A fixture of Western folklore, the sandman’s origins can be traced back to ancient Greco-Rome and the god of sleep; Hypnos. Hypnos was the twin-brother of Thanatos, the god of death, and the husband of Nyx; the goddess of night. Together Hypnos and Nyx gave birth to Morpheus; the god of dreams. As a family Hypnos, Thanatos, Nyx and Morpheus demonstrated the very real relationship held between nighttime, sleep and dreams, as well as the symbolic relationship held between sleep and death. Today these gods are remembered via words drawn from their names; Hypnos being the source of both ‘hypnotic’ and ‘hypnotism,’ Morpheus the root of the drug ‘morphine,’ while Thanatos in Latin becomes Mors the root of such words as ‘morbid.’
With the advent of Christianity in Europe the gods of the old pantheons were forced to take on less threatening forms in order to survive. Thus they became the saints, demons, fairies and nursery bogies of European folklore and legend. One of these nursery bogies was the sandman who put children to sleep by sprinkling sand in their eyes. Scandinavian folklorist Hans Christian Anderson’s (1805-1875) Danish folktale Ole Lukøje (“eye-closer”) is one of the earliest recorded tales to deal with the sandman. In Ole Lukøje, the sandman visits a boy called Hjalmar every night for a whole week and tells him stories. At the end of the tale (Sunday) the sandman reveals himself to, in fact, be the Greek god Morpheus, the brother of Ole-Luk-Oie (Death). Anderson’s tale shows that even in the 19th-Century the memory of the old gods still lingered with the common people, though they had confused Morpheus with his father Hypnos.
In stark contrast to Anderson’s sandman is the sandman of German fantasy author E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822). Hoffman’s tale, known as Der Sandmann (1816), tells of a sinister sandman who comes into children’s rooms at night and throws coarse sand into their eyes causing them to fall out of their sockets. The sandman then scoops these eyes up, places them in a bag and takes them back to his home in the crook of the crescent moon where he feeds them to his bird-like progeny. As terrifying as this tale may be it was actually told to European children by their caretakers in the 18th and 19th-Centuries as a warning as to why they should go to bed when they were told.
Today, the sandman is still an important figure in western folklore and pop-culture appearing in films, books, comics, and songs. Some of these depict the sandman as a benevolent being and other as a freighting demon. A noteworthy example of the later is the 1991 animated short The Sandman, directed and animated by Paul Berry (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and based off Hoffman’s tale. In 1992, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film.
Sources: Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2004) and Giants, Monsters, & Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth (2000) by Carol Rose.
At Top: Bust of Hypnos, the Greco-Roman god of sleep, reconstructed from fragments.