Dreams in Greek Mythology

Morpheus & The Oneiroi

In Greek mythology Morpheus was one of the four sons of Hypnos, the god of sleep. The four sons of Hypnos and Pasithea (herself associated with relaxation and hallucination) were Icelus, Morpheus, Phobetor and Phantasos. These four were known collectively as the Oneiroi. Some stories tell that Icelus and Phobetor were one and the same which would mean there were only three Oneiroi.

The Oneiroi lived on the shores of the ocean and were between them responsible for the dreams of mortals. Of the four Oneiroi, Morpheus is the most important. That said, he doesn't appear a great deal in mythology and is mainly known through the works of Ovid.

Morpheus - Greek God of Dreams

Morpheus (sometimes incorrectly spelt "Morpeheus") was the chief shaper of dreams (his name means "he who shapes"). He was assisted by his brothers. Icelus concentrated on those aspects of dreams that reflected reality, Phobetor made fearsome dreams (hence "phobia") whilst Phantasus produced tricky and unreal dreams (hence "fantasy", "phantasmagoria", etc).

Ovid suggests that Morpheus had a special talent for mimicking human form in dreams. In Metamorphoses Ovid says:

"King Sleep was father of a thousand sons - indeed a tribe - and of them all, the one he chose was Morpheus, who had such skill in miming any human form at will. No other Dream can match his artistry in counterfeiting men: their voice, their gait, their face - their moods; and, too, he imitates their dress precisely and the words they use most frequently. But he mimes only men..."

Phobetor and Phantasos had responsibility for dreams about animals and inanimate objects respectively.

Morpheus also had special responsiblity for the dreams of kings and heroes. For these reasons Morpheus is often referred to as "Morpheus the Greek god of dreams" in superiority to his brothers.

Morpheus himself was said to sleep in a rather unusual bedroom - a dark cave decorated with poppy flowers. This is perhaps a reference to the opium poppy; morphine was named after Morpheus (initially morphine was called "morphium").