Bloodraven: Greek God of Sleep

Simply put…

There are an overwhelming number of similarities between Bloodraven and Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep.

Investigating these similarities leads to a couple of interesting ideas:

  1. The similarities are intentional, and suggest an homage by Martin to Virgil’s epic Aeneid.

  2. It further incorporates ideas from other Greek epics and myths.

  3. Finally, the idea leads to some very interesting (and perhaps reaching) speculations about future events, including the god of death, demonic possession and incest.

This essay hopes to be a relaxed stroll through these ideas, hoping not to make any specific claims about what’s truthfully happening in A Song of Ice and Fire. Instead I just want to point out the symmetry and speculations, hopefully something that you’ll enjoy thinking about.

*   *   *

BLOODRAVEN


Let’s begin by showing all of the similarities between the two. Most of the findings from Greek myth stem from the following passage:

Near the Cimmerii land a cavern lies deep in the hollow of a mountainside, the home and sanctuary of lazy Somnus [Hypnos, Sleep], where the sun’s beams can never reach at morn or noon or eve, but cloudy vapours rise in doubtful twilight; there no wakeful cock crows summons to the dawn, no guarding hound the silence breaks, nor goose, a keener guard; no creature wild or tame is heard, no sound of human clamour and no rustling branch. There silence dwells: only the lazy stream of Lethe ‘neath the rock with whisper low o’er pebbly shallows trickling lulls to sleep. Before the cavern’s mouth lush poppies grow and countless herbs, from whose bland essences a drowsy infusion dewy Nox [Nyx, Night] distils and sprinkles sleep across the darkening world. No doors are there for fear a hinge should creak, no janitor before the entrance stands, but in the midst a high-raised couch is set of ebony, sable and downy-soft, and covered with a dusky counterpane, whereon the god, relaxed in languor, lies. Around him everywhere in various guise lie empty Somnia [Oneiroi, Dreams], countless as ears of corn at harvest time or sands cast on the shore or leaves that fall upon the forest floor. There Iris entered, brushing the Somnia (Dreams) aside, and the bright sudden radiance of her robe lit up the hallowed place; slowly the god his heavy eyelids raised, and sinking back time after time, his languid drooping head nodding upon his chest, at last he shook himself out of himself…
OVID, METAMORPHOSES 11. 585 (TRANS. MELVILLE)

Perhaps you can already see the striking congruency.

As I begin to look at the specific examples of symmetry, I will refer back to this excerpt numerous times.

In Perpetual Darkness

Both Bloodraven and Hypnos live in unending, lightless darkness:

Bloodraven:

The great cavern that opened on the abyss was as black as pitch, black as tar, blacker than the feathers of a crow. Light entered as a trespasser, unwanted and unwelcome, and soon was gone again; cookfires, candles, and rushes burned for a little while, then guttered out again, their brief lives at an end.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

The moon was a crescent, thin and sharp as the blade of a knife. The days marched past, one after the other, each shorter than the one before. The nights grew longer. No sunlight ever reached the caves beneath the hill. No moonlight ever touched those stony halls. Even the stars were strangers there. Those things belonged to the world above, where time ran in its iron circles, day to night to day to night to day.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Hypnos:

…a cavern lies deep in the hollow of a mountainside, the home and sanctuary of lazy Somnus (Sleep), where Phoebus’ [the Sun’s] beams can never reach at morn or noon or eve, but cloudy vapours rise in doubtful twilight…
— OVID, METAMORPHOSES 11. 585 FF (TRANS. MELVILLE)

It is in this cave Ovid describes that Hypnos dwells. Notice how both authors linger on the idea that outside light never penetrates the walls of these cold halls.

Further notice that Ovid mentions the idea of cloudy vapours arising in doubtful twilight. This is a point I will return to later.

*   *   *

The Struggling Light

Both caverns are noted as being placed where artificial light struggles and withers in the gloomy darkness.

