In Greek and Roman mythology, Morpheus was originally the guardian of dreams. A son of Hypnos (Sleep) and Pasithea, the oldest of the Graces, he was generally depicted as a rotund, sleeping child with wings. It was only much later that poets began to identify him as the god of sleep.
The name Morpheus is derived from the Greek word morphe, meaning "shape." Morpheus and his brothers were said to have been the originators of the shapes and figures that appear in dreams. Morpheus could take on the form and behavior of any human; one of his brothers, Phobetor, could assume that of any other creature; and another, Phantasos, that of any object. They lived in dark, cavernous places near the entrance to the underworld, the land of their uncle Thanatos (Death), the brother of Hypnos.
The earliest existing reference to Morpheus occurs in Metamorphoses by Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE). The poet tells the story of how Ceyx and Halcyone, the king and queen of Trachis (an ancient city in Thessaly, central Greece), were so happy that they referred to themselves as Zeus and Hera, the supreme king and queen of the gods. For this act of pride they were punished terribly. Ceyx was washed away in a storm at sea, and Hera ordered Hypnos to convey the bad news to Halcyone. The god of sleep sent his son, Morpheus, into the queen's dreams, where he assumed the form of the drowned Ceyx and announced his own death. Halcyone, overcome with grief, committed suicide by jumping off a cliff into the sea. Finally the gods took pity and turned Ceyx and Halcyone into kingfishers, or halcyons, and calmed the winds during their breeding season. This is the origin of the phrase halcyon days, meaning a period of peace and tranquillity.
Although Morpheus himself does not appear until the work of Ovid, the idea that dreams contained important messages from the gods was a common feature in Greek literature from centuries earlier. There, deities might appear in the form of individual humans in order to warn, threaten, or impart information to the dreamer. The information thus conveyed may have been literally true or it may have been cryptically deceptive. Either way, the mind of the dreamer was being infiltrated by a god who meant to influence the course of events in the world of mortals. Thus in the Odyssey by Homer, Greek epic poet of the ninth or eighth century BCE, the goddess Athena appears to Phaeacian princess Nausicaa in a dream in the guise of one of Nausicaa's friends. Athena's intention was to stir the princess to action so that she would meet the shipwrecked Odysseus in an apparently chance encounter and give him the help he needed to set out on his final journey home. By contrast, in the same author's Iliad, Zeus sends a deceptive dream to Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army besieging Troy, to mislead him into taking the wrong course of action.
Dreams also featured prominently in certain ancient Greek religious practices. There were numerous oracles whose responses to questions were transmitted through dreams, and at many healing centers patients seeking cures slept out in the holiest areas of the sanctuaries in the hope of dreaming about their treatment and recovery.
Interpreting dreams has been practiced for millennia. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, who recorded dreams and their interpretations, believed dreaming was a method of communication with the gods; prophetic dreams are alluded to in many west Asian texts, notably the Bible. Most ancient Greeks believed that dreams served a predictive function, but Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) perceived dreams to be more expressive of the dreamer's senses and emotions than future events.
Morpheus rarely appeared in the art of antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, the god became more prominent in western Europe after the Renaissance. He is alluded to in the poem "Il Penseroso" by English author John Milton (1608–1674) and in various songs by English composers Henry Purcell (c. 1659–1695) and Georg Friedrich Handel (1685–1759). Morpheus became even more popular with the Romantic movement of the 19th century, and his name was often invoked as a figure representing the whole world of sleep and unconsciousness as well as dreams. Association of the name Morpheus with an entity that exercises powerful control over the human mind, especially in a narcotic state, led Friedrich W. A. Sertürner (1783–1841), the German pharmacist who first extracted the juice of the poppy seed in 1805, to name his pain-relieving product "morphine."
See also: AGAMEMNON; ATHENA; HYPNOS; ODYSSEUS; ZEUS.
- The Iliad and The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 2009. , and Robert Fagles, trans.
- Metamorphoses. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and A. D. Melville, trans.