As a society, we’re pretty smitten by sleep. But our affection for rest doesn’t hold a candle to that of the ancient Greeks. To them, the act was viewed as a road trip to the spirit world, a rejuvenative balm, a vengeful act of divine intervention and it dominated the cultural landscape.
The personification of sleep was Hypnos, a tricky, opium-horn-wielding deity who was half-brothers with death and flew around putting people to rest for both the right and wrong reasons. In studying him, and his impact on the stories and culture of the time, we can learn much about sleep itself.
“I like to think that studying something ancient helps me understand the relevance of its importance today,” says Silvia Montiglio, a professor of Hellenic Studies at John Hopkins University. Montiglio’s new book, The Spell of Hypnos: Sleep and Sleeplessness in Ancient Greek Literature, sets out to explore how sleep was used in Ancient Greek narrative and through that, offer ways of seeing sleep in a new light.
Here, Montiglio shares some wisdom on how Ancient Greek society understood and celebrated sleep through their works of fiction.
In Ancient Greece there was a cult of Hynos that was widespread. There were shrines dedicated to Hypnos and he appears in a lot of art, which means he was popular with the masses. He also had the iconography of a god with his wings which allowed him to fly to you at night. This winged iconography also merged Hypnos with Eros, the god of love. These gods both had a similar effect on humans: they made you melt and lose control of yourself. Love was considered the overpowering god and together with sleep shared the same quality of being all-conquering. If either of these gods came to you, there was nothing you could do to resist them.
Sleep marked the transition between two worlds. It represented the veil between the world of monsters or fairy tales and the geographic reality of our world. In Ancient Greek narratives, sleep is a key to a kind of spirit world, a place that can help you start all over again. For instance, a hero making his way back from battle will often fall asleep and awake rejuvenated.
There are also cases in which a character magically falls asleep before something momentous happens, which suggests that outside literature, sleep had religious overtones for the Greeks.
The cause of sleep in Ancient Greek narratives, especially dramas, was dominated by divine intervention. Sleep was often plugged into the narrative to make something happen. But remember that ancient theatre was always performed in the open air during daytime, so the events of the play had to happen in the day because there was no way to show that it was night. So how do you make people believe that somebody is sound asleep? This was a major staging problem.
The Greeks had to create an illusion to make the audience believe it was night, so when sleep would take place in the eyes of the spectators during the day, it was always as a result of mystic forces. In comedy, this was the work of the gods and in tragedy, from unnatural causes — especially people with madness who would have an attack, followed by drifting off to sleep.
In tragedy, the gods are usually not there to help you very much. In fact they are more there to destroy you. In one tragedy, Philoctetes by Sophocles, Hypnos seems to help when a member of the chorus prays to the god asking him to “please come and make this man sleep.” The man he refers to is Philoctetes, who suffers from a bad foot that causes him to collapse on the ground in an immense amount of pain and eventually fall asleep from exhaustion, which is thought to be the work of Hypnos.
In contrast there’s The Odyssey. In this story, Odysseus — who suffers from insomnia and just steered his ship by himself for nine days — is put to sleep by Hypnos. Only here, rather than assist him, Odysseus’ Hypnos-induced slumber ends up having disastrous implications for both him and his crew.
In Christianity there are theological debates about whether gods sleep or not. Greek gods don’t have a problem with sleep. They never oversleep, they like to sleep and do it regularly unless someone is causing them a problem and then even the gods suffer from insomnia.
I see two major differences between the use of sleep in ancient and modern narratives. In Greek works, maybe due to the oral tradition, there were often recurring ways of seeing sleep and sleeplessness as a way of alerting the audience to what was coming. Whereas in modern fiction, this doesn’t happen because it would be considered unsophisticated to repeat the same experience of sleep and sleeplessness.
Another major difference is the idea introduced into more modern fiction of a character suffering from insomnia for no known reason. In Greek literature, the character will always know the reason for why they can’t sleep. These differences relate to notions of what it means to be subject to sleep. What is the psyche? Greeks came up with the idea that it was a state you were plunged into by mystical forces. In a way that was a more reassuring view, but it didn’t mean these characters were any less tormented by sleep.