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Stargate | Understanding the Arthurian Myth Behind SG-1's 'Morpheus'

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Greek myth and Arthurian legend is combined in a marvelous play of both these traditions in the episode ‘Morpheus’ of Stargate SG-1 (S10, Ep2). It’s then no wonder that, with my love of mythology, legend, and folklore, I delighted in this episode. 

In this article, I want to take a deeper look at the mythological or legendary characters and themes that are mentioned in the episode, as well as a real sleeping sickness that is found in parts of the African continent. 

Daniel: I got it. Got it. Uh, I made the connection. Sir Gawain to Gwalchmei. Culhwch and Olwen. Verus Gen Bree.
Sam: And you say I’m hard to understand.
Daniel: Oh, it’s a Vagonbrei. One of the planets Arthur’s knights went to in their quest for the Holy Grail. I got the gate address.

‘Morpheus’ – S10, Ep2.
Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) tries desperately to fight off sleep in ‘Morpheus’ – S10,Ep2. | MGM, 2006.

Morpheus

Morpheus is the god of dreams in Greco-Roman mythology. The son of Hypnos (according to the later Roman poet, Ovid, who composed Metamorphoses sometime in the 8th century CE), the god of sleep, Morpheus is said to send human shapes (“morphai” in Greek) to humans’ dreams. His brothers include Phobetor/Icelus and Phantasus. Phobetor is responsible for sending the forms of animals to humans’ dreams, while Phantasus sends inanimate objects and things.

Hypnos’s sons are all part of the Oneiroi, who were all responsible for sending dreams to people. However, only a few of the Oneiroi are ever mentioned by name in the texts that have been passed down to us. 

However, at first the Oneiroi – who were all minor gods – were said to be the offspring of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Darkness), although the poet Hesiod names them (the tribe of Dreams) as the offspring of only Nyx in his epic genealogy and history of the Greek gods, Theogony (730–700 BCE):

And Night bare hateful Doom and black Fate and Death, and she bare Sleep and the tribe of Dreams. And again the goddess murky Night, though she lay with none, bare…

Hesiod, Theogony, lines 211–212 (730–700 BCE)
A late 18th century marvel sculture of Morpheus, poppies by his side. | © Deutsche Fotothek Dresden

Morpheus is also shown as sleeping in a cave in Metamorphoses (he’s sometimes also described as sleeping surrounded by poppy seeds), the surroundings of which are reminiscent of the surroundings of the cave in the ‘Morpheus’ episode of Stargate SG-1. As in the episode, there is no sound of birds or other animals in Metamorphoses:

To that dark cave
the Sun, when rising or in middle skies,
or setting, never can approach with light.
There dense fogs, mingled with the dark, exhale
darkness from the black soil—and all that place
is shadowed in a deep mysterious gloom.
No wakeful bird with visage crested high
calls forth the morning’s beauty in clear notes;
nor do the watchful dogs, more watchful geese,
nor wild beasts, cattle, nor the waving trees,
make sound or whisper; and the human voice
is never heard there—silent Rest is there.

Ovid, Metamorphoses: Book 11 (C. 8th century CE)

The majority of the mythology and legends used in the ‘Morpheus’ episode, however, is Arthurian and includes the figures of Sir Gawain, Morgan le Fay, and Merlin. 

Sir Gawain

“Wasn’t he one of the knights who say Ni?”

Cameron Mitchell, ‘Morpheus’ – S10, Ep2.

Sir Gawain is one of the best known of King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, but his character starts much earlier than the English legends about the knights.

The earliest “incarnation” of Gawain is as “Gwalchmei” in some of the Medieval Welsh manuscripts. He is mentioned, amongst others, in the Englynion y Beddau or, Stanzas of the Graves (originating from as early as 9th century CE), the Trioedd y Meirch (Triads of the Horses, in The Red Book of Hergest, which was compiled between 1375 and 1425 from older sources), and Cynddelw’s elegy for Owain Gwyneddm (1160). Gawain also appears in Culhwch and Olwen (preserved in The Red Book of Hergest, but believed to date from the 11th century CE), which was later associated with the Mabinogion, the collected epic compiled in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Gawain, when he appears in the more well-known Arthurian legends and romances, takes on the role of a main character in various texts written or translated into a number of European languages during the Medieval period, particularly with the rise of ‘courtly romance’ which held modern readers to the standards of heroes of an imagined past. These works include the Latin De Ortu Waluuanii Nepotis Arturi (The Rise of Gawain, Nephew of Arthur, c. 12th or 13th century), the French L’âtre périlleux (The Perilous Cemetery, c. 13th century) and Le Chevalier à l’épére (The Knight with the Sword, c. 13th century), and the English Ywain and Gawain (c. 14th century), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 14th century).

