Greek mythology depicts its deities as belonging to one big family, and people today would likely be able to recognize its most prominent members. Most people are perhaps familiar with the Twelve Olympians, the major deities of the Greek pantheon. Many would have also heard about the Titans, the predecessors of the Olympian gods. Yet, the family tree of the Greek gods consists of more than just the Olympian gods and the Titans. There are gods whose existence predates even the Titans. One of these is Morpheus.
In Greek mythology, Morpheus is a god of dreams. According to the Greeks, Morpheus was born of Nyx, the personification of Night.
The Romans believe, however, that Morpheus was the son of Somnus, the personification of Sleep, who was in turn a child of Nyx. Regardless of his parentage, Morpheus is said to have numerous siblings, collectively known as the Oneiroi (the Greek word for dream, incidentally, being oneiros). Apart from Morpheus, two other Oneiroi can be identified by their names – Phobetor and Phantasos.
Phobetor was thought to be the bringer of nightmares, and had the ability to appear as animals or monsters; Phantasos was believed to bring surreal and strange dreams, and was able to appear as inanimate objects, such as stones or wood.
In contrast to his two siblings, Morpheus brought messages and prophesies from the gods to mortals through the medium of dreams. Thus, he appeared particularly to kings and heroes, and often took the appearance of a human being. When not appearing in dreams, Morpheus and his brothers were said to have possessed human forms with wings on their backs. These wings would have allowed Morpheus and his brethren to easily reach those whose dreams they were assigned. In addition, it is said that Morpheus’ wings enabled him to save his father Somnus, who was wingless, from the wrath of Zeus on more than one occasion.
Phobetor, the personification of nightmares, can appear in dreams in the form of animals or monsters. (Source)
In Classical literature, Morpheus makes an appearance in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In the story of Alcyone and Ceyx, Ovid mentions that Ceyx undertook a journey across the sea to consult an oracle.
During his voyage, however, a tempest broke out, sinking his ship and resulting in his death. Zeus’ wife, Hera then sent Iris, the messenger of the gods to the hall of Somnus in the Underworld, as she wanted to send a dream to Alcyone about the death of her husband, Ceyx. It is in this part of the Metamorphosis that Morpheus is described as being one of the one thousand sons of Somnus. Ovid also describes Morpheus as being the most talented of his brethren in mimicking human beings.
His mimicry of humans is not limited to physical appearances, but also includes voice, mood, gait and even choice of words. Thus, he is the best choice for the gods when they wish to send images of human beings to sleeping mortals. According to Ovid, after Morpheus appears as Ceyx in Alcyone’s dream to relate his fate, the grief-stricken widow wakes up to see the body of her husband washed up on the shore. Filled with sorrow, Alcyone commits suicide by throwing herself into the sea. The gods, taking pity on them, then transformed them into Halcyon birds.
Halcyone, by Herbert James Draper (1863-1920). Alcyone is seeking her husband Ceyx (Wikimedia)
Like many of the Greek deities, Morpheus can be said to be a personification of an abstract idea, similar to that of Thanatos (death) or the Furies (vengeance). By giving these concepts a concrete form, the Greeks would have been able to better explain these forces that ruled human existence. Although belief in Morpheus as a god of dreams may not be as strong today as it was during the time of the Greeks, it has had an impact on the English language. The expression ‘in the arms of Morpheus’ is understood to mean ‘to be asleep’. This impact, however, is not merely restricted to Morpheus, but also to various other personified deities of Greek mythology.
Featured image: Morpheus, the leader of the Oneiroi, and Iris (Source)
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