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Dream - Antiquity

dreams sleep death art

Just as Max creates a world in his dream, Krishna acts out the role of Vishnu in his sleep, and the universe is created out of the navel of the dreaming god. The individual adept, like the artist, assumes the role of conscious creator. Dreams have been represented in art for thousands of years. The Talmud describes sleep as "one-sixtieth part of death," one part in sixty being the threshold of perception for Jewish legal purposes—a taste, in other words, of what death is like. Likewise did the ancient Egyptians consider sleep a sort of preliminary glimpse of death, and in dreams, certain aspects of what one would call the soul encountered the upper and lower realms. The lessons thus learned were transmitted by the forces of the other world to the priests of the cult of the dead, who could then advise the dead about the pitfalls and pratfalls of the journey before them. The Ba, the spiritual entity that was believed to leave the body both in dreams and in death, is represented as a jabiru bird in art, whether in reliefs or in papyri. It is depicted hovering over the inert body as it is in the famous Scroll of Ani of the Theban Book of the Dead (c. 1250 B.C.E.).

The Egyptians also evoked the topos of the dream in art in the representation of Bes, god of crossroads and transitions, on the headrests they used as pillows. And the great Sphinx of Giza is among the earliest artworks attributable to a dream, that of Pharaoh Tutmosis IV, who either constructed or—some sources say—uncovered or rediscovered the colossus around 2620 B.C.E. on the basis of a night vision.

Some of the loveliest depictions of sleep and dreams come out of the Hellenistic-Roman world. In Greek mythology, Nyx (Night) gives birth to Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death). The god of dreams is Morpheus, whose symbols are a smoking horn and a staff, symbols respectively of false and true dreams. Morpheus is not often represented in art, but Hypnos is, quite often and quite beautifully. He receives a melancholically sensitive treatment in a Roman copy of a lost Bronze statue of the fourth century B.C.E., which simply depicts a winged, sleeping, boyish head. And on the famous and controversial Euphronius (flourished c. 520–470 B.C.E.) krater (Greece, 520–510 B.C.E.), a winged Hypnos is paired with his twin brother Thanatos, gently bearing Sarpedon to his eternal sleep.

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