Sir Gawain rides out in search of the Grail in The Romance of Lancelot du Lac (c. 1300). | © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Sir Gawain is described as follows in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in lines 1226–1229 (Translation by Thomas Hahn):

“For I know it well, you are Sir Gawain, whom all the world honors wherever you ride; your honor, your graciousness is courteously praised among lords and ladies, among all who are alive” 

Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, Medieval Institute Publications, 1995

His otherworldliness – which plays a part in Stargate SG-1’s mythology (with Arthur and his knights travelling between planets, etc.) – is touched on by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales’ The Squire’s Tale (c. 1400), when the Squire describes another knight as being like Gawain:

“Gawyn, with his old curteisye… comen ayeyn out of Fairye” 

(“Gawain, with his old courtesy… coming again out of faerie [the world of the fairies).”)

Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, Medieval Institute Publications, 1995

It’s a gate address on an illustration of Gawain’s sword – found in Merlin’s library – that makes it possible for SG-1 to go to Vagonbrei, where the team learns of a “curse” that Morgan le Fay placed on the people there. 

The co-ordinates inscribed on an illustration of Sir Gawain’s sword. | MGM, 2006.

See also: Stargate | How Mesopotamian Myth Links ‘Fire and Water’ to ‘The Tomb’ by Carin Marais

Morgan le Fay 

Enchantress, fay, goddess, sorceress, witch. Morgan le Fay have been described as all of these and have been turned from a mostly benevolent being in early Arthurian texts into Arthur’s greatest enemy who wishes to usurp his throne in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1485) and other high and late Medieval Arthurian texts. 

Morgan le Fay’s name literally means “Morgan the Fairy”, although in her Welsh incarnation she’s known as “Morgên y Dylwythen Deg” and in Cornish her name is given as “Morgen an Spyrys”. The Camelot Project from the University of Rochester further notes that Morgan le Fey probably originated in Celtic – and specifically Welsh – mythology. 

As the wife of King Urien and mother of Yvain, she is linked to the Welsh goddess Modron (wife of Urian of Reghed and mother of Owain), who in turn is the equivalent of the continental Celtic mother goddess Matrona (Oxford Reference). The Camelot Project’s page on Morgan le Fay also notes that some scholars, including Norris Lacy and Lucy Allen Paton, links Morgan le Fay’s name with the folklore of Brittany. In this folklore, certain fairy-sprites are called “mari-morgans.”

“Morgan remains even into the 15th century an enigmatic character replete with paradoxical actions and  motivations,” notes The Camelot Project of her different portrayals even in Malory’s influential volume. She is described as having learned dark magic at a nunnery as well as having been Merlin’s apprentice, but is also called a great healer by, among others, Chrétien de Troyes in his 12th century Arthurian work. Her role as healer especially comes to the fore when she goes with Arthur to Avalon after he is dealt a mortal blow. 

Morgan le Fay, alias of the Lantean Ganos Lal (Sarah Strange), in The Pegasus Project (S10, Ep3). | MGM, 2006.

In Stargate SG-1, Morgan le Fay is known as Ganos Lal and is one of the ascended Ancients. She also knows where the Sangraal is kept and is largely benevolent, unlike Morgan le Fay in later Arthurian texts. The Camelot Project describes her as “a figure reminiscent of the Celtic ‘fae’ – formidable creatures with greater powers than humans and different codes of conduct and behavior”.

She lives on the planet Vagonbrei for a time before Arthur and his knights find her and she flees. It’s unlikely that she planted the parasite that killed all the villagers in the cave as a curse, however. 

Although she is only mentioned in the episode ‘Morpheus’ and plays an “off-screen” part, she does appear in ‘The Pegasus Project’ (S10, Ep3), dressed in glowing white. The color of her clothes would not have been chosen purely by accident, and white has a long-standing folkloric and mythological tradition in Western culture. (I’m skipping the significance of white in other cultures here as she is a figure from Western culture.)

The Vesta priestesses wore white in ancient Rome as a sign of purity, loyalty and chastity, while in the Christian Church, the colour is a symbol of purity, sacrifice, and virtue. It is also the colour of transfiguration in the New Testament of the Bible. The Gospel of Saint Mark (9:2-8) describes Jesus’ clothing after His transfiguration as being “dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”

Different European mythologies also have supernatural female figures – like the Vila creatures of Slavic myth – dressed in white. Female apparitions also often appear dressed in white and referred to as the “Woman in White”, “La Llorona”, etc.

