Published 7 months ago
Sleep in ancient times
You might not be aware that humans throughout history have not always had the same sleeping habits. Research shows that for a long time, it was normal for humans to divide their sleep at night into two phases, from which we get the term biphasic sleep.
Sleeping…in two rounds
Studies by US historian Roger Ekirch present us with a discontinuous sleep model adopted by humans from very ancient times, with Ekirch even citing the Odyssey among his sources. The two sleep periods would last four hours each and were interspaced by 3 hours during which a person was awake. This time was dedicated to performing certain activities, such as house chores or reading, writing, or meditating.
When did the paradigm shift? These studies suggest that the turning point occurred during the Industrial Revolution, thanks to the introduction of electricity. This led to changes in people’s sleeping habits, whereas before, a person would normally go to sleep at sunset and therefore rather early depending on the time of year, and would also split the time spent sleeping to make room during the night hours for other activities. The availability of artificial lighting suddenly made it possible to prolong the day, which led to combining the two sleep phases into a single one and carrying out various activities during the rest of the day.
The devil’s hour
Among the historical accounts of human biphasic sleep, one cannot help but mention the so-called 'devil’s hour' or 'witching hour'. For a long time, the Catholic Church prohibited any activity between three and four in the morning, as it feared people would use this time to engage in witchcraft. It was a widespread belief that witches and evil spirits were more likely to appear and give a full display of their powers at this time of night. Why 3-4:00 a.m. though? A plausible explanation when Christ Jesus was crucified: some of the Gospel accounts place the crucifixion as having occurred at the 9th hour, that is, at three in the afternoon. The assumption was that evil had no better time to emerge than at the exact opposite time, i.e., 3 a.m.
It probably wouldn’t be possible to divide our sleep again into two phases as people used to in the past, but it is quite interesting to imagine our ancestors’ lifestyle and their sleeping habits and therefore also the way the organized their daytime activities.