Nowadays, science allows us to explain various natural phenomena and biological processes. We have an abundance of information, research, and studies available online to dissect the very nature of our sleep and dreams.
Why we sleep, how much, how many dreams per night, etc. We have the tools to answer these questions with accuracy. But what if you lived 2000 years ago?
It might be hard for a modern human to comprehend the way ancient civilizations perceived these concepts. See, mythology was deeply embedded into their daily lives. They used myths and deities to map the world around them.
In fact, one of the most ancient beliefs that persisted until very recently is animism. Objects, animals, plants, places, etc have a spirit.
By ascribing human qualities and traits to, otherwise, abstract and inanimate concepts they were able to relate and make sense of mysteries of the world.
Ancient Greeks weren’t that different, albeit more sophisticated since they weaved this concept to their stories and mythology.
Greek mythology has a God (theos or daemon) for every thought and emotion. They’d personify hope, war, thunder, death, and yes you guessed it; sleep and dreams!
But what’s interesting is that a whole philosophical system that underlines Greek mythology emerges once you analyze the relationship and function of these Gods.
So, if you’re ready to dive into the dreamland and meet the Night… proceed!
1. Nyx: The Greek Goddess of the Night
Nyx is the personification of the night itself. She’s the daughter of Chaos, the place and time that predates creation and represents the gap between Heaven and Earth.
She appears to exist at the beginning of creation, marking her a primordial entity and not part of the well-known Olympians.
There aren’t many surviving mythological stories that focus on her, yet she’s ever-present in the backdrop.
In Theogony, her home is in Tartarus, the underworld, where she gave birth to all the deities and creatures of the Night.
We learn, in Illiad, that Zeus fears her fury more than anything else. The description of her appearance is elusive but it is said that she was a shadowy figure, fierce, and beautiful, possessing immense power.
She was worshipped in the background of other cults. They were statues called “Night” in temples and adjectives given to other deities that alluded to Nyx, like Dionysus Nyktelios (nocturnal).
Nyx, the First Principle
As I’ve mentioned, we read in Theogony that she’s the daughter of Chaos. Later on, it seems that instead, she became the First Principle. In Orphic mythology, she represents the very source of creation. She’d sent dreams and prophecies (her sons and daughters) to people and Gods, like Cronus.
Consider the implication of this for a moment: The Night is where reality emerges from.
Philosophers and psychologists have argued that our subconscious can often direct our fate and our decisions. Nyx, and all of her creations, could represent the unknown characteristics, the shadow, of our personality that slowly surfaces during the day.
This becomes more apparent as we trace her genealogy tree.
2. Thanatos, the God of Death
Thanatos is the son of Nyx and the personification of death. He was merciless, feared and hated by mortals and Gods alike. Yet, he was outwitted!
Obviously, like his mother, he’s ever-present in the background of Greek mythology. But he appears in a few myths:
The Myth of Sisyphus. The titular hero traps Thanatos to gain immortality.
Hercules fights him off — essentially beating death.
In Orphic Mythology, when death represented the transition to Elysium fields, Thanatos looked like an infant, an angel and a messenger of death. He had a gentle touch and he’d visit those who had lived their lives fully.
This reveals a very important characteristic of human nature; the fear of death.
By personifying death, Greeks were also able to avoid and negotiate with him. They could understand a human-like figure wanting to bring them to Tartarus.
Freud points out that the death drive – the risk-taking behavior of humans- derives from the juxtaposition of Eros (love; desire for life) and death.
This, in my opinion, assumes that Thanatos is a spirit, an aspect of Nyx, that possesses people during the night to gamble their lives away.
(Greeks didn’t follow a canon when it came to their stories. They’d often ascribe different qualities to deities depending on the myth. This has to do with the multi-layered existence Gods had, possessing multiples aspects and functions)
3. Hypnos, The God of Sleep
Thanatos has many brothers and sisters, including Geras (Old Age), Nemesis (Retribution), Momus (Blame), etc. All of them have their own place in Greek Mythology.
But perhaps his most beloved sibling, his twin, is Hypnos (Sleep).
He lived in a cave next to his sibling, surrounded by plants that’d induce deep sleep to anyone who stepped into the undergrowth.
And be careful not to fall into the river Lethe, lest you want to be forgetful and absent-minded for the rest of your life.
In the Illiad, Hypnos uses his power to put Zeus to sleep, so Hera can take revenge for the sacking of Troy by Hercules. When the all-father finally awakes, he chases him. But Hypnos finds shelter in the realm of his mother, Nyx.
He was a gentle deity, helping people fall to sleep, rejuvenate and regain their strength. It is said that he owns half of our lives.
In Greek, Hypnos (ύπνος) means sleep. The words “hypnosis” and “hypnotics” take their name from the lesser deity. And “insomnia” comes from the Roman equivalent of the God, Somnus.
