Given that I am almost never the first person to hear about Richard Armitage related news, I’m going to assume that everyone is aware of his new project, Sleepwalker…reportedly a suspenseful film about a somnambulist (Ahna O’Reilly) in which Richard Armitage plays a doctor specializing in sleep disorders. The subject of this film called to mind several things. One is that I need to have a sleep study done, but I have been putting it off…in part because of my schedule, but also because I am slightly uneasy with the vulnerability aspect of it all. The notion of having people observe me while I’m asleep and not aware of my actions unnerves me quite a bit.
More interestingly, it got me thinking about how stories of sleep manifest in classical myth. The Greek god Hypnos (Somnus in Latin) governed sleep…he was generally considered a benevolent deity who gifted mankind with the renewing benefits of sleep. There is not a terrible lot of mythology surrounding this rather minor god, but there are several really interesting myths centered around a sleeping figure. One of my favorites is the story of Endymion and Selene.
Like most Greek myths, there are variations to the story depending on which ancient source one reads. This is a fact that is always kind of confusing to my students, who really seem to want there to be one right version of everything. Ancient culture is rarely so simple. It’s not particularly hard to see how variations in the myths evolved. The Greeks had literacy (such as it existed in most of the ancient world) in the late Bronze Age, but then it was lost from about 1100 – 800 BC. This means that mythological stories would have been transmitted orally during those centuries. Oral traditions preserve the basic framework of stories very well, but it is not unusual for the details to vary from place to place over the centuries…kind of like the modern idiom of a “fish story” where the details change a bit every time the fisherman tells the tale.
Way back when in a course called Classical Mythology I learned the myth of Selene and Endymion following the version recounted by Apollonios of Rhodes which reads rather like a fairy tale…
Once upon a time, Selene, the goddess of the moon fell in love with a beautiful mortal named Endymion. She loved him so much that she asked his father Zeus to grant him eternal youth so that Endymion could stay with her forever. Zeus granted her wish, but there was a catch…he placed the youth into an eternal sleep. Endymion would be eternally youthful and beautiful, but he would also be eternally asleep.
Apparently, this everlasting slumber wasn’t much of an obstacle to Selene’s love for him. The story goes on to recount that she visited her sleeping beloved every night and the two of them had fifty daughters.
Good gravy – where to start with this one?! Firstly, this version of the story is a perfect example of the English idiom, “be careful what you wish for…” or at least be very specific. The Greek gods had a tendency to be extremely capricious when granting this sort of wish (I’ve heard similar tales of the caprice of genies and leprachauns…you just can’t trust supernatural wish granters I guess!) It’s fairly obvious that Selene might have preferred that Endymion be eternally youthful and awake, but she didn’t stipulate that specifically.
By now, everyone is probably aware of the element of coercion that so often plays a role in the sexual politics of Greek myth. By modern understanding, what Selene does to generate fifty offspring by an unconscious partner would be considered sexual assault. However, it would have only been unusual to the Greek’s in terms of the gender reversal of who is doing the coercing, but since Selene is a goddess and Endymion a mortal, it’s fair game. This story reminds me distinctly, and I wonder if there is a trace connection, of tales of the medieval succubus…a female entity who preyed upon unsuspecting men – often by seducing them in their sleep. (which also would be a convenient way to explain unsanctioned nocturnal activities…*cough* “The succubus made me do it!” ).
In later Roman antiquity the story of Selene and Endymion preserved all of its somnolent eroticism (note all of the little winged babies on the image above…they are Erotes (Amores in Latin), clear indicators that love is afoot.) but the persistent notion that Endymion never died, but rather was eternally asleep also made depictions of this story very popular on funerary pieces like the sarcophagus above.
There is something really compelling to me about images of the sleeping Endymion. He is always depicted as powerfully masculine, yet in sleep, he is also vulnerable. The sculptural fragment above also conveys a kind of latent eroticism with his arm raised above his head, leaving him open and exposed and perhaps even inviting to Selene’s amorous advances. As usual, I didn’t have to look terribly hard to find some equally enticing Armitaganda…
As Keats said in his poetic Endymion:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever…