…Of that fine element that visions, dreams,/And fitful whims of sleep are made of, streams/Into its airy channels with so subtle,/So thin a breathing, not the spider’s shuttle,/Circled a million times within the space/Of a swallow’s nest-door, could delay a trace,/A tinting of its quality: how light/Must dreams themselves be; seeing they’re more slight/Than the mere nothing that engenders them!”: from Book I of “Endymion” (1818) by John Keats.
Image: Fresco in the gallery of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence: “Charon’s boat, the sleep of Night and Morpheus” by Luca Giordano (1684–1686).
“Morpheus (‘Fashioner’, derived from the Ancient Greek: μορφή meaning ‘form, shape’) is a god associated with sleep and dreams. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses he is the son of Sleep, and he appears in dreams in human form. From the medieval period, the name began to stand more generally for the god of dreams, or of sleep.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Morpheus is one of the thousand sons of Somnus (Sleep). His name derives from the Greek word for form (μορφή), and his function was to appear in dreams in human guise. According to Ovid “no other is more skilled than he in representing the gait, the features, and the speech of men; the clothing also and the accustomed words of each he represents.” Like other gods associated with sleep, Ovid makes Morpheus winged.
Ovid called Morpheus and his brothers, the other sons of Somnus, the Somnia (“dream shapes”), saying that they appear in dreams “mimicking many forms”. Ovid gives names to two more of these sons of Sleep. One called Icelos (‘Like’), by the gods, but Phobetor (‘Frightener’) by men, “takes the form of beast or bird or the long serpent”, and Phantasos (‘Fantasy’), who “puts on deceptive shapes of earth, rocks, water, trees, all lifeless things”.
The three brothers’ names are found nowhere earlier than Ovid, and are perhaps Ovidian inventions. Tripp calls these three figures “literary, not mythical concepts”. However Griffin suggests that this division of dream forms between Morpheus and his brothers, possibly including their names, may have been of Hellenistic origin.
Friedrich Sertürner derived the name of the opiate drug morphine from the name of Morpheus.”