Certain things are held to be vital to healthy human functioning. A varied diet, exercise, exposure to sunlight, and plenty of sleep are usually among them.
Yet sleep remains the most mysterious of the four. Our ability to do it is hampered by a range of factors. We have a vague notion that our body carries out repairs during the sleep process. But no one has any clue what dreams are for.
Now, dreams and nightmares are too big a subject to deal with in this article about sleep folklore.
But we are going to delve into sleep folklore! How did people protect themselves during sleep? How did they ensure they got enough sleep? And what did they do when they wanted to stop someone else from sleeping?
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Protection During Sleep
You’re at your most vulnerable while asleep. In contemporary times, we might worry about a natural disaster striking our house. Perhaps we’re worried about a break-in. Yet in earlier times, people feared nocturnal attacks by demons.
Specific demons were the incubi and succubi. An incubus was a male demon that forced sexual activity with a woman, while a succubus was the female counterpart, attacking men. The ‘symptoms’ of such attacks bear all the signs of sleep paralysis. The mind wakes up before the body, leading to an horrific experience in which the sufferer feels they’re being crushed.
Henry Fuseli’s ‘The Nightmare’ gives us an idea what this might have been like.
The Medieval Opinion
Strangely, some medieval medical sources dismissed these episodes as demonic attacks (2013: 71). Instead, they believed the attacks might be caused by indigestion or drunkenness (2013: 73). They’re not necessarily right but they’re in a better ballpark than “sex demon”.
William F. MacLehose relates the story of Stephen of Hoyland, a twelfth-century knight who believed he’d been suffering from nightly attacks for thirty years. Nothing but praying to Thomas Becket worked to overcome the affliction (2013: 68).
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of England, even Merlin was the result of an incubus visit to his mother. Though Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed a lot of things that weren’t exactly true.
So if you ignore the medical opinion that they’re not real, how do you guard against these creatures? What does sleep folklore tell us?
There was a belief that iron bracelets could protect you from demons in your sleep (McKendry 2016). This reflects the wider belief that iron warded off evil. It also explains why parents hung iron implements above their child’s cradle to deter fairies from stealing them.
The late Eric W. Edwards relates a remedy recommended to deter demons. Girls who didn’t want to lose their virtue to an incubus were directed to use herbal concoctions including St John’s Wort, vervain, and dill (2013). The latter two were believed to deter witches, so it appears people thought they would deter an incubus too (Edwards 2013).
Protecting the Soul in Sleep
It wasn’t just your physical body that you had to worry about while sleeping. Your soul was also in peril.
Many believed cats would steal a baby’s breath while it slept. A jury in Plymouth even found a cat guilty of infanticide in 1791. Others believed cats stole souls for the Devil. There was a belief during the Renaissance belief that the soul attached to the body at the lips. So perhaps the cat chose to steal the soul while the body slept.
You should also cover any mirrors in your bedroom before bed. This stops your soul being trapped in them while you sleep.
Yet it’s not just what you wear for bed or what you do to mirrors that can protect you during sleep.
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud note that you shouldn’t sleep with the foot of the bed facing the door (2003: 19). That’s because coffins were carried out of the house feet first. Sleeping in the same direction was thought to be tempting fate.
Speaking of beds, you should align your bed with the direction of the floorboards. Putting the bed across them would stop you from sleeping (Roud 2003: 19).
Be Careful Where You Sleep
Not only did you need protection while asleep, you should also be careful where you sleep. Niall Mac Coitir notes a Welsh belief that children who fell asleep near henbane would never wake up again (2015: 252).
In his Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, John Gerard points out that washing the feet in henbane or smelling the flowers could bring on sleep (1636 : 355). Perhaps the Welsh belief relates to this side of the toxic plant.
Try to avoid falling asleep under a hawthorn tree. Thomas the Rhymer did so and ended up working for the Queen of Faerie for seven years as a result. Hawthorn trees are widely held to be fairy trees, so they become a liminal space between the world.
