Life is but a Dream
“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream”
Edgar Allan Poe
The mythic gods enter our minds and influence our thoughts—whether we are awake or asleep. Hypnos, Greek god of sleep, and Somnus, his Roman counterpart, make known their presence to us in the words “hypnosis”—an “artificially-induced trance state resembling sleep”, and “insomnia”—“not sleep”.
Hypnos has a twin brother, Thanatos—Death, who is described in Hesiod’s Theogony as “possessing a heart of iron and hateful even to the deathless gods”. As time passed, stories changed and Thanatos became known as a deity of non-violent or “Peaceful Death”. It is through this interpretation that he lends his name to the word “euthanasia” (merciful death or assisted suicide)—a method of easing into death.
The Oneiroi —
The Oneiroi are three deities of the dream realm; called by the Roman poet Ovid as “sons” of Hypnos, and by the Greek poet Hesiod as “brothers” of Hypnos. The Oneiroi enter our thoughts as: Morpheus the shaper of dreams, the one who morphs into and takes the human form; Phobetor (Icelos) who represents beasts and creatures, and manifests our phobias to frighten us with nightmares; Phantasos the phantom or apparition who appears in the form of inanimate objects, and as elements of nature.
The beloved 19th century storyteller Hans Christian Andersen revived these ancient gods in his tale: Ole-Luk-Oie, The Dream God (Ole Lukoje). It is he who visits children in the evening and throws fine dust into their eyes to keep them shut. Ole Lukoje carries two umbrellas; one he opens to reveal beautiful pictures, giving wonderful dreams to good children. The second he opens has no pictures, giving no dreams to naughty children.
In the story, Ole Lukoje reveals that he is: “…an ancient heathen. The old Romans and Greeks named me the Dream-god”. Ole Lukoje represents the mythical Oneiroi. Appearing in the form of a man with dream umbrellas he is Morpheus, the deity who fashions one’s dreams.
Andersen’s fairy tale leads us through seven dreams; some involving common inanimate objects such as books and pencils (Phantasos), others with mice and birds (Phobetor), and of course Morpheus appearing and re-appearing as various characters—in the guise of a princess or childhood nurse.
As the story progresses we are introduced to Old Lukoje’s brother; who bears his same name: “There now, you can see my brother, the other Ole-Luk-Oie; he is also called Death.” The “other” Ole-Luk-Oie visits each person but once…and takes them away on his horse. He knows only two stories: “One of these is so wonderfully beautiful that no one in the world can imagine anything at all like it; but the other is just as ugly and frightful, so that it would be impossible to describe it.”
It is through the Greek’s contrasting descriptions of Thanatos (hateful vs peaceful death) that Andersen conjured the image of the only two stories He (Death) knows. Thanatos is known to us as the Grim Reaper—appearing when our time runs out to escort us on our final ride.
Der Sandmann —
An earlier 19th century work by E.T.A. Hoffman (author of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a story on which the Nutcracker Ballet was based) tells of Der Sandmann (The Sand-man). This tale describes a much darker, more sinister sleep deity who visits children in the night.
When Nathaniel, a young boy in Hoffman’s story, inquires about the Sand-Man, he is told: “Oh! he’s a wicked man, who comes to little children when they won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes, so that they jump out of their heads all bloody; and he puts them into a bag and takes them to the half-moon as food for his little ones; and they sit there in the nest and have hooked beaks like owls, and they pick naughty boys’ and girls’ eyes out of them.”.
Poor Nathaniel was haunted for years by this frightening image; believing that the hideous Sand-Man must be his father’s mysterious and cruel business associate, Coppelius. (Not a very pleasant bedtime story…for children or adults!)
Symbol of the Poppy —
The god Hypnos is often depicted with a poppy flower; a plant from which several addictive drugs: opium, morphine, codeine, and heroin are derived. Opiates have been used in one form or another for thousands of years. These potent narcotics act on the brain’s pleasure-pain center, mimicking high levels of endorphins, producing dream-like sensations of intense euphoria and extreme ecstasy.
A controlled combination of opioid and hypnotic drugs can be used to achieve a balanced state of general anesthesia in surgical patients. But opiates can impede the normal function of the brain’s respiratory center…and an overdose can lead to death. Yielding to the temptation of the poppy, one may wistfully spiral from that dreamy euphoric state brought on by Hypnos into the everlasting sleep of Thanatos…death; a trip from which one will not awaken, riding away on a horse with the other Ole-Luk-Oie, hearing one of two stories he knows…not knowing which he will tell.
We’re off to see the Wizard —
The allure of colorful poppies is described in the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum. Dorothy and her traveling companions: “…found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever.”
In the movie adaptation the Wicked Witch of the West is the one who conjured the deadly field of beautiful poppies, describing it as: “something with poison in it, but attractive to the eyes and soothing to the smell”. Tin Woodman and Scarecrow, “not being made of flesh”, were unaffected by the lingering hypnotic scent of the poppies; but Dorothy, her dog Toto, and Cowardly Lion all succumbed to the intoxicating, “spicy scent” of the sleep-inducing poppies.
In the 1939 movie adaptation, Scarecrow and Tin Woodman stood in the field and called for help as their companions slept. Hearing their pleas, Glinda, Good Witch of the North, sent snow to cover and dampen the deadly affect of the poppies; thereby awakening the entire traveling party, who arose and walked out of the field. But 40 years earlier, when the book was published, Dorothy and Toto were carried out of the “great carpet of deadly flowers” by Tin Woodman and Scarecrow. Cowardly Lion was too big and heavy for them to move, so it took the help of thousands of field mice harnessed to a “truck” built by Tin Woodman to move Cowardly Lion out of the field.
One may wonder how the field mice—living creatures made of flesh—escaped the sleep-inducing affect that put the small dog Toto under its spell. As every teller knows…anything is possible in the realm of story.
Such is the magic of dreams.
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