This painting, as labeled by the American artist Mary L. Macomber (c. 1861-1916), strives to depict the concepts of Night and Sleep in a personified, humanoid form. This practice is not new, as various concepts and emotions were long elevated to godhood in ancient times. The divine personifications of Night and Sleep to the ancient Greeks were the deities, Nyx and Hypnos. Rome followed suit, having their own personified gods of Night and Sleep, named Nox and Somnus (or Sopor). According to the ancient mythology, Sleep was a child of Night. Curiously, the artist excluded from the shadowy family portrait another important child of Night above—Sleep’s brother, Death, known in ancient Greece as Thanatos, and to the Romans as Mors (or Letum). The ancient Greek poet Hesiod (c. 8th century BCE) described this trio in his Theogony:
“Baleful Night, shrouded in clouds of mist, cradles Sleep, the brother of Death. There [near Hades’ house] the sons of gloomy Night have their dwelling, Sleep and Death, fearsome gods. Never does the shining Sun look upon them with his rays when he goes up into heaven, nor when he climbs down from heaven…There, further on, stands the echoing house of the chthonic god, and in front of it a fearsome hound stands guard” (Hesiod, Theogony, between lines 746-769).
Such was ancient Greece’s view of personified and deified Night, Sleep and Death, which influenced Rome’s perception of their own chthonic gods. There is, however, a proverbial elephant in the room that divides the ancient depictions of Night and Sleep, in contrast to Mary L. Macomber’s painting. In Greek and Roman mythology, Sleep was universally described as a male god. In Macomber’s painting, however, Sleep was painted as a woman. It could have been proposed that the sleepy woman was Pasithea—the wife of Sleep (therefore Night’s daughter-in-law), and a goddess of rest in her own right. Yet, Mary L. Macomber was emphatic in her artwork’s title that she painted Night and Sleep.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.