Somnus, Where You At?

Somnus_god_cardI fell asleep on the couch sometime around 11:00 pm and woke up at 2:26 am. It’s now 4:06, and, despite feeling tired, I can’t seem to get back to sleep.

This waking up on the couch in the middle of the night happens to me a lot, but then I usually shuffle off to bed, lay awake for about 30 minutes or so, and then fall back asleep. Not tonight, though.

Is this inability to enter the land of nod insomnia or just plain sleeplessness? Is there a difference? Since I have the time, and nothing better to do, I thought I’d look into it.

Insomnia, all my general dictionaries, seem to agree, is defined as something akin to “prolonged or abnormal inability to sleep” or “abnormal wakefulness; sleeplessness.” These dictionaries are also in agreement about insomnia‘s origin — a combination of the Latin words in-, not and somnus, sleep.

Things get a little more interesting, and a lot more specific, in the psychological dictionaries. For example, the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology defines insomnia as:

Inability to fall asleep or to maintain restful sleep, the condition usually being chronic. Initial insomnia (also called sleep-onset insomnia) is difficulty falling asleep; middle insomnia is waking in the middle of the night and having difficulty going back to sleep; and terminal insomnia is waking up at least two hours before one’s normal waking time and being unable to fall asleep again.*

The Psychiatric Dictionary (6th Ed.) splits this sleepless hair a little more, and then goes on to give the insomniac even more to stress over.

Insomnia disorder consists of difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep at least three times a week for at least a month. The loss of sleep produces significant daytime fatigue or impaired occupational or social functioning.**

Great, so in addition to incessantly mulling why I can’t fall asleep, now I add worrying about how lack of sleep affects my social functioning! Thank you Psychiatric Dictionary!


Things get a little more pleasant and poetic (or at least less stress-inducing) in the classical dictionaries, which I turned to to investigate Somnus (capital S), the Roman god of sleep (hence somnus, the Latin word for sleep). According to the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art,

[Somnus is] the son of Night and the twin brother of Death, with whom he dwells (according to Hesiod) in the eternal darkness of the farthest West. Thence he sweeps over the land and sea, bringing sleep to men and gods, since he has power over all alike, and could lull to sleep even Zeus himself…. Sleep is represented in art in various forms and situations, and frequently with the wings of an eagle or a butterfly on his forehead, and a poppy-stalk and a horn, from which he dropped slumber on those whom he lulls to rest.

I’ll take this kind of talk over that harsh, clinical business any day. Plus, now I know who to petition when sleep remains elusive. Or, at least I think I do. The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology doesn’t have an entry for Somnus, but it does devote some text to Hypnus (also spelled Hypnos), his Greek double.

The personification of sleep, he was the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus [brother of Gaea (earth), Tartarus (underworld), Eros (love), and Nyx (night)] … and the twin of Thanatos (Death). Homer made him an inhabitant of Lemnos (an island in the northern Aegean Sea). Later his home became more remote; in the Underworld according to Virgil, or in the land of Cimmerians, according to Ovid, who described a magic place where everything was asleep. It was often claimed that he had wings, traveling fast over land and sea and lulling humans to sleep.

Cimmerians sounds nice.

The time is now 5:41 am.



* For the sake of thoroughness, I thought I’d mention that the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology traces insomnia back not to Latin, but to Greek insommus, sleeplessness, from in-, not + somnus, sleep + -ia, indicating a condition or quality.

** The Psychiatric Dictionary goes on to list several types of insomnia after it’s initial entry for the term. They are:

Childhood-onset, or idiopathic, insomnia, which begins before puberty and persists into adulthood.

Learned insomnia, which is defined as “difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep based on psychological reasons, such as insomnia that begins during a period of stress but continues after the stress itself has disappeared.”

Rebound insomnia, which is the “worsening of sleep beyond the baseline level if insomnia following immediately upon discontinuation of medication that was used to treat the insomnia in the first place.”

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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