It wasn’t advisable to fall asleep outside in Iowa. People believed the dragonfly might sew together your fingers or toes.
Even sleeping in a bed poses its own problems. The unwary might get up on the wrong side of the bed! But what does this common phrase even mean? It comes from an old belief that it was bad luck to put your left foot on the floor first when getting up.
Ideally, you’d sleep on the righthand side of the bed so you’d swing your right foot out of bed first. Though that doesn’t say a lot about people whose bed is against a wall on that side!
Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
Patterns of sleep were very different in earlier times.
Historian Roger Ekirch theorised that prior to the Industrial Revolution, people slept in two instalments (Worsley 2011: 95). It’s unsurprising since heating and lighting was scarce, so spending time in bed was a good way to pass the cold winter nights.
That said, “[t]he British night lasts fourteen hours in winter, and human beings simply don’t need to sleep for that long” (Worsley 2011: 95). Hence the first and second sleep, with a break in the middle. People might get up and do chores during the break. With the development of artificial light, people moved away from the two-sleep model.
But what could you do if you couldn’t get to sleep in the first place?
The Hand of Glory is a particularly drastic measure. According to the folklore, thieves turned the fingers of a dead man’s hand into candles. When lit, all the occupants of the house to be burgled would fall asleep. They couldn’t be roused until the flames were extinguished. In one tale, only milk can put them out.
You could also encourage good sleep and dreams by what you put under your pillow. David Ian McKendry relates the belief that a woman would put her slice of wedding cake under her pillow before she went to sleep (2016). Doing so would help her to find the husband of her dreams.
Terri Windling also explains that people might put wild poppy seeds under their pillow to see the face of their intended (2019).
Poppies are associated with sleep and dreams due to the soporific qualities of opium (Roud 2003: 283). The Greek god of dreams, Morpheus, gives his name to the painkiller morphine, derived from opium. The flowers first gained their association with death and remembrance following the battle of Waterloo.
Yet they still relate to sleep folklore. According to Badwitch, a folk remedy for insomnia instructed sufferers to peer “into the centre of a red poppy” (2008).
Monica Janssens also offers putting a fork under your pillow or putting garlic in the shoes near your bed as a cure for insomnia (2019).
Or you could hope for a visit from the Sandman.
The Sandman, King of Sleep Folklore
When you wake up and feel hard crumbs of matter around your eyes, this is evidence the Sandman paid you a visit the night before. People believed this was the remains of his sleep sand (Roud 2003: 313).
No one knows where the Sandman first came from, although an 1821 belief in the Dustman reveals a similar idea. Meanwhile, in Lancashire, the Billy-Winker closed children’s eyes at bedtime, ready for sleep (Roud 2003: 313).
E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote “Der Sandman” in 1816. In his version, the Sandman was not a figure you would want to encounter. He threw sand at children who wouldn’t go to sleep. The sand caused their eyes to fall out, which the Sandman collected.
Sigmund Freud discusses the story at length in ‘The Uncanny’ (1919). Freud, being Freud, sees the fear of losing your eyes as castration anxiety (1980 : 352). I can’t help wondering if the fear is more one of never being able to close your eyes again – i.e., never being able to sleep again.
Thankfully, Hans Christian Andersen went down a more positive route. It is his version that is more recognisable within sleep folklore. He wrote his ‘Ole Lukoie, The Dustman’ tale in 1841 in which the Sandman explained his process. He uses his sand to get the children to sleep so he could tell them stories.
Under each arm he carries an umbrella; one of them, with pictures on the inside, he spreads over the good children, and then they dream the most beautiful stories the whole night. But the other umbrella has no pictures, and this he holds over the naughty children so that they sleep heavily, and wake in the morning without having dreamed at all.(Andersen 1907: 345)
Here, the Sandman operates more like Santa Claus, rewarding good children and punishing bad ones. That said, the ‘punishment’ is simply a withholding of dreams, so it could be worse. He could be the Hoffmann Sandman!