Bloodraven:

After the bone-grinding cold of the lands beyond the Wall, the caves were blessedly warm, and when the chill crept out of the rock the singers would light fires to drive it off again. Down here there was no wind, no snow, no ice, no dead things reaching out to grab you, only dreams and rushlight and the kisses of the ravens.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

He liked it better when the torches were put out. In the dark he could pretend that it was the three-eyed crow who whispered to him and not some grisly talking corpse.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Leaf touched his hand. “The trees will teach you. The trees remember.” He raised a hand, and the other singers began to move about the cavern, extinguishing the torches one by one. The darkness thickened and crept toward them.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

The great cavern that opened on the abyss was as black as pitch, black as tar, blacker than the feathers of a crow. Light entered as a trespasser, unwanted and unwelcome, and soon was gone again; cookfires, candles, and rushes burned for a little while, then guttered out again, their brief lives at an end.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Hypnos:

Then, her task performed, Iris departed, for she could no more endure the power of Somnus (Sleep), as drowsiness stole seeping through her frame, and fled away back o’er the arching rainbow as she came.
— Ovid

The light about the chamber is weak and fitful, and languid gleams that woo to earliest slumbers vanish as the lamps flicker and dim.
— Statius

It is interesting that in both cases, it is noted that the darkness is apparently the natural and desired state of things. Note that Iris was a goddess or manifestation of rainbows and light, her withering spirits in the presence of Hypnos suggests the fading of light in his cavern.

*   *   *

Black-Winged Children, Bearers of Dreams

Hypnos and Bloodraven are both shown to have ‘children’ which have wings. Additionally, these creatures bear dreams to the minds of humans.

Bloodraven clearly has his pack of birds, as well as the apparent skeletal remains of giant bats:

A murder of ravens erupted from the hillside, screaming their sharp cries, black wings beating above a white world.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Hypnos was said to live in his cave, with his children around him. These children were the ones who actually brought dreams to mortals. These creatures were known as the Oneiroi, and where said  to linger in his chamber:

Around him everywhere in various guise lie empty Somnia [Oneiroi, Dreams], countless as ears of corn at harvest time or sands cast on the shore or leaves that fall upon the forest floor.
OVID, METAMORPHOSES 11. 585 FF (TRANS. MELVILLE)

Vague Somnia [Oneiroi, Dreams] of countless shapes stand round about him, true mixed with false, flattering with sad, the dark brood of Nox [Nyx, Night], and cling to beams and doorposts, or lie on the ground.
STATIUS, THEBAID 10. 80 FF

Also note that according to some Greek writers, the Oneiroi specifically possessed bat-like wings.

*   *   *

Sleeping on a Throne

Both Bloodraven and Hypnos are shown to be ‘sleeping’ on a throne. Additionally there is some interesting symmetry in word choice:

Bloodraven’s appearance and throne are shown thusly:

Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child.

His body was so skeletal and his clothes so rotted that at first Bran took him for another corpse, a dead man propped up so long that the roots had grown over him, under him, and through him. What skin the corpse lord showed was white, save for a bloody blotch that crept up his neck onto his cheek. His white hair was fine and thin as root hair and long enough to brush against the earthen floor. Roots coiled around his legs like wooden serpents. One burrowed through his breeches into the desiccated flesh of his thigh, to emerge again from his shoulder. A spray of dark red leaves sprouted from his skull, and grey mushrooms spotted his brow. A little skin remained, stretched across his face, tight and hard as white leather, but even that was fraying, and here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through.
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Compare to the description of Hypnos’s ‘throne’:

No doors are there for fear a hinge should creak, no janitor before the entrance stands, but in the midst a high-raised couch is set of ebony, sable and downy-soft, and covered with a dusky counterpane, whereon the god, relaxed in languor, lies.
OVID, METAMORPHOSES 11. 585 FF (TRANS. MELVILLE)

Although the use of the word ebony is apparently trivial, I hope the preponderance of symmetry I provide in this may eventually compel you to see otherwise. In any case, the mere observation of two ‘sleeping gods’ in dark caves is already becoming striking.

