Myths and Legends in Sleep

Rip van Winkle was a legendary sleeper.  The subject and title of a short story by Washington Irving, Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years and woke to found his children grown and his former home in the British colony of New York now part of the new United States.

Van Winkle's story, which is similar to many stories through the centuries about people who sleep for decades or centuries, said he was asleep under supernatural or magical means.  Rip Van WinkleVan Winkle's state may be more accurately called a coma, because even with modern medicine nobody sleeps for more than a day or two continuously.

The Sleeping Beauty fairy tales likewise tells the story of a curse that places a princess into a hundred-year sleep. There are many variations of this story in cultures around the world.

Sandman is the name for a supernatural spirit who brings sleep, especially to children.  The name comes from the idea that the sprite sandman of legendwould sprinkle sand into the eyes of the children, causing the eyes to shut.

In Hindu mythology, the god Vishnu, during his cosmic sleep, brings forth the universe from his navel.  Before the world as we know it, Lord Vishnu slept on the cosmic ocean.  Creation literally grows during sleep.

Personal transformation and changes happen in mythological sleep. In the Book of Genesis, Adam is sleeping when God removes a rib from his body to create Eve. In Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis a salesman awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a monster.



In Greek mythology, Hypnos was the god of sleep. The words hynotize and hypnotic comes from Hypnos. The Roman equivalent is Somnos, from which other sleep-related word derive, including somnology.

Nyx, the goddess of Night is the mother of Hynos. He lives in a cave on the island of Lemnos, though which flows Lethe, the river of forgetfullness and oblivion. Hypnos lies on a couch in that cave.

According to ancient Greek myths, the three sons of sleep are Morpheus, Phobetor, and Phantasos. Other stories say Nyx is the mother of the three. Morpheus brings dreams to people, while Phobetor brings dreams to animals and Phastasos to inanimate objects. Under another telling, Phobetor caused nightmares and Phantasos caused false or fantastic dreams. Morpheus is represented as having wings.

Hypnos and Thantos (god of Death) were brothers in some tellings of Greek mythology and the Prophet Muhammed is recorded as having said "sleep is the brother of death" . This should not be taken as disparaging of sleep or depressing in any way, but a recognition that since time immemorial people noticed the similarities in external appearance among the two states. Poets have long used "sleep" to signify death. Hamlet used it in that way when he said "To sleepperchance to dream". The Jewish Kabbalah posits that the soul paritally leaves the body during sleep.

Greek mythology also has the figure of Ikelos, also a son of Nyx: Ikelos is also tied up with dreaming and transitioning them to reality


The Hindu text Advaita Vedanta hold there are four states of mind, three of which we experience in everyday life: jagrat (waking), svapna (dreaming), and susupti (deep sleep with no dreams).  The fourth state is turiya, pure consciousness, and during deep sleep we experience a taste ot turiya, which is pure bliss, which is why we find deep sleep so refreshing.  Even without the help of modern science, the ancient Hindus knew deep sleep was more refreshing than dreaming, as entertaining and fun as dreams can be.

One story from India tells of the Night of Brahmâ, when the god Brahmâ sleeps and all karma sleeps with him.  When he wakes and opens his eyes, the world is created.

Another Hindu story is that the god Vishnu sleeps and dreams the universe.  A lotus grows from his navel and when the petals open to Brahmâ sits in the lotus.  Brahma creates worlds as he blinks.


Buddhist monestaries in China and India sought to regulate sleep habits of their monks and recorded their discipline.  The time for sleep is prescribed, and sleep at inappropriate times is said to be bad as it implies disrespect for others.

Actions that occur during sleep are not considered offensive.  A monk can pronounce insults or ejacultate during sleep without it being a sin, because the mind is chaotic during sleep.  It's like a person who commits a crime but is found not guilty by reason of insanity.  There is no discipline of the mind during sleep

The association of sleep with an undisciplined mind, laziness, and sexual activity (even involuntary nocturnal emissions).  Decorum is important in monestaries and during sleep there is no mindfulness to retain decorum.

Greek Philosophers

Democritus of Abdera, most known for his atomic theory, articulated a theory of dreams that fit with his ideas about naturalism.  Gods do not produce dreams in his model. Plato repeated ideas about divine dreams in his works, and also developed hypothesese that connected dreams to his ideas about vision and psychological explanations about bestial desires.

Aristotle took a proto-scientific view of sleep even if did not have formal evidence and much of his writing looks like speculation to us today.  His book On Sleep and Waking is available in modern English translation here,


Is there a patron saint of sleep? As far as we can tell, no formal authority has ever pronounced one. St. Dymphna is considered the patron of mental illness and sleepwalking. Elijah, the Old Testament prophet slept for a long time in a divine sleep and has been proposed as the patron saint of sleep. St Vitus, a Chrisitan martyr in the Roman persecution of the early centuries, is mentioned as pation of, among other things, overlseeping.

Dreams have long been interpreted as communication from the divine realm. This idea seems ubiquitous through human culture. Sleep is used as a symbol in the Bible as a sign of God's Providence. Humans can sleep because God protects us. God Himself does not sleep "Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep"- Psalms 121:4


It has been suggested that Miguel Cervantes was describing REM Behavior Disorder when he wrote about Don Quixote's sleep. Observers have also found RBD in the Disney film Cinderella, where the dog Bruno seems to act out this behavior. The dwarves in Sleeping Beauty demonstrated several sleep disorders - snoring (maybe apnea), hypersomnolence (the dwarf Sleepy), and rhythmic movement disorder (the dwarf Dopey).


Some researchers analyzed lyrics of popular English language songs and found many songs included "depict unhealthy coping strategies for addressing sleep disturbance". It's an interesting study (here: Depictions of Insomniacs’ Behaviors and Thoughts in Music Lyrics) and show how people wrongly respond to insomnia with alcohol, reading or watching television in bed, and ruminating on sleeplessness. There are also depictions of good strategies, like daytime napping.


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