History of Sleep, Through The Ages

A Comprehensive History of Sleep: Its Mythology, Conditions, and Attitudes


This research study discusses a history of the science of sleep. It is to be noted that we include sections on even the earliest observations of sleep, including the associated myths and symbolic and cultural interests. At the heart of science is objective observations, and understanding of cross-cultural phenomena within its appropriate historical context.

Ancient Sleep Mythology

800 BC-200 AD  – Rishis of India begin describing states of waking consciousness and dreaming. Egyptians built sleep temples to Isis, where priests and devotees met to engage in dream interpretation and hypnosis. Romans & Greeks had sleep deities like Morpheus, Somnus, and Hypnos, who were believed to be the source of dreams, etc. Ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, compares sleep to death after a day’s work. (5)

History of Sleep Time

A good place to start is by featuring a bit of research undermining a largely held belief that humans sleep in eight hour chunks, straight through.

“In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks. His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria. Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.” (1)

So, what did people do between the first sleep and second sleep back then? Smoke tobacco, read religious passages, meditate on their dreams, and even had sex on physicians’ advice that between the first and second sleep is the best time to conceive. However, in the late 1600s, as the Age of Enlightenment passed (1600-1799) and dreams were held sacred and brought to priests for interpretation while notable scientists journaled their dreams as lice, fleas, bedbugs, proliferaed (5),  references to the first and second sleep began to disappear, first among the wealthy, and then over the next couple of hundred years, the rest of the classes, until by the 1900s there were little references left to any first or second sleep, and in its place there were streetlights, coffee houses, and an assortment of other things that distracted from the night time hours historically dedicated to sleeping. Generally, “decent” people avoided going out and being active at night anyway because that was a time thought to be possessed by people of low regard, and other evil intentions. (1)

Waking in the middle of the night, then, is quite natural, and prior to the industrial age, it was a time that was treated accordingly. However, sleeping on four hours may be claimed by some, like Margaret Thatcher, but it is not common, since this is thought to be caused by a gene that only occurs in 2-3% of people. (2)

History of Bedding

As far as a history of bedding, we know 10,000 years ago neolithic people sleep on primitive beds (when humans finally settled from hunting and gathering into farming where they could sleep the same place every night) which as you can imagine was a mass of what was available in the immediate environment. According to this article, https://vanwinkles.com/how-humans-slept-throughout-history-hint-it-mostly-sucked, “Remains of living spaces from the 8,000 BCE unearthed by archeologists in Southwestern Texas indicate the earliest draft beds made by humans were ground-based nests. Early man stuffed grass and other soft materials into shallow pits near the walls of caves. Judging from their small size and round shape, the cave dwellers, likely huddled in fetal positions until they’d mosey on over to rudimentary latrines at the back of the cave and relieve themselves.”

By 3400 BC Egyptian pharaohs were sleeping on raised beds, while commoners were sleeping on palm fronds piled in the corners of living spaces. By the Roman Empire, the wealthy were sleeping on stuffed mattresses. And by the Renaissance period (1400-1599), when philosophers were postulating that sleep may have been triggered by a lack of blood or oxygen to the brain (5), bedding was stuffed with feathers and covered with fine materials like velvet. Fast forward to 1865 and the first coiled bedding was patented, futons popped onto the scene by the 1940s, foam mattresses by the 50s, waterbeds by the 60s, airbeds by the 80s, and a wide range of options here in the 21 century (3).

No Privacy, Stink, and Sanitation Problems

It’s important to note that while early peoples did not have the distractions of today, there was little privacy with everyone sleeping together on bedding that was not often changed, so it was often full of pests and smells which made sleeping difficult. And, relieving oneself in the middle of the night did not occur in a toilet, but a chamber pot or nearby on the ground, which could be smelly, and unsanitary. (4)

Ancient Cultural Attitudes Toward Sleep

  • Romans despised sleep because they were too busy conquering the world and building (4).
  • Egyptians believing sleep was a state near death, respected and were in awe of the power of sleep, analyzing dreams for deeper mysterious meanings (4).

Contemporary Sleep

While sleeping problems exist due to blue lights from ubiquitous  smart phones, the lack of good night’s rest because of the distractions of going out and digital entertainment, and other such obstacles, most people living in first world countries are not dealing with the same unsanitary conditions, which is a plus. And, on top of that, progressive employers, like Google, even allow napping on the job, understanding sleep’s role in productivity (6).

Notable People And Their Sleep Patterns

Also, considering some of the more notable people and their sleep patterns is interesting: Beethoven 10pm to 6am, Thomas Mann 12am to 8am; Mozart 1am to 6am; Tolstoy, 1am to 9am; BF Skinner 9:30-6:30;  and Benjamin Franklin 10pm to 5am.  (7)


  1. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16964783
  2. https://sleepjunkies.com/features/the-33-biggest-myths-about-sleep-and-insomnia-de-bunked/
  3. http://bettersleep.org/sleep-extras/history-of-the-mattress/
  4. https://vanwinkles.com/how-humans-slept-throughout-history-hint-it-mostly-sucked
  5. http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/history
  6. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/23/opinion/sunday/rethinking-sleep.html
  7. https://www.fastcodesign.com/3031754/the-sleep-schedules-of-27-of-historys-greatest-minds

Copyrights: Permission granted to use the information herein provided it is referenced appropriately.

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