*   *   *

A River Runs Through It

Both caves are noted for having a river which runs through them.

Bloodraven:

Down below in the darkness, Bran heard the sound of rushing water. An underground river.
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

A hundred kinds of mushrooms grew down here. Blind white fish swam in the black river, but they tasted just as good as fish with eyes once you cooked them up.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

“Men should not go wandering in this place,” Leaf warned them. “The river you hear is swift and black, and flows down and down to a sunless sea. And there are passages that go even deeper, bottomless pits and sudden shafts, forgotten ways that lead to the very center of the earth. Even my people have not explored them all, and we have lived here for a thousand thousand of your man-years.”
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Hypnos:

There silence dwells: only the lazy stream of Lethe ‘neath the rock with whisper low o’er pebbly shallows trickling lulls to sleep.
OVID, METAMORPHOSES 11. 585 FF (TRANS. MELVILLE)

It’s interesting to note that the river Lethe, according to Greek Myth separated Hypnos’s realm from that of the Elysian fields where souls awaiting rebirth or a similar apotheosis.

*   *   *

Beyond the Edge of the World

The lairs of both Bloodraven and Hypnos are shown to be beyond the edges of the world:

Bloodraven’s cave is quite literally beyond the Wall and into the rather unknown region called the Lands of Always Winter.

Comparatively, Hypnos is located beyond the reach of normal men:

When they had passed the waters of Oceanus and the rock Leucas, they came to the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, whereon they reached the meadow of asphodel where dwell the souls and shadows of them that can labour no more.
— HOMER, ODYSSEY XXIV

Now if you recall, there is the mention in Bran’s chapters of a ‘sunless sea’ beneath Bloodraven’s cave. It is strange that there is the suggestion of a sea in association with Bloodraven’s realm just as there is the suggestion of a sea that extends beyond the sunset into the lands of the dead in the Odyssey.

The notion of ‘being beyond the gates of the sun’ is also interesting, because in Bran’s chapters we see the children of the forest being described as a people whose sun is setting, in addition to the obvious symmetry with both caves being associated with the ‘land of dreams’.

Also note the symmetry with Martin’s very use of the name “The Sunset Sea” for the sea west of Westeros.

*   *   *

Passages to the Underworld

While both caves are predominantly associated with dreams and visions, they both also appear to be somewhat connected with the underworld and the realms of the dead.

Bloodraven:

“Bones,” said Bran. “It’s bones.” The floor of the passage was littered with the bones of birds and beasts. But there were other bones as well, big ones that must have come from giants and small ones that could have been from children. On either side of them, in niches carved from the stone, skulls looked down on them.
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

The caves were timeless, vast, silent. They were home to more than three score living singers and the bones of thousands dead, and extended far below the hollow hill.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

The great cavern that opened on the abyss was as black as pitch, black as tar, blacker than the feathers of a crow. Light entered as a trespasser, unwanted and unwelcome, and soon was gone again; cookfires, candles, and rushes burned for a little while, then guttered out again, their brief lives at an end.
— BRAN III, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

These observations are in addition to the obvious greenseer ability to apparently visit the dead, after a fashion, via the weirwoods. Notice the use of the word abyss in the last passage, a word etymologically rooted in deep, hellish places.

Hypnos:

When they had passed the waters of Oceanus and the rock Leucas, they came to the gates of the sun and the land of dreams, whereon they reached the meadow of asphodel where dwell the souls and shadows of them that can labour no more.
— HOMER, ODYSSEY XXIV

As noted earlier, this passage shows that Hypnos’s realm borders on the realm of the undead, and indeed serves as a conduit via which the ghosts of the dead, and Hypnos’s children (the Oneiroi) can visit the world of the living. This is evidenced when according to Virgil’s Aeneid, we see Aeneas return from his descent to the underworld via the fabled gate of ivory.

As noted earlier, crossing the river Lethe was, according to myth, the way to visit the spirits of the deceased. Given the black river in Bloodraven’s cave and the ability to see the past via the weirwoods, this seems like a probably parallel.

