In 1994, a New York rapper by the name of Nas burst into the hip hop scene with the release of his debut album Illmatic. Fast forward 28 years and Nas is one of the most influential rappers, or artists, of all time, winning himself a grammy just two years ago. One of the most memorable lines on his debut album tells us that he ‘never sleeps, cause sleep is the cousin of death’.
The ancient Greeks might’ve liked Nas for just this line alone. Well, sort of. Actually, they believed the relationship between sleep and death was even closer than just mere cousins. The story of Hypnos signifies perceptions of life and death, the underworld, and the normal world.
Living in a dark cave in the underworld, Hypnos made his appearances in the night to let the people of ancient Greece sleep. Also, he would literally serve the people their dreams if he felt this to be appropriate. He and his sons appeared in the dreams of mere mortals but also brought prophecies to the most well known prophets of the time.
Who was Hypnos?
Hypnos is perceived as a calm and gentle god. He is known as the god of sleep in Greek mythology. Also, Hypnos was a male god. He was the son of the powerful goddess of the night, who goes by the name of Nyx. Although initially thought of as the fatherless son of Nyx, Hypnos was later believed to be fathered by Erebus.
As a winged god, Hypnos lived on the island of Lemnos: a Greek island that is still inhabited to this day. The Greek god of sleep induced sleep in mortals through a touch of his magic wand. Another way in which he let people fall asleep was through fanning them with his mighty wings.
The Greek god of sleep was the father of four sons, named Morpheus, Phobetor, Phantasus, and Ikelos. Hypnos’ sons played an important role in the power that our god of sleep could exercise. They all had a particular function in the making of dreams, allowing Hypnos to perform effective and accurate sleep inducements on its subjects.
Hypnos and the Ancient Greeks
The Greeks were known to sleep at temples. This way, they believed there was a higher chance of getting healed or heard by the god of that particular temple. It goes without saying that Hypnos and his sons had an obvious role in this.
An example of Hypnos relevance is The Oracle of Delphi, a high priestess who was believed to be the messenger of the Greek god Apollo. She would send herself into a dreamlike state to receive Apollo’s replies to the questions posed by those who had traveled to his temples. Hypnos would, indeed, be the one who brought her these messages.
Hypnos in Greek mythology
Like many other Greek gods and Goddesses, the story of Hypnos has been elaborated on in Homer’s epic poem Iliad. The story of Hypnos as described by Homer surrounds the tricking of Zeus, the Greek god of thunder. In particular, Hypnos tricked Zeus in two separate instances. Both instances were aimed to help the Danaans win the Trojan war.
Changing the Course of the Trojan War
To give the complete picture, we should talk about Hera first. She was the wife of Zeus and, also, a dreadful and powerful goddess. Hera is the goddess of marriage, women, and childbirth. She asked Hypnos to put her husband to sleep so that she wouldn’t be bothered by him anymore. On her demand, Hypnos used his powers to trick Zeus and put him into a deep sleep.
But, why did she want her husband to sleep? Basically, Hera didn’t agree with the way in which the events of the Trojan war came together and ended. She became furious with the fact that Heracles sacked the city of the Trojans.
This wasn’t the case with Zeus, he actually thought it was a good outcome. His excitement towards the outcome of the war was rooted in fatherly love, since Heracles was Zeus’ son.
The First Sleep of Zeus
By assuring that Zeus was in a state of unconsciousness towards her actions, Hera was enabled to machinate against Heracles. With that, she wanted to change the course of the Trojan war, or at least punish Heracles for his … victory? A bit petty, so it seems. But anyway, Hera unleashed angry winds over the oceans during Heracles’ home voyage, when he was returning from Troy.
Eventually, however, Zeus awoke and found out about the actions of both Hypnos and Hera. He was furiated and started his quest to take revenge on Hypnos first. But, the Greek god of sleep was able to hide with his mother Nyx in her cave.
Hera Seduces Zeus
As should be evident from the above story, Hera wasn’t too fond of her husband. Especially when Zeus woke up, she couldn’t stand that she wasn’t able to do her own thing without the interference of her husband. Well, can you really blame the man? It’s only a father’s duty to protect his children, right?
Still, the initial goal of Hera wasn’t fulfilled yet. She didn’t change the course of the Trojan war to her likings. Therefore, she decided to continue her quest.
