The Ancient Greeks respected sleep. Days were dictated by resting hours, elaborate chambers were constructed all for the sake of improving it and dreams, thought to be the result of fumes from the body’s digestive system that worked their way to our recuperating heads, were respected. Scholars knew sleep was important for general recovery and overall health. How and why it was necessary, however, was a mystery. For this reason they turned their attention to the heavens.
In Ancient Greece, question marks were turned into periods by works of creativity. Myths provided stability and, well, let people sleep soundly at night. Rather than a single figure, these myths were spread by great philosophers such as Orpheus and Pythagoras, who deeply influenced the course of religious thought at the time. In the case of interpreting the phenomena of sleep, these thinkers turned to the minor deity Hypnos.
In most depictions, Hypnos appears as a rakish figure with winged shoulders. Ever the life of the party, he was also known to carry a horn filled with opium, which he used to help usher about sleep. Other slumber-inducing aids in Hypnos’ arsenal included a poppy-stem and a branch dripping with water-come-oblivion from the river Lethe or “Forgetfulness”. Born from the darkness, he was seen as a harbinger of health and an alleviator of pain and suffering.
The son of Nyx (goddess of night) and Erebus (god of darkness), Hypnos was unsurprisingly said to reside “beyond the gates of the rising sun” in a darkened cave. In many versions of the Hypnos myth, his twin brother is Thanatos (Peaceful Death) — a pairing, which lends itself to the common sleep synonym “little death”. This familial tie gains further credence in the words of the Prophet Muhammed, who reportedly first uttered the phrase "sleep is the brother of death”. To the Ancient Greeks, this relationship further illuminated their belief that through sleep, one could visit the realms of the dead.
Much of what we know of Hypnos and the extent of his powers comes courtesy of Homer’s lliad. As the story goes, Hera, wife and sister to lightning lover Zeus — whom she not-so-secretly despised — came to Hypnos with a proposition. In Book 14 of The lliad Hera, clasping Hypnos by the hand, proposed:
Sleep, lord of all gods and of all men, if ever thou didst hearken to word of mine, so do thou even now obey, and I will owe thee thanks all my days. Lull me to sleep the bright eyes of Zeus beneath his brows, so soon as I shall have lain me by his side in love. And gifts will I give thee, a fair throne, ever imperishable, wrought of gold, that Hephaestus, mine own son, the god of the two strong arms, shall fashion thee with skill, and beneath it shall he set a foot-stool for the feet, whereon thou mayest rest thy shining feet when thou quaffest thy wine.
Never one to refuse such an offer, Hypnos subsequently sent Zeus to sleep, aiding Hera turn the Trojan War in her favor (Greeks lose, Achaeans win). In return, Hera granted Hypnos the hand of Pasithea, the deity of hallucinations, relaxation and rest - truly a match made on Mount Olympus. And as these things tend to go, soon enough Hypnos was a dad.
Between the gods of sleep and hallucination, it was only natural that the fruit of their loins produced sons Morpheus, Phobetor, Phantasus and Ikelus, otherwise known as the Oneiroi, the gods of dreams. Dreams were divided between the siblings; Morpheus took the peaceful ones, Phobetor the nightmares, Phantasos, the fantastical ones and Ikelus, who dealt in dreams rooted in reality.
Etymologically speaking, Hypnos’ sons alone have inspired the words ‘morphine’, ‘phobia’ and ‘fantasy’. Over the centuries, Hypnos himself has also carried over into popular culture, appearing as the title character in an H.P Lovecraft’s short story; the sleep-beckoning Pokemon character, Hypno; a species of electric ray known as Hypnos monopterygius; an independent record label from Oregon specializing in binaural beats; and a Czech death metal band. Of course this is not to mention Hypnos’ progeny, Morpheus, memorably paid homage for bringing Keanu Reeves’ Neo out of his perma-dream like state in The Matrix.
Arguably, though, the sleep god’s greatest legacy continues on through the eponymous practice of hypnosis. In the same way a tilt of Hypnos’ horn or shake of his branch brought about slumber, so too today do the sounds of a soothing voice invite certain minds to visit the realms of their unconscious. In this state we return to that realm wherein Hypnos and his family resides, a place for sleepers and dreamers, the living, the dead, and everything in between.