THE LORD OF DREAMS
SERIES II · PROLOGUE IV
Wing-footed Hermes floats through the caverns of dream. What songs have been sung of Hermes, Herald of the Dead, Bringer of Dreams? Now he rises up, towards the Gates of Dream...
The Lord of Dreams is the last of our four 'mini-episodes' or prologues to our second season of Lore & Legend, which focuses on Greek mythology. They allow us to tell some stories and pieces of lore from the setting which are rich, dramatic and exciting, but weren't big enough to spin a full episode from. This episode is based on one of Aesop's Fables, which told a story about a Greek sculptor who depicted the god Hermes in marble, and then met the god himself in a dream.
Hermes was one of the most enigmatic members of the Olympian pantheon, known primarily as the herald or messenger of the gods, but whose role and cult touched on many different domains. He was the god of travellers and sailors, of merchants and thieves, and often filled the role of 'trickster'. As befitting a god who touched on many different roles and domains, he was a god of roads, of travel and of boundaries. This included the boundaries between different realms, between the worlds of human beings, the gods and the dead. Hermes role in crossing and connecting the boundaries between these realms, and acting as a intermediary, meant that he was also strongly associated with the search for knowledge, the spirit of enquiry, and with cunning, intellect and invention. Little surprise that Hermes was the divine ancestor for the character of Odysseus.
In early art Hermes was depicted as bearded, and often wore a wide-brimmed peasant's hat and carryied a satchel. Later images of Hermes tended to emphasize his youthfulness, showing him as athletic, young and clean-shaven. He is also often shown wearing talaria (winged sandals), and a winged helmet.
Hermes may not be the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of sleep, dreams, nightmares and hauntings: after all, there are gods specifically dedicated to the realms of sleep, dreams and death. But we find Hermes repeatedly invoked as the divine agent who brought the power of sleep, dreams and death to humanity.
GUIDE OF THE DEAD
One of Hermes' most important roles was to guide the souls of the dead to Hades and the afterlife. In early art, he was depicted alongside Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) as part of a triad which came to bear away the souls of the slain from the battlefield to Hades. His role as a guide of souls may have grown from an early role as a god of shepherds, and an association between herding animals and guiding the flocks of souls as they crossed into the Underworld. In the Odyssey, Hermes is shown leading the ghosts of Odysseus' enemies the suitors down to Hades. His image was commonly depicted in ancient Greek tombstones, a custom referenced in this story when the sculptor is approached to buy his work for a grave. Hermes was repeatedly invoked in prayers and offerings to the dead in Greek literature. Hermes' travels to and from the Underworld meant that he was both a Cthonic and Olympian diety, equally powerful in the realms of the living and the dead. In several myths, he was sent to retrieve individuals from Hades and bring them back to the land of the living, either permanantly or in the form of a ghostly visitation.
GOD OF SLEEP
Hermes was often described using the power to lull mortal and immortal beings to sleep. He was usually shown accomplishing this using a special wand or sceptre. Hermes was famous for carrying the caduceaus, a golden staff around which two snakes were twined, and sometimes adorned with wings and a golden sphere. However one source describes the wand used by Hermes to lull people to sleep as being a 'Lethean branch' - in other words, cut from a tree which grew around the River of Lethe, the river of forgetfulness or sleep in the underworld:
Cerberus lying on the murky threshold perceived them [the approaching ghosts of the dead] . . . [but] the god [Hermes] with branch Lethaean [i.e. of the river of forgetfulness] soothed his bristling frame and quelled with threefold slumber the steely glare.
- Statius, Thebaid 2. 27 ff (trans. Mozley)
His power over sleep was often mentioned in connection to his victory over Argus the All-Seeing, a giant with a hundred eyes whom Hermes lulled to sleep, for which he was often honored with the title Argeiphontes or 'Slayer of Argus'.
LORD OF DREAMS
Hermes' association with Sleep and Death may have brought a natural association with dreams as well, and especially with dreams as divine messages. Hermes is described as leading the shades past the Land of Dreams on his journey to the underworld in the Odyssey. Actual dream visitations are usually attributed to the god Oneiros, Morpheus, or to other gods. However, the Homeric Hymns, among his many other titles, describe Hermes as 'a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night'. There are several stories in which Hermes leads the shades of the dead back to the land of the living to appear to others, visitations which may have been associated with dreams: shades themselves were often compared to dreams or said to be 'dream-like' in their substance. And in the story from Aesop's fables on which this episode is based, Hermes himself appears at the Gates of Dream:
A sculptor was selling a white marble statue of Hermes which two men wanted to buy: one of them, whose son had just died, wanted it for the tombstone, while the other was a craftsman who wanted to consecrate the statue to the god himself . . . In his sleep, the sculptor saw Hermes himself standing at the Gate of Dreams (pylai oneiroi). The god spoke to him and said, ‘Well, my fate hangs in the balance : it is up to you whether I will become a dead man or a god!
- Aesop, Fables 563 (from Babrius, Fabulae 30) (trans. Gibbs)
(Greek fable C6th B.C.)
The Lord of Dreams features the tracks Hidden Oceans of Europa by ancient lyre musician Michael Levy, and Charon's River by soundtrack composer Caleb Henessey. You can hear their tracks in their entirety on the Season 2 playlist between our episodes, and you can hear more of their music on their websites and social media which are listed in the audio credits below. Make sure to subscribe for this enhanced listening experience!
Story interpreted and performed by Sebastian Odell.
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: