Grieving through Dreams: Morpheus, Visitation Dreams, and the (Un)dead

A pitch I sent to The New Inquiry for their GOODNIGHT issue that wasn't accepted, but that I think would still be a neat essay.

In Greek mythology, Hypnos, the god of sleep, lives in a cave beyond a field of poppies in the underworld with his brother Thanatos, the god of death. But the pharmacist who first isolated the poppy’s morphine (a drug capable of inducing sleep, prolonging life, and causing death) named it after Hypnos’ son Morpheus, the daemon-god of dreams. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Morpheus enters the dreams of a worried Queen Alcyone to inform her that her missing husband King Ceyx has drowned at sea. An expert shape-shifter, Morpheus appears to her in the form of the dead king, pale, withered, and sopping wet – and, speaking as the king, explains that he is dead:

Then he bends over her pillow, with tears streaming down his face, and says: “My poor wife, do you know your Ceyx, or has my face altered in death? Look at me: you will recognise me, and find for a husband, a husband’s shade! Your prayers have brought me no help, Alcyone! I am dead! Do not hold out false hopes of my return! […] Get up, act, shed tears, wear mourning: do not let me go down unwept to Tartarus’s void.”

When Chaucer takes up the story in The Book of the Duchess, he makes some changes. Specifically, when Morpheus is sent to relay the message in Alcyone’s dream, he doesn’t shape-shift into the king. Instead, he dredges the sea for the corpse, stands at the foot of Alcyone’s bed, and like a sadistic puppeteer operating a zombie marionette, ventriloquizes the king’s death to a terrified Alcyone:

he took up the drowned body and bore it forth to Alcyone […] and stood at the foot of her bed. And he called her by her very name and said, "My sweet wife, Awake! Leave your sorrowful life, for in your sorrow there lies no remedy; for, surely, sweet, I am surely dead. You shall never see me alive. […] Farewell, sweet, my world's bliss! I pray to God to lessen your sorrow. Our bliss lasts for so short a time!"

In the first, Morpheus implores the Queen to move from denial to mourning, tears streaming down his face. In the second, he grotesquely steers the corpse to tell the Queen to stop mourning and move to acceptance. I’m interested in these different interpretations of Morpheus performing what psychologists have named “visitation dreams,” what they say about sleep being a liminal state between life and death, and what they say about the stages of grief. A crucial difference between Morpheus’ visits and typical visitation dreams is that Morpheus adopts a state of after-death or even undead-like decay, whereas visitation dreams typically present the dead at their most vital, sometimes decades younger than when they died. What do Morpheus and these literary visitation dreams have to say about how psychologists interpret grief and dreaming today?


“Visitation dreams in grieving individuals: A phenomenological inquiry into the relationship between dreams and the grieving process.” By Jennifer E. Shorter.

“Winding Through ‘Big Dreams’ Are the Threads of Our Lives.” By Rebecca Cathcart.

The Book of the Duchess: A Modern English Translation by Geoffrey Chaucer.

Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by A. Kline.