Sleep and Death
It’s not by mistake that Hypnos and Thanatos are considered twins. Greeks understood that there’s a fine line between sleep and death, at least in the way humans can perceive these concepts.
In mythology, both of them seem to rule over the same realm. Hesiod mentions that warriors would die only when they were overcome by sleep, highlighting the two sides of the same coin.
Socrates, in Plato’s apology, compares sleep and death in this passage:
“For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place. And if it is unconsciousness, like a sleep in which the sleeper does not even dream, death would be a wonderful gain. ”
Sleep represents a stage of liminality, a sneak-peak if you will, to the other side, while death is the permanent, dreamless sleep.
Like their mother, Nyx, they were worshipped in the background of other cults. Although, Spartans did have a cult of “Sleep and Death”, given their warrior culture and the intimate relationship they developed with Thanatos from an early age.
4. Oneiroi, the Daemons of Dreams
If you ever find yourself experiencing Deja vu or finding out that a dream came true, then one of the Gods might have sent you Oneiros during the night.
Black-winged daemons, Oneiroi are the sons of Nyx, without a father. In Theogony, Hesiod describes a “tribe of Dreams” (φῦλον Ὀνείρων), siblings of Thanatos, Hypnos, and the rest of the Gods of Sleep and Dreams.
Their purpose was to appear during sleep and carry prophetic messages. Greeks believed in the concept of the Gates of horn and ivory.
- True dreams came out of a gate of horn
- False dreams came out of a gate of ivory
It’s a play upon two words that phonetically sound similar to “fulfil” and “deceit”.
When a dream is true, what you see will be fulfilled. But when it’s false, it’ll “bring words that find no fulfilment.”
(The lesson here is that you have to watch and observe where the dreams are coming from. Even though their nature might be prophetic, it’s the dreamer that has to decide whether what they see is true or false. It’s why oneirology is so important!)
The Three Major Oneiroi
Even though there are 1000s of Oneiroi, Ovid named three of them, derived from, now lost, Hellenistic interpretations of dreams.
His name means form, from the Greek word μορφή. He’d appear in a human shape, emulating the gait, movement, speech, and clothing of men.
Later on, in medieval times (and to this day), Morpheus was considered the God of Sleep and Dreams. Today, in Greece, there’s an adage used to describe deep sleep; in the embrace of Morpheus.
Meaning fantasy, this Oneiros would take the shape of inanimate objects and the elements.
Trees, rocks, earth, fire, water were some of the lifeless things he’d become.
The one who scares the dreamer. He’d manifest as animals, beasts, a bird or a serpent.
He is the personification of nightmares, alongside Epiales.
The Dramatization of Dreams
What I find fascinating is that there are multiple layers to this realm. The personification of the Greek Gods of Sleep and Dreams creates actors and directors.
Everything you see is a masked deity playing their designated role. You’re dreaming of a theatrical play, a mimetic formation of your mind.
- The stage is the Night, ruled by the powerful Nyx.
- The directors are Hypnos and Thanatos
- The actors are Oneiroi
- YOU are the audience
The title of this whole blog is Dreams and Mythology. And there’s a good reason for that. See, there’s a fine line between myths and dreams. Both of them have the same source; our subconscious.
The emanations we observe in our sleep and the archetypes we outline in our stories serve the same function. To express the unseen sides of our psyche, through narratives and relatable plotlines.
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
It’s up for debate whether the Greek Gods of Sleep and Dreams are mythical or simply literary tools.
In ancient Greece, they were worshipped one way or another. As the Hellenistic influence subsided, they became parts of poems and literature, losing their divine significance.
Like most myths, they gained an allegorical function.
I believe that the major takeaway is that the realm of sleep and dreams is adjacent to our reality. It’s populated by our shadows and creatures of the night. And we visit it every time we close our eyes, gaining a few insights each time before we wake up.
Think of it as swimming in the ocean. Most of the time, half of your body is above the sea while the rest is submerged. That’s how life often feels.
Part of yourself exists in your subconscious, at all times. And to gain conscious control of that side of yourself, you have to dive deep, one breath at a time, one dream at a time.
“All the functions of the body and of soul are performed by the soul during sleep”
P.S – Did you know that Hippocrates used sleep to make prognoses about abnormal physiological conditions? He believed that dreams had two purposes; a prophetic message from the Gods and a biological signal, often showing the dreamer where their ailments were.
George K has been immersed into the world of myths and dreams for a very long time now, attempting to find the numerous symbolisms and meanings attached to them. He is a prolific writer along with being an independent researcher. Contributing his knowledge and learnings to several magazines and blogs, he has the unique ability to simplify and explain even the most intricate subjects.