Falling for Sleep
Published in AEON
In Evelyn De Morgan’s numinous painting, Night and Sleep (1878), Nyx, the mighty Greek goddess of night, hovers across a dusky sky with her beloved son Hypnos, the sweet-natured god of sleep. The painting and the Greek gods it captures depict a radically different way of understanding and relating to sleep. In antiquity sleep was personified, transcendent, even romantic.
Both Nyx and Hypnos had personality. Nyx was beautiful, shadowy and formidable – the only goddess Zeus ever feared. A Mother Nature figure with attitude, she was most protective of her son, even when he engaged in divine mischief. Which he did. But Hypnos was also gentle and benevolent, an androgynous mamma’s boy. Occupying a liminal zone between sleep and waking, he often seemed a bit dreamy. If he showed up at a sleep clinic today, he would likely be diagnosed with narcolepsy – a disorder of heightened permeability in the boundary between waking and sleep.
Nyx and Hypnos were denizens of the underworld. She was the original night owl, a fierce guardian of nature’s circadian rhythms who magically transformed day into night. With her support, as seen in De Morgan’s painting, Hypnos gently scatters crimson poppies, sleep elixirs, over the planet below. As in the more recent tale of the Sandman who sprinkles sleepy dust over the eyes of children, we are reminded that sleep is bequeathed from above. That sleep is grace.
Nyx and Hypnos were a dynamic duo of sorts – supernatural heroes who romanticised night and sleep. Nyx gave birth to sleep and created an aesthetic of darkness where Hypnos could flourish. And Hypnos loved sleep. Surrounded by fields of wild poppies on the River of Oblivion, his lair was a sanctuary – a cool, magical retreat open to all in celebration of the sensual, even sexy, mysteries of sleep.
Today, mother and son have been largely forgotten. Nyx has been in exile for well over a century as our night sky is eroded by light pollution. And Hypnos is remembered mainly by his namesakes, hypnosis and, surely to his chagrin, hypnotics. Sleep is no longer personal, transcendent and romantic – it is medical, mundane and pragmatic.