Sleep the world over

Sleep is an odd business. As a race, we spend a third of our lives doing it, without it we go mad and die, and yet the world over, there is no one way to sleep. In our 21stC western world, it’s widely accepted that we should aim to sleep 8 hours per night, on bed with a sprung mattress and a pillow. But this has not always been the case, and indeed there are many peoples in the world today whose sleeping habits would seem very unusual to us indeed.

Toulouse Lautrec’s image of sleepers perfectly depicts our western idea of bedroom comfort

We think of bed as a place of warm, softness, and we often remove our jewellery, wear comfortable clothes and let our hair down in order to get the most out of the relaxing experience. But sleep methods and patterns develop everywhere depending on the specific needs of the people who practiced them…

Sleep like an Egyptian…

The Ancient Egyptians slept on headrests made of wood or stone. This may sound to us like a thoroughly unpleasant experience, but these austere supports had their advantages in the searing heat of Northern Africa. They raised the head, keeping it cool and away from crawling, biting insects. They were often decorated with spells and incantations to ward off evil and heal the sick. These headrests were valuable assets as they were often found amongst the grave goods of the dead. A soft pillow would only have led to a hot, sweaty, itchy night’s sleep for an Egyptian.

Glass and gold head rest from Tutankhamen’s tomb
A timeline of Egyptian headrests, courtesy of the image collection, British Museum.

In fact, headrests are still in use today among various indigenous tribes from all over Africa. They are a practical response to the heat, and useful for nomadic peoples whose resting places change frequently.

A Karo Man from Ethiopia using a headrest

No pain no gain…

The use of the headrest in Africa may also have originally related to some of these incredible tribal coiffeurs, whose protection may have made the use of any other supports impossible.

Extraordinary tribal hairdos in need of support

Sacrifice of comfort in sleep for the sake of fashion or beauty is also practiced by the Japanese Geisha. These highly trained and refined entertainers traditionally sport sublimely complex hairstyles which cost vast amounts of money and time to construct. The Geisha also goes through significant pain during the hairdressing process. It is therefore in everyone’s interest to keep the hair in immaculate condition.

A Geisha’s intricate coiffure

For this reason, a Geisha sleeps with her neck on a small wooden support or takamakura. This can cause crippling pain and sleep deprivation, and keeping the head balanced on the stand is a difficult skill to master. During her training period, a Geisha’s mentor may pour rice flour around the base of the stand, meaning if her head slipped in her sleep, flour sticks to her hair oil and she has to go through the excruciating pain of having it restyled. Eventually, the girl learns her lesson, and some older Geishas say that they can’t sleep without their neck rests, so used have they become to the discomfort.

A Maiko (Geisha in training) sleeping peacefully in an agonizing position

No sleep for the wicked

For the war-like Vikings, sleeping was a practical necessity rather than an enjoyable experience, and as such, they had no specific sleeping space within the home. The Viking family slept individually wrapped in furs and lying on benches attached to the walls of the Longhouse. In the day, the benches were used for sitting on, for cooking or as work-benches – an unsurprising practice perhaps for such a hardy race…

A Viking Longhouse with multifunctional bed-benches

The Spartans were another culture famous for its merciless warriors, and as such, took a very hard line on comfort. From the age of seven, Spartan boys were enrolled in the agoge – a brutal training system which lasted for approximately 10 years. The Spartan boys had to undergo horrific trials which turned them away from society and made them into hardened fighting machines. One of the lesser challenges included a forced rejection of sleeping comforts. Boys had to collect razor-sharp rushes from the river bank with their bare hands. They used these rushes as a mattress, and sleeping on their lacerating beds, were exposed day and night to the elements, with only a single rough cloak as a covering.

The Spartan Agoge

A bed time Murder mystery

Around the world, the design and form of the beds people sleep on have been influenced by various superstitions, beliefs and mystical practices. In South Africa, it was not unusual for those who slept on mats on the ground in the townships to be found mysteriously dead in the morning. It became rumoured that a small demon called the Tokoloshe had crept in and murdered them as they slept.

The demonic Tokoloshe

The demon was said to have stumpy legs and huge teeth, and thus, if the bed was elevated on bricks, the Tokoloshe was unable to claim his victims. The fear of the Tokoloshe is still rampant in South African townships, and thus most beds are lifted up on bricks. Scientists have suggested that the deaths can be blamed on carbon monoxide, as the deadly, heavy gas crept along the floor of the hut from the smouldering fire. Those raised up on bricks were not effected as they were out of the gas’ way.

A bed on bricks – safe from demons and fumes

So throughout history sleep practices have differed the world over, and even today, many cultures indulge in traditional forms of sleep that are quite mysterious to the western mind. Whilst learning about other peoples’ habits is truly fascinating, we at And So To Bed are very glad that at the end of a long, hard day we are able to curl up in a warm bed, between soft sheets and dream the night away…

Bed down in the Churchill upholstered in Linen from And So To Bed
Sleep snug Manoir from And So To Bed
Sink into the sumptuous Grand Versailles from And So To Bed
Ambassador Pillows From And So To Bed


  1. Andrew K Fletcher says: June 7, 2017 at 8:36 am

    Hi, do you have a source for your image? Title: A bed on bricks – safe from demons and fumes

    I would love to read more about this practice and if possible use your image. Was the bed raised at the head end only? It looks like the bed is tilted judging by the way the join is parting at the head end?

    Kind regards


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