Morpheus: The Greek God of Dreams and Nightmares

As the bringer of dreams in Greek myth, Morpheus brought hope and despair, peace and terror, to dreaming souls. Read here about Morpheus’ appearances in myth.

Mar 29, 2022By Bethany Williams, BA Classics and English, MA Literature
klinger heath morpheus greek god painting

 

The Greek god Morpheus shaped the lives of all; from the ordinary person to the highest royal in Greek myth. He brought dreams to the sleeping, which upon waking, would motivate them toward action.

 

The ancient Greeks viewed dreams as a gateway to the unknown world that, at the same time, reflected reality. Dreams were often seen as prophecies, or apparitions of events happening in real-time, or else messages from loved ones in the afterlife. In Greek mythology, the god Morpheus appeared to slumbering beings, and shaped their dreams.

 

The Greek God Morpheus

prokofyev god morpheus sculpture
Morpheus Sleeping, by Ivan Prokof’yevich Prokof’yev, 1782, via the Web Gallery of Art

 

Morpheus, son of Hypnos, the personification of Sleep, was the god of Dreams. His name reflects his role in Greek mythology: the Greek μεταμόρφωσις (metamorphosis) translates as “transformation”, which can be broken down into μετα- (meta-) meaning “after” and μορφή (morphe) meaning “form”. Μορφευς (Morpheus) means “form” or “shape.” He could form and shape the dreams of the sleeping.

 

Morpheus was part of the Oneiroi, who were dream spirits and also brothers. Morpheus was their leader as only he had the skill to influence the dreams of gods and kings. His brothers would visit the rest of mankind.

 

“To kings and chieftains these at night display their phantom features; other dreams will roam among the people, haunting common folk. All these dream-brothers the old god passed by and chose Morpheus.”
Ovid, Metamorphoses

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The god Morpheus’ skill at transforming himself into such a life-like apparition managed to deceive even the most discerning person. The Greek gods often chose him as their messenger to appear in the dreams of mortals. Dreams could liberate the desires, hopes, and imaginations of the sleeper. However, such dreams could also portray false realities, and so betray the receiver into untoward action.

 

Agamemnon’s Dream

heath morpheus as nestor agamemnon dream drawing
Nestor appearing in a dream to Agamemnon, by James Heath, 1805, via the British Museum

 

In the Iliad, the god Morpheus is often attributed to the unnamed dream spirit whom Zeus sent to Agamemnon. The Iliad narrates the story of the Trojan War, and at this point in the poem, Zeus wanted to give glory to Achilles. In order to do this, Agamemnon had to suffer a humiliating defeat. Therefore, Zeus sent Morpheus to deliver a false dream of hope that prompted Agamemnon to make a disastrous strategy mistake.

 

Zeus commanded Morpheus:

 

“Up, go, thou baneful Dream, unto the swift ships of the Achaeans, and when thou art come to the hut of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, [10] tell him all my word truly, even as I charge thee. Bid him arm the long-haired Achaeans with all speed, since now he may take the broad-wayed city of the Trojans.”
(Iliad, Homer, Book 2)

 

Under the command of Zeus, the god Morpheus spoke to Agamemnon in his sleep, appearing to him as the old advisor Nestor:

 

“Hearken thou quickly unto me, for I am a messenger to thee from Zeus, who, far away though he be, hath exceeding care for thee and pity. He biddeth thee arm the long-haired Achaeans with all speed, since now thou mayest take the broad-wayed city of the Trojans.” So spoke the Dream, and departed, and left him there, pondering in his heart on things that were not to be brought to pass. For in sooth he deemed that he should take the city of Priam that very day, fool that he was!”
(Iliad, Homer, Book 2)

 

Agamemnon then roused his army to battle, believing that Zeus was on his side. Instead, he suffered a great loss and many of his soldiers were killed.

 

Morpheus, Sleep, and Dreams

houdon god morpheus louvre statue painting
Morphée, by Jean Antoine Houdon, 1777, via the Louvre

 

The god Morpheus’ name is now used in the English language for many artistic purposes. To begin with, the verb “to morph” is derived from his name to express the changing state of an object. You may also have heard of the phrase “in the arms of Morpheus”. This is metaphoric imagery used to convey the act of being asleep. In “the arms of Morpheus” the sleeper would dream about the future.

 

“Night had covered the world with her sable curtain, and wrapped the peaceful sisterhood in the arms of Morpheus.”
from The Literary Gazette 1:15

 

Alternatively, to be “in the arms of Morpheus” could also mean “to be forgotten” as sleep can dissipate the worries of the day or events of the past.

 

Iris Calls on Morpheus

guerin god morpheus iris painting
Morpheus and Iris, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In another Greek myth, the god Morpheus was called upon by Iris, the goddess of the rainbow and another messenger of the gods, to do Hera’s bidding. Hera, Queen of the gods, wanted Morpheus to deliver the news of Ceyx’s death to Alcyone. Ovid in his Metamorphoses tells of the myth of Iris waking the sleeping god, to deliver his command. The scene has become a popular source of inspiration in the artistic world.

 

“Then Iris, in her thousand hues enrobed traced through the sky her arching bow and reached the cloud-hid palace of the drowsy king. . . Around him everywhere in various guise lie empty Dreams [the Oneiroi], countless as ears of corn at harvest time or sands cast on the shore or leaves that fall upon the forest floor… There Iris entered, brushing the Dreams aside, and the bright sudden radiance of her robe lit up the hallowed place.”
Ovid, Metamorphoses.

