In Greek mythology, Morpheus is a deity associated with dreams and sleep. He is often depicted as one of the Oneiroi, which were the personifications of dreams and the children of the primordial goddess Nyx (Night). Morpheus had the ability to bring dreams that appear as human forms, as opposed to other types of dreams that might manifest as animals or objects.
Morpheus’ role and importance in Greek mythology are not as extensively detailed as some other figures, but his name and concept have made their way into various literary and artistic works throughout history. One of the most famous appearances of Morpheus is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where he plays a part in conveying messages through dreams.
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Who is Morpheus? Is Morpheus a Greek God?
Morpheus is a figure from Greek mythology associated with dreams and was considered to be one of the Oneiroi, who were the personified spirits or deities of dreams in Greek mythology. The Oneiroi were the children of Nyx, the goddess of night. Morpheus, in particular, was known for his ability to shape and mimic human forms in dreams, giving rise to the term “morphing.” That’s why he was often referred to as the god of dreams that take on human forms.
Morpheus’ significance lies in his role as a messenger of dreams. He could appear to mortals in their sleep, assuming various forms to deliver messages or prophecies from the gods. He was also associated with creating realistic and lifelike dreams, making the dreamer believe they were experiencing reality.
Although Morpheus is an important figure in the realm of dreams in Greek mythology, he is not as widely known as some other gods and figures.
The Name Morpheus
As Morpheus was known for his ability to shape and mimic human forms in dreams, he gave rise to the term “morphing.” He was 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’s abilities.
So, the figure that is generally considered the god of dreams was considered to be the very person that one would encounter in the dreams. He could ‘morph’ into any human form that he thought was applicable to the particular situation.
The Life of Morpheus
By 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 was 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’s 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 Did Morpheus Live?
Morpheus resided 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 through. So, the original pieces of texts written by the Greek poets aren’t exactly the most adequate sources to explain the story of Morpheus.
The exact section of Metamorphosis where Morpheus is first mentioned:
‘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.’
How is Morpheus Described in Metamorphosis?
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, what Morpheus is chosen for stays a bit ambivalent.
To understand this, one has to take a look at the myth 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 brave king went on an expedition and took his boat to do so. He went off 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.
Alycone wasn’t aware of the fact that her husband had died. She continued to pray to Hera, the 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 sent 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 by 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 stood 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 certain that a drowsy king by the name of Hypnos is his father.
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.
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 dreams or part of dreams. Ovid’s Metamorphosis also elaborates very briefly on three other sons of Hypnos: 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 such as 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
Homer describes an unnamed dream spirit that is able to induce scary dreams in mortals. Scary dreams and other dreams were described to be introduced to mortals through 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 a horn, allowing truthful dreams to enter the mortal world.
It is not very clear what the exact role of Morpheus was with regard to either of these gates, but there were plenty of other sons that could use one of the two gates to induce dreams in 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
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 it contained the same substances found in opium.
In the Arms of Morpheus
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. 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 is 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.
The One Who Makes Dreams Come True
Morpheus is an old god from the ancient Greeks. His name and story find roots in 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 possibly 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.