We sleep around one-third of our lives. If you live to around 90 years old, that means you will spend close to 30 years of your life with your eyes closed.
Thinking about dreams can become quite weird. It isn’t something with a clear and beginning and end. Yet, it has inspired a great deal of people to develop new and groundbreaking ideas. From Einstein’s theory of relativity, to the creation of Google, to the first sewing machine, all have been inspired by an ‘eureka’ moment in the inventors’ dreams.
Or rather, an ‘heurēka’ moment; the original Greek word that can be seen as the predecessor of eureka. Indeed, this very moment is closely linked to the god of dreams in Greek mythology.
The creation of dreams and the epiphanies that come with it were attributed to one of the Greek gods. In contemporary thought he is known by the name of Morpheus, one of the Oneiroi and therefore a son of Hypnos.
Is Morpheus a Greek God?
Okay, naming Morpheus the Greek god of dreams might actually not be fully justified. That’s due to the fact that many of the entities that are considered to be gods are actually daimones. A daimon indicates a personification of a certain concept, an emotion, or set of ideas.
The daimones were given a name, which are actually pretty easily recognizable in the contemporary English language. The words that have been used for the daimones were handed down and replicated from the earlier Greek language, into English but also others.
For example, Harmonia was known as the personification of harmony, Pheme was known as the personification of fame, and Mania was known as the personification of frenzy.
The Name Morpheus
Morpheus also finds its roots in a word that is used in contemporary language: morph. But, that is not per definition very well related to the idea of dreaming. Well, at first it isn’t. If we look a bit deeper into its origins, it is definitely justifiable.
Why, you ask? Well, that is because Morpheus is known to produce all the human forms that appear in someone’s dream. As an excellent mimic and shape-shifter, Morpheus could impersonate both women and men. From the physical appearance to the constructions of language and use of saying, everything was within the realm of Morpheus abilities.
So, the figure that is generally considered the god of dreams was considered to be the very persons that one would encounter in the dreams itself. It could ‘morph’ into any human form that he thought was applicable for the particular situation. So Morpheus seems about right.
The Life of Morpheus
Through morphing into different persons, Morpheus was allowing his subjects to dream about anything that was remotely related to the human realm. However, that is not to say that Morpheus would always induce truthful dreams. He is also known to spread false visions every so often.
Actually, some might think that the latter would be his usual way of going about inducing dreams in mortals. Why? Because Morpheus true form was that of a winged demon.
That is to say, if he wasn’t morphing into one of his many forms, he was living life as a figure that is by definition not human. To what extent can you trust such a figure to induce truthful dreams?
Where Morpheus Lived
As suspected, the place of residence for Morpheus would be in the underworld. A cave full of poppy seeds was the place where he would shape the dreams of mortals, with the help of his father.
It is believed that Morpheus lived in the area of the river Styx, one of the five rivers that made up the underworld. Styx is generally considered to be the river that was the boundary between the earth (Gaia) and the underworld (Hades). Morpheus lived very close to the river, but still in the underworld.
This very idea raises questions about the connection between the underworld and the earth in Greek mythology. The Greek gods of dreams and sleep are living in the underworld, while it is generally considered that ordinary people in ancient Greece would be visited by the god of dreams every so often.
In this sense, the underworld seems to be part of everyday life in ancient Greek thought and mythology. The fact that the boundary seems quite permeable is also affirmed by the descriptions of Morpheus by some of the most famous poets in ancient Greek literature.
Just like nearly all other Greek gods, or basically any Greek myth, Morpheus appeared first in an epic poem. Generally, an epic poem is considered to be a grand poetic story. Morpheus is first mentioned in the epic poem Metamorphosis by Ovid. He is also likely the unnamed dream spirit in Homer’s Iliad that delivers a message from Zeus to King Agamemnon.
The way how these epic poems are written is quite tough to get trough. So, the original pieces of texts as written by the Greek poets aren’t exactly the most adequate sources to explain the story of Morpheus.
