THE DREAM OF THE FATES
SERIES II · EPISODE IX
It was the hour of midnight. The fire had begun to dwindle in the hearth, and all the shadows were drawing in closer to the King and to his servants. Clad now in his mystical armour, Odysseus sat down at his table to eat the food that they brought. The moon shone high above them, a bright round shield that glowed with silver light.
His food was simple fare; bread; water; wine; milk and honey. As he ate, his eyes were drawn to that silver face of the moon. At long last he said, ‘Perhaps I should pray instead to Hecate rather than Athena.’ The boy came forward, to clear away the food that was left, and Odysseus watched him. ‘Wine, milk and honey. The food we give to the dead.’
The Dream of the Fates is based upon incidents and episodes from the Odyssey, a traditional Irish folktale usually called The Shepherd’s Dream and the conclusion of the Telegonus, the lost epic telling the story of Odysseus’ death.
The dream of the butterfly is a tale borrowed from Irish folklore, usually told of two Irish farmers. It is introduced here as a motif which links dreams and butterflies as a representation of the human soul freed from the body, which fits with some elements of Greek mythology. The soul or shade of a person was often described in Greek literature as having white wings creature and left the body through the mouth at the moment of death. In myth, the Greek word for the soul or a spirit was given to a mortal woman, Psyche, who through her marriage to Eros became the Greek goddess of the soul. In art, she was often depicted in with butterfly’s wings. The Greek God of Death, Thanatos, was sometimes depicted with a butterfly resting on his hand.
The association between souls and butterflies, and between the soul, the butterfly and dreams, appears elsewhere in world mythology. One of the foundational texts of Chinese Taoism, the Zhuangzi (or writings of Master Zhuang), includes a story about Zhaung, the ideal Taoist sage, dreaming he is a butterfly:
Once, Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering about, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know that he was Zhuang Zhou.
Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn't know if he was Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming that he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and the butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things.
— Zhuangzi, Ch. 2 (Watson translation)
The story has formed the basis of many philosophical approaches to the question of how perspective affects our conception of reality, and weather the distinction between dreaming and waking is legitimate, especially from a spiritual perspective.
In mythology, journeys to the underworld or descent into the lands of the dead are known as katabasis. Odyssey’s journey to the underworld in this episode includes material from the Odyssey, but also draws some material from Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld in the later Roman epic the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. While sharing many characters, geographical features and scenes, there were some important differences between the Underworld as depicted by Homer and Virgil. The clearest difference is the differing fates of human beings once they reach the land of the dead. For Homer, Hades was a gray and colourless realm in which all life was merely a pale after-image of what came before. There is no joy or bliss for the soul after death, even if they lived life well.
In contrast, the subjects of the underworld in Virgil are explicitly judged. Souls which have acted wickedly are subjected to punishment, while virtuous souls enjoy contentment in the fields of plenty; and in the stream of Lethe, souls are wiped clean of their memories of their former life, after which they will be reincarnated. Aeneas’ encounter with the shadowy elm under which the spirits of dreams brood, and the phantasms of monsters like the the centaurs, Scyllas and the Khimera, have been borrowed here for Odysseus’ story, as has an intriguing detail from the end of Aeneas' visit to Hades.
At the end of his trip, Aeneas comes to the Gates of Horn and Ivory as depicted in earlier myth. After explaining that true dreams go through the horn gate, and false ones through the ivory gate, Aeneas rises back to the real world--through the ivory gate. Scholars are unclear about the meaning of this moment. It has been suggested it is a comment on the nature of myth making and storytelling, especially since parts of Vergil’s tale were crafted with political intent. I think borrowing this motif for Odysseus works well: it fits with the mercurial andntrickster-like nature of his character, and the themes of this tale, where Odysseus is questioning the transient and temporary nature of human life. It poses a question that many philosophers have asked over the ages: does life itself amount to little more than a dream?
A lost play by Sophocles, Odysseus Acanthoplex, tells the story of how Odysseus is killed by his own son with the spine of a stingray. It is based on an earlier epic called the Telegonus, which is also lost and exists only in summary. In order to avert the fate prophecied to him, Odysseus exiles Telemachus to Kefalonika, one of the neighbouring Ionian islands. However, Odysseus is unaware that he fathered a son with Kirke during the year he stayed on her island, whom she has called Telegonus. Coming of age, Telegonus goes to seek his father; his mother arms him with a spear fashioned from the spine of a stingray by the gods. When Telemachus lands on Ithaca, he searches out King Odysseus, but the King’s soldiers attack him and he defends himself. When King Odysseus attacks him, he does not realise it is his father until he has already wounded him with the lethal weapon. The epic concludes, strangely enough, with everyone returning to Kirke’s island of Aeaea, where Telemachus weds Kirke,and his mother, Penelope, remarries to Telegonus.
It is thought that the Sophocles play and the epic may have involved an oracle received at Delphi: however a version of the story in An history of apparitions, oracles, prophecies, and predictions with dreams by Thomas Bromhall (1658), where Rick originally encountered the tale, depicts the oracle as coming to Odysseus in a dream. In that telling, Odysseus also retreats to a mountain fortress and watches for an attack by Telemachus. This version also says that the spear born by Telemachus is fashioned from the bone of a sea turtle, which has been poisoned by Kirke - these variations, perhaps, stem from mistranslations or badly transmitted sources used by that author. The medieval poet John Gowe also wrote a Middle English verse version of the Telegonus myth in his poetic work the Confessio Amantis (The Lover's Confession). This version includes Odysseus’ oracle appearing to him as a dream, and changed the motif of a stingray tip on Telegonus' spear to a pennant he attaches to it, which is emblazoned with three interlocking fish as an emblem of his homeland.
These devices and elements are based upon Tiresias’ prophecy that death will come to Odysseus’ ‘out of the sea’. The violent accounts of his death seem to contradict Tiresias’ promise that he will die ‘in sleek old age’ surrounded by wealth, success and comforts; in our story, this is held to be true because before his dream, Odysseus is living as an aged King in a prosperous kingdom.
THEMES & FOLKLORE
The Lost Voyages of Odysseus
The prophecy of Tiresias concerning Odysseus’ eventual death was either based on further legends known by the author of the Odyssey, or these later episodes in his epic were inspired by the prophecy itself. Tiresias tells Odysseus he must travel into a foreign land carrying oar and plant it and sacrifice to Poseidon to appease him for his crimes against him. Following that he would return once again to Ithaca and death would come to ‘in sleek old age' and ‘out of the sea’. In the Telegonus, Odysseus quest to appease Poseidon begins a whole new chapter of travels to the land of Threspotia, where Odysseus becomes embroiled in a foreign war and marries another woman, the Queen Kallidike.
It is only after this further adventure away from his Queen and his native land of Ithaca, and possibly a pilgrimage to Delphi, that he returns to Ithaca and eventually meets his fate at the hands of Telegonus. There are even traditions beyond this story - that Odysseus was resurrected by Kirke, or by one of her students, a sorceress who took him to a place called The Tower of the Sea, where she transformed him into a horse, which later died in its old age.
Story interpreted by Rick Scott.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
Lore & Legend Series Themes composed and performed by Robert Bentall.
Podcast hosting by Anchor. Video and audiogram creation using Headliner.
Additional sound and effects sourced from the community at Freesound.org.
Incidental music, background ambience and sound effects by multiple authors sourced from Freesound.org. See below for the full list of audio files and attribution credits: