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Mircea Eliade : "Sleep and Death"


Morpheus, painted by Jean-Bernard Restout




Extract from

Mircea Eliade

Myth and reality

(1963)




Sleep and Death



In Greek mythology, Sleep and Death, Hypnos and Thanatos, are twin brothers. We may note that, for the Jews too, at least from postexilic times on, death was comparable to sleep. Sleep in the grave (Job 3 : 13-15; 3 : 17), in Sheol ( Eccles. 9:3; 9: 10), or in both at once. The Christians accepted and elaborated the homology of death and sleep : in pace bene dormit, dormit in somno pacis, in pace somni, in pace Domini dormias are among the most frequent formulas. Since Hypnos is brother to Thanatos, we see why, in Greece as in India and in Gnosticism, the act of "awakening" had a "soteriological" meaning ( in the broadest sense of the word ). Socrates awakens those who talk with him, even though against their will. "How tyrannical you are, Socrates !" Callicles exclaims. But Socrates is perfectly conscious that his mission to wake people is divine. He is constantly repeating that he is "obedient" to God (Apology 23).


"As you will not easily find another like me, I would advise you to spare me. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly"(Apol. 30).


We should take note of this idea that it is God who, for the love of men, sends them a Master to "awaken" them from their sleep - a sleep that is at once ignorance, forgetfulness,

and "death." The motif reappears in Gnosticism, though, of course, considerably elaborated and reinterpreted. The central Gnostic myth, as we find it in the Hymn of the Pearl, preserved in the Acts of Thomas, is constructed around the theme of amnesia and anamnesis. A prince comes to Egypt from the East, seeking "the one pearl, which is in the midst of the sea around the loud breathing serpent." In Egypt he was made prisoner by the men of the country. He was given their food to eat and forgot his identity. "I forgot that I was a son of kings, and I served their king ; and I forgot the pearl, for which my parents had sent me, and because of the burden of their oppressions I lay in a deep sleep."


But his parents learned what had befallen him and sent him a letter. "'From thy father, the king of kings, and thy mother, the mistress of the East, and from thy brother, our second (in authority ), to thee our son. Call to mind that thou art a son of kings ! See the slavery,-whom thou servest ! Remember the pearl, for which thou wast sent to Egypt !'" The letter flew in the likeness of an eagle, alighted beside him, and became all speech. "At its voice and the sound of its rustling, I started and rose from my sleep. I took it up and kissed it, and I

began and read it; and according to what was traced on my heart were the words of my letter written. I remember that I was a son of royal parents, and my noble birth asserted its

nature. I remember the pearl, for which I had been sent to Egypt, and I began to charm him, the terrible loud-breathing serpent. I hushed him to sleep and lulled him into slumber, for

my father's name I named over him, and I snatched away the pearl, and turned to go back to my father's house.


The Hymn of the Pearl has a sequel ( the "luminous garment" that the prince put off when he started on his journey to Egypt and finds again when he reaches home ) which is not directly to our purpose. We may add that the themes of exile, captivity in a foreign country, the messenger who wakes the prisoner and urges him to set off, are also to be found in a short work by Suhrawardi, the Recital of Western Exile. We shall not here discuss the origin of the myth ; it is probably Iranian. The Hymn of the Pearl has the value of presenting some of the most popular Gnostic motifs in a dramatic form.


Recently Hans Jonas, analyzing the specifically Gnostic symbols and images, has stressed the importance of the motifs of "fall, capture, forlornness, homesickness, numbness, sleep, drunkenness." This is too long a list to deal with here. We will merely cite a few especially suggestive examples. Turning toward matter "and burning with the desire to experience the body," the soul forgets its identity. "She forgot her original habitation, her true center, her eternal being." It is in these terms that El Chatihi presents the central belief of the Harranites. According to the Gnostics, men not only sleep but love to sleep. "Why will ye love the sleep, and stumble with them that stumble ?" asks the Ginza. In the Apocryphon of John it is written : "Let him who hears wake from heavy sleep." The same motif recurs in Manichaean cosmogony, as transmitted to us by Theodore bar Konai : "Jesus the Luminous went down to the innocent Adam and waked him from a sleep of death that he might be delivered."


