[Sidenote: Cave of sleep.]
After leaving the joyless regions of Pluto's realm, and following the
even course of the Lethe River, the ancients fancied one reached a
large cave in a remote and quiet valley. This cave was the dwelling of
Somnus (or Hupnos), god of sleep, and of his twin brother Mors (or
Thanatos), god of death; and both were sons of the Goddess of Night,
who had once ruled the whole universe. Near the entrance of the cave,
shadowy forms kept constant watch, gently shaking great bunches of
poppies, and, with finger to lips, enjoining silence on all who
ventured near. These forms were the genii of sleep and death,
represented in art as crowned with poppies or amaranths, and sometimes
holding a funeral urn or a reversed torch.
[Sidenote: Somnus and Morpheus.]
The cave was divided into chambers, each one darker and more silent
than the one which preceded it. In one of the inner rooms, which was
all draped with sable curtains, stood a downy couch, upon which
reclined the monarch of sleep. His garments were also black, but all
strewn with golden stars. He wore a crown of poppies on his head, and
held a goblet full of poppy juice in his languid hand. His drowsy head
was supported by Morpheus, his prime minister, who watched incessantly
over his prolonged slumbers, and hindered any one from troubling his
"Deep in a cavern dwells the drowsy god:
Whose gloomy mansion nor the rising sun,
Nor setting, visits, nor the lightsome noon:
But lazy vapors round the region fly,
Perpetual twilight, and a doubtful sky;
No crowing cock does there his wings display,
Nor with his horny bill provoke the day:
Nor watchful dogs, nor the more wakeful geese,
Disturb with nightly noise the sacred peace:
Nor beast of nature, nor the tame, are nigh,
Nor trees with tempest rock'd, nor human cry;
But safe repose, without an air of breath,
Dwells here, and a dumb quiet next to death.
An arm of Lethe, with a gentle flow,
Arising upwards from the rock below,
The palace moats, and o'er the pebbles creeps,
And with soft murmurs calls the coming sleeps;
Around its entry nodding poppies grow,
And all cool simples that sweet rest bestow;
Night from the plants their sleepy virtue drains,
And passing, sheds it on the silent plains:
No door there was the unguarded house to keep,
On creaking hinges turn'd to break his sleep.
But in the gloomy court was rais'd a bed,
Stuff'd with black plumes, and on an ebon sted:
Black was the covering too, where lay the god,
And slept supine, his limbs display'd abroad.
About his head fantastic visions fly,
Which various images of things supply,
And mock their forms; the leaves on trees not more,
Nor bearded ears in fields, nor sands upon the shore."
Ovid (Dryden's tr.).
[Sidenote: Dreams and Nightmares.]
All around the bed and over it hovered throngs of exquisite spirits,
the Dreams, who stooped to whisper their pleasant messages in his ear;
while in the distant corners of the apartment lurked the hideous
Nightmares. The Dreams were often dispatched to earth under Mercury's
charge, to visit mortals.
Two gates led out of the valley of sleep,--one of ivory, and the other
of horn. The Dreams which passed through the glittering gates of ivory
were delusive, while those which passed through the homely gate of
horn were destined to come true in the course of time.
"Of dreams, O stranger, some are meaningless
And idle, and can never be fulfilled.
Two portals are there for their shadowy shapes,
Of ivory one, and one of horn. The dreams
That come through the carved ivory deceive
With promises that never are made good;
But those which pass the doors of polished horn,
And are beheld of men, are ever true."
Homer (Bryant's tr.).
Dreams were also frequently sent through the gates of horn to prepare
mortals for misfortunes, as in the case of Halcyone.
[Sidenote: Story of Ceyx and Halcyone.]
Ceyx, King of Thessaly, was once forced to part from his beloved wife,
Halcyone, to travel off to Delphi to consult the oracle. With many
tears this loving couple parted, and Halcyone watched the lessening
sail until it had quite vanished from sight; then she returned to her
palace to pray for her husband's safe return. But, alas! the gods had
decreed they should never meet again on earth; and, even while
Halcyone prayed, a tempest arose which wrecked Ceyx's vessel, and
caused him and all his crew to perish in the seething waves.
Day after day the queen hastened down to the seashore, followed by her
attendants, to watch for the returning sails of her husband's vessel;
and night after night she lay on her couch, anxiously expecting the
morrow, which she ever fancied would prove auspicious. The gods,
seeing her anxiety, and wishing to prepare her to receive the news of
his death, and especially to view with some composure his corpse,
which they had decided should be washed ashore, sent a Dream to visit
After assuming the face and form of Ceyx, the Dream glided away
through the gate of horn, hastened to Halcyone's bedside, and
whispered that her husband was dead, and that his body was even now
being cast up on the smooth, sandy beach by the salt sea waves. With a
wild cry of terror and grief, Halcyone awoke, and hastened to the
seashore to convince herself that the dream had been false; but she
had no sooner reached the beach, than the waves washed her husband's
corpse to her feet.
To endure life without him seemed too great a task for poor Halcyone,
who immediately cast herself into the sea, to perish beside him.
Touched by grief so real and intense, the gods changed both bodies
into birds, since known as Halcyon birds, and decreed they should ever
live on the waters. These birds were said to build their nests and
hatch their young on the heaving billows, and to utter shrill cries of
warning to the seamen whenever a storm threatened, bidding them
prepare for the blast, and hasten to shelter in port, if they would
not encounter the mournful fate of poor Ceyx.
Mors, god of death, occupied one of the corners of Somnus' cave. He
was a hideous, cadaverous-looking deity, clad in a winding sheet, and
held an hourglass and a scythe in his hand. His hollow eyes were fixed
upon the sands of time; and when they had run out, he knew some life
was about to end, and sallied forth, scythe in hand, to mow down his
prey with relentless joy.
Needless to say, this cruel deity was viewed by the ancients with fear
and dislike, and no homage was offered him.
These two divinities were, however, but of slight importance in the
general scheme of ancient mythology, in which Proserpina was generally
regarded as the emblem of death, and they were therefore more like
local divinities. The Lacedæmonians paid the most heed to them, and
invariably placed their statues side by side.
As for Morpheus, the son as well as the prime minister of Somnus, he
was also called the god of sleep, and mortals were wont to intercede
for his good offices. He is generally represented as a sleeping child
of great corpulence, and with wings. Morpheus held a vase in one hand,
and poppies in the other, which he gently shook to induce a state of
drowsiness,--according to him, the acme of bliss.