People and cultures across the world have been fascinated with sleep for thousands of years, and nearly every society has some type of mythology, whether related to their history, religion, or more. In western culture’s own myths, the story of Rip Van Winkle holds a very prominent place. However, that’s just one example of the many splendid forms that sleep mythology can take. So let’s take a look at some of the slumber-related folklore that has entertained people for centuries.
The Boo Hag
A regular character in children’s stories is the hag, a wrinkled, bent old woman with sinister intentions. Hansel and Gretel foiled her plans when she tried to lure them into her cooking pot, giving her a nice hot steam bath instead of a tasty meal. Folklorists note that the hag pops up in numerous fairy tales across the western world, with similar characters figuring prominently in many eastern cultures as well. She’s seen as an archetype who represents humanity’s universal fear of aging and death. Some also see her as a personification of the dread parents have that their children will fall prey to evil strangers.
Residents of coastal South Carolina have their own variation of the hag myth. This creature, known as the boo hag, is similar to vampires in that she draws out the life force of human beings. In her case, however, instead of drinking their blood, she captures their breath. The story is that she sits on a person’s chest while they sleep, drawing the air they exhale from their lungs into herself. This allows her to feed on the victim’s soul.
Her prey are usually unaware of her presence, as she clouds their minds by plunging them into a deep, dream-filled sleep. On occasion, they do feel her, usually as a heavy weight pressing on their chest. In fact, many South Carolina residents insist that they have sensed the hag on more than one occasion, when they woke up unable to move, due to her weight pressing down on them.
Some describe her presence as being like a feeling of suffocation. Others say it’s more like the chest pain that frequently accompanies heart attacks. Still others say that she freezes them in place, forcing their muscles to become limp and useless.
Physicians and scientists have an alternate explanation for this phenomena, one based in human physiology and not sleep mythology. Studies of persons who have been asleep show that it’s common for many people to wake from their rest in distinct stages, as if the brain were activating the body’s “on” switches one at a time.
Sometimes the mind’s “switch” is activated before the body’s. This is experienced as the ability to think but not to move. This is believed to be the physical basis for the hag myth. It’s a condition known in medical circles as sleep paralysis.
Some South Carolina researchers use a more colloquial term for it, however. They refer to it as “old hag syndrome,” in honor of the supernatural creature that’s supposed to cause it. Treatment for sleep paralysis usually tries to correct its underlying cause, which is frequently sleep apnea. Weight loss and breathing aids are commonly prescribed.
Believers in the Boo Hag have their own treatment methods, however. They recommend placing a broom next to one’s bed before going to sleep. The reasoning is that the hag will
become obsessed with counting its hundreds of straws and forget all about her victim. They also urge sufferers to plug all gaps or holes in their doors, windows, or walls, as the hag can squeeze through the tightest opening.
Above all, they urge people to not resist the hag if she is sitting on them; otherwise she may steal their skin, leaving them in a rather nasty predicament. Not everyone heeds this warning, though. “Don’t let the hag ride ya” is a phrase commonly heard among residents of the Palmetto State, as a cry of defiance against the supernatural creature who haunts their sleeping hours.
They’re a frequent sight at flea markets, craft fairs, and truck stops: a circle with a net in its center and feathers hanging from it. They usually have a tag attached. It states that the object is intended as a defense against nightmares. It’s said that bad dreams will get caught in the net, while good ones will slide down the feathers and into the sleeper’s mind.
The history of dream catchers begins with the Ojibwa Nation, a Native American tribe also known as the Chippewa. For centuries, they have made these objects to hang above their children as they slumber. Traditionally they have been fashioned from willow branches, which were bent into a hoop shape about 3.5 inches across. A net is placed in the center; it might be an actual spider’s web or a representation of one made from yarn or another material. Animal feathers and sacred beads are hung from it.
Dream catchers have often been a topic of discussion among folklore experts. Ethnographer Frances Densmore wrote about them in her classic volume Chippewa Customs. As time has gone on, their use has spread not only among the general public but also with Native Americans outside the Ojibwa Nation. They’re seen by many as a symbol of Indian pride and unity.
Many Native American craftspeople object to the cheaply, low-quality versions commonly sold by vendors at fairs and outdoor markets. These imitations are made in overseas factories from shoddy materials, a far cry from the genuine charms made by hand for hundreds of years by the Chippewa people. Fortunately, authentic dream catchers can be bought from tribal members who carry on the ancient practice to this day.
The Tooth Fairy
Sleep mythology begins for many of us from a young age. Most of us grew up believing in this benevolent creature – the tooth fairy. She offers a deal that, for children, can’t be beat. In exchange for a tooth that has fallen out, she leaves a gift of money or sweets beneath their pillow while they sleep, peacefully unaware of her presence. This is a particularly widespread story that exists in many versions throughout all of western civilization.
While some disapprove of the practice, most parents see no problem with encouraging their children to believe in the story of the tooth fairy. The myth is said to comfort their kids, relieving the anxiety they frequently feel after losing a tooth. Sometimes moms and dads even scatter a small amount of glitter on the floor of the child’s room, as “proof” of the fairy’s visitation. Other times, they leave a note along with the child’s reward, supposedly written by the fairy. It praises the little one for his or her good dental hygiene.
The vast majority of adults report that they weren’t harmed by their belief in the tooth fairy as children. In fact, many say that it encouraged their imaginations and enhanced their creativity and sense of wonder. Most kids stop believing in the creature between five and seven years of age.
Variations on the Tooth Fairy Myth
Spanish and Hispanic cultures believe in a creature that exchanges sweets or candy for children’s teeth; in their cases however, the fairy is a small mouse. In Scottish society, the magical visitor is a large white rat. Other people see the fairy not as a woman but as a pixie, a winged child, a bear, a bat, or even as a rotund man smoking a cigar.
In many Asian countries, children are encouraged to toss their loose teeth onto the roof of their house if it came from their lower jaw. If it fell out of the upper part of their mouth they’re told to place it in a space beneath the floor boards. This is a way of asking the spirits to help them grow strong, healthy teeth, to replace the ones they lose as they mature.
Good Sleep Doesn’t Have to Be a Myth
While it’s fun to look at these fascinating legends and sleep mythology from across the world, one thing that’s never enjoyable is having trouble getting to sleep. Yet, this condition afflicts tens of millions of Americans. Other people doze off easily enough but wake frequently during the night with aching shoulders, necks, or backs. Others arise in the morning feeling groggy or suffering from headaches. While these conditions can be caused by many things, having a poor sleep surface often contributes to them.
If your current mattress isn’t giving you the restful comfort you deserve, then take a few minutes to browse our extensive line of top-quality sleep products. We carry products in a wide variety of materials and sizes, and each is designed to cradle its owners gently as they rest, helping them to fall asleep easily and wake in the morning rested and refreshed. Look through our selection and place your order today. We look forward to earning your business and help you get the restful night’s sleep you deserve.