Calliope in the “Sandman” TV Series – the Muse and Abuse

Poster of The Sandman series by Netflix [source].

The Sandman Netflix series (released August 19, 2022) based on Neil Gaiman’s comic books ends its first season with a bonus episode containing two separate stories not connected directly with the series’ story plot.

The first of them is an animation, Dream of a Thousand Cats, directed by Hisko Hulsing, the second – Calliope – directed by Louise Hooper.

Louise Hooper with Derek Jacobi [source].

The TV series is an adaptation of Gaiman’s comic books from 1989 with Morpheus (aka Dream, Oneiros) as the leading character. As a god of dreaming, he is able to travel between many worlds, realms and realities that are not always connected with Greek and Roman Antiquity, and meet many mythical, legendary, or fantastic characters of various origins. Although his Greek roots and Greekness are not explicitly highlighted, many of his ancient features are preserved, and according to his Greek name derived from μορφή [morphē] (form, shape) he is identified as the one “whom the Romans called the shaper of form”.[1] Other important mythical characters present in the series are the Fates who are merged here with some elements of other beings, like for example oracles.

[Spoiler alert & domestic violence content] The episode Calliope, at the very end of season one, shows the Muse (Mellissanthi Mahut) imprisoned by mortals. Instead of worshipping her, they bound her by using an ancient rite, locked up, and forced to provide inspiration. Erasmus Fry (Derek Jacobi), a writer who captured her on Mount Helicon in 1927, kept her in a basement and violated her for years, until he passed her on as a chattel to Richard Madoc (Arthur Darvill), another author, unable to find ideas for a new novel. The new owner may consider unbinding the Muse at first. Instead, he refuses her pleas to free her and only then ask her for inspiration. When his writing deadline passes, he abuses her like Fry did before. Calliope summons the Fates with the hope that they can help her. The Fates (Nina Wadia, Souad Faress, Dinita Gohil) appear and tell her that only one of the Time’s & Night’s children (called the Endless) could help: Morpheus/Oneiros (Tom Sturridge), Calliope’s husband of long ago and father of their son, Orpheus. Unfortunately, Morpheus is also imprisoned by mortals. Her only hope is his release from captivity. One day, Calliope realizes that Oneiros is free. Despite their difficult past, he answers her call, comes and promises to get Richard to free her. Morpheus curses Richard with such an abundance of ideas that the writer goes mad and Calliope regains her freedom.

In the episode Calliope, the protagonist is undoubtedly the title character – the Muse of Homer – Calliope. Other Greek mythological characters are the Fates summoned by the Muse, and her former husband, Morpheus, called here by his Greek name Oneiros (Ὄνειρος) – Dream. While in the comic book Calliope is shown as a supernatural thin and extremely tall woman with messy blonde curls, in the TV series, her character is much more realistic, closer to the viewer and more relatable due to the brilliant performance of Melisanthi Mahut, known to wide audiences as the voice of Kassandra, the canonical hero misthios (mercenary) in the video game Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and as the voice of Athena in the video game Immortals Fenyx Rising. The Greek Canadian actress is perfectly cast. Her Greek accent is emphasised to make a connection with other Greek characters previously played by her, and to reinforce the obvious idea that Homer’s mythical Muse is Greek. Another link to Homer is the use of moly (μῶλυ), a mythical plant mentioned in the Odyssey[2] as a potent magical drug (φάρμακον); it has milk-white flowers and black roots, hard to pull out for mortal men. Theophrastus[3] discussed it as a species of Allium [ornamental garlic]. Gaiman reuses the powerful moly flower motif as part of the magic ritual binding the goddess, Fry names it “sorcerer’s garlic”. Another part of the capturing rite is depriving Calliope of the scroll, her ancient attribute.

Calliope as seen in the comic book and in the TV series [source].

The episode about the captured Muse is an opportunity to discuss the difficult theme of abuse. It is striking how contemporary the subject is, and how little has changed since 1986 (when the comic books’ action is set). The story of a beautiful woman kept in home arrest and called by her captor and jailer his “muse” is powerful and poignant, even though the viewer knows it is a fictional story. Additionally shocking is the point that the victim here is an immortal goddess who can suffer violence and humiliation for an eternity instead of being worshipped.

As mentioned above, exhausted by incessant suffering, Calliope, a divine being, a daughter of Zeus, calls for help the Fates and prays as an ordinary supplicant to powerful female deities she hopes can save her. They appear and the scene’s background looks as “Arcadian” as can be. In contrast with Calliope’s obscure room and her nightgown, the Fates wear proper ancient garments and behind them, opens a vista of an idyllic freshly green Greek landscape, with clear water running and a small round temple on a hill.

Calliope calls the Fates [source].
Calliope calls the Fates [source].

Unlike in the episode S01E02 where Morpheus summons the Fates in a dark scenery and the rule “one question, one answer” applies, the omniscient Fates talk with Calliope freely, almost as equals, without riddles or ambiguities and without asking for a payment. Unfortunately for the Muse, they cannot help her but they leave her with a shadow of hope. The scene also informs the viewer of Calliope’s family connections – Orpheus is mentioned as her son and his entire life story is told in a single well-turned sentence: “that boy-child who went to Hades for his lady-love and died in Thrace torn apart for his sacrilege; he had a beautiful voice too”. Already in his comic book and later in the television series, Gaiman made Oneiros the father of Orpheus contrary to ancient sources[4] that claim that it was Oiagros, Calliope’s Thracian lover. Most probably, the romantic relationship between Oneiros and Calliope will be developed in the forthcoming season two of Sandman.

The final scene of farewell [sources: comic, film].

To sum up, Calliope brings to mind cases of domestic violence when a helpless woman sequestrated at home against her will is secretly abused and the perpetrator is considered by society to be a “decent guy”. Calliope, the proud daughter of Zeus, treated as property is a symbol of victims who cannot speak for themselves. Her divine strength of character and the dignity she preserves against all odds, make it possible for her to show clemency and not to resort to vengeance on the brutal perpetrator, because, as she says: “Without forgiveness wounds will never heal”.

Post by Marta Pszczolińska, peer-reviewed by Elżbieta Olechowska, placed by Olga Strycharczyk


The entry in the OMC Survey:

The comic book:

Scenes available on YT

Richard Madoc’s talk with Erasmus Fry:

Calliope calls to the Fates:

Madoc’s talk with Dream:

Morpheus and Calliope – ending scene:


[1]See Gaiman’s Calliope comic book and the film; cf. Ovid, Met. 11.613.

[2] Odyssey, 10, 302–306.

[3] Theophrastus, The History of Plants, IX 15, 7.

[4] E.g., Apollodorus 1.15, Apollonius Rhodius 1.24, Hyginus Fabulae 14.

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