Neil Gaiman has quite a lot to say on the subject of gods. Or, more precisely, the subject of mythology. Scratch the surface of any of Gaiman’s greatest works and you’ll find some rich commentary on the stories we’ve shared with each other going all the way back to the dawn of humanity. Where do gods come from? What are their rules? What happens to us after we die? How does it all end? These are just a few of the questions that Neil Gaiman has addressed through decades of storytelling, informed by a deep background in mythology.
His point is that while we don’t have the same answers, every culture on Earth is connected by their instinct to ask the same questions. This is the very premise of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s 75-issue story about the nature of stories themselves. It’s ostensibly about dreams and the Dreaming, but as The Sandman makes clear, dreams themselves are just the fertile ground from which ideas grow into story, stories into legend, and legend into myth.
The research and references Gaiman includes and alludes to in every issue of The Sandman is literally voluminous. For a complete accounting, you’d be best suited reading The Annotated Sandman, a collection of Gaiman’s work which includes as many cross-references as any Sandman scholar could be expected to find. But with the Netflix series debuting this month, and the first season covering the first two volumes of this ten-volume series, it couldn’t hurt to revisit some of the basics. This, then, is what Dreams are made of.
Every culture which has ever existed has an explanation for dreams, because their very nature demands it. After all, dreams are probably the weirdest thing that happens to every human who’s ever lived. Every day you live your life, fall unconscious, vividly hallucinate for hours, and then do it again. And if you try to skip the entire bizarre process, your mind and body suffer for it.
Mythologies around the world have described dreams as prophetic, as revelatory of our truest selves, as a means of communication from the gods. The Sandman’s explanation for this last phenomenon is that all gods are born from the Dreaming, the shared space where all dreams are formed, and return to it when they are forgotten. Because, as products of mythology, it is our dreams which create the gods, who in turn influence our own reality.
The Dreaming, by the way, is a concept borrowed in part from the indigenous people of Australia, who also called it the Dreamtime.
The King of Dreams
The Dreaming is the setting for much of The Sandman, or at least where the action typically catalyzes before making its way to the waking world. But our main character, Dream, is not just the lord of dreams, but an embodiment of the concept of dreams itself. Dream is everything every culture has ever believed about the nature of dreams, and the gods and entities which govern it.
Templates from African mythology are borrowed by Gaiman to relay some of the earliest myths of Dream as the fictionalized “Kai'ckul,” an amalgam of many African cultures’ ideas of how gods work in tandem with nature and humanity. The Sandman will also present you with perspectives from Christian theology, Norse mythology, Shintoism, and most significantly, Greco-Roman myth. After all, it’s the one which readers are most familiar with, thanks in part to the stories of Wonder Woman and Shazam.
The name by which Dream is most commonly referred to in The Sandman is Lord Morpheus, after the Greek god of dreams. It’s a role he frequently inhabits quite literally throughout the story, including his affair with the muse Calliope and a strained relationship with his tragic son Orpheus, all of which we’ll get to (if all goes well) in future seasons of the show.
Also instrumental from Greek Myth is the triple-witch goddess Hecate, presented in The Sandman in the amorphous figures of Mildred, Mordred and Cynthia. They are the three fates; the three furies; the three graces; the Kindly Ones. As keepers of the narrative thread, they are the tellers of our tale. These witches three will see Morpheus off on his first quest, and they will be there at our journey’s end.
We all know the story of Lucifer. The beautiful, androgynous First of the Fallen Angels, God’s favorite servant who was cast down when he challenged the ultimate autonomy of the Creator for the cause of free will, punished only for his desire to be free.
Except, none of that was actually in the Bible. Lucifer Morningstar, or Satan, as we know him today, has very little in common with the biblical adversary to good and righteousness—mainly because the Bible spends very little time actually describing the devil. Much of the popular depiction of Lucifer, especially the more nuanced and sympathetic ones, can be sourced back to John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost, which retells the Christian creation myth from Satan’s perspective. Countless classical paintings, sculptures, stories, poems, songs and odes to Christian mythology have drawn from this narrative depiction of a complex Lucifer ever since, up to and including The Sandman.
So, when you see Gwendoline Christie roll up looking like a beautiful, otherworldly renaissance painting to play the incarnation of evil, that’s just The Sandman honoring 400 years of tradition.
Shakespeare, as our most celebrated teller of stories, plays a surprisingly significant role throughout The Sandman in key issues of the comic series (and presumably, key episodes of the Netflix series). What we see of Shakespeare primarily concerns the production of two of his plays, both on commission for Morpheus himself. While studying mythology and Milton in your pursuit of complete Sandman understanding, it would serve you well to also read A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
Perhaps the most haunting of all of Dream’s nightmares, the Corinthian is a creation so visceral, with a name so mysterious and evocative, that surely he has to be from something. In fact, a character eventually asks him this very question.
Well, if you’re stumped, don’t worry. Gaiman made this one up. All I can say is that a “Corinthian” is an antiquated term based on an ancient stereotype of people from the Greek city of Corinth, known for their appetites for obscene cruelty and hedonism. Think of it as Gaiman titling him “The Very Old, Very Bad Dude.”
The mythical paradise of Fiddler’s Green can be traced back to 19th century folktales by English mariners. These seafarers traded stories of a beautiful place where no one had to work and everyone was happy, where hard-working sailors could eventually retire after a lifetime of service to the sea.
As a working-class symbol of the dream of a better life immortalized in sea shanties and great American novels, Fiddler’s Green is a blue-collar representation of what the Dreaming itself represents: that all of us, even the most humble, dares to imagine something greater which awaits us someday, where we can finally kick up our feet and find peace.
So, why is this relevant to Sandman? If you don’t know yet, I’m not going to tell you. But when the time is right, you’ll understand.
And Then There’s Death…
The most iconic character from the entire run of The Sandman isn’t Dream himself, but his older sister, Death. If you don’t know her already, then you’re guaranteed to love her at first sight. Just as Dream embodies every mythology and every culture’s perspective on dreams, Death is an amalgamate of every culture’s thoughts on what happens after the end of our lives. The difference is that we never get to see Death’s realm like we do Dream’s. It’s not her story. In fact, Death is largely a mystery, except for this: she’s a kind presence at the end of your life, a force of acceptance for the unacceptable. She may not be the answer, but she can lead you to it.
That’s because Death is, what is called in mythological study, a “psychopomp.” Most mythologies have a psychopomp, whether it’s the angel of death, the grim reaper, Hermes, Charon, Anubis, or countless others. What they do is not to preside over death, but allow passage and transition from one world to the next. Like the same-named card in tarot, what Death represents isn’t finality, but a change in states. The end of one phase of existence, and the beginning of something new.
You’ll learn all about it in Episode 6 of The Sandman on Netflix, “The Sound of Her Wings.” And if it captures you as the books once did for us, then a lifelong passion for mythology of all kinds awaits you. You could do worse than to check out some of Gaiman’s other works on the subject, like Good Omens, American Gods and Norse Mythology. And of course, all ten volumes of The Sandman are always available to you wherever you can find fine comics.
The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, debuts on Netflix this Friday, August 5th. For more dreams, fables and recollections, visit our official Sandman TV page.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly "Ask the Question" column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.