European Sleep Superstitions

By Lillian Ann Slugocki

My Polish grandmother admonished me to make my bed every morning, because if I didn’t the devil would know the shape of my body. To this day, I rarely leave the house with a messy bed; even if I’m rushing out the door, I’ll smooth out the top sheet.

The vulnerability of being asleep has spurred a whole host of designed at creating the illusion of safety. According to German legends, children—and in particular, babies—are especially susceptible to the vagaries of , says University of Pittsburgh Professor D. L. Ashliman, a translator of German folktales.  And if the mother falls asleep for only one second– there is the possibility that her child will be replaced with a changeling, according to Ashilan’s translation; she must enlist the aid of family– sisters, grandmothers, cousins– to keep watch over her. A new mother can also prevent the horrors of a changeling by laying a pair of men’s pants over the cradle. Babies are put down on the left side so they don’t grow up to be clumsy.  Finally, according to Ashliman, the mother must clear and wash the supper dishes, because if she doesn’t, the youngest in the house will have nightmares.

Professor Ashilan, also discovered that there are many superstitions aimed at preventing nightmares; villagers in the 1800s were advised to stop up their keyholes and place their shoes with the toes facing the door–then get into bed backwards.  And if they were already suffering from nightmares, they should position an “iron toothed comb “upon their chest or place a piece of steel, like a pair of scissors, underneath their beds.

Willem de Blecourt reported in a journal article for the magazine Folklore that in the Netherlands there is also a complex series of superstitions regarding nightmares, though contrary to Germany, putting shoes in the wrong formation seems to be the thing to keep night terrors away. And sleeping on your back in a bad idea, too, according to Blecourt, because that’s when nightmares “will come and choke you.” You must turn over on your side, and they will disappear.

The persistence of superstitions regarding sleep, across all cultures, shouldn’t surprise us; indeed, we are at our most vulnerable when we are asleep, and these old wives’ tales offer us an illusion of control.  These rituals help give us back a sense of power over our sleeping bodies and ensure that we wake up ready to face the new day, nightmares notwithstanding.

As for me, I really don’t believe in devils, or even guardian angels, however, why tempt fate?  And so I make my bed every morning.

Tags:  Culture Sleep Superstitions

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