Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Gate of Horn, Gate of Ivory

In my last post, I mentioned a Chicago folk club called the Gate of Horn, which flourished in the 1950s and '60s. While the origin of the name is fairly well-known, I'll repeat it here. The Oneiroi, in Greek mythology, were either the sons (according to Ovid) or brothers (according to Hesiod)of Hypnos, the god of sleep. These winged daemons would send dreams to mortals through one of two portals. If they came through the gate of ivory, the dreams would be false, but those through the gate of horn were true. Several years ago, when I mentioned the myth to Kathleen, she noted immediately that the true dreams came through the more common material, where the more precious ivory produced false dreams.

The earliest reference to the two gates comes from the Odyssey, in which Persephone recounts a dream that Odysseus, her husband would return:

Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men. For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them. But in my case it was not from thence, methinks, that my strange dream came.

-Homer, The Odyssey, book 19, lines 560-569, Loeb Classical Library translation (via Wikipedia).

The Loeb translator, in a note, comments that "The play upon the words κέρας, 'horn,' and κραίνω, 'fulfil,' and upon ἐλέφας, 'ivory,' and ἐλεφαίρομαι, 'deceive,' cannot be preserved in English."

The gates also appear in Virgil's Aeneid, in which the hero, Aeneas, returns from the underworld by way of the ivory gate, which gave classical scholars a lot of room for interpretation. It seems to me that Virgil is cautioning the reader about the veracity of his story. Wikipedia uses the Dryden translation of Virgil, most likely because it's in the public domain. But it's also simply beautiful poetry. Aeneas, after visiting his dead father in the underworld, returns to the living world with the Cumean Sibyl:

Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish'd ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro' transparent horn arise;
Thro' polish'd ivory pass deluding lies.
Of various things discoursing as he pass'd,
Anchises hither bends his steps at last.
Then, thro' the gate of iv'ry, he dismiss'd
His valiant offspring and divining guest.

-Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 6, lines 893-898, tr. John Dryden

The gates of horn and ivory have turned up in modern literature, most notably in Robert Holdstock's novel Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn in his Mythago Wood fantasy series.

And of course the myth of the two gates gave the name t0 the Chicago folk club, where Odetta, Bob Dylan, Bob Gibson, Hamilton Camp, and virtually every other prominent folksinger of the 1950s and '60s performed.


Charles Gramlich said...

I wasn't very familiar with this mythology, although I'd heard of it. Thanks for the explanation.

steve said...

Charles--Thank you. I learned the story many years ago because of the folk club--not through an intensive study of classical mythology.

twoblueday said...

I miss those old folk clubs.

Ropi said...

Those classical dramas should be read more at school.

steve said...

Gerry--I wish I could say I miss them, but I never had the experience. I believe the Bitter End and the Cafe Wha are still in business. If I ever get to New York again...

Ropi--I agree.

Anonymous said...

In the Loeb translation of the dream, quoted above, the translator, A.T. Murray, translates the word horn in the singular whereas in the Greek text it is in the plural, "horns." This is significant because, I suggest, Penelope at this point in the poem knows that the beggar is her husband in diguise and is telling him that he will not succeed in destroying the numerous suitors with the sword (which comes in a carved ivory scabbard) but will succeed with the bow which is made from two peices of horn, thus the plural. She then announces her plan to hold a contest with the bow the next day which will give Odysseus an opportunity to get his hands on the bow. There is more. If anyone is interested in discussing this further, I can be reached at,

steve said...

Anonymous--That's quite an insight. I don't know Greek, so I just relied on the Wikipedia article. A year or so ago I listened to a course on CD by Timothy Shutt, oa Kenyon College, who believed that a daughter or niece of Homer may have influenced the Odyssey. I've also heard that Odysseus is a "feminine" hero, as he often uses guile instead of brute force to overcome his enemies. That Penelope would not recognize Odysseus, while his servant and dog do, seems unlikely. Thank you for your insight.

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