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The God Morpheus in Roman Mythology

Updated on January 19, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Today, Morpheus is a name many people might recognise; this recognition though, is more likely to come from the character in the Matrix series of films, rather than as a figure from ancient mythology.

Two thousand years before the film series was written by the Wachowski Brothers though, Morpheus appeared in the work of the Roman poet, Ovid. This Morpheus was the god of dreams, but strangely for a deity, Morpheus is a god that is found solely in the Metamorphoses, rather than in multiple sources.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

The Metamorphoses is the most famous work written by Ovid, a one time favourite writer of the Emperor Augustus.

The Metamorphoses was first published in 8AD, and is today, regarded as one of the most important pieces of writing from antiquity. Metamorphoses consists of 15 individual “books”, with Ovid retelling some 250 myths. The figure of Morpheus appears in Book XI, in the part of the Metamorphoses titled “the Pathos of Love”.

In the Metamorphoses Ovid normally simply retells existing stories of Greco-Roman mythology, sometimes building on the original story, but the character of Morpheus is one that the Roman poet seemingly invents, as there are no preceding sources who mention the god.

Ovid makes Morpheus a god of people’s dreams, and so is often referred to as the King of the Oneiroi.

Morpheus

Jean-Bernard Restout (1732–1797) PD-art-100
Jean-Bernard Restout (1732–1797) PD-art-100 | Source

Morpheus and Thanatos, Children of the Night

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) PD-art-100
Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) PD-art-100 | Source

Back to Ancient Greece

In Greek mythology the Oneiroi were daimones of dreams, and were figures that appeared in the works of Homer and Hesiod.

The dark winged Oneiroi were regarded as the 1000 children of Nyx, the goddess of the night. Each evening, the Oneiroi would fly out of the caves of Erebus, and then cause man to dream; with man either dreaming god sent dreams, or false, meaningless dreams.

These daimones were thought of as a group, rather than individuals, and the only one occasionally mentioned by name was Icelos.

Ovid Adapts

Ovid, in the Metamorphoses, takes the concept of the Oneiroi, and builds upon it. Ovid changes the parentage of the Oneiroi, and makes them the offspring of the god Somnus, the Roman equivalent of Hypnos.

Ovid then tells of the three most important dream daimones. The first was Morpheus, the dream god who could take the form of any man, mimicking their voices and characteristics. The second was Phobetor, the dream deity who could mimic any animal, and the third prominent Oneiroi was Phantasos, the Oneiroi who could mimic fauna, water or any inanimate object.

As the most prominent of the sons of Somnus, Morpheus was given the role of leader of all the Oneiroi.

Morpheus and Iris

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) PD-art-100
Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833) PD-art-100 | Source

Morpheus appears to Alcyone

Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XI PD-art-100
Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book XI PD-art-100 | Source

The Story of Ceyx and Alycone

Ovid introduces the god Morpheus in the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, or Halycon as Alcyone is also known. Today, the story of Ceyx and Alcyone is regarded as one antiquity’s great love stories, a tale of true and enduring love.

In Ovid’s version of the story, Ceyx is killed at sea, and Juno orders that Alycone, Ceyx’s wife, should be informed of his death as soon as possible. To this end, Iris, the messenger of the gods visits Somnus, with the command that the news should be given to Alcyone in her dreams that night.

Therefore, Morpheus was dispatched to deliver the news. Firstly though, the King of the Oneiroi, transformed himself into the image of Ceyx, although the deity made himself a ghostly apparition of the deceased man. So, Morpheus entered the dreamworld of Alycone, ghost-like, and dripping wet with sea water.

Morpheus then tells Alycone, as Ceyx, or his demise in the Aegean Sea, and commands that the proper funeral rites should be completed. An agitated Alcyone tries to take hold of her husband, but only succeeds in waking herself. Morpheus though has done his job, and finding herself alone in her bedchamber, Alcyone, believes that Ceyx is dead.

Morpheus Today

The concept of Morpheus is alive today, although it has taken on different forms.

The character of Morpheus form the Matrix films, was famously played by Laurence Fishburne. Even in this form though, there is a link back to the work of Ovid, with Morpheus passing between the real world, and the dream world that is the Matrix. Similarly, the use of the name Morpheus by Sony, for their VR headset, is in keeping with this concept.

Even more in keeping with the original idea of Morpheus, is the character of “Dream” from The Sandman series of comics; Dream having taken the name Morpheus and Oneiros previously. Dream is considered more powerful than gods in this series, and is often regarded as one of the greatest comic creations.

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