As the much anticipated Matrix 4 begins filming for an initial release date of April 2022, we take a look at the role and influence of dreams in the film series and one of the Matrix’s most central characters, Morpheus. Morpheus’s name was not simply coined from nowhere. Morpheus is in fact inspired from a Greco-Roman mythical character, the God of Dreams. The character draws attention to some of the key dream insights of ancient Greece and Rome, that may help us shed light on the nature of reality, and uncover knowledge from the Ancients that we may have lost to modernity. Therefore, we ask; by ignoring or excluding such otherworldly explanations and insights about some of our dream experiences, are we simply blue-pilling ourselves?
Dreams in the Matrix Films
Morpheus is the well-known character from the 1999 film series, The Matrix, who offers Neo, the chosen One, a choice between seeing the world for what it really is; a giant deception, or to choose continuing living his safe and ordinary life with his eyes closed to the machine-run computer simulation that surrounds him every day: ‘The Matrix is a computer generated dream-world. Built to keep us under control, in order to change a human being into this: [Morpheus holds up a battery].’
The links between the Matrix and dreaming are all too conspicuous.
The connections across the computer simulated ‘real’ world, the ‘true’ reality, and dreams in the Matrix films are evident in the imagery that often hints at a dream-like state – a greenish tint to the film, unusual mirrors, bending spoons, people flying, and other elements usually confined to our dreams.
The influence of dreams in the film are everywhere. At one point Neo is interviewed by agents in a nightmarish scene where his mouth begins to close up and disappear, then an electronic insect-like tracking device crawls into his belly button, only for Neo to wake up in a state of shock. Neo finds himself awakening in the film multiple times, as if from nightmares – even when his experiences were in the real world, outside of the Matrix.
In no place is the dream connection in the Matrix films more apparent than in much of the characters’ dialogue:
Morpheus: Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?
Neo: This can’t be?
Morpheus: Be what? Be real?
It is made more clear in dialogue between Cypher and Trinity, after the former betrays Morpheus:
Trinity: The Matrix isn’t real!
Cypher: I disagree, Trinity. I think the Matrix can be more real than this [real] world.
The Influence of Descartes on Dreams in the Matrix
The way that dreams can sometimes feel like waking life, and indeed waking life can occasionally feel like a dream, is replete throughout the film.
As Matrix inspiration, René Descartes amusingly states about dreams and reality:
‘How often, asleep at night, am I convinced of just such familiar events – that I am here in my dressing gown, sitting by the fire – when in fact I am lying undressed in bed... As I think about this more carefully, I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep’ (p.13).
But he makes an interesting distinction:
‘Nonetheless, it must surely be admitted that the visions which come in sleep are like paintings, which must have been fashioned in the likeness of things that are real, and hence that at least these general kinds of things – eyes, head, hands, and the body as a whole – are things that are not imaginary but are real and exist.’ (p.13).
To Descartes, dreams differ further from real life because: ‘dreams are never linked by memory with all other actions in life as waking experiences are.‘ (p.61).
But nevertheless, this does not detract from how Descartes sees crossovers between both reality and the dream state. Some things are immutably ‘real’ in both dreams and wakefulness: ‘For whether I am awake or asleep, two and three added together are five, and a square has no more than four sides.’ (p.14).
He observes though that these real things may altogether simply be deceptions and illusions.
This connection is shown most clearly when Neo says:
‘You ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?’
Literature & Dream Influences
The crossovers between both worlds are highlighted in other ways too, through references to great literary works.
There are links in the Matrix films to the book Alice in Wonderland, whose writer, Lewis Carroll, revealed the most surreal moments in the book were actually part of a dream. His book where a world of strange and fantastical characters and landscapes come to life and where time plays tricks on the mind of Alice are also reminiscent of dreams.
The journey down the rabbit hole is hinted at in the Matrix, when Neo is told to: ‘Follow the white rabbit‘ and is then confronted with friends at his door, one of which has a white rabbit tattoo – showing us a possible connection between the real world and the world of dreams represented by the Matrix, as well as the ability in dreams to foresee the future.
Literary influences from other famous works are also prevalent throughout the films. Another scene shows Cypher say to Neo: ‘It means buckle your seatbelt, Dorothy, ’cause Kansas, it’s going bye bye!’, which of course refers to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, where the main protagonist, Dorothy, also enters a strange world after banging her head and falling unconsciously into an apparent dream state. Yet, we can never be sure if what she saw was real or fake, from her subconscious, or whether she was transported to a new world altogether.
Other Matrix literary dream links relate to the Bible. The name of Morpheus’ ship for example in the real world, the Nebuchadnezzar, refers to King Nebuchadnezzar II, whose prophetic dreams were interpreted by Daniel, in the Book of Daniel.
Morpheus and the Impact of Greco-Roman Mythology
In Greek mythology Morpheus is the God of Dreams. In Roman interpretations, Morpheus came into people’s dreams in human form. This somewhat mirrors how on many occasions Neo awoke to see Morpheus standing by his bedside. Morpheus, the God of Dreams, was described as a skilled artist, but imitated men only: ‘No one more dexterously than he mimics the gait, and the countenance, and the mode of speaking; he adds the dress, too, and the words most commonly used by any one.’ (Ovid, p. 407).
In one such story from Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the God of Sleep chose Morpheus to visit Halcyone on the command of the Roman Goddess of love and marriage, Juno. Juno could no longer bear hearing the prayers of Halcyone, asking for her husband Ceyx’s safe return from a voyage. Halcyone had not yet realised that he had passed away and drowned at sea, and this desperate situation pained Juno.
