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Exploring 10 Unusual Sleep and Dream Beliefs across Cultures

Sleep is a pleasure to many and a waste of time to others. To even more, it is simply one of life’s everyday necessities that they probably do not spend much time thinking about. But why must we do it? What is the best way to do it? Why do we have dreams, and do they mean anything?

These are questions that have puzzled some people in practically all human societies throughout history. Plenty of answers have been proposed, and at some point, those deemed popular or plausible enough become embedded into the culture of different places. From dream interpretations to unfounded fears of suffocation, this list shares 10 strange beliefs about sleep and dreams from societies around the globe.

10 Ancient Egyptians Did Not Believe People Dreamed

Ancient Egyptian beliefs about dreams evolved over time. However, records from approximately 2600–664 BC reveal they did not believe people dreamed. At least, they did not dream in the modern, active sense of the word. Ancient Egyptians certainly experienced dreams, but it did not occur to them that people themselves caused dreams to happen. Dreams, which they called “resut,” meaning “awakening,” were believed to objectively exist outside of the sleeping person’s head. They were not considered a psychological creation.

This was reflected in their language, where “dream” was not a verb; it was not something a person could do. Instead, it was something they could see or within which things could be seen. They existed on the threshold of the physical world and the afterlife, and they allowed dreamers to communicate with gods and the dead. This made them a popular device in ancient Egyptian stories, poems, and songs, just like they are viewed today.[1]

9 Some Ancient Greeks Believed Dreams Could Diagnose and Heal Diseases

Most ancient Greeks believed some dreams could tell them about the past, present, and future. These were “true” dreams. “False” dreams had no meaning even when interpreted correctly. If a dream was caused by a god or demon, it was “divine,” and those caused by the dreamer’s bodily state were “natural.” Ancient Greek doctors believed natural and true dreams could teach them about unobservable physical processes and states. Even the most famous names in ancient medicine believed this, such as Hippocrates and Galen.

Hippocrates tried to explain how dreams provided this information, but others simply accepted it as fact and used dreams to help their diagnoses. Divine dreams were also medically valuable because patients could get information about their illnesses or even be cured by a visit from a healing god, like Asclepius. The sick actively sought visits by sleeping in sanctuaries dedicated to such gods; this was known as “incubation.”[2]

8 Guatemalan Worry Dolls

It is common for children to sleep with some sort of inanimate companion, such as a teddy bear. These might provide some comfort to the child and help them sleep, but the Mayan equivalent goes a step further and is believed to help children solve their problems while they sleep. Also known as trouble dolls, or “Muñeca quitapena” in Spanish, the tiny anthropomorphic figures are made of wire, wool, and textile leftovers. They are usually brightly colored and can be found wearing everything from traditional Mayan clothes to wedding dresses and doctor’s white coats.

Children share their worries with the dolls and place them under their pillows before they go to sleep at night. By doing so, they believe they will wake up with the wisdom and knowledge they need to banish their concerns. This is gifted to the children by the dolls during the night. This belief stems from the Mayan legend of Princess Ixmucane, who was given a special gift from the sun god, which allowed her to solve any problem that worried people.[3]

7 Thai Dream Interpretations Are Super Specific

It might be missed by short-term tourists visiting Thailand’s white-sand beaches, but superstition is sewn deep into the fabric of Thai society. With all kinds of fortune-telling and black magic being practiced, it is only natural that dreams should mean something to the Thai people, too. But rather than relying on experts to interpret their dreams like other societies, the Thais have an interpretation prepared for an extraordinarily large number of often bizarre dream scenarios.

Had a dream where your tooth fell out? According to the people of Thailand, one of your relatives will die. If it was a tooth from your upper jaw, they will be from your father’s side of the family, while a lower jaw tooth means they will be from your mother’s.

Or if a snake wraps itself around your body in another dream, this is good news because it means you will shortly meet your soulmate. If you want to win some type of lucky draw like the lottery, keep your eyes peeled for dead bodies. And if living people are in your dreams, do not kiss them, as this will surely bring bad luck, just like falling off a buffalo.[4]

6 The Polish Bet on Their Dreams

Remembering dreams is often difficult, but between the 17th and 20th centuries, Polish people had a good incentive to try. They believed items seen in their dreams would reveal winning lottery numbers. Lotteries in Poland steadily grew from a niche form of entertainment in the 1700s to a social phenomenon in the 1800s, and with the increase in popularity came the increased publication of dream books.