That Morgan le Fay/Ganos Lal is dressed in shining white clothes adds an extra layer of meaning to the character – that she is ascended (one could say “transfigured” in a way), that she is virtuous in that she’s helping the Stargate teams to find the Sangraal, and that she is making a sacrifice by telling Dr. Daniel Jackson and Vala Mal Doran what the addresses for Sahal and Castiana are. Morgan le Fay is taken away by the other Ascended when she is about to reveal the planet on which the Sangraal can be found. 

In the Stargate universe, Morgan le Fay is given the task of watching Merlin/Myrddin/Moros in his mortal form – while she is ascended – to ensure that he doesn’t make a weapon that can destroy the Ascended. 

Merlin takes his leave of King Arthur in L’Estoire del Saint Graal (c. 1200-1250). | © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Myrddin/Merlin

Probably just as well-known as King Arthur and his knights, is Merlin; Arthur’s advisor and an enchanter or wizard. Merlin, however, is largely an invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth – a British cleric (c. 1095 – c. 1155) – who mixed the figures of Myrddin Wyllt and Ambrosius Aurelianus and calling the enchanter-character Merlinus Ambrosius. 

Myrddin Wyllt (Myrddin the Wild) was a chief bard who has a mental breakdown when he sees the Battle of Arfderydd where Gwenddoleu ao Ceidio is defeated and killed. Myrddin flees into the forest where he is later given prophetic powers. 

Monmouth places Merlin in the time of Arthur and his knights, decades before Myrddin would have lived, and introduces the enchanter into the Arthurian legends. He also writes Prophetiae Merlini (c. 1130-1135), which forms part of the Historia Regum Brittaniae (c. 1136). Monmouth is also the author of Vita Merlini (c. 1150). It’s no wonder, then, that Merlin becomes a central figure in the legends by the time the 13th century French Vulgate Cycle is written, not to mention Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Merlin furthermore becomes the architect of Camelot in the works of Lord Alfred Tennyson

In Stargate SG-1 we find out that Myrddin/Merlin is another Lantean (called Moros) who had ascended but had decided to take human/mortal form once more. In ‘Morpheus’, Merlin’s library takes centre stage as a means to find the address for Vagonbrei. 

See also: Stargate | Explaining the Greek Myth Behind ‘The Torment of Tantalus’ by Carin Marais

Vagonbrei

Just like the characters that feature or are mentioned in ‘Morpheus’ aren’t fully removed from the legends and myths of Earth, so too Vagonbrei, the cave, and sleeping also have some parallels in Earthly legends. 

The name of the planet “Vagonbrei”, is found by translating the Welsh phrase “Gwlad Gan Brenhinol Gwir” (the Land of Royal Truth) and discovers the Ancient translation: Verus Gen Bree, or Vagonbrei.

That the initial phrase is in Welsh, of course, links to the Welsh Arthurian legends and it is when SG-1 reaches the planet and the cave where Morgan le Fay was said to have lived for a time, that we find links to the “sleepers in caves” legends of Europe as well. 

Caves and Sleep in Legends

There are a variety of legends across Europe that tell not only of heroes sleeping in caves, but of kings and even King Arthur being asleep in a cave for a miraculous number of years. Usually this hero (or heroes) or king, so the legend goes, will awaken and help a specific country or part of a country when summoned in the time of its greatest need. 

A “sleeping sickness” caused by a parasite is hardly far-fetched, however. The Earth-version of this illness just doesn’t work quite the same way as the one on Vagonbrei. 

African Trypanosomiasis – a Real Sleeping Sickness 

The sleeping sickness that is found in parts of Africa is called African Trypanosomiasis and is caused by the parasite strains Trypanosoma brucei gambiense and Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense. These parasites are usually transmitted to humans by the tsetse fly. 

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative describes what happens when you’re infected with this parasite as follows:

“If not treated, the parasite crosses the blood-brain barrier and invades the central nervous system causing advanced stage sleeping sickness. During this stage, people develop neuropsychiatric symptoms such as sleep disruption, confusion, lethargy, and convulsions. If left untreated, sleeping sickness is usually fatal.”

Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative

It seems, as always, that truth is even stranger than science fiction.


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Carin Marais is a freelance writer by day and a genre fiction writer by night. When she’s not writing, you can find her watching her favourite shows – like Stargate – or reading the next book on her giant TBR pile. She only makes the odd trip back to reality for tea, biscuits, and more yarn for her various crochet and knitting projects.  

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