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April 21, 2017
FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, various cultures have subscribed to polytheistic beliefs, which is the idea that there are numerous gods and goddesses, each responsible for a different element or aspect of life (or death).
Probably the best-known classical, polytheistic pantheon in the Western world is that of the Greek gods, denizens of Mount Olympus ruled by Zeus. Though they were primarily worshipped from about 900 BCE to 300 CE, their exploits permeate literature, art, and music to this day. The Greeks of the Hellenistic period believed that a deity, Hypnos, presided over sleep.
Hypnos was the son of Nyx, who was the goddess of the night, and his father was Erebus, personification of the darkness. Hiypnos’ twin brother was Thanatos, who was the personification of death, reflecting the belief that sleep was a state similar to death.
Hypnos and Thanatos resided together in Hades, the underworld. Hypnos was reputed to live in a cave which was the source of the river Lethe, the symbol of forgetfulness. According to the Roman poet Ovid, Hypnos fathered children, called the Oneiroi, gods and demigods, who were in charge of dreams and nightmares. Among them were Morpheus, god of dreams; Phobetor, ruler of nightmares; and Phantasos, bringer of fantasy or illusion.
Hypnos’s wife or consort was Pasathea, the Grace (a minor goddess) that presided over relaxation and meditation. He was also attended by Aergia, goddess of slothfulness.
Hypnos was generally reputed to be a mild and gentle god, visiting people and helping them fall asleep. His symbol was the poppy, a flower associated with the sedative properties of the opiate it produces. Hypnos’s best-known adventures are from Homer’s The Iliad, in which he tricks Zeus, putting him to sleep at Hera’s behest in order to help the Danaans win the Trojan war.
Hypnos lends his name to words we use in English today, such as hypnosis, a sleep-like state. Hypnos’ Roman counterpart was Somnus, whose name gives us the root of words like insomnia and somnambulant.
Hypnos, like other Greek gods, was widely depicted in various art forms. One of the earliest known examples is a lekythos, or olive oil jug, dating to about 440 BCE. A bronze statue of his head, found in Perugia, Italy, depicts wings sprouting from his temples.
Hypnos has also made several cultural appearances within the last century and a half. He and his brother Thanatos are the subjects of Sleep and His Half-Brother Death, an 1874 painting by pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse.
In 1922, horror story master HP Lovecraft wrote a short story entitled “Hypnos” about a man who unknowingly befriends the god and subsequently develops a fear of sleeping. Hypno is also the name of a Pokemon with hypnotic powers.
Many cultures have or had a god or mythological figure associated with sleep or the night, a testament to how vital and yet mysterious the sleeping state has always been to humankind. For example, there are notable similarities between Hypnos and the Sandman of Northern and Western European folklore.
Hypnos was said to own half of a person’s life because of how much time we spend sleeping (although technically, we spend about one-third of our lives asleep.) Given how relatively little we know about sleep today despite technological and scientific advances, it’s not surprising that ancient cultures attributed the phenomenon to supernatural beings.
And it makes sense to us because we feel sleep is heaven.