Morpheus is one of the lesser-known Greek gods. He was associated with sleep and dreams.
The first surviving literary reference to Morpheus is found in Metamorphoses, the magnum opus of the Roman poet Ovid. The title translates to Transformations.
Born Publius Ovidius Naso in the year 43 BC, Ovid dedicated decades of his life to writing poetry. He was born to an upper-class family and educated in Rome, where he excelled in rhetoric. His family intended that he use his studies to practice law, but he rejected Roman politics in favor of travel.
Ovid traveled through Asia Minor, Sicily, and Greece. He returned to Rome, still in his teens, and worked a low-level administrative job that he soon quit to pursue life as a poet – much to his family’s consternation. Early in his career, he wrote works inspired by mythology and a great many erotic poems. Metamorphoses came later, when he was about fifty years old.
Metamorphoses is an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter, as were the Iliad and the Odyssey centuries earlier. It consists of fifteen books and over two hundred and fifty myths. In each story, a human being is transformed into something else. Some became animals, while others turned into plants or even constellations.
Ovid’s magnum opus is chronological, beginning with the creation of the world and continuing all the way up to the murder of Julius Caesar, which happened just months before Ovid was born. The work mocked major gods such as Apollo while elevating lesser deities such as Amor (Cupid) and mortal human characters.
In Book XI of Metamorphoses, Ovid recounted the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone.
King Ceyx ruled over the city-state of Trachis. He was the son of the minor god Eosphorus who represented the morning star. Ceyx married Alcyone, who was a Greek princess, the daughter of King Aeolus of Aeolia, god of the wind.
Very much in love, the couple called each other Zeus and Hera. The real Zeus took offense to this and struck Ceyx down with a lightning bolt. Morpheus then appeared to Alcyone in the form of her late husband to tell her what had happened. In her distress, the queen threw herself into the sea. The other gods took pity on the couple and resurrected them as kingfishers so that they could live on together as birds.
Ovid’s version of this old story followed the version written by the poet Nicander approximately two hundred years earlier.
Somnus / Hypnos
Ovid wrote that the father of Morpheus was Somnus, the god of sleep. He had wings and lived near the land of the dead, in the world of dreams. In Metamorphoses, the goddess Iris greets Somnus as “mildest of the gods, balm of the soul, who puts care to flight, soothes our bodies worn with hard ministries, and prepares them for toil again!”
Ovid wrote that Somnus had a thousand sons. Morpheus was one of many Somnia who appeared in dreams in a host of different forms. Ovid named two brothers of Morpheus: Phobetor, who took the form of animals, and Phantasos, who appeared as natural things such as water, stones, or trees. Morpheus was the Somnia brother who took the shape of men.
Somnus was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Hypnos. The twin brother of death (the god Thanato) and the son of the night (the god Nyx), Hypnos resided in a cave where day met night.
Though Ovid took most of his stories and characters from preexisting mythology, it’s possible that he invented and named the character of Morpheus. Some scholars argue that Morpheus is a literary figure, as opposed to a long-standing deity.
The first mention of Morpheus reads as follows: “From a throng of a thousand sons, his father roused Morpheus, a master craftsman and simulator of human forms. No one else is as clever at expressing the movement, the features, and the sound of speech. He depicts the clothes and the usual accents. He alone imitates human beings.”
Whereas most of the thousand sons of Sleep visited common folk, Morpheus and the two brothers named above “show themselves by night to kings and generals”.
When his father commands him to carry news of Ceyx’s death to his widow, Morpheus flies through the night “on noiseless wings”. Once he reaches the city, he sheds his wings and takes the shape of Ceyx. Not as he was in life, unfortunately, but “pallid like the dead” with seawater dripping from his beard.
In tears, this facsimile of the dead king declares, “I am dead! Do not hold out false hopes of my return! Storm-laden Auster, the south wind, caught the ship in Aegean waters, and tossed in tempestuous blasts, wrecked her there. My lips, calling helplessly on your name, drank the waves.”
Bereft, Alcyone declares, “My mind would treat me more cruelly than the sea, if I should try to live on, and fight to overcome my sorrow! But I shall not fight, nor leave you, my poor husband, and at least now I shall come as your companion.”
She goes to the shore, to the place where she had last seen her husband, and finds his corpse washed up on shore. In Ovid’s version, she leaps into the sea but transforms into a bird in midair and flies to her husband’s side. When she reaches him, he too transforms into a living bird “through the gods’ pity”.
The lovers are granted a happy ending of sorts: “Though they suffered the same fate, their love remained as well: and their bonds were not weakened, by their feathered form. They mate and rear their young, and Alcyone broods on her nest, for seven calm days in the wintertime, floating on the water’s surface. Then the waves are stilled: Aeolus imprisons the winds and forbids their roaming, and controls his grandsons’ waves.”
The opiate drug morphine takes its name from Morpheus.
The character of Morpheus was reimagined by Neil Gaiman in The Sandman, which inspired the creators of The Matrix to create a character by that name as well.