In case you are in doubt about this, the exact section of Metamorphosis where Morpheus is first mentioned goes as followed:
‘The father Hypnos chose from among his sons, his thronging thousand sons, one who in skill excelled to imitate the human form; Morpheus his name, than whom none can present more cunningly the features, gait and speech of men, their wonted clothes and turn of phrase.’
Indeed, not really your everyday choice of words nor sentence construction. If we would just tell the story of Morpheus straight from the source where he is first explicitly mentioned, the average reader would be quite puzzled. Therefore, a modern translation of the paragraph is more applicable in this sense.
How Morpheus is described in Metamorphosis
Let’s start with deconstructing Ovid’s quote as mentioned above. It tells us that Morpheus is the son of Hypnos. He is capable of taking on a human form, or as Ovid called it; a human guise. Morpheus can mirror almost exactly any form of speech or way with words. Also, the passage shows that he is ‘chosen’ by Hypnos. But, for what Morpheus is chosen stays a bit ambivalent.
What Morpheus was chosen for requires some explanation about the myth where he is most famous for. The myth is about the king and queen of Trachis. The pair goes by the names of Ceyx and Alcyone. The king in this sense is Ceyx while Alcyone is the queen.
The Myth of Ceyx and Alycone
The Greek myth goes as followed. The brave king went on an expedition and took his boat to do so. He went of on a voyage with his ship, but ended up in a storm at sea. Unfortunately, the noble king of Trachis got killed by this very storm, meaning that he would be never able to share his love again with his beloved wife.
In case you weren’t aware, internet or telephones were still in its early stages when the life of the ancient Greeks was informed by myths and epic poems. So, Alycone wasn’t aware of the fact that her husband had died. She continued to pray to Hera, goddess of marriage, for the return of the man she fell in love with.
Hera Sends Iris
Hera felt pity for Alcyone, so she wanted to let her know what was going on. She wanted to send some divine messages. So, she sended her messenger Iris to Hypnos, to tell him he was now tasked with letting Alcyone know that Ceyx had died. Some might say that Hera got away with that a bit too easily, but Hypnos abided to her demand anyway.
But, Hypnos also didn’t feel like doing it himself. Indeed, Hypnos chose Morpheus to complete the task of informing Alcyone. With noiseless wings flew Morpheus to Trachis town, searching for a sleeping Alcyone.
Once he found her, he sneaked into her room and stand alongside the poor wife’s bed. He morphed into Ceyx. A naked Ceyx, that is, while quite dramatically shouting the following words in her dreams:
‘Poor, poor Alcyone! Do you know me, your Ceyx? Am I changed in death? Look! Now you see, you recognize–ah! Not your husband but your husband’s ghost. Your prayers availed me nothing. I am dead. Feed not your heart with hope, hope false and vain. A wild sou’wester in the Aegaeum sea, striking my ship, in its huge hurricane destroyed her.’
It actually worked, since Alycone was convinced of the death of Ceyx as soon as she woke up.
The story of Alycone and Metamorphisis as a whole goes on for a bit, but Morpheus would not appear once more. However, this appearance is considered sufficient when it comes to knowing what the function of Morpheus was, and how it relates to the other Greek gods.
Family of Morpheus
The parents of Morpheus are a bit dubious and contested. However, it is for certain that a drowsy king by the name of Hypnos is his father, as mentioned earlier. It makes sense, since he is known as the god of sleep. The god of dreams being the son of the god of sleep seems within the realm of possibilities.
Regarding his mother, however, there are some unsolved mysteries. Some say that Hypnos was the only parent involved, while other sources indicate that Pasithea or Nyx is the mother of Morpheus and the other sons of Hypnos. So, who the real parents are is something only the gods would know.
The other brothers of Morpheus were plenty, around a thousand actually. All these dream brothers were related to Hypnos and can be seen as different personified spirits. Oftentimes they are seen as the personification of dream, dreams, or part of dreams. Ovid’s Metamorphosis also elaborates very briefly on three other sons of Hypnos.
The sons that Ovid elaborates on are called Phobetor, Phantasus, and Ikelos.
