In Greek Mythology, the first gods and goddesses represented fundamental forces and the foundations of the physical world. Unlike more familiar gods like the Twelve Olympians, older deities had fewer human-like features and characteristics. Instead, they were the personification of abstract concepts.
The children of the primordial gods bridged the gap, playing a part in memorable myths while extending the genealogies outlined in the Theogony.
One such god was Hypnos. Hypnos was born from some of the first beings to come into existence. He belongs to a group of gods that personified concepts of human existence. Hypnos represented sleep, serving as a calm and gentle god that mortals throughout Greece owed half their lives.
The Origins of Hypnos
According to the poem Theogony by Hesiod, the god Hypnos was just one of many children born from Nyx. Nyx was one of the key primordial goddesses, representing the night. She was a dreadful and powerful goddess, drawing the ire of Zeus himself.
There are a couple of different accounts involving the birth of Hypnos. Some versions of the myth say that he was the fatherless son of Nyx. In other reports, he was the progeny of Nyx and Erebus. Erebus personified darkness and had an ongoing relationship with Nyx. The two bore many children, including the ferryman of the Underworld, Charon.
Regardless of his parentage, most retellings of the myth agree that Hypnos had a twin brother. He was the brother of Thanatos, who personified death.
Where Hypnos resided varies. Most scholars say that he lived with his brother in the Underworld. More specifically, the legend says that he lived in the valley known as Erebus. The god resided in a musty cave where the waters of River Lethe flowed through.
In Greek Mythology, River Lethe was one of the five rivers of the Underworld. It represented forgetfulness and oblivion.
In Hypnos cave was a bed of ebony. At its entrance grew poppies and other sleep-inducing plants. No light or noise penetrated the cave, allowing Hypnos to fall into a deep slumber. His home was fitting for his duties, cementing his purpose and role within the legend of Greek gods.
Another version of Hypnos’ living arrangement comes from the ancient Greek poet Homer. In Homer’s Iliad, Hypnos is said to live on the island of Lemnos in the Aegean sea. His island was dream-like and supported the lives of his children.
Hypnos inspired many Hellenistic artists. He mainly appeared on vases and sculptures. Artisans typically show him in human form as a young man with elaborately arranged hair. His most defining feature was the set of small wings sprouting from his temples. In some works of art, the wings grew from his shoulders or wings.
Hypnos had several symbols, which artists often portrayed alongside the god. These include poppy flowers, a horn of sleep-inducing opium, and was from the River Lethe. Hypnos used the river’s water to induce forgetfulness.
Like many Greek gods, Hypnos bore children that supported his goals and purpose. He married Pasithea, one of the youngest of the Greek Charities. The group of goddesses was sometimes referred to as Graces as well. Pasithea was the personification of relaxation, meditation, and hallucination, resulting in the perfect partnership with Hypnos.
In some versions of the myth of Hypnos, the two deities had several sons. They were known as the Oneiroi or Oneiros. According to legend, the Oneiros was the bringer of dreams. Hypnos would induce sleep while the Oneiros brought vivid dreams to mortals. Some of the leading go were Morpheus, Icelus (Ikelos), and Phantasus (Phantasos). The god of dreams, Morpheus brought dreams of men, while Icelus and Phantasus brought dreams of animals and inanimate objects, respectively. One son also caused nightmares. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he was called Phobetor.
Whether or not the Oneiros were the sons of Hypnos is up for debate. In the Theogony, the Oneiros are the sons of Nyx and the siblings of Hypnos.
Tales of Hypnos
While Hypnos is a lesser-known god in Greek Mythology, he had a solid reputation among ancient Greeks. He was a calm and gentle god. Unlike some of his siblings, mortals didn’t fear him. Instead, they believed they owed half their lives to the deity due to their need for sleep.
Hypnos played a part in many larger Greek epics. In “The Iliad,” Homer talks about the deity’s role in trickery between other gods. Some of the most notable stories involve Zeus, the king of the gods. Hypnos used his powers of sleep to trick the ruler of Mount Olympus twice! Both instances involved his wife and sister, Hera.
In the first instance, Hera wanted to get revenge for the sacking of Troy. It was the son of Zeus, Hercules, that destroyed the city. To avenge Troy, Hera called upon Hypnos to put Zeus to sleep. As he did, Hera unleashed angry winds on the oceans as Hercules attempted to sail home. After he woke up, Zeus was enraged and sought to punish Hypnos. However, the god of sleep evaded Zeus by hiding with his mother, Nyx. Zeus feared mother Nyx, so Hypnos was able to avoid the confrontation.
The second case of trickery revolved around the Trojan war. Hera wanted to help the Danaans win the war. At the time, she loathed Zeus and came up with a cunning plan. She donned herself in aromatic oils and the scent of ambrosia in an attempt to seduce Zeus. Then, she fooled Aphrodite into giving her a charm that would ensure success in getting Zeus to fall for her. The final piece of the puzzle was Hypnos.
At first, Hypnos was reluctant. His memories of the first time he tricked Zeus made him reject her initial offers. It wasn’t until she mentioned Pasithea that Hypnos took interest. Hypnos was already enamored with Pasithea, so the promise of marriage made him reconsider. Hera swore on the River Styx and in front of the gods of the Underworld that Hypnos would have Pasithea’s hand in marriage if he helped Hera.
He obliged, and the plan went into action! Hera seduced Zeus on the peak of Mount Ida. As Zeus held Hera in his arms, Hypnos put him to sleep. Afterward, he immediately traveled to the ships of Achaeans. There, he told the god of the Sea, Poseidon, that Zeus was asleep. That gave Poseidon plenty of time to help the Danaans.
The Trojan War continued, but Hypnos’ contribution ended up changing its course to Hera’s behavior. The best part is that Zeus never found out that Hypnos tricked him a second time!
Hypnos had some other minor roles in other tales. In addition to appearing in “The Iliad,” he played a part in the myth of Endymion. Endymion was an Aeolian whose beauty struck awe in many. In “Deipnosophistae” by the poet Licymnius of Chios, Hypnos causes Endymion to sleep with eyes open so that he can admire his beauty, too.
The Roman equivalent of the Greek god of sleep is Somnus.
Hypnos is the son of Nyx, a primordial Greek god.
His name is the origin of the word “hypnosis.”
Hypnos had a twin, Thanatos.
Hypnos reportedly lived in the Underworld.
His wife was Pasithea.
Hypnos had several sons, who reportedly brought dreams to mortals.
Hypnos appeared in “The Iliad,” an epic poem by the poet Homer.
Hypnos plays a role in the myth of Endymion.
Hypnos makes an appearance in Book XI of “Metamorphoses” by the poet Ovid.
Some of the most popular depictions show Hypnos carrying Sarpedon with his brother Thanatos as Hermes watches.
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