Prevention of Sleep
Perhaps you have a reason for keeping someone awake. Torture is the most likely option. Kathleen Davis explains that sleep deprivation causes a range of problems, but within the brain, it affects the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (2020). These handle emotions and reasoning respectively, and extensive sleep deprivation can lead to psychosis.
In ancient Rome and Greece, placing a figure of a bat under a pillow might prevent sleep. This is possibly due to the bat’s links with nocturnal activity.
Yet sleep deprivation was used during the witch trials to procure confessions from accused witches. The common method was ‘walking’, whereby witches were kept walking so they couldn’t sleep. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation left them more likely to blindly accept any accusations made of them.
Rita Voltmer also notes that some captors used sleep deprivation to stop familiars from reaching the witches (2017: 117). This is a strange tactic, since “the alleged apparition of familiars” could be used as evidence during a trial (Voltmer 2017: 117).
Let’s be honest, if you’d been kept up without sleep for long enough, you might start seeing your pet, your sole source of comfort, in a hellish jail cell.
What do we make of this sleep folklore?
The only common thread among this folklore is the idea that sleep is important. The difficulty in attaining a good night’s sleep reveals itself through both the belief in demons and the remedies for insomnia. Meanwhile, the withholding of sleep becomes an aspect of psychological torture, used to achieve nefarious ends.
These are traditions from northern Europe but there are similar traditions all around the world. While the individual details may vary, the ultimate goal is the same. You need to try and avoid inviting death into the home.
It’s also important to protect the soul while sleeping. Battling demons becomes a nightly activity – even if we now recognise the incubus as being sleep paralysis.
It’s perhaps fair to say that the commonality between sleep folklore underlines how important a good night’s sleep actually is!
Get your guide to protecting your home using folklore below.
Andersen, Hans Christian (1907), Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, London: JM Dent & Co.
Badwitch (2008), ‘Poppy Day and poppy folklore’, The Bad Witch, http://www.badwitch.co.uk/2008/11/poppy-day-and-poppy-folklore.html.
Davis, Kathleen (2020), ‘What to know about sleep deprivation’, Medical News Today, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/307334.
Edwards, Eric W. (2013), ‘The Succubus and the Incubus’, Eric Edwards Collected Works, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/the-succubus-and-the-incubus/.
Freud, Sigmund (1980 ), ‘The Uncanny’, The Penguin Freud Library, Vol. 14: Art and Literature, trans. James Strachey, London: Penguin.
Gerard, John (1636 ), The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, gathered by John Gerarde, Master in Chirurgerie. Very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson, Citizen and Apothecarye, 3rd edition, London: Adam Islip, Joice Norton and Richard Whitakers.
Janssens, Monica (2019), ‘Superstition and the Bed’, Monica Janssens, Author, https://monicajanssensauthor.com/superstition-and-the-bed/.
Mac Coitir, Niall (2015), Ireland’s Wild Plants – Myths, Legends & Folklore, Cork: Collins Press.
McKendry, David Ian (2016), ‘Killer Cats and Iron Shackles: Weird Superstitions to Help You Sleep’, The 13th Floor, http://www.the13thfloor.tv/2016/04/12/killer-cats-and-iron-shackles-weird-superstitions-to-help-you-sleep/.
MacLehose, William F. (2013), ‘Fear, Fantasy and Sleep in Medieval Medicine’, in Elena Carrera (ed.), Emotions and Health, 1200-1700, Leiden: Brill, pp. 67-94.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Voltmer, Rita (2017), ‘The Witch Trials’, in Owen Davies (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 97-133.
Windling, Terri (2008), ‘More folklore of the wild flowers’, Myth & Moor, https://www.terriwindling.com/blog/2019/05/wildflower-lore.html.
Worsley, Lucy (2011), If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, London: Faber and Faber.
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