The origin of nightmares

On the darkest of autumn nights, the cold comes in through the window. You can't sleep because of the sound of the wind and an old clock in the living room… tik tok, tik tok…

You hear footsteps and you see a black shadow gliding in front of the door. You don't want to, but you get up and follow it. It turns and extends its arms towards you, when suddenly ... ¡bam! 

You wake up from a horrible nightmare.

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are nothing more than altered sleep states that appear in the REM phase, in which the brain is reworking information that you have collected during the day.

The accumulation of stress, anxiety, depression or even post-traumatic stress disorder, can trigger nightmares at rest, adding the stress factor that they produce themselves. Another factor closely related to these bad dreams is modifying sleep patterns or falling asleep late, as this alters the Cardiac rhythms of the person, keeping the brain active while you sleep, which causes strange things to dream about.

In fact, many experts point out that the repeated appearance of nightmares can be a sign preceding a disease. 

Because it is something so linked to stress, it is difficult to combat, because the day to day stresses produce nightmares that do not let you sleep, and nightmares that do not let you sleep produce fatigue that leads to stress, a somewhat stormy loop.

In any case, it is very related to the neurology and the psyche of the person.

'El aquelarre', Francisco de Goya (1797-1798)

The origins of nightmares

In this article we are going to talk not so much about their meaning, but more about what different cultures throughout history thought the origin of these dreaded nightmares was, and with Halloween just around the corner, we'll dig into some of the creepiest theories.

Greek mythology

The ancient greeks looked for the answer to most of their doubts in the gods, so it was the same with dreams.

According to some authors, the goddess of the night, Nyx, together with Erebus (god of darkness and shadows) had several children, among which were the twins Hypnos (the god who personified dreams) and Thanatos, the god of death. That these two were twins is nothing more than evidence of the resemblance that has been attributed for centuries to sleep and death (a permanent dream).

Hypnos had many children, (according to some, with his own mother Nyx, and according to others, with Pasitea), called Oniros, who were the carriers of dreams. Among those who stood out the most were Morpheus (in charge of bringing dreams to kings and emperors) and Fobetor or Ikelo (the carrier of nightmares). 

They both lived in a cave, from which they came out at night with their wings, and they brought dreams to the gods. 

Ikelo was the name given by the gods, while Fobetor ("the one who is scary") was the name that mortals gave him. This god had hundreds of descendants, who were the carriers of nightmares to mortals.

'La pesadilla?, Füssli (1781)

 

Roman and medieval tradition

However, the divine vision of the world of dreams and nightmares began to change with the Romans, and especially in the Middle Ages. In this age, nightmares were attributed to demons that tormented people while they slept.

These demons were called incubi and succubi. The incubi were male personifications of the Devil, while the succubi were sexy women, whose leader was Lilith (a figure of the Hebrew tradition who is considered Adam's first wife, and embodies an evil being). They both seduced their victims and they "suffocated" them in their dreams. 

The Germans also spoke of demons, called "Alp" and "Drude", that sat on the chest of their victims for the same purpose.

Other cultures and occult traditions point to the "existence" of some lower order demons, the “Nybbas” who whispered terrible situations in the ears of their victims when they slept so that they would dream of them.

Today, all these associations of nightmares, demons and shortness of breath during sleep are interpreted as what we call sleep paralysis, a state in which the brain is fully conscious while the body is not yet "awake," causing paralysis and sensory hallucinations.

We hope you sleep well tonight ... if you can.

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