After flying to Halcyone’s abode, Morpheus takes on the resemblance of the deceased Ceyx, and stood before his mourning wife, Halcyone as she lay in bed. Naked, Morpheus’ beard dripped with water, resembling the husband who had drowned from the harsh waters that caused his boat’s shipwreck. Halcyone now knew of his death, but later threw herself into the sea.
To ancient Greeks, Morpheus was the son of Hypnos (in Roman; Somnus), the God of Sleep, and Pasitia, the Goddess of relaxation and altered states of consciousness. Sleep was the brother of Death; Zeus refers to them in The Iliad as ‘twin brothers’ who come to take people away when they die (Homer, p.272).
The links between sleep and death can be seen in the Matrix films.
In the first film, Neo is freed from the real world to awaken to a nightmarish scenario where he is surrounded by pods of sleeping humans being used as batteries by machines. When he awakens, he says:
Am I dead?
To which Morpheus replies:
Far from it!
Then, as if falling asleep, or, perhaps some part of him dying, the screen then fades to black.
Gods’ associated with sleep were often depicted with wings by poets, and Morpheus was given them by Ovid when he wrote his book, Metamorphoses. In the book, Morpheus could appear as any person in a dream and he would often deliver important messages from the gods.
Morpheus was known as an Oneiroi. The Oneiroi were the brothers of Morpheus and were the thousand sons of Hypnos, who could all enter peoples’ dreams. Morpheus was their leader, and he could also influence the dreams of gods and heroes too. His brothers had vital roles to play in peoples’ dreams.
His brother, Phobetor, helped create the fear and phobia aspects of peoples’ dreams. Phobetor, also known as Icelos, could additionally imitate animals and other creatures such as serpents. Icelos made peoples’ dreams more realistic.
His other brother, Phantasos, helped build the more fantastical and surreal elements of dreams. Phantasos, also: ‘… cleverly changes himself into earth, and stone, and water, and a tree, and all those things which are destitute of life.’ (Ovid, p.407).
Whilst these dream visitors may meet generals and kings, others wander amongst the dreams of ‘common’ people.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans placed huge importance on dreams. Greek citizens would often sleep in temples in the hope of receiving dreams from the gods themselves. Like the Matrix’s Oracle who prophecises the One to return to destroy the Matrix and free the people, in the Greco-Roman world, Oracle’s were often consulted. One of the most renowned was the Oracle of Adelphi at the Temple of Apollo (7th Century BC-4th Century AD), who helped interpret dreams and help with matters of divination.
In Roman mythology, seers also had a large role to play, with characters such as Calchas making prophecies in Homer’s Iliad and in Virgil’s The Aeneid:
‘Calchas declared that they had to take instant flight across the sea, and prophecised that Troy could not be sacked by Argive weapons unless they first took the omens again in Argos, and then brought back to Troy the divine image which they have now carried away across the sea on their curved ships… On his advice they have set up this effigy of a horse to atone…’ (p.35, Virgil).
Dream interpreters were highly respected people and would often advise leaders on which courses of action to take in political office and in military affairs. Prophecies in dreams were not necessarily taken with a pinch of salt.
Historian and Roman politician, Tacitus, describes how Emperor Nero took the dreams of one voyager seriously when they requested more funds for an expedition where riches were dreamt to be found. Unfortunately, the story did not end well, as no riches were discovered and it was rumoured that the poor voyager, Caesellius Bassus, committed suicide.
Modern Rigidity of Dream Analysis
Greco-Roman thinking shows that perhaps we need to think more outside of the box when it comes to interpreting and understanding our dreams. Whilst the particular god’s and goddesses may not exist, the way that the Ancients approached dreams gave them perhaps more freedom to think creatively about the way dreams work, and indeed where they come from. We on the other hand, are often confined to the rigid frameworks of science, preventing us from making that leap of faith towards greater knowledge, understanding, and better utility of our dreams towards greater well-being.
Nowadays many people dismiss their dreams as simply random occurrences – an amalgamation of information collected throughout their waking day, or as the brain’s way of organising and projecting our subconscious thoughts.
Others have broader understandings about our dreams thanks to more recent research using MRI machines and other technologies. It has been discovered that dreams help with memory formation, they can help with muscle memory, can heal or alleviate past trauma, and can help us solve problems, amongst many other things.
But despite scientific research, could our dreams come from God, the gods, spirits, or some other source outside of our minds? Many people have dreams that have predicted illnesses, future deaths and events in life. Some such events appear mundane in real life, only for a predictive dream to bring the event a deeper meaning. Others claim to be able to receive messages about murders and missing people. Whilst some scientists such as Oxford’s Dr Julia Mossbridge are beginning to take some such claims seriously due to recent breakthroughs in quantum physics, there is still a long way to go before we can break the Freudian dream orthodoxy that pervades Western society.
Yet, by closely watching and recording our dreams we can all learn that when we are ‘in the arms of Morpheus’, there is much more to life than meets the eye.
Where every dream has a purpose.
BBC News. Secrets of Alice in Wonderland. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20150225-secrets-of-alice-in-wonderland 2015.
Descartes, René. Meditations on First Philosophy – With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1995.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Verity, Anthony. Oxford University Press: Oxford. 2011.
Homer. Odyssey. Retrieved from https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/the-odyssey.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwjw8NLe9tXqAhUyUBUIHVb4CtkQFjAAegQIAhAB&usg=AOvVaw1kHF3zEh1pI09mmpQ1eloh Accessed 18/07/2020
Morley, Charlie. Lucid Dreaming Made Easy. 2018. Hay House: UK.
Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Translated by Riley, Henry. Bell and Daldy: London. 1867.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Penguin Books: London. 1990.