 

The Dream of Alcyone

tempesta morpheus dream alcyone etching
Morpheus, as Ceyx, Appearing to Alcyone, by Antonion Tempesta, 1606, via the Met Museum

 

The myth of Ceyx and Alcyone begins with a happy enamored couple but descends into tragedy, a favorite theme of Greek myth. Ceyx and Alcyone were deeply devoted to one another and would often affectionately refer to one another as “Zeus” and “Hera”. However, Zeus grew angry at this behavior as he perceived these terms of endearment as the couple comparing themselves to the gods. Zeus wanted to punish the couple for their supposed pride, but he waited for the right moment.

 

One day, Ceyx had to make a sea voyage. He refused to take Alcyone with him on the journey, despite her pleas, because he knew the journey was dangerous and so he did not want to put Alcyone in danger. Alcyone had a bad feeling about the trip and asked him not to go, but Ceyx decided to go.

 

herbert james draper halcyone painting
Halcyone (Alcyone), by Herbert- James Draper, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons

 

While on the sea voyage, Zeus sent a ferocious storm and Ceyx was taken by the waves and drowned. In his last moments, Ceyx prayed to the gods that his body would wash ashore so that his wife could bury him. In ancient Greek culture, you could not find a peaceful afterlife unless you had the proper rituals. Hera heard his prayers. The Queen of the gods pitied the lover’s plight and so sent the god Morpheus to tell Alcyone of her husband’s death in a dream.

 

Morpheus Instigates Alcyone’s Action

klinger new dreams god morpheus etching
New Dreams of Happiness, by Max Klinger, 1887-1903, via the Met Museum

 

“Soon through the dewy dark on noiseless wings flew Morpheus and with brief delay arrived at Trachis town and, laying his wings aside, took Ceyx’s [ghostly] form and face and, deathly pale and naked, stood beside the poor wife’s bed. His beard was wet and from his sodden hair the sea-drips flowed; then leaning over her, weeping, he said: ‘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.’”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses)

 

In her sleep, Alcyone attempted to embrace the god Morpheus, believing him to be Ceyx’s spirit, but the god dissipated and she held the air.

 

constans alcyone dreaming painting
Alcyone Dreaming, by Charles Constans, 19th Century, via National Museum of American History

 

“ ‘Oh wait for me!’ she cried, ‘Why haste away? I will come too.’ Roused by her voice’s sound and by her husband’s ghost, now wide awake, she looked . . . but found him nowhere . . .” 

 

Upon waking, Alcyone ran to the ocean, and there she found her husband’s body washed up on the shore. In despair, she threw herself into the ocean to drown. After witnessing this display of raw and mutual devotion, Zeus felt guilty. He metamorphized the couple into a pair of kingfishers.

 

Morpheus & Dreams in Literature

houasse peinture god morpheus awakening painting
Morpheus Awakening when Iris Approaches, by René-Antoine Houasse, c. 1645-1710, via Palace of Versailles Private Collection

 

The god Morpheus’ influence as the bringer of sweet dreams or terrible nightmares is echoed in literary works. In the Tempest, by Shakespeare, the creature Caliban expresses his longing for the peacefulness of dreams and sleep:

 

“Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments

Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,

Will make me sleep again. And then, in dreaming,

The clouds methought would open and show riches

Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked

I cried to dream again.”

 

The danger of dwelling on dreams, derived from Morpheus’ ability to place false hope in sleeping minds, is hinted at in Harry Potter. In the Philosopher’s Stone, the Mirror of Erised shows the perceiver what their heart desires the most. This reflection is much like the power of Morpheus, who presents hopes and imaginations to sleepers. There is a warning in this fixation with dreams though, as Dumbledore advises, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

 

The Greek God Morpheus & the Land of Dreams

brun le soir god morpheus painting
Le Soir, by Charles Le Brun, 1650-1700, via the Louvre

 

Morpheus’ home in Greek myth was in Erebus, in the Underworld. The gates to his home, where he lived with his father and brothers, were guarded by monsters that would reveal to uninvited guests their worst nightmares.

 

The cave where Morpheus slept — and this god slept most of the time! — was filled with poppy seeds. In ancient Greece, poppy seeds were used as a painkiller, but a side effect was intense drowsiness. When the morphine drug was created, Morpheus’ name was used due to his sleep-inducing powers and associations.

 

The Land of Dreams was also said to have had two Gates — one made of ivory and the other of horn.  In ancient Greece, ivory “ἐλέφας” was associated with deception “ἐλεφαίρομαι”, and the horn “κέρας” with truth, “κραίνω”. The words are very similar to each other, but the effect is lost in translation.

 

In Socrates’ Charmides, he refers to the ambiguity of Morpheus giving the sleeper dreams to interpret:

 

“’Listen then,’ I said, ‘to my dream, to see whether it comes through horn or through ivory.’”



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By Bethany WilliamsBA Classics and English, MA LiteratureBethany is a Masters student, currently studying the adaptation of Greek myth in modern literature. She is a graduate of Classics and English (BA), during which she studied Ancient Greek language, classical reception within its own time and throughout history, as well as Greek and Roman history. Apart from her studies, she has an appreciation for art, philosophy, and travel. She may be based in England, but her heart is in Greece.