THE DROWNED KING
SERIES II · EPISODE III
King Ceyx set his ship upon the ocean despite his wife's warning. Every day, Queen Alkyone climbed the steps of the temple and begged the gods to send her husband home to her...
The Dream of the Drowned King is based upon the myth of Ceyx and Alkyone, known mainly from the Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid, but also found in a work by Hesiod and in a philosophical dialogue called Halcyon. In the Medieval period, a version was told by Chaucer in his Book of the Duchess. The story is considered remarkable for its depictions of a loving and romantic relationship between the principal characters, in contrast to many of the unhappy unions portrayed in Greek myth. The story also raises questions about the role of providence and justice in human affairs, as the attitude of the gods toward the sympathetic protagonists is typically callous and petty.
Trachis was a kingdom and city-state in the region of Thessaly in the North of Ancient Greece. It was located to the west of Thermopylae and north of the Sanctuary of Delphi. It was famous for being located near the foot of Mount Oeta, where the Greek hero Herakles died, and being the place where his descendants settled. The city of Trachis was later conquered and re-settled by the Spartans; it was a waypoint for the Persian Army during its march to the confrontation at Thermopylae during the Greco/Persian War.
The oracle which Ceyx sails across the Aegean to reach was the oracle of Apollo Clarius in the sanctuary of Claros, on the western coast of Ionia in Anatolia. It was an important religious centre alongside the sanctuaries at Delphi and Didyma. Every five years the Claria games were held there in honour of Apollo. It was said to have been founded by Manto, a daughter of the legendary Greek seer Tiresias. Manto and her party were initially seized by a group of Cretans, but hearing about their mission, their leader Rhacius married her and allowed her to found the sanctuary. Together they bore the seer Mopsus, whom Calchas (a priest of the Greek army during the Seige of Troy), challenged to a contest of divination. Calchas lost the contest and died of grief in Claros. In the Roman period, Pliny the Elder remarked that
At Colophon, in the cave of the Clarian Apollo, there is a pool, by the drinking of which a power is acquired of uttering wonderful oracles; but the lives of those who drink of it are shortened.
Claros might be connected to the phrase ‘Clarion call’, which refers to a clear and unambiguous call to action. Dictionaries list the phrase as being derived from the clarion as a kind of medieval trumpet, but this name does come from the Latin.
The story concludes with the transformation of Alkyónē and Ceyx into halcyons - a mythical bird which is sometimes identified as being the kingfisher, although some also say that Ceyx was transformed into a different bird, a tern, which is he named for. The ancients believed that the halcyon made a floating nest of fish bones in the Aegean Sea, and that Aeolus calmed the waves while the halcyon was brooding over her eggs. The halcyon would lay its eggs over seven days and brood on them for the other seven. The earliest sources stated these seven days lay either side of the shortest day, the Winter Solstice. Fourteen days of calm weather were to be expected when the Halcyon was nesting around the winter solstice - according to different sources, these days lie either in mid to late December or early January. The greeks called these the Halcyon Days or Alkionides Meres.
In Ovid, the transformation occurs as Ceyx’s body washes toward the shore of Trachis: in the earlier Halycon dialogue, Alkyone is changed into a bird to that she can search the seas for her husband’s body. In the Metamorphoses, this transformation continues a theme in Ovid’s cycle of stories. Ceyx’s brother Daedalion, mourning the death of his daughter at the hands of Artemis, threw himself off Mount Parnassus and was transformed into an eagle by Apollo.
THEMES & FOLKLORE
Love and Marriage
The halcyon or kingfisher was a symbol of the faithful woman or wife - as is clearly the case in the Halcyon dialogue of Plato, where the character of Socrates says he will relate the legend to his own wives to inspire them. According to Aelian and Plutarch, the female halcyon was devoted to its mate, nursing the male in old age and sickness and singing a sad lament when it died. It therefore represented a paradigm of feminine love and care for the family.
If it is proper to speak briefly of her several virtues, she is so devoted to her mate that she keeps him company, not for a single season, but throughout the year. Yet it is not through wantonness that she admits him to her company, for she never consorts at all with any other male; it is through friendship and affection, as with any lawful wife. When by reason of old age the male becomes too weak and sluggish to keep up with her, she takes the burden on herself, Bcarries him and feeds him, never forsaking, never abandoning him; but mounting him on her own shoulders, she conveys him everywhere she goes and looks after him, abiding with him until the end.
