Sleep. We all need it, sooner or later. And, like any other shared human experience, it’s subject to its share of myth and magic. There are a few deities across cultures who rule sleep and/or dreams, but there are also spirits who disrupt it; we’ll look at a few examples of both here, starting with the good…
Though not deities, these helpful Japanese spirits go around devouring peoples’ nightmares. Appearing as a composite creature with an elephant’s head and tiger’s feet, the Baku can be called upon to protect from nightmares before going to sleep or to devour a nightmare after waking up from one so that it won’t return upon falling back asleep. The petition for Baku to eat a nightmare must be repeated three times.
This Irish goddess ruled dreams and prophecy. Her main myth involves her appearing in the dreams of another god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who sought her out upon waking to marry her. Also according to this myth, she spends most of her time in the guise of a swan. If you’re having trouble with disruptive dreams, try leaving her some food or drink offerings before bed; based on the ancient tradition of Celtic offerings being buried or thrown in bogs, I’d recommend tossing these offerings outdoors the next day.
Hypnos (Roman Equivalent: Somnus)
Probably the best-known god of sleep and powerful enough to put even Zeus to bed, Hypnos is the son of the night goddess Nyx and twin brother to the death god Thanatos (who is his frequent companion). And luckily for us, the ancient Greeks always considered the youthful, winged Hypnos to be gentle and wrote several surviving prayers to him (including one written by an insomniac who lamented apparently having offended the god). So if you’re having trouble falling asleep, try pouring Hypnos some wine, or keeping a bouquet of red poppies for him.
In some myths, Hypnos and his wife Pasithea are the parents of the Oneiroi; in other versions, they are siblings to Hypnos (as children of Nyx). The Oneiroi collectively refers to the innumerable gods of dreams. In the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the three named Oneiroi are Morpheus (god of dreams), Phantasos (god of surreal dreams), and Phobetor (god of nightmares).
A Nighttime Prayer to Hypnos:
“Beautiful winged Hypnos, I call to You. Gentle Hypnos, son of Nyx, twin brother of Thanatos, I honor you. Youthful theoi who dwells by the river Lethe, surrounded by crimson poppies, I ask for Your assistance. Hypnos Epidotes, grant me a restful night’s sleep, that I may awake renewed; when your dominion falls over the beasts of this land, may I find respite from the day as well. On my behalf, ask that your kin of dreams Morpheus be kind to me, and that your kin of nightmares Phobetor pass me by. Gracious theoi, beloved of the gorgeous Pasithea, I thank you.”
Statue of Hypnos, 2nd century AD
(National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid)
Unfortunately, not every spirit of the night has our best interests at heart. Some spirits will attack in dreams, or strike at a vulnerable sleeping body. These attacks often manifest as recurrent nightmares or sleep paralysis.
Succubus & Incubus
Likely the most recognizable spiritual threat of the night in modern times, the succubus (female) or incubus (male) are known for attacks that tend to be sexual and/or violent in nature, often using the guise of an attractive human in dreams to deceive victims. They feed off the life energy of their victims, causing fatigue. Given their rise in Christian times, such as their description in Demoniality by Sinistrari, religious protection would usually be recommended to dissuade them from targeting a person.
Penanggalan & Manananggal
Its name, meaning to “detach” or “remove”, describes the Malaysian Penanggalan pretty succinctly; this vampiric creature, though appearing as a normal woman during the day, is believed to fly through the air at night as only a head, though with still-attached organs and glowing entrails trailing after, as well as an accompanying odor of vinegar. (In other areas, the Penanggalan is also known as Krasue.) And with both names coming from languages of the Austronesian family, Manananggal can also be translated to refer to removing; this time, it’s the entire upper torso which can detach itself and, sprouting bat-like wings, fly off at night through the Philippines. Both spirits allegedly favor pregnant women as their targets, feeding on their blood, and the Penanggalan especially favors newborns or women who just gave birth. Their attacks are sometimes blamed for things like disease, miscarriage, or deformities at birth. The Penanggalan is deterred from entering a home by the scattering of thorny leaves and wrapping of thorny vines from local plants, which injure the creature’s exposed organs; sleeping with scissors under the pillow also deters attack. The Manananggal, like a typical European-style vampire, can be discouraged with garlic and salt.
Here in North Carolina, the term “witch” didn’t always necessarily refer to a human magical practitioner. There are many older sources, such as the Life of William Grimes (a runaway slave who details his experience with a “witch” around page 29), where a witch is described as a creature that rides and exhausts human victims at night, in some versions leaving their skin behind at home when going out to do so; some old ghost stories even describe a witch transforming victims into horses to literally ride. Also known throughout the American South as a Hag, this ugly and terrifying spirit attacks at night by sneaking into a victim’s bedroom and sitting on their chest. Victims would awake to feel the pressure on their body, or even see the creature atop them; given their tendency for repeated attacks, it’s believed that a hag could eventually cause its victim’s death. Given that a Hag was believed to enter through a door’s keyhole, something like a sieve/colander would be hung on the doorknob so that the Hag would become confused going through all the holes (or that the spirit would compulsively try to go through every single hole); alternatively, the sieve/colander was kept near the bed. Playing off the same belief in the Hag’s compulsions, a broom could also be kept laying by the bed, where the Hag would be driven to count every single straw on the broom. These methods essentially occupy the Hag, wasting time until the would-be victim wakes up in the morning. Sulfur around the bed or an open pair of scissors under the pillow will keep the Hag away.
Specific examples can be a good starting point for focused thinking about the subject, but when it comes down to the practical application, your quality of sleep will likely be improved by the presence of any form of spiritual protection. However you ward your home–be it amulets or tools, or purely energetic barriers–it is likely that it will keep out much of the spiritual nuisances out there. Also, any friendly spirit can provide protection and comfort during the night, if you only ask.
And of course, magical efforts must always be helped along with practical, physical efforts. So if you’re having trouble sleeping, read up on “sleep hygiene” and what you can do to help yourself along. As a lover of teas, let me recommend a blend of chamomile, lavender, catnip, passionflower, linden flower, lemon balm, and/or peppermint. You can mix these with each other as you please (they are among the more palatable herbs), or mix them with other naturally non-caffeinated herbal teas of your choice. All these herbs are sedatives and/or relaxants. These herbs are also among the safer herbs to take regularly and don’t tend to interact with any medications you may be taking. As always, be aware of any herbal allergies you have; I would also note that there is some controversy on taking non-commercial herbal teas while pregnant due mostly to the lack of data on certain herbs in unmeasured/copious amounts, although these specific herbs listed are commonly used commercially and considered safe in reasonable doses. (You can always look through the ingredients list on commercial tea bags to find what you need; most of these companies adhere to FDA-approved herbs in safe quantities.)