Dreams – what are they? According to the Ancient Greeks and Romans they were personified, and collectively known as the Oneiroi. Depending on who you read they are either the brothers (Hesiod) or sons (Ovid) of Sleep, who is otherwise known as Hypnos, and the root of the modern word Hypnosis. Both writers agreed the Oneiroi were many, Hesiod describing them as a tribe of brothers, while Ovid referred to them as Sleep’s thousand sons.
In Book XI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses we are transported to the land of sleep where Hypnos lives, deep in a cave near the edge of the world. A cave devoid of all light and sound, a cave that is shrouded in beds of poppies “from which damp night distills her hypnagogic elixir to spread sleep across dark earth”. From beneath the cave runs the river Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. Perhaps this is the reason we forget most dreams. The hallways to sleep are filled with the thousand-winged sons that are our dreams, resting before they head out to deliver their nightly messages. Of the thousand sons, Ovid names only three: Morpheus, Phobetor and Phantasos. Hypnos uses Morpheus, after which the drug morphine is named, for the task of mimicking human forms. While Morpheus excels at copying human being, that is the range of his skills. It is his brother Phobetor, from which the word phobia comes, who transforms into the animals, birds and reptiles of dreams. Lastly comes Phantasos, the root word of fantasy, who is responsible for the surreal dreams in which the inanimate interact with us, where the woods and the mountains speak.
In classical writings there are a number of dreams that are used as plot devices. Ovid uses Morpheus as a divine messenger from Juno in his Metamorphoses. In Homer’s The Iliad Zeus sends a fake dream to trick Agamemnon, while in The Odyssey a dream calls Nausicaa to search for Odysseus and provides Penelope with a prophetic vision. In Virgil’s The Aeneid Aeneas is woken by a dream warning him of the sacking of Troy. These stories tell us that dreams are a tricky thing: they can relate important news or prophecy, they can be sent from meddling gods, and still yet, they can mean absolutely nothing. So how can they be differentiated? As Penelope tells us:
“Stranger, in truth dreams do arise perplexed and hard to tell, dreams which come not, in men’s experience, to their full issue. Two gates there are for unsubstantiated dreams, one made of horn and one of ivory. The dreams that pass through the carved ivory delude and bring us tales that turn to naught; those that come forth through the polished horn accomplish real things, whenever seen” – Homer
Unfortunately, there is no way for us mere mortals to know from which gate our dreams are issued; we can at best hope for the fortunate ones to come to pass. Our dreams are, however, worth paying attention to, as these stories remind us.
The psychologist Carl Jung had a theory that applies, that of big dreams and little dreams. Little dreams are the ones that leave us on waking, that are little more than our neurological processes digesting the events of the day. Jung’s big dreams, on the other hand, were the mythic dreams, the ones that tapped into the collective unconscious and expressed themselves in symbols and archetypes. These are the dreams that feel more realistic and that linger in our memory for days after, the ones that are trying to tell us something.
So, the next time Morpheus or his brothers visit you in your sleep, make sure you take the time to listen to what they say.
Until next time, sweet dreams.
Image: Sleep and his Half-Brother, Death, John William Waterhouse, 1874
(Hypnos and Thanatos)