*   *   *

The Tree Guardian

Both Bloodraven’s cave and the cavern of Hypnos are demonstrated as to be surrounded or prefaced by trees:

Bloodraven:

The roots were everywhere, twisting through earth and stone, closing off some passages and holding up the roofs of others. All the color is gone, Bran realized suddenly. The world was black soil and white wood. The heart tree at Winterfell had roots as thick around as a giant’s legs, but these were even thicker. And Bran had never seen so many of them. There must be a whole grove of weirwoods growing up above us.
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

Hypnos:

“In the midst an elm, shadowy and vast, spreads her boughs and aged arms, the home which, men say, false Somnia [Oneiroi, Dreams] hold, clinging under every leaf.”
VIRGIL, AENEID 6. 268 FF (TRANS. FAIRCLOUGH)

Given my previous observations about Bloodraven’s children being the singers left in his flock of ravens, this seems like a striking match for the Oneiroi that supposedly dwell in the branches of the elm.

It’s also important to note that a tree with a golden bough plays a significant role in Aeneas’s visit to the underworld in the Aeneid, further highlighting the significance of ‘special trees’ to both stories.

*   *   *

The Leeching of Color

As I noted in previous sections, Iris was the manifestation of rainbows, a goddess of sorts. During her visit to Hypnos’s cavern, the her power fades in the presence in the overbearing soporific power of his abode.

This obviously suggests a waning of color and vibrance.

This is similarly evidenced after a fashion when Bran and his entourage first encounter Bloodraven:

“No, boy,” the child said. “Behind you.” She lifted her torch higher, and the light seemed to shift and change. One moment the flames burned orange and yellow, filling the cavern with a ruddy glow; then all the colors faded, leaving only black and white. Behind them Meera gasped. Hodor turned.
— BRAN II, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

*   *   *

Brothers in Darkness

In greek myth we see that Hypnos is not alone in his cave. This too comes to be the case for Bloodraven after Bran joins him:

“[Nyx, Night] carries Hypnos (Sleep) in her arms, and he is Thanatos’ (Death’s) brother . . . And there [near the house of Nyx in the underworld] the children of gloomy Nyx have their houses. These are Hypnos and Thanatos, dread divinities. Never upon them does Helios, the shining sun, cast the light of his eye-beams, neither when he goes up the sky nor comes down from it.
HESIOD, THEOGONY 758 FF (TRANS. EVELYN-WHITE)

Now of course there are some interesting implications here, but I will avoid engaging them until a later section of this essay.

*   *   *

IMPLICATIONS


So , assuming that Bloodraven was in some ways inspired by Hypnos, what are the implications of the association?

Let’s explore the possibilities.

Apollo and Hypnos, Senders of Prophecy

“Apollon, who is the leader of the Mousai (Muses), once asked Zeus to give him the power of foresight, so that he could be the best oracle. Zeus agreed, but when Apollon was then able to provoke the wonder of all mankind, he began to think that he was better than all the other gods and he treated them with even greater arrogance than before. This angered Zeus (and he was Apollon’s superior, after all). Since Zeus didn’t want Apollon to have so much power over people, he devised a true kind of Oneiros (Dream) that would reveal to people in their sleep what was going to happen. When Apollon realized that no one would need him for his prophecies any more, he asked Zeus to be reconciled to him, imploring Zeus not to subvert his own prophetic power. Zeus forgave Apollon and proceeded to devise yet more Oneiroi (Dreams) for mankind, so that there were now false Oneiroi (Dreams) that came to them in their sleep, in addition to the true Oneiroi (Dreams). Once the people realized that their dreams were unreliable, they had to turn once again to Apollon, the original source of prophetic divination.”
AESOP, FABLES 529 (FROM LIFE OF AESOP 33) (TRANS. GIBBS)

Notice that the sun god was granted the power of prophecy. However, in his hubris Zeus punished him by granting the Oneiroi (Hypnos’s servants) with the ability to convey prophetic ‘true dreams’ to sleepers.

