The association between sleep and death is one of the most consolidated topoi of the literature of all time: Homer praises the power of Hypnos, Thanatos’s brother, in the episode called Διὸς ἀπάτη (‘the deception of Zeus’), when Hera aims to distract his royal husband from the duties of war and to divert him from supporting the Trojans (Il.14.231-7):

There she met Sleep, the brother of Death;

and she clasped him by the hand, and spake and addressed him:

“Sleep, lord of all gods and of all men,

if ever thou didst hearken to word of mine,

so do thou even now obey, and I will owe thee thanks all my days.

Lull me to sleep the bright eyes of Zeus beneath his brows,

so soon as I shall have lain me by his side in love. (transl. Murray)

Hypnos and Thanatos are entrusted with the task of shipping Sarpedon’s body to Lycia so that he may receive his funeral honors (Il. 16.677-83): 

So spake he, nor was Apollo disobedient to his father’s bidding,

but went down from the hills of Ida into the dread din of battle.

Forthwith then he lifted up goodly Sarpedon forth from out the range of darts,

and when he had borne him far away, bathed him in the streams of the river,

and anointed him with ambrosia, and clothed him about with immortal raiment,

and gave him to swift conveyers to bear with them, even to the twin brethren, Sleep and Death,

who set him speedily in the rich land of wide Lycia. (transl. Murray)

In his depiction of golden race, Hesiod says that the heroes ‘died as overcome by sleep’ (Th.116) in order to depict their ideal, painless death. Later on, he offers a long description of the relationship between sleep and death (Th. 755-66):


Hypnos and Thanatos

and the one holds all-seeing light for them on earth,

the other holds in her arms Sleep the brother of Death,

even evil Night, wrapped in a vaporous cloud.

And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings,

Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks

upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven,

nor as he comes down from heaven.

And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth

and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men;

but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him

is pitiless as bronze: whomever of men he has once seized he holds fast:

and he is hateful even to the deathless gods. (transl. G. Evelyn-White)

The lyric poet Alcman (7th century BC) beautifully compares the heart-breaking gaze of the beloved girl to sleep or death (fr. 3 Davies):


. . . and with limb-loosening desire, and she looks (at me?)

more meltingly than sleep or death, and not in vain is she

sweet. But Astymeloisa makes no answer to me; no, holding

the garland, like a bright star of the shining heavens or a

golden branch or soft down (transl. D.A. Campbell)

while Euenus of Parus (5th-4th century BC), in one of his elegies composed for a symposium, compares sleep and death and associates them with the experience of inebriation and love (fr. 2 West):

The best measure of Bacchus is that which is neither

large, nor very small, for he is the cause either of grief or of

madness. He delights in being mixed as the fourth with three

Nymphs; then he’s most ready for the bedroom. But if he

should blow with gale force, he turns his back on love and

plunges one into sleep, the neighbour of death. (transl. D.E. Gerber)

Sometimes, the god of sleep is celebrated for its benefits and is invoked as a remedy for human griefs. In Sophocles’ Philoctetes (vv. 828-32), the chorus invokes Hypnos to set Philoctetes free from the pain caused by his purulent wound:

Divine Sleep, god who knows no pain, Sleep, stranger to anguish,

come in favor to us,

come happy, and giving happiness, great King!

Keep before his eyes

such light as is spread before them now.

Come to him, I pray you, come with power to heal!(transl. R. Jebb)

In a well-known passage of Plato’s Apology (40 c-e) Socrates, just before his own execution, compares death to sleep:

For the state of death is one of two things: either it is virtually nothingness, so that the dead has no consciousness of anything, or it is, as people say, a change and migration of the soul from this to another place. And if it is unconsciousness, like a sleep in which the sleeper does not even dream, death would be a wonderful gain. For I think if any one were to pick out that night in which he slept a dreamless sleep and, comparing with it the other nights and days of his life, were to say, after due consideration, how many days and nights in his life had passed more pleasantly than that night, —I believe that not only any private person, but even the great King of Persia himself would find that they were few in comparison with the other days and nights. So if such is the nature of death, I count it a gain; for in that case, all time seems to be no longer than one night. But on the other hand, if death is, as it were, a change of habitation from here to some other place, and if what we are told is true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing could there be, judges?

Elsewhere, Hypnos is portrayed in a twofold way. From the one side, he is the god who releases from griefs and sufferings, from the other he is brother and forerunner of death, like in the Orphic Hymn 85:

Sleep [Hypnos], king of Gods, and men of mortal birth, sov’reign of all sustain’d by mother Earth;

For thy dominion is supreme alone, o’er all extended, and by all things known.

‘Tis thine all bodies with benignant mind in other bands than those of brass to bind:

Tamer of cares, to weary toil repose, from whom sweet solace in affliction flows.

Thy pleasing, gentle chains preserve the soul, and e’en the dreadful cares of death controul;

For Death [Thanatos] and Lethe with oblivious stream, mankind thy genuine brothers justly deem.

With fav’ring aspect to my pray’r incline, and save thy mystics in their works divine. (trans. T. Taylor 1792)