These guides helped gamblers interpret their dreams and translate dream images into numbers on which to bet. One book from 1832 instructed gamblers on what to do if they dreamed of a stomach—bet on number 66—or plucking a pepper from their garden—number 29. Another dream book from 1920 offered some insight into the dreamer’s future as well as a numerical suggestion. For example, those who dream of tombstones should expect to lose a friend, but they might end up rich if they bet on number 70.[5]

5 Romanians Girls Believe Basil under Pillow Reveals Their Prince Charming

Boboteaza­ Day, also known as Epiphany Day, is when Romanians celebrate the baptism of Christ. It takes place on January 6th and is filled with all kinds of traditional activities. For the men, a priest will hurl a wooden cross into a river or lake, and the men race across the ice-cold water to retrieve it. The winner is believed to be blessed for the rest of that year. Fortunately, Romanian women do not have to dive into freezing lakes.

Instead, they get a chance to find out who they will marry—by dreaming about them. There is a small thing they must do first, which is to place a sprig of basil under their pillow before they sleep. Some traditions within Romania also ask girls to bake and eat a salty bun before sleeping to make them thirsty. This way, they can dream about a man bringing them water. If their dream is successful, they believe the man they see will be their future husband. But they do not need to worry if they do not get a visit. The ladies have another chance on June 23rd, but this time, they need to put some lady’s bedstraw flowers under their pillow instead.[6]

4 Koreans Believe Sleeping with a Fan on Can Kill You

Millions of people around the globe use fans to help them sleep on hot summer nights. If any of them were accidentally dying in their sleep, the world would probably hear about it. This does not seem to be the case, yet some people from South Korea grow up stubbornly believing they will die if they fall asleep in a room with a fan on and the windows closed. If hypothermia does not get them, then it will be asphyxiation.

However, neither is scientifically possible, so why do many Koreans believe it? One suggestion is that this example of modern folklore is used as a cover story for a more uncomfortable and taboo truth; many of the reported “fan deaths” of young people might actually be cases of alcohol poisoning. The superstition has become so pervasive that fan manufacturers in South Korea equip their fans with timers to assure people it will not keep spinning while they are asleep.[7]

3 Some Western Cultures Believe Sleeping Alone Helps Babies Become Independent

Tired parents in the UK and some other Western cultures tend to quickly want their babies to sleep for longer stretches at night. This is done in many ways, from letting children cry it out alone to attending “sleep schools” that train their children. Experts believe a social myth has developed that tells Western parents that night-waking is not normal behavior for babies. Parents also seem to believe encouraging babies to sleep on their own will help them grow up to be more independent.

Both of these beliefs are absent from many other societies, where children often sleep in the same bed or room as their parents for several years yet still grow up to be healthy, independent adults. These expectations also did not exist historically. They emerged in recent decades even though babies’ biology has not undergone any dramatic change. It has, however, been found that interrupted sleep increases the risk of postpartum depression among new parents. These myths may stem from efforts to protect parents from it by getting the baby to sleep through the night.[8]

2 This Entire Indian Village Sleeps on the Ground

Pay a visit to Tipirisinga village in Odisha, India, and you will only be offered a thin mattress made of date palm leaves or wooden slats on which to sleep. The hosts are not being unwelcoming; everybody there sleeps that way and has done so for many decades. None of the 300 residents use a bed, not even when they are sick. This is because the mostly tribal community believes sleeping in a bed will anger their village goddess, Barihani.

She will show her displeasure at their use of a bed by causing it to topple over, sending snakes to the sleeper’s house, or causing other disturbances to their family. Several villagers claim to have known such things to happen, so everyone now sticks to the rules set by the village Kalo, their priest. Also, out of deference to Barihani, the villagers do not drink from a fountain near her temple, and they host a yearly celebration which often includes animal sacrifice.[9]

1 Widows of the Luo Tribe Sleep with Their Dead Husbands

The Luo are a large African ethnic group spanning regions of western Kenya, northern Uganda, and the Mara Region in northern Tanzania. There are a number of traditional cultural practices to which the Luo people—also known as the Joluo or Jonagi—adhere, even in modern times, despite the fact some are considered highly controversial by outsiders.

But one tradition that used to be practiced but has since disappeared is having a widow sleep in the same room as their dead husband’s body before it is buried. The widow is also expected to have a dream in which her dead husband visits her to make love for the last time. When this happens, the Luo believe the widow has been freed and purified. She is then ready to remarry. Further cleansing rituals are needed to purify the widow if she has no such dream.[10]

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Written by Kieran Torbuck

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