Eventually Apollo was so stricken by this that he begged for forgiveness and a rebalancing of the prophetic powers. Thus Zeus created the the power of false dreams, also carried by Oneiroi to the minds of sleepers.

Thus men would realize that their dreams were now unreliable and would thus have to rely on Apollo’s powers of prophecy.

Isn’t this strikingly similar to what we see throughout ASOIAF? Melisandre and her fire visions seem unerringly correct (albeit often in ways she doesn’t understand), and there seems to be a striking number of ‘true dreams’ in the books as well.

Although I certainly can’t prove it, this seems to futher substantiate the idea that Bloodraven is inspired by Hypnos, and conversely the prophetic powers of R’hllor are inspired by Apollo.

*   *   *

Ceyx and Arthur Dayne, Ashara and Alcyone

Let me provide a simplified version of their tale:

In Greek mythology, Alcyone (/ælˈsəˌni/; Greek: Ἁλκυόνη, Halkyónē) was the daughter of Aeolus, either by Enarete or Aegiale. She married Ceyx, son of Eosphorus, the Morning Star.

They were very happy together in Trachis, and according to Pseudo-Apollodorus’s account, often sacrilegiously called each other “Zeus” and “Hera“.[1] This angered Zeus, so while Ceyx was at sea (going to consult an oracle according to Ovid’s account), the god threw a thunderbolt at his ship. Soon after, Morpheus (god of dreams) disguised as Ceyx appeared to Alcyone as an apparition to tell her of his fate, and she threw herself into the sea in her grief. Out of compassion, the gods changed them both into halcyon birds, named after her.

Ovid[2] and Hyginus[3] both also recount the metamorphosis of the pair in and after Ceyx’s loss in a terrible storm, though they both omit Ceyx and Alcyone calling each other Zeus and Hera (and Zeus’s resulting anger) as a reason for it. Ovid also adds the detail of her seeing his body washed up onshore before her attempted suicide.
— Wikipedia

Highlights:

  • The mention of the morning star (!)
  • The fact that Alcyone jumped from a cliff into the sea but her body was never found.
  • It was news of her lover’s death that prompted her suicide.

Now granted, Ashara and Arthur were siblings, but otherwise there are some striking parallels. Coupled with the aforementioned bits about Hypnos, it really is starting to look like there are clear homages in ASOIAF drawn from Greek myths and epics.

Why Melisandre Fears Dreams?

Could the idea of the Oneiroi and their ability to convey false and true dreams be related to why Melisandre fears to sleep?

*   *   *

SPECULATIONS


So, let’s get right to it with some ideas, some of perhaps far reaching insanity and others that might just be reasonable. I present them in no particular order.

Ashara and Arthur Dayne: Incest?

It’s sounds completely ludicrous. I only mention it because of how consistent their tale has been with that of Ceyx and Alcyone, aside from being lovers.

*   *   *

Bran as Thanatos, the god of death

It’s interesting to note that Hypnos is said to sleep in his chambers next to his brother Thanatos, the personification of death itself.

What makes this interesting is that Thanatos is noted to have indiscriminate hatred for both the living and the ‘deathless gods’, a term that in Greek myth often refers to those primordial beings that underpin the known world and hold it up like Atlas. A hatred for deathless gods may imply anger towards Bloodraven, or perhaps the undead wights or the Others.

*   *   *

Demonic Possession

We know now that Bran can warg into Hodor. Given his ever growing powers, I strongly believe he will be able to warg other humans eventually.

In any other universe, such powers would be regarded as akin to demonic possession.

Intriguingly enough, demonic possession was a very real concept in Greek thought, Socrates thought he was possessed!

According to Greek mythology, the principal name for spirits capable of inhabiting or ‘possessing’ the living was eidolon.

Now here’s the rub…

Eidolon is also the name for a genus of mammals… specifically the genus of megabats.

Giant. F*cking. Bats.

Now recall the skeletal remains of the bats in Bloodraven’s cave and the flock of giant bats that live at Harrenhal.