The second son which he mentions goes by the name of Phobetor. He produces the forms of all the beasts, birds, serpents, and scary monsters or animals. The 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.
Homer and Hesiod’s Poems
But, to fully understand the construction of the family of Morpheus, we should some other significant figure in Greek mythology. More specifically, some other epic poets by the name of Homer and Hesiod. The Greek myth of the god of dreams is discussed by both these poets
The former, one of the greatest poets in ancient Greek history, describes an unnamed dream spirit that is able to induce scary dreams to mortals. Scary dreams and other dreams were described to be introduced to mortals to two gates.
One of the two gates is an ivory gate, which allowed deceitful dreams to enter into the world. The other gate was made out of horn, allowing truthful dreams to enter the mortal world.
It is not very clear what the exact role of Morpheus was with regards to either of these gates, but there were plenty of other sons that could use one of the two gates to induce dreams on the mortals of Ancient Greece.
The Oneiroi make another appearance in the poems of Hesiod. Yet, their present is a lot less eventful, since they are just mentioned as the children of the god of sleep without too many additional references.
Morpheus in (Popular) Culture
As discussed earlier, the names of many daimones are still relevant in contemporary society. This holds, too, for Morpheus. For starters, we already discussed the words morph or moprhing. Besides that, its actual name is also an inspiration for some medicines. To add, ‘in the arms of Morpheus’ is still a saying in some languages and the idea of the god of dreams also had an influence on popular culture.
First and foremost, the name Morpheus inspired the naming of a powerful narcotic agent used for severe pain relief: morphine. The medical usage of morphine aims to influence the central nervous system.
The drug is highly addictive, but also a naturally occurring member of a large chemical class of compounds called alkaloids. A German apothecary by the name of Adolf Serturner thought around the year 1805 that the drug should be related to the god of dreams because of it contained the same substances as found in opium.
Does it make sense that the god of dreams is related with opium, a drug that relieves severe pain? It actually does. As mentioned earlier, the cave of Morpheus would be covered in poppy seeds. These type of seeds are generally known as playing a part in the healing and hallucinating effects of opium.
In the Arms of Morpheus
On a lesser drug-induced note, Morpheus inspired a saying that is still used to this day. Morpheus would have mortals enjoy a sound sleep, but would also give them dreams about their future or even coming events. Morpheus was the dream messenger of the gods, communicating the divine messages through images and stories, created as dreams.
The phrase “in the arms of Morpheus” is based on this idea. It is still used in English and Dutch language and means to be asleep, or to be sleeping very well. In this sense, a deep sleep with lots of dreams is considered to be a good sleep.
Popular Culture: the Matrix
The Matrix is a movie that inspired many discussions and is still relevant to this day in many philosophical encounters. As affirmed by the makers of the film, it describes many types of religions and spiritualities in relation to social structures in a rather playful way.
One of the main characters in the film is actually called Morpheus. He is consistently involved with dreaming and the making of worlds. Therefore, it makes sense that he obtained the name that was normally attributed to a Greek god.
Morpheus serves as a leader in the real world, steadfast and courageous in the face of great danger and difficulty. He is able to adjust to dangerous and difficult situations, which is very much in line with his ability to morph into any human representation he wants to be. Morpheus plucks another character, Neo, out of his comfortable life in the Matrix and shows him the truth.
Morpheus represents the best kind of leader and teacher: he teaches Neo what he knows and guides him to the right path, then steps aside and lets Neo proceed on his own. Morpheus does not seek glory, and his selflessness makes him heroic in his own way.
The One Who Makes Dreams Come True
Morpheus is an old god from the ancient Greeks. His name and story finds roots in the contemporary society in many forms. Just like the scientist of today, the ancient Greeks probably didn’t know exactly how dreams worked.
Morpheus is the personification of this doubt, and possible even an explanation that the ancient Greeks truly believed in. In and of itself, Morpheus wouldn’t have a lot of prestige, but predominantly the things that he represented in the dreams of others would cause great epiphanies and give new insights.