As for love of her offspring and care for their preservation, as soon as she perceives herself to be pregnant, she applies herself to building the nest, not making pats of mud or cementing it on walls and roofs like the house-martin; nor does she use the activity of many different members of her body, as when the bee employs its whole frame to enter and open the wax, with all six feet pressing at the same time to fashion the whole mass into hexagonal cells.
But the halcyon, having but one simple instrument, one piece of equipment, one tool — her bill and nothing else, co‑operating with her industry and ingenuity — what she contrives and constructs would be hard to believe without ocular evidence, seeing the object that she moulds — or rather the ship that she builds. Of many possible forms, this alone cannot be capsized or even wet its cargo. She collects the spines of garfish and binds and weaves them together, some straight, others transverse, as if she were thrusting woven threads through the warp, adding such bends and knots of one with another that a compact, round unit is formed, slightly prolate in shape, like a fisherman's weel.
When it is finished, she brings and deposits it beside the surging waves, where the sea beats gently upon it and instructs her how to mend and strengthen whatever is not yet good and tight, as she observes it loosened by the blows. She so tautens and secures the joints that it is difficult even for stones or iron to break or pierce it. The proportions and shape of the hollow interior are as admirable as anything about it; for it is so constructed as to admit herself only, while the entrance remains wholly hidden and invisible to others — with the result that not even a drop of water can get in.
- Plutarch, On the Intelligence of Animals
However, some scholars have interpreted elements of the tale as a criticism or warning against two people clinging too completely to one another, arguing that in the Metamorphoses, Alkyónē ’s dramatic protests against her husband participating in a wolf hunt with his brother, and later against his journey to the shrine at Clarion, portrays a form of excessive separation anxiety. Ceyx himself is portrayed by Ovid as torn between going on his journey and leaving his wife, suggesting that their intimacy puts him into conflict with the masculine ideals of his role as a king and leader. While he is at sea, Alkyone’s prayers for her husband are so incessant that they disturb the peace of the gods, and when Ceyx appears to his wife as a dream, Alkyone immediately wishes to join him in death. Ovid himself stresses the idea of Ceyx and Alkyónē as a single entity, as being unable to exist apart from one another. Depending on one’s perspective, the love between the characters is either touchingly romantic, or excessively co-dependent.
In some ways it is ironic that, in Hesiod’s telling of the tale, the pair are punished for calling each other Zeus and Hera, as their relationship appears much more loving than that of those gods. Although it seems slightly less romantic when you remember Zeus and Hera are brother and sister!
The Father of Dreams
This episode also includes a variant of the story about the origin of dreams we heard in the last episode, where they were birthed by Mother Earth, but ‘confused’ by the decree of Zeus. Having heard the matriarchal origin of dreams from Penelope, this episode sees King Ceyx, son of the Morning Star and a line of male and patriarchal authority, offer a different version in which Zeus is responsible both for creating true dreams and then false dreams to teach his son a lesson. This is a version of the story which is found in the Fables of Aesop, and is a good demonstration of the way in which stories about the new gods were always usurping and over-writing the powers and narratives about the older, more primal gods, so that Zeus came to be both the creative and ordering power at the centre of the Greek kosmos - a power which was wholly male and patriarchal.
The House of Sleep and the Gods of Dreams
Ovid’s narrative affords a unique glimpse into a rarely seen corner of the cosmos - the land of dreams and the house of sleep. The realm is ruled over by Hypnos the god of Sleep. In Greek, Sleep was called Hypnos, in Latin, Somnus. Hypnos was usually depicted as the brother of Thanatos, the God of Death - a deity who ended up somewhat overshadowed by the elevation of Hades as King of the Underworld.
We also meet Morpheus, depicted as the most important dream spirit. The Greek word meant ‘form’ or ‘shape’, and was used for the god by Ovid, although there are no prior sources for this name for the god of dreams. Morpheus may have been related to or identified with the entity Deceitful Dream, the spirit which appeared to Agamemnon in the Iliad, and was elsewhere called Oneiros, the god of dreams.
In the Metamorphoses, Morpheus is in fact described as one of a triumvirate of dream gods: Morpheus, Icelos and Phantasos. These spirits have power to create different kinds of illusions. Icelos or Phobetor appeared in dreams as animals - ‘beasts, birds and the long winding snake’. Phantasos made dreams of places and things - inanimate and material objects. As the god who could most effectively take on human form, Morpheus was pre-eminent amongst them as a dream messenger, who could take on the form of shades or oracular authorities in dreams.
