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The Folklore of Childhood, Dreams, and Sleep

The Folklore of Childhood, Dreams, and Sleep

Above image: Sculptor Sue Blackwell's "The Tooth Fairy" perfectly captures the wild magic of a child's nighttime dream world.

Do you remember the nighttime stories your parents told you all those years ago, as they desperately tried to persuade you to stop chattering and fall asleep? Or maybe ominous myths from your mischievous older brother are what lurk in the back of your mind. Turns out some of them are a little more dark and mysterious than your little brain ever imagined. Many of these stories are even rooted in true-life tales that would have you and your little ones alike too scared to turn out the lights. They aren’t all bad though; some are as magical and lovely as you would ever hope to populate your sweetest dreams.

We were curious where some of these folktales originated, and decided to do some exploring into the world of childhood legends and dreams. Today, we bring you the legend behind the Sandman, possibly the most macabre story of them all. Warning: Don’t let little Sally lay her eyes on this one.

You know those sleepies in the corners of your eyes when you take your first bleary glance in the bathroom mirror? Those aren’t sleepies! That’s the dusty sand that the Sandman sprinkled in your eyes last night to bring on a deep sleep and vivid dreams. At least, that’s what Hans Christian Andersen came up with in 1841. The author was the mastermind behind so many seemingly sweet children’s tales that were often quite sad and horrific. (“The Little Match Girl” will have you crying yourself to sleep.)

Andersen imagined the Sandman as a little man named Ole-Luk-Oie (“The Dream God”), who would sneak up on children at the dinner table and, as Andersen himself writes, “throw a small quantity of very fine dust in their eyes, just enough to prevent them from keeping them open...then he creeps behind, and blows softly upon their necks, till their heads began to droop.”


That’s a little creepy already. But alas, the Sandman means them no harm; he only wants to tell the good ones some pretty stories to dream of, and believes they won’t listen to him unless they are asleep. In Anderson’s telling, the good children got the good dreams, and the naughty ones got no dreams at all.

Years earlier, in 1816, E.T.A. Hoffmann had composed his own version of the Sandman as a much more sinister character. In Hoffman’s version, the Sandman’s dust made the poor children’s eyes fall out so that he could collect them and take them to his nest on the Moon for his own children to eat for supper.

Which story will you tell your own children tonight? (If you choose to share at all.) I think the idea of a little man creeping around the kitchen table blowing on the children’s necks would only end one way in our home: with three little girls in the safe haven of their parents’ warm bed, protected from the Sandman, benevolent or not.

Stay tuned for our next deep dive into the fascinating world of children’s nighttime folklore.

And until then, sweet dreams.