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Our ship came to deep-flowing Okeanos, the great river that bounds the Earth, wrapped in mist and cloud, and beyond there, the cold home of Death and Pale Persephone.  Never does the bright sun shine his rays on them when he rises into the starry heaven, or when he turns to descend again to earth, but the dread night reigns always over the spirits in that land...

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The Dream of the Fates is based upon incidents and episodes from the Odyssey, a traditional Irish folktale usually called The Soul As Butterfly or The Shepherd’s Dream and the conclusion of the Telegonus, the lost epic telling the story of Odysseus’ death. 

The Soul as a Butterfly

The dream of the butterfly is a tale borrowed from Irish folklore. 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 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.

Descent to the Underworld


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.

The Court of the Elm


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 Chimera, have been borrowed here for Odysseus’ story. It is also here, in this shadowy ‘Court of the Elm’, which we introduce the figure of Melinoë, invoked in the Orphic hymns as the Goddess of Nightmares and Madness.  Melinoë is believed to have been a underworld goddess closely and intimately associated with Hekate and with the moon.  Like Hecate, she was said to wander the earth with a train of ghosts, and their entourages may have sometimes moved together. In these walks, Milinoë and her spectres represented the restless dead, those who were never given proper burial or who were cursed to wander the earth forever. According to the hymn, she brings night terrors to mortals by manifesting in strange forms, "now plain to the eye, now shadowy, now shining in the darkness", and could drive mortals insane.

Melinoë was described in the hymn as ‘saffron-cloaked’, and the name Melinoe may derive from Greek mēlinos (μήλινος), 'having the color of quince'. The fruit's yellowish-green color evoked the pallor of illness or death for the Greeks.  Melinoë was born at the mouth of the Cocytus, one of the rivers of the underworld, from a union between Persephone and Zeus disguised as Hades (although the Orphics believed Hades was simply another incarnation of Zeus anyway).

Another intriguing detail from the end of Aeneas' visit to Hades is borrowed for Odysseus' story in this episode.  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 goes through one of the gates, and rises back to the real world—but he is said to pass 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 Virgil’s tale were crafted with political intent. I think borrowing this motif for Odysseus works well: it fits with the mercurial and trickster-like nature of his character, and thus his potential status as an unreliable narrator, 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: is life itself little more than a dream?

The Death of Odysseus

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 forged by Hephaestus and tipped with a stingray spine: 


Some also say that Hephaistos at the bidding of Kirkê fashioned a spear for Telegonos from a sea sting-ray’s stinger, which Phorkys had killed while it was trying to eat fish in his harbor. The spear-base was adamantine and the handle was gold and that killed Odysseus. 

- Schol. ad. Od. 11.134 (from SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE)

When Telegonus 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 prophecy is fulfilled, and Odysseus dies at the hands of Telegonus rather than Telemachus.  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 Gower 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. 

The Lost Adventures 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 Circe, 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. 


Rick Scott


Source Texts

'The Soul as A Butterfly' in Twenty Years A Growing, Maurice O'Sullivan (1933)

Homer, The Odyssey, Book XI, Trans. A. S. Kline on Poetry In Translation
Virgil, The Aeneid, Bk. VI, Trans. A. S. Kline on Poetry In Translation

'Melinoë' on Theoi Greek Mythology Database
Thomas Bromhall, An history of apparitions, oracles, prophecies, and predictions with dreams, visions, and revelations and the cunning delusions of the devil... (1658)

'Circe and Ulysses' from the Confessio Amantis by John Gower (1330–1408), Modern English Version by R. Brodie and E. Anderson on The Poetry of Ellin Anderson


"Greek underworld" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 Nov. 2020. Web. 16 Nov. 2020.

"Oceanus" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 Oct. 2020. Web. 16 Nov. 2020.

Research Sources

"Odysseus" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 Nov. 2020. Web. 16 Nov. 2020.

"Telegonus (son of Odysseus)" on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Jun. 2020

"Butterfly Dream" in "Zhuangzi (book)." on Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 Aug. 2020. Web. 16 Nov. 2020.

'Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream' on DECENTRED

The Stingray Spine & Spear That Killed Odysseus

"Latin trȳgōn (“stingray”), from Ancient Greek τρῡγών (trūgṓn, “turtledove; stingray” on Wiktionary

'Alexander the Great and the Arrows of Doom' in Adrienne  Mayor, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, (2009)

'Multiformity in Myth: The Children of Odysseus' on SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE


Story interpreted by Rick Scott.
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