Ignorance and sleep are also expressed in terms of "intoxication." The Gospel of Truth compares the possessor of Gnosis to "one who, having been intoxicated, becomes sober and having come to himself reaffirms that which is essentially his own." And the Ginza tells how Adam "awoke from his slumber and lifted his eyes to the place of the light." Jonas rightly remarks that, on the one hand, earthly life is defined as "forlornness," "dread," "nostalgia," and, on the other, is described as "sleep," "drunkenness," and "oblivion" :

"that is to say, it has assumed (if we except drunkenness) all the characteristics which a former time ascribed to the dead in the underworld." The "messenger" who "wakes" man

from his sleep brings him both "life" and "salvation." "I am the call of awakening from sleep in the Aeon of the night," is the beginning of a Gnostic fragment preserved by Hippolytus ( Refut. V, 1 4, 1). "Waking" implies anamnesis, recognition of the soul's true identity, that is, re-cognition of its celestial origin. It is only after waking the man to whom he has come that the "messenger" reveals to him the promise of redemption and finally teaches him how to act in this world.


"Shake off the drunkenness in which thou hast slumbered, awake and behold me !" says a Manichaean text from Turfan. And in another we find : "Awake, soul of splendour, from the slumber of drunkenness into which thou hast fallen, . . . follow me to the place of the exalted earth where thou dwelledst from the beginning." A Mandaean text tells of the celestial messenger's waking Adam and continues: "I have come and will instruct thee, Adam, and

release thee out of this world. Hearken and hear and be instructed, and rise up victorious to the place of light." The instruction also includes the in junction not to succumb again to sleep. "Slumber not nor sleep, and forget not that which thy Lord hath charged thee."


Of course, these formulas are not used only by the Gnostics. The Epistle to the Ephesians ( 5: 14) contains this anonymous quotation : "Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light." The motif of sleep and waking recurs in Hermetic literature. We find in the Poimandres: "O ye people, earthborn men, who have abandoned yourselves to drunkenness and sleep and to ignorance of God - become sober ! cease from your intoxication, from the enchantment of irrational sleep !"


It is significant here that overcoming sleep and remaining awake for a long period is a typical initiatory ordeal. It is already found on the archaic levels of culture. Among some Australian tribes novices undergoing initiation are not allowed to sleep for three days or are forbidden to go to bed before dawn. Setting off on his quest for immortality, the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh comes to the island of the mythical ancestor Utnaphishtim. There he must stay awake for six days and six nights; but he does not succeed in this initiatory ordeal and so loses his chance for immortality.


In a North American myth of the Orpheus-and-Eurydice , type a man whose wife had just died managed to make his way down to the Underworld and find her. The Lord of the Underworld promises him that he may take his wife back to earth if he can stay awake all night. But the man falls asleep just before dawn. The Lord of the Underworld gives him another chance ; and in order not to be tired the following night, the man sleeps all day. Nevertheless, he does not succeed in staying awake until dawn, and he has to return to earth alone.


We see, then, that not sleeping is not merely conquering physical fatigue but is above all a proof of spiritual strength. Remaining "awake" means being fully conscious, being present in the world of the spirit. Jesus never tired of exhorting his disciples to watch. And the Night of Gethsemane is made particularly tragic by the disciples' inability to stay awake with Jesus. "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death : tarry ye here, and watch with me" ( Matt. 26 : 38). But when he came back he found them sleeping. He said to Peter: "What, could ye not watch with me one hour ?" ( 26 : 40 ). "Watch and pray," he bids them once more. But in vain, for when he comes back he finds them "asleep again : for their eyes were heavy" ( 26 : 41-43 ; cf. Mark 14: 34 ff. ; Luke 22 : 46 ). This time, too, the "initiatory watch" proved to be beyond human capacity."



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