Neil Gaiman fans already know this, but Morpheus and his family were the spirits of dream, who sent dreams to mortals from their home in Erebos. This was a place, but also their father. (Having a personification for a parent can be confusing.)
These spirits visited mortals in their sleep, and exited Erebos through one of two gates: the gate of horn for prophetic, true dreams, and the gate of ivory for delusive ones. (They also ruled divination by dreams, oneiromancy.)
That the Oneiroi (Dreams, literally) come from darkness is a constant in their myth, whether their parent is Erebos or Nyx, the goddess of night.
Erebos was both a conscious entity and the concept of darkness. (Many of the primordial deities are like this: Ouranos and Gaia, sky and earth also act and think like we do.)
Dreams from Hell?
I had thought that Erebos was part of the underworld, and it seems that Aeschylus agreed with me, since in his play The Eumenides he says that the Furies dwell in Tartaros, while other sources say Erebos. (Tartaros was a deep abyss in Hades, where evil people were eternally tortured, and the Titans were imprisoned. And yes, Tartatos was also a primordial deity.)
The Roman writer Virgil also put the dream-spirits in Hades. In his epic the Aeneid, the hero Aeneas visits his dead father, and takes a tour of the underworld with him, including the famous gates of horn and ivory:
Now Sleep has portals twain, whereof the one
Is horn, they say, and easy exit gives
To visions true; the other, gleaming white
With polished ivory, the dead employ
To people night with unsubstantial dreams.
Here now Anchises bids his son farewell;
And with Sibylla, his companion sage,
Up through that ivory portal lets him rise.
Back to his fleet and his dear comrades all
(See below for more on the two gates.) Hesiod’s Theogony, on the other hand, sees Erebos and Tartaros as separate beings:
In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros (Love), fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them. From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night; but of Night were born Aether and Day, whom she conceived and bore from union in love with Erebus. (Theogony 115-26)
But to some authors, perhaps because of the similarity between sleep and death, put their home near to the underworld, but not actually in it:
Past the streams of Oceanus they went, past the rock Leucas, past the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, and quickly came to the mead of asphodel, where the spirits dwell, phantoms of men who have done with toils. (Odyssey 24.12 ff)
Family of Morpheus
Either Nyx or Erebos is the parent of the Oneiroi, although occasionally the two together are the mother and father of the Dreams.
Hesiod says that Morpheus and the others were born from Nyx, all alone. (Follow the link to see all her other children, which include the Hesperides and the Fates. You wonder why she would need a mate when she was so productive on her own.)
Euripides credits Gaea, once again acting alone, with bringing forth the black-winged daemons of dream. (“O lady Earth, mother of dreams that fly on sable wings! I am seeking to avert the vision of the night, the sight of horror which I learned from my dreams.” Hecuba 70-75)
Cicero, writing in the first century BCE, and Pseudo-Hyginus, writing in the 2nd century CE, disagreed, stating that Erebos and Nyx were responsible for the whole brood, including Hypnos (Sleep) and many others such as Old Age and Fate. The Romans seem to have favoured the two-parent hypothesis, while the Greeks saw Night as productive all by herself.
Perhaps the most creative version comes from Aristophanes’s The Birds. This tells how Nyx laid an egg in Erebos, which hatched into Eros, who brought into being all the others. Of course, The Birds is a comedy, rather than a work of theology.
While Nyx has many children, there are three Oneiroi:
- Morpheus (Shape, Form) able to take on any form, as his name suggests, to appear in dreams.
- Phantasos (Phantasm)
- Ikelos (Semblance) also known as
- Phobetor (Frightening) the personification of nightmares and appeared in dreams as animals or monsters.
Ovid gives them all their own powers:
Then father Sleep chose from among his sons,
His thronging thousand sons, one who in skill
Excelled to imitate the human form;
Morpheus his name, than whom none can present
More cunningly the features, gait and speech
Of men, their wonted clothes and turns of phrase.
He mirrors only men; another forms
The beasts and birds and long sliding snakes.
The gods have named him Icelos; here below
The tribe of mortals call him Phobetor.
A third, excelling in an art diverse,
is Phantasos; he wears the cheating shapes
Of earth, rocks, water, trees–inanimate things.
To kings and chieftains these as night display
Their phantom features; other dreams will roam
Among the people, haunting common folk.
Note that according to Ovid the sleep-god Somnus (Hypnos in Greek) is their father, and that they are only three of his many sons. (Pasithea, one of the Charites, is his wife.)
In Hesiod’s Theogony, however, Hypnos was their brother, another of Nyx’s many children.
Divination by Dreams
I have mentioned that the Oneiroi ruled divination from dreams. One important form of this art was called incubation, and was practiced at healing shrines. The patient would prepare themselves and then sleep in the temple overnight, in the hopes that their dreams might point to a cure.
The temples of Asklepios were famous for this, since people believed the god himself visited patients and spoke to them in their dreams.
“[In Sikyon (Sicyon) in Argolis there is] a sanctuary of Asklepios (Asclepius). On passing into the enclosure you see on the left a building with two rooms. In the outer room lies a figure of Hypnos (Sleep), of which nothing remains now except the head. The inner room is given over to the Apollon Karneios (Carneus); into it none may enter except the priests. In the portico lies a huge bone of a sea-monster, and after it an image of Oneiros (Dream) and Hypnos (Sleep), surnamed Epidotes (Bountiful), lulling to sleep a lion.”
(Pausanias, Description of Greece 2. 10. 2)
The division of dreams into prophetic and non-predictive was an important part of ancient Greek and Roman lore, with Plato and others weighing in on true and untrue dreams. The story of the two gates is in part based on a pun, since the word for horn in ancient Greek and the word for fulfill are similar, as well as the words for ivory and deceive.
(See Theoi.com for more examples of dream lore involving the Oneiroi, including a story from Aesop about how Zeus nearly put the oracular god Apollo out of business, by inventing prophetic dreams.)
Neil Gaiman’s Dream of the Endless
Neil Gaiman’s family, of course, include Dream, also known as Morpheus, Destiny, Despair, Destruction, Delirium, Desire, and his sister Death, who became a very popular character as well. Since Morpheus/Dream lives in a timeless realm called the Dreaming where he looks after dreams, imagination and inspiration. The Sandman, a Golden Age superhero, was written into Dream’s story as well when he gained part of Dream’s powers.
Metamorphoses, Ovid/ A.D. Melville, notes E.J. Kenney, Oxford World Classics, 2008.
The image at the top can be found here.