Myths and Legends in Sleep

Last updated on

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.

Van 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 would 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.

Partial Myths About Sleep

We don’t know for sure these are myths, but the evidence to support them is sketchy or contradictory.

  1. Assertion: Prescription sleeping pills are stronger than over-the-counter pills. Fact: Not necessarily.  The antihistamines in OTC sleep aids work for most people.  Prescription z-drugs work on a different neurochemical system, but they are not necessarily “stronger”.  The effect of these drugs varies widely from person to person.  The prescription drug ramelteon, which works on yet another neurochemical system, is usually actually weaker, as reported by users.  Sometimes weaker is better, though, as it leaves the patient with less sleep inertia and disrupts sleep architecture less.
  2. Assertion: You know how long you sleep. Fact: People notoriously underestimate how much they sleep, especially when they have several awakenings during the night.  If you sleep through the night and keep track of bedtime and rising time, you can probably get a handle on your sleep time (keeping a diary can help). Otherwise, a sleep monitoring device is the only way to really know how much time you spending sleeping.
  3. Assertion: You accrue a sleep debt during the work week and sleep extra on the weekends to repay that debt. Fact: Short-term sleep deficit is real and can be detrimental, but it is not clear how much “debt” builds up.  The extra sleep on weekends – sleeping during the morning, or an afternoon nap – these may be driven partly by the body’s need to “catch up” on lost sleep.  They are also driven partly by opportunity and a time period with no work obligations that people take advantage of to have some fun.
  4. Assertion: There is a natural pattern of sleep for humans – about 8 hours during the dark. Fact: Humans are diurnal and naturally sleep at night and wake in the day. But there are many problems with the overgeneralization that everyone needs 8 hours of continuous sleep at night.  The amount of sleep needed every day varies from person to person, although about 6.5-9 hours is right for most.  Some people are night owls and tend to stay up late into the night and sleep into early morning daylight.  This practice is facilitated by, but not caused by, electronic media and entertainment.  Even before the electric light and the industrial revolution, there were night owls.Sleeping in one long stretch through the night is also only one way to do it.  Although attempts to go to a polyphasic sleep pattern usually fail (that pattern is too far from the human norm), a biphasic sleep pattern is common and many function well with a period of waking 1 to 2 hours during the middle of the night.
  5. Assertion: You need a good mattress to get a good night’s sleep/prevent back painFact: We are not aware of any systematic study or test that has shown that to be true.  A comfortable sleeping spot is a part of good sleep hygiene, but there is no reason to think expensive mattresses are better than inexpensive ones.
  6. Assertion: Caffeine at night causes insomnia. Fact: Caffeine is a stimulant and can keep people awake past the time they would have normally gone to sleep.  But like so many drugs, it has different behavioral effects on different people.  Stimulants like Ritalin are known for their paradoxical effect that cause some users to be able to sleep.  Many report caffeine helps them sleep better, although this may be an indication of addiction to caffeine.
  7. Assertion: Insomnia leads to weight gain because the person is so lethargic throughout the day he or she doesn’t burn as many calories. Fact: Insomnia can lead to increased body weight, but the mechanism for this is largely increases in appetite and changes in resting metabolic activity.  Lethargy due to daytime sleepiness may contribute, but it is not the dominant driver.
  8. Assertion: We need to sleep so we can dream. REM sleep is where we dream and the gold nugget of sleep. Fact: All stages of sleep are important. REM is the period with complex dreams and in many ways it is like waking – the EEG readings of brain waves look like those of waking. Reptiles and lower animals do not go through REM. It is a hallmark of higher animals. But scientists have repeatedly shown that stages 1, 2, and 3 are times when physiological processes needed for maintenance of the body and brain take place.
  9. Assertion: People who snore have apnea. Fact: Simple snoring (no apnea) is considered to be at the less serious side of the sleep-disordered breathing scale. It often progresses to apnea as the person gets older and/or heavier. Snoring has been found to be associated with the future onset of high blood pressure and diabetes. A quarter of American adults have metabolic syndrome – a catch-all term for a range of symptoms and there is a co-morbidity between sleep-disordered breathing and metabolic syndrome.

Additional Resources:

Sleep Education

Learn how to be a Smarter Sleeper

Popular Reads
Stages of Sleep and Sleep Cycles

Usually sleepers pass through five stages: 1, 2, 3, 4 ...

Parent’s Guide to Healthy Sleep

Every child needs good sleep for healthy development, growth, and ...

Mattress Reviews and Comparisons 2017 – Unbiased Sleep Product Database

The research team at Tuck has put together the most ...