On the dangers of sleep

Today, it’s seen as the ultimate pillar of health – but many ancient lives were shaped by the suspicion that excessive sleep was undesirable for the mind – if not categorically treacherous.

A statue of a sleeping satyr dating from around 220 BC. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo
A statue of a sleeping satyr dating from around 220 BC. Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

Women in ancient myth fall asleep at their peril. Ariadne is slumbering on the shores of Naxos when Theseus sails away, throwing to the wind the promises he made her, as Catullus put it in Poem 64, even though she saved his life as he twisted free of the labyrinth. Danaë is lying innocently in bed when Zeus appears as a shower of gold to impregnate her. And Cynthia is dozing peacefully when Propertius stumbles in, drunk, and rouses her at the dead of night.

Propertius’ elegy is one of the more tender evocations of sleep to come out of the ancient world. The sight of Cynthia sleeping, head on hands, stirs the twin forces of Amor and Bacchus deep within him. Only the anticipation of his lover’s wrath prevents him from planting kisses on her face. Instead, the impressionable poet stands fixated, gazing at her, before venturing closer, playing with her hair, placing apples in her palms, imagining. And then she wakes.

While the amorous intentions of men clearly wreaked havoc with these women’s sleep, there is reason to suppose that fear played a similarly influential part in prompting some to rouse their loved ones from their slumbers in antiquity. Since at least the time of Homer, sleep was closely associated with death – Sleep and Death were personified as brothers – which perpetuated the sense of mystery and anxious uncertainty over where, precisely, one disappeared to upon drifting off.

As he stands watching Cynthia, Propertius wonders, as any lover might, what is running through her mind as she rests. Has she gone to a bad place or to somewhere good? What is happening to her in this alternative zone? The Romans generally applied greater significance to their dreams than we do. The late second-century author Artemidorus, who lived in Ephesus, set out the meanings of various types of dream in a lengthy treatise, the Oneirocritica (The Interpretation of Dreams). Although not every nightly vision was significant, he explained, many were, and had the potential to predict or influence what happened in waking life.

Artemidorus’ interpretations of dreams concerning men’s relationships with their mothers make for particularly entertaining reading in light of Sigmund Freud’s development of the theme. Artemidorus’ book was indeed an important source for the psychoanalyst’s Interpretation of Dreams of 1899. Artemidorus alleged that Roman senators who dreamed of having sex with their mothers in a missionary position could be hopeful, because ‘mother’ was the state, and by lying over her in this way he was governing her securely. A dream involving sex with the mother on top, by contrast, boded ill, because in this case ‘mother’ stood for Mother Earth, and the imagery implied that she was covering him over, like a dead body.

Artemidorus wrote in the knowledge that distinguishing between meaningful and meaningless dreams was one of the greatest challenges mortals faced in his time. As Penelope explains in the Odyssey, only those dreams that leave through a gate made of horn ‘bring the truth to pass,’ while those issuing through an ivory gate are empty. Penelope’s statement later cast some shadow over Virgil’s Aeneid, for it is through the ivory gate of false dreams that Aeneas leaves Hades with the Sibyl, throwing into doubt the very existence of their katabasis or descent. Did the journey happen or did Aeneas dream it? Zeus famously sends a false dream to Agamemnon near the beginning of the Iliad telling him that he and his men can capture Troy imminently.

The wisest path available to those afraid of falling into the dream world and the threats, deceptions and fears for the future it stirred was to avoid sleeping for any longer than necessary. It is unsurprising that many philosophers were wary of lying in bed too late into the day. Seneca expressed his reluctance at dallying too long in sleep when he had important work to do.

Seneca’s ‘if I must’ attitude towards sleeping was adopted by many others, too, not least of all Pliny the Elder, who perhaps enjoyed fewer hours kip than anyone else in first-century Rome. One of the great mottoes he abided by was vita vigilia est or ‘to be alive is to be awake.’ Like Seneca, Pliny considered sleep to be a waste of valuable working time and, more than that, of life itself, for it was so akin to death. Pliny indeed claimed that sleepers wasted more than half of their allotted span when their hours of sleep were added together to the hours they lost in idle infancy, incapable old age and infirmity. Sleep, to Pliny’s mind, was little more than an irritation and a distraction from thinking and feeling. It was a weakness of the mortal state. He slept for just a few hours a night before getting up to study and write. He was fortunately blessed, said his nephew, with ‘a formidable ability to stay awake.’

Ancient doctors of course took a different view. The medical writings of Hippocrates – thence the Hippocratic Oath – are full of descriptions of the benefits of sleep for various ailments and complaints. Everything from constipation to tight tendons can apparently be alleviated by a good night’s rest. The rhythm of a patient’s sleep was regularly monitored by doctors to gauge the seriousness of their condition. Without thermometers and basic diagnostic tools, medics realised that sleep patterns provided at least some indication of which direction the ailing was headed in – recovery or decline.

In an age in which tips and guides to achieving the hallowed seven or eight hours’ sleep a night are published almost daily, it is strangely emboldening to remember how many ancient lives were shaped by the feeling that sleep was necessary, but potentially dangerous and undesirable for the mind, if not always for the body.


Daisy Dunn