As the god of dreams, Morpheus is naturally linked with the gates of dream in later sources: he was sometimes described as carrying a horns from which he would dispense dreams. A description in Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy described the god as wearing a black and white cloak and keeping of two boxes of dreams, of which one was made of horn, the other ivory.
The gods of sleep and dream make rare appearances in the myths. Often, their powers and offices seem to have been co-opted or assimilated into the power of the Olympian gods. Just as Thanatos is eclipsed by Hades as ruler of the underworld, so does Hermes often appear as the god who actually wields the power of sleep over mortals, and comes to collects the souls of the dead. Likewise, many gods take it upon themselves to appear to mortals in dreams without the intermediary of a dream spirit.
While this probably had a lot to do with their cultural dominance, it may have also been an intentional element of the mythology: the gods of Death, Sleep and Dream were described in the cosmogonies as direct descendants of the primordial gods which Zeus and the Olympians overthrow. Subsequent to this, some seem to be imprisoned, while others seem to persist but with reduced sovereignty or significance. So Apollo becomes pre-eminent over Helios as god of the Sun, and Selene, goddess of the moon, loses influence to Artemis (later Diana, who become associated with its powers.
Another minor messenger deity, Iris, appears as Hera’s handmaiden in this myth. She was a goddess of the sky and sea, and the Greeks most often saw rainbows connecting the sea and sky: for this reason, Iris was thought to bear water up from the oceans to the sky and replenish the rains. She was a cupbearer for the gods alongside Hebe, and was often depicted carrying a herald’s staff or caduceaus like Hermes. The word ‘Iris’ for rainbow was close to the word ‘eiris’ for ‘messenger’. She is sometimes referred to as Thaumantias: her father was Thaumas the Wondrous, a god of the sea, and her mother was the cloud nymph Elektra the Amber.
Shades and Dreams
The appearance of Morpheus in the shape of Ceyx is an interesting element of this tale. In some ways it appears as a bit of an anomaly because of its illusory nature. Elsewhere in Greek myth, the dead do appear to the living in sleep, but this is usually described as a genuine visitation from the shade of the departed person. A famous example of this is the appearance of Patroclus to Achilles after his death in the Iliad. However there are other instances of haunting dreams associated with the dead. In Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers, the Queen Klymenstra is visited by fearful dreams because she has neglected the funeral rights for the husband whom she murdered. Here it seems likely that the dreams might also be interpreted as visitations from the dead.
This further plays on the ambiguous nature of Dreams and phantasms, as appearances which may be real or deceptive - the dream spirits mingle with the shades themselves in Erebus, who are often said to have a dream-like nature and appearance, blurring the distinction between the two.
Fate and Providence
Though the human lives were often shown as subjects to the indifferent passions of the gods, some scholars consider the deaths of Ceyx and Alcyone to be a particularly bleak examples because they do not fit into any larger pattern or purpose in the Greek cosmos. In epic cycles like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the self-interested acts of the gods and the loss of human life were painted as part of a larger divine purpose overseen by Zeus. In contrast, the actions and motivations of the gods in Ovid’s stories could often seem particularly arbitrary and whimsical. The marginal nature of Ceyx and Alkyone’s transgressions in light of their reported good character may suggest, somewhat depressingly, that hubris was considered integral to the human condition and would always be divinely punished.
The idea that Hera’s use of Iris and Morpheus to inform Alkyone if her husband’s fate simply because she is irritated by her prayers plays into this opinion. But another way of seeing this episode is precisely as a story in which the gods enforce the cosmic order, by ensuring that the Queen can appropriately mourn her dead husband, and perform the necessary funeral rites which the dead required to pass into Hades. The gods are shown as fickle, quick to punish even the merest hint of hubris and transgression, but then, in the end, are also shown as capable of (belated) mercy.
'Ceyx and Alcyone' in Metamorphoses, Bk. 11 by Ovid (Trans. Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al) on Internet Classics Archive
'On the Intelligence of Animals' by Plutarch, (Trans. William Helmbold for the Loeb Classical Library) on LacusCurtius:
Into the Roman World
"Halcyon (dialogue)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Oct. 2019. Web. 17 Sep. 2020.
Story interpreted and performed by Sebastian Odell.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.
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