, he asks his stepfather, “Why didn’t you tell me there were mysteries?”  His father’s response is, “We lost our dreams.”

            As David reclaims his belief in the Dreamtime, Chris comes to him and shows him the way to the tribe’s secret caves below Sydney.  There David confronts the old shaman and in a battle of wills, overcomes him.  If the old ways must die, then the new life carries forward the essence of wisdom that formed the core of that older wisdom.  It seems neither the old shaman nor the old David will do.  There needs to be balance, there needs to be an acceptance of both worlds.  There needs to be a new possible human.

            Exploring the sacred site, David sees the ancient stories drawn on the cave walls, stories of men who came to the Aborigines in the past from the East at the turning of the ages when there was a giant tidal wave which destroyed everything.  They are somehow his people, for they look like him.  He quickly gathers up a mask he finds there – a mask that bears his own face - and leaves the caves.  But when David tries to go back the way he came in, he finds the way barred.  He loses faith and drops the mask.  His old identity - no matter how wondrous - is left behind.   He can only go forward, down through the sewers and then out in a new birth.   

         As he stumbles out of a sewage pipe onto the beach as the sun rises, he sees before him the mighty wave, building and building, ready to break.   Peter Weir’s vision of this wave is ambiguous.  Is the wave a dreamtime reality?  Or is a tsunami headed his way? Will our hero survive?  Will we survive?  Can we integrate the power of our own dream time?  Only time will tell. 

The Symbol of the Tidal Wave

The story of The Last Wave brings the issue of our relationship to the Unconscious realms of life into focus through a symbol that appears in many modern dreams.   The Tidal Wave is an appropriate image of the vast sea-change our world is headed into.  Since the movie came out in 1977, the world has experienced two horrific examples of a tidal wave’s destructive power.  Images of the tidal waves’ devastation overwhelmed me with compassion, but it was the movie The Perfect Storm that had me feeling the immense power of our ocean’s waters.  My heart was in my throat watching that wave build and build.  Overwhelming does not begin to describe a tidal wave’s power.  This is the force we have to contend with now - the power of the Waters to overwhelm both our shores and our fragile psyches – or to heal us.

The tidal wave perfectly represents the power of the aroused ocean.  Something arises from the depths, displacing the waters that cradle our lands, dissolving our sense of ourselves.  The waters rush into shore, overwhelming it and often claiming it for its own.  On a symbolic level, ocean represents the power of our collective emotions.  These emotions are being stirred up right now due to the breakdown of our society, and unless we tame and transform them when they appear within us, our world could be subject to the destructive power and frenzy of a mob mentality caught up in emotional rage.  We’re already seeing the rise of hate groups in America.  The only way to balance extremists is to stay centered and aware, constantly making small adjustments to our own emotions to maintain an inner balance of peace and centeredness.  Our dreams can help us do this. 

Many friends and clients come to me with tidal wave dreams and are by turns fascinated, afraid and intrigued by them.   Why do we dream them and what do they say to us about our life and our world?  Tidal waves are not only a force of Nature, they are archetypal by nature.  By archetypal I mean that this image of water’s power to overwhelm and destroy is part of our human psychic makeup.  R.J.J. Tolkien wrote about his tidal wave dreams, which he believed were memories of drowning Atlantis.   The tidal wave lives within us.

One woman dreamed of three consecutive tidal waves coming into shore.  None of them overwhelmed her.  Since three symbolizes the energy of process, the dream seems to indicate that she’s becoming aware of the process this sea-change is making in her life.   She’s becoming conscious of how her old beliefs are still urging her to go back to an old way of perceiving and living; conscious of the patriarchal constraints and notions about how to live her life.  She knows some big change is coming, but her rational mindset keeps pushing her to revert to old habits.  She is in the process of learning how to trust Spirit and let those waves sweep her into her new life. 

Another young woman had a few tidal wave dreams after learning that she had cancer. 

            First Dream: I’m up on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  I see the motor boat I rented moored below me.  I see the wave take the boat.  The waves get higher and higher.  I retreat to my house but the waters come up against the windows and finally break through.  But I am safe.


            Second Dream: There’s a huge jetty and wall down by the water.  I see a giant wave coming and I try to get people to safety.  But the waves crash into the wall and buildings and destroy them. 


            These two dreams came at a time when her ‘friends’ told her that they couldn’t live with her while she was going through her cancer treatments.  Abandoned by people who she thought were her friends, she had to find ways to deal with her illness alone.  And she did, coming through the crisis stronger than before.   Tidal waves of emotional stress, of facing betrayal and unkindness, of facing death alone (we all face death alone), of letting go of everything familiar, are the types of crisis that are prefigured in tidal wave dreams.


            I’m walking down by the beach and look to my left at the water.  I am amazed to see giant tidal waves hanging in the sky.  They do not break, they just hang there.  I notice people swimming in them and having fun. 


            I used to have tidal wave dreams all the time.  In the first dreams, I observed these giant waves just hanging in the sky, but later on I began to have dreams where the tidal waves broke and flooded around me, although I was never in danger.  Having never experienced or seen a tidal wave, I was amazed by these dreams, until I came to understand a bit about the human psyche and Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious.   These dreams were showing me the power of the collective unconscious, a powerful energy that needs to be played in if we’re to work with it. Not everyone is overwhelmed by the tidal waves of change.   Becoming a dream analyst and storyteller is my way of playing in the waves.  

Since symbols contain many layers of meaning, tidal wave dreams can show us both destruction and creation.  It can indicate a person whose ego-identity is flooded by archetypal material or it can indicate a collective movement, such as the Occupy Movement, which has the power of an overwhelming force of nature. The rejected aspects of life are returning to collective consciousness in a powerful way.  It’s up to each of us to meet it with integrity.

The Cosmic Story: Neptune Returns to the Sign of Pisces

                                                       Neptune, the blue-green planet

With the Sun now moving through the astrological sign of Pisces, I was drawn to begin this series of blogs with an ocean story.  And with the entrance of the planet Neptune into Pisces for the first time in 165 years, the image of a tidal wave resonates with the energy of both Neptune and Pisces.  Both are associated with the Earth’s oceans as well as the watery realm of the Collective Unconscious.  This watery realm connects us to each other, to our creativity and to our spiritual heritage.  It is a gateway to other realms of being, to other dimensions of life that are just as real as our tangible world but which have been rejected as ‘unreal’, ‘irrational’ and ‘primitive’.   Pisces and Neptune symbolize the mysteries of life which defy definition, the ‘unseen real’.  The collective unconscious contains humanity’s ideals, wisdom, dreams and hopes. Because it is an unconscious realm, it also represents the feelings and knowledge that have been rejected by our collective consciousness. 

The return of Neptune to the watery realm of Pisces indicates that mystical, spiritual waters are rising up within us, just as Earth’s oceans are rising with the melting of our polar caps.  We are entering a time when our ability to understand life on a more symbolic level will be enlivened and enhanced.  When we dream of or make movies about tidal waves, it reflects an uprising within our collective heart, a vast sea-change that can destroy our old world while it gives rise to a new world that is washed clean by the longings of our hearts. The image of the tidal wave is an archetype of our times, symbolizing the uprising of the unseen realities.   It is up to each one of us to face the Wave and survive.

At The Bard’s Grove,



I’d love to hear from you about any tidal wave dreams you’ve had.  And please take the opportunity to go rent The Last Wave and see this marvelous movie for yourself.