I don’t know what it all means, but this seems to be a powerful, almost deliberate inclusion. I can only assume that Martin might have known that bats were symbolically associated with possessive spirits (a notion that probably predates the name of the genus).

*   *   *

Jon’s Destiny

At one point Aeneas visits the world of the dead in order to speak to his father. In order to do so, he is guided by a woman called the Cumaean Sybil. She is a prophetess of Apollo.

He eventually reaches and speaks with his father.

In order to return to the land of the living he is forced to leave the underworld via the Gate of Ivory (the gate of false dreams), which lies near Hypnos’s realm.

Further, there is a second visit to Hypnos from Iris, goddess of the rainbow, who’s bright colors wither and struggle in the gloominess of his cavern, when she makes a request of him.

Collectively I’m left wondering if somehow Jon-as-Ghost and Melisandre will visit Bloodraven’s cave, and thereby somehow ‘visit’ the underworld and his father. Could this be how he gains the secret knowledge that is normally associated with visiting the underworld? Could this be how he learns of his heritage?

But how could Jon and Melisandre get to the cave without a guide?

I’ve argued elsewhere that Ghost seems to know where Bloodraven’s cave is.

Even if you disagree with that notion, consider the applicability of this passage in light of everything I’ve written here:

The white wolf ran from it, racing toward the cave of night where the sun had hidden, his breath frosting in the air.
— JON I, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

4 thoughts on “Bloodraven: Greek God of Sleep

  1. V.P

    This is very interesting. One can argue that a lot of modern fiction (especially from the fantasy genre) draws upon real world myth and legend, but there are a lot of parallels here that I’d never previously considered, especially the Ashara and Arthur part. Love this! Make moar!

    Reply
  2. varys' swimsuit area

    A quick thought I had while reading this- if Hypnos is accompanied by the god of death who holds the deathless gods in contempt, could Bran not become Hypnos and Bloodraven be Thanatos? Bloodraven would have cause to despise nearly the entire structure of the known world. And if your speculation that Iris/Mel will visit, mayhaps Bran will have assumed the lead role in the cave. He is after all the one they have been waiting for.
    And if you buy into the time-bending potential for Bran hooked into the weirwoods, could he not have been sending visions and dreams already?
    Just a thought I had while reading your essay here…

    Lastly, have you delved into any of the Norse myths and how they relate? I can’t say I buy all of the one to one comparisons everyone bandies about, but there is too much there to dismiss.

    Keep up the great analysis, I’m glad I found your site!

    Reply
    1. cantuse Post author

      I agree with you: I don’t think one-to-one comparisons will ever pan out to be accurate.

      After digging into the books for so long, I’ve come to the conclusion that ASOIAF is more-or-less Martin’s ‘magnum opus’.

      Of course that’s not intrinsically a genius insight. What I mean when I say magnum opus is that ASOIAF is Martin’s attempt to write a great piece of literature that ensconces him in literary history. As such, the books are rife with meta-textual references to other great stories. Such as my observations here about Hypnos and the underworld. I think Martin was clearly riffing on some of the themes and ideas presented in The Aeneid. He wanted people to notice them… but not be bound to them.

      You’ll notice this also in my analyses of his previous writings… much like Stephen King’s Dark Tower, its clear that ASOIAF makes numerous references to the tales from his Thousand Worlds setting.

      Reply
  3. varys' swimsuit area

    Couldn’t agree more- the more I dig, the more appears. It’s incredible. It must also be an immense amount of pressure, given the amount of in-depth analysis of his works to date, to weave all of this toward a coherent, consistent conclusion.

    And I suppose it doesn’t truly matter to nail exact references other than to note them in the big picture.

    I do kind of like the idea of a Ragnarok framework for the endgame. The long winter, an Armageddon scenario purging the world of the “Gods'” schemes and machinations which have wrought so much war and misery upon the small folk, and a reemergence into a reclaimed realm. Though Norse mythology certainly doesn’t have the market cornered on this type of story line.

    Reply

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