Sleeping Beauties: Richard Armitage and Endymion

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.

Selene & Endymion  by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini Source

Selene & Endymion
by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini

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!” ).  

Roman Sarcophagus Source

Roman Sarcophagus – 2nd century AD

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.

Fragment of the group of Selene and Endymion. Marble. Roman, after a Greek original of the 2nd century B.C. Inv. No. A 23. Saint-Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum. Source

Fragment of the group of Selene and Endymion.
Marble. Roman, after a Greek original of the 2nd century B.C.
Inv. No. A 23.
Saint-Petersburg, The State Hermitage Museum.

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…

Lucas North sleeps... Spooks 8.5 Source

Lucas North sleeps…
Spooks 8.5

Guy of Gisborne sleeps...fitfully Robin Hood 3.6 Source

Guy of Gisborne sleeps…fitfully
Robin Hood 3.6


As Keats said in his poetic Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever…



16 comments on “Sleeping Beauties: Richard Armitage and Endymion

  1. Very interesting and enjoyable story! I had never heard it before. I love how you tie RA into Greek mythology 🙂

    BTW I had a sleep study and I felt what you described. Very vulnerable and quite uneasy about it.

    • obscura says:

      This is definitely one of the lesser traveled myths 🙂

      I guess I’ll get over it…I tell myself that no matter what I might do, medical professionals have usually seen worse!

  2. jholland says:

    I most definitely would not feel comfortable in a sleep study. Even if Dr. White was my doctor.
    Loved this! Fifty children. Apparently not every part of Endymion was sleeping when she visited.

    • obscura says:

      I imagine I would feel immensely *less* comfortable if Dr. White was my doctor! (I have an unrelenting crush on my OB too…10 years running 😉 ) Although, I have to admit that I trust him completely – maybe that is the real issue – I don’t *know* the sleep docs and am placing myself blindly into their hands. *shrugs*

      *ahem* Ah, yes…at least some bits were awake…

  3. Leigh says:

    I always had problems with the Selene & Endymion story: a father abets the repeated assault of his son, as if all Selene could possibly want is penetration and conception? Taking advantage of his erection during REM sleep? Argh. Once more, patriarchal assumptions trump the notion of romantic love.

    On the other hand, as my daughter says, “If you watch them sleep, you are doomed.” RA’s (feigned) sleep shows the very vulnerability that draws us so strongly.

    After multiple surgeries, I no longer felt strange with people looking at me as I slept. I am sure I’ve said things coming out of anaesthesia that were much more embarrassing than muttering, drooling, etc.

    • obscura says:

      I think this is another of those stories that proves that sexuality amongst the Greeks was always much more about power (whether social or physical) than it was about anything else. There is never any emphasis placed on Endymion’s opinions of the events…but then, why would that matter…in the scheme of things, as a human (even a human son of Zeus) he is well below Selene on the power grid.

      I think you’re right about the enticing quality of the seeming vulnerability of a sleeping male figure…it’s like catnip!

      RE: sleep study – I take your point, but at least in surgical cases you can blame the drugs 🙂

  4. Perry says:

    I had a sleep study. No one watched me, as I was in a closed hospital room, but I was hooked up to loads of electrodes. So all they really looked at were vital signs and brain waves. And BTW, I hardly slept.

    • obscura says:

      I’m not sure exactly how it works – when my mom had one, she was in a room with a sort of two way mirror…I just need to get over it and schedule it…can’t possibly be worse than a root canal 🙂

      • Perry says:

        It’s a strange experience. I’ll grant that. A bit uncomfortable when they hook you up, and a little awkward as you try and sleep with wires coming out of you in all directions. And then, in my case, an ambiguous result.

  5. Hariclea says:

    Thanks once again for the interesting story, this is one i hadn’t heard before, unusual because it’s a female deity doing the picking 😉 I always wondered how much of it was metaphorical, the Greek gods always took some strange forms when charming humans. After all she is the moon, so it is probably stranger still than we imagine 😉 Interesting also how their deities love always justified any fate they then imposed on the humans in the name of love. As if the poor sod should only be happy because the remains forever youthful, though in sleep.
    As to sleeping beauty there, i think deity has been majorly screwed over if he was forever asleep 😉
    (Also am more and more convinced those lashed should le illegal)

  6. linnetmoss says:

    He plays a doctor? Oooooooh. I always liked the Endymion myth because it had a female taking the initiative 🙂

  7. Servetus says:

    I wish I could give away hours I’ve slept like sick days. You could have many, many of mine …

    I’ve always loved that scene in Spooks 8.5, the sleeping, the wakeup, and then the sort of annoyed way he stands at the stove and makes her coffee. Great microexpressions there.

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