Hera devised a plot so that she could trick Zeus once again. Yes, we already concluded that Zeus was very mad at Hera, so she needed to undertake several actions to make Zeus love her again. Only then, he would fall for the trick.
The first step was a step that we mortals also undertake, to make an effort to look pretty and smell nice. She washed herself with ambrosia, wove flowers through her hair, put on her brightest set of earrings, and heaved herself in her prettiest robe. Besides, she asked Aphrodite for help with charming Zeus. This way he would definitely fall for her.
Everything set to let her trick work.
Hera Returns to Hypnos for Help
Well, almost everything. She still needed Hypnos to ascertain the succes. Hera called Hypnos, but this time Hypnos was a little more reluctant to put Zeus to sleep. Not very surprising, since Zeus was still mad with him from the first time he tricked him. Hypnos definitely needed some convincing before he would agree to help Hera.
Hera conceded, offering a golden seat that could never fall apart, with a footstool to go with it. With his non-consumerist mindset, Hypnos declined the offer. The second offer was a beautiful lady by the name of Pasithea, a lady that Hypnos always wanted to marry.
Love can go a long way, sometimes making you blind. Indeed, Hypnos agreed to the offer. But only under the condition that Hera would swear that the marriage would be granted. Hypnos made her swear by the river Styx and called the gods of the underworld to witness the promise.
Hypnos tricks Zeus for the Second Time
With Hypnos behind her, Hera went to Zeus on the topmost peak of Mount Ida. Zeus was enamored with Hera, so he couldn’t focus on anything else but her. Meanwhile, Hypnos was hiding in the thick mist somewhere up in a pine tree.
When Zeus asked Hera what she was doing in his vicinity, she told Zeus that she was on her way to her parents to stop a fight between them. But, she first wanted his advice on how to stop her parents from quarreling. A bit of an odd excuse, but it worked since Hera wanted to distract Zeus so that Hypnos could do his thing.
Zeus invited her to stay over to enjoy each other’s company. In this moment of inattention, Hypnos went to work and tricked Zeus once again to fall asleep. While the god of thunder was falling asleep, Hypnos traveled to the ships of the Achaeans to tell Poseidon, the Greek god of water and the sea, the news. Since Zeus was asleep, Poseidon had a free path to help the Danaans win the Trojan war after all.
Luckily for him, Hypnos wasn’t discovered this time. To this day, Zeus is unaware of Hypnos’ role in changing the course of the Trojan war.
Hades, Hypnos’ Place of Residence
Quite the story indeed. Luckily, however, Hypnos also had a life that was a little less eventful or dangerous. He had a palace to live in, or to come to rest after his adventures. Hypsnos resided here mostly during the day, hiding from the sunlight.
Indeed, according to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hypnos lived in the underworld in a dark palace. The underworld, at first, was seen as the place where Hades ruled over. However, in Roman mythology Hades became a way to refer to the underworld itself, while Pluto was its god.
READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses
So, Hypnos lived in Hades. But, not just in a regular house. He lived in a massive musty cave from which one could see and smell the sleep inducing opium poppies and other hypnotizing plants from afar.
The palace of our calm and gentle god had no doors or gates, taking away any opportunity of any creaking noises. The center of the palace was reserved for Hypnos himself, where he could lay upon gray sheets and on an ebony bed, surrounded by unlimited dreams.
Of course, it was a silent place, allowing the river Lethe to to babble gently over the loose pebbles. As one of the five rivers that set the boundaries of the underworld, the river Lethe is the one that is closely related to Hypnos. In ancient Greece, the river is known as the river of forgetfulness.
Hades, Hypnos, and Thanatos: Sleep is the Brother of Death
As Nas and many others with him told us, sleep is the cousin of death. In Greek mythology, however, this doesn’t acknowledge the actual relatedness between the two. They saw sleep not as the cousin of death. They actually saw the god of sleep as the brother of death, embodied by Thanatos.
Hypnos’ twin brother Thanatos, indeed, was the personification of death according to the ancient Greeks.
Although death is not often seen as a positive thing, Thanatos was the personification of a non-violent death. Still, he is believed to be much more iron-hearted than his twin brother. The two enjoyed each other’s company, living next to each other in the underworld.
Not only through his brother does Hypnos relate to death. The brief response of sleep was identified by the ancient Greeks as resembling the eternal rest as seen when a person dies. This is why Hypnos lived in the underworld: a realm where only death sinners go to, or where gods that relate to death have access to.
Children of the Night
Since their mother Nyx was the goddess of the night, the two brothers and their remaining sisters reproduced characteristics that we related to the night. They stood at the fringes of the cosmos as abstract figures. Hypnos and his siblings are described in a way in which they do fulfill their nature. But, that doesn’t mean that they are worshiped like many other gods.
This level of abstraction is truly characteristic for the gods that are related to the underworld, something which might have already been evident if you are familiar with stories of the Titans and the Olympians. As opposed to Hypnos and his brother Thanatos, the Titans and Olympians didn’t live in the underworld and you see them being more explicitly worshiped in temples.
Some of you might wonder whether Hypnos is a powerful god. Well, long story short, he is. But not necessarily as an hegemonic power. He is more so a very useful help of other Greek gods, as we saw with the story of Hera and Zeus. Still, in general Hypnos had to listen to the other Greek gods.
For mortals, the purpose of Hypnos was to induce sleep and give them a state of rest. If Hypnos thought it was useful for a person to dream, he would call up his sons to induce dreams to mortals. As indicated, Hypnos had four sons. Each son would play a different role in the creation of dreams.
The first son of Hypnos was Morpheus. He is known to produce all the human forms that appear in someone’s dream. As an excellent mimic and shape shifter, Morpheus can impersonate women as easily as men. The second son of Hypnos goes by the name of Phobetor. He produces the forms of all the beasts, birds, serpents, and scary monsters or animals.
Hypnos’ third son also was the producer of something particular, namely all the forms that resemble inanimate things. Think about rocks, water, minerals, or the sky. The last son, Ikelos, can be seen as the author of dreamlike realism, dedicated to making your dreams as realistic as possible.
Making Dreams … Come True?
On a more philosophical note, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle also had something to say about dreaming and the dream-like state. It might not be that Aristotle himself directly referred to Hypnos as such, but it is hard to believe that the story of Hypnos was not at least part of his initial thought process.
Indeed, Hypnos, like many other Greek gods, can be seen as a sort of spirit; a representation of the values and knowledge that is relevant at a particular point in time. In this case, it regards Greek society. A great example of how these spirits change and stay relevant over time in Greek mythology can be found in the story of the Furies.
Aristotle on Dreaming
Aristotle believed that the body was communicating with the mind via dreams. The two necessarily influence each other. So, let’s say someone dreamt of a sickness. By showing up in a dream, Aristotle believed that the body tried to tell the mind that there was a sickness developing and one should act on that.
Also, Aristotle believed in the self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say, the body would tell you something through your dreams and you became determined to make it happen in reality. Dreams didn’t predict the future, it was just the body informing the mind to undertake certain actions. So according to Aristotle, the body made what the brain could perceive.
The Rationale of Dreams
Like all his fellow ancient Greeks, Aristotle believed that dreams meant something. That is, if you were dreaming it meant that ‘something’ wanted to tell you a particular thing. This ‘something’ for laymen Greeks was epitomized by Hypnos. Aristoteles thought this was too short-sighted, and that this ‘something’ was the actual body.
Also, the ancient Greeks expected that they would get answers in their dreams when sleeping at a temple. The things that showed up in their dreams wouldn’t be questioned, they would be adopted and lived to perfection. This, too, resembles the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In short, the philosophy of Aristotle seems to capture the zeitgeist of the time but from a more concrete viewpoint.
Although it might be justified to some extent, this particular notion of the mind and body has lost appeal in many contemporary societies since Descartes’ famous notion of ‘I think, therefore I am’. The story of Hypnos is therefore an interesting source to imagine other ways of perceiving life, the mind, and the body.
Are You Sleeping Yet?
As the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos definitely has a story that keeps you engaged and awake. He might have had bonds to the underground, but you couldn’t really say that he is a fearful god per se. As a thoughtful sleep inducer and father of four, Hypnos has made his presence felt in both the realm of the gods and the realm of mortal men.
The actual story of Hypnos is open for interpretation due to his mother Nyx and the abstractness of the children of the night. With his twin brother Thanatos representing death, the story of Hypnos speaks to the imagination of any reader.
Clearly, it has given food for thought to some of the greatest philosophers of his time. Maybe it might even give food for thought to some of the philosophers of our time.