Thursday, 8 October 2015


“As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so a life well spent brings happy death.” - Leonardo daVinci

The ancient Greeks had a host of other gods and goddesses except the well-known twelve Olympian deities, whose names almost everyone knows: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Artemis Aphrodite, etc.  These lesser gods were not considered less important, but rather their sphere of influence was less and they had to obey the greater gods, who often directed them to do their bidding. These lesser gods were in charge of some of the natural phenomena or by their actions explained some natural occurrences that ancient people found hard to explain otherwise.

Nyx, the daughter of Chaos, being the personification of Night, was, according to the poetic ideas of the Greeks, considered to be the mother of everything mysterious and inexplicable, such as death, sleep, dreams. She became united to Erebus (representing the personification of darkness), and their children were Aether and Hemera (Air and Daylight), evidently a simile of the poets, to indicate that darkness always precedes light. Nyx inhabited a palace in the dark regions of the lower world, and is represented as a beautiful woman, seated in a chariot, drawn by two black horses. She is clothed in dark robes, wears a long veil, and is accompanied by the stars, which follow in her train.

Thanatos (Death) and his twin-brother Hypnos (Sleep) were the children of Nyx. Their dwelling was in the realm of shades, and when they appear among mortals, Thanatos is feared and hated as the enemy of mankind, whose hard heart knows no pity, whilst his brother Hypnos is universally loved and welcomed as their kindest and most beneficent friend. But though the ancients regarded Thanatos as a gloomy and mournful divinity, they did not represent him with any exterior repulsiveness. On the contrary, he appears as a beautiful youth, who holds in his hand an inverted torch, emblematical of the light of life being extinguished, whilst his disengaged arm is thrown lovingly round the shoulder of his brother Hypnos.

Hypnos is sometimes depicted standing erect with closed eyes; at others he is in a recumbent position beside his brother Thanatos, and usually bears a poppy-stalk in his hand. A most interesting description of the abode of Hypnos is given by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. He tells us how the god of Sleep dwelt in a mountain-cave near the realm of the Cimmerians, which the sun never pierced with his rays. No sound disturbed the stillness, no song of birds, not a branch moved, and no human voice broke the profound silence, which reigned everywhere. From the lowermost rocks of the cave issued the river Lethe, and one might almost have supposed that its course was arrested, were it not for the low, monotonous hum of the water, which invited slumber. The entrance was partially hidden by numberless white and red poppies, which Mother Night had gathered and planted there, and from the juice of which she extracts drowsiness, which she scatters in liquid drops all over the earth, as soon as the sun-god has sunk to rest. In the centre of the cave stands a couch of blackest ebony, with a bed of down, over which is laid a coverlet of sable hue.

On this rich couch, the god himself reposes, surrounded by innumerable forms. These are idle dreams, more numerous than the sands of the sea. Chief among them is Morpheus, that changeful god, who may assume any shape or form he pleases. Nor can the god of Sleep resist his own power; for though he may rouse himself for a while, he soon succumbs to the drowsy influences that surround him.

Morpheus, the son of Hypnos, was the god of Dreams. He is always represented winged, and appears sometimes as a youth, sometimes as an old man. In his hand he bears a cluster of poppies, and as he steps with noiseless footsteps over the earth, he gently scatters the seeds of this sleep-producing plant over the eyes of weary mortals. Homer describes the House of Dreams as having two gates: One of ivory, whence issue all deceptive and flattering visions; the other of horn, through which proceed those dreams which are fulfilled.

The names of these gods turn up in English words, whose derivation gives clues as to their origin. Euthanasia, for example, is a “good” (eu-) “death” (from thanatos), while a hypnotic drug makes you sleep. Morphine of course refers to Morpheus and the ability of sleep to assuage suffering.

The painting above is by John William Waterhouse completed in 1874 and is depicting “Sleep and his Half-brother Death”. It is Waterhouse’s first Royal Academy exhibit (submitted from his father's house at 1 Scarsdale Villas), it was painted after both his younger brothers died of tuberculosis.

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