Neo-Confucian philosopher Fujiwara Seika visited a friend on the night of the Han mid-autumn festival in 1606. As the moon appeared, the men climbed onto the roof. “The guest felt in his heart the endlessness of space,” wrote Seika’s student Hayashi Razan, “but the host seemed not to notice this, so the guest also acted as if he had not either.” Drunk on wine just before dawn, the pair began asking questions of the moon. No answers came, Razan wrote: “What could the moon say?”
In August 2018 data scientist David Bamman examined how authors recently interviewed in the New York Times’ By the Book column answered the question “What’s on your nightstand?” Women mentioned male and female authors almost equally; men mentioned male authors more than 79 percent of the time. “Don’t read in bed,” advised Fran Lebowitz. “It’s too stimulating. Watch TV instead. It’s boring.”
A longtime practice of European peasants was to bring cows and sheep inside for the night. If one could ignore “the nastiness of their excrements,” a late seventeenth-century visitor to Ireland opined, “the sweetness of their breath” and “the pleasing noise they made in ruminating or chewing the cud” might lull a person to sleep. A visitor to the Hebrides noted, however, that while urine was regularly collected and discarded, the dung was removed only once a year.
The practice of yobai, “night crawling,” was common in rural communities in medieval Japan, and continued into the twentieth century. A young man would visit a young woman’s house after dark, disguising his features with a cloth to avoid embarrassment should his advances be rejected. These premarital liaisons could become formal if a child were conceived.
When a boat of carousing European sailors on the Bosporus awoke the sleeping Sultan Selim III one night in 1790, the Ottoman leader issued an emergency order to his administration against night revelers: “Warn all ambassadors and Europeans never to perform this shameless act again. I will mercilessly kill whoever does it.”
“Darkness has come upon me,” a hymn in the Rig Veda laments. “O Dawn, banish it like a debt.” The morning light is here asked, suggested translator Wendy Doniger, to act as a collection agency—to “make good what darkness had incurred or ‘exact’ the darkness from night as one would exact money.”
In 2005 the British Cheese Board attempted to dispel the idea that eating cheese before bed causes nightmares. No evidence of this “evil myth” was reported among two hundred volunteers, though eating Stilton was found to lead to “crazy” dreams, while eating cheddar often led to dreams of celebrities. “We hope that people will think positively about eating cheese before bed,” said the board secretary.
In September 1776, fearing illness from night air, John Adams asked Benjamin Franklin to close the window of their room in a New Jersey inn. “I believe you are not acquainted with my Theory of Colds,” Franklin responded, launching into “a harangue upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration” in favor of leaving windows open. “I was so much amused,” Adams wrote in his journal, “that I soon fell asleep and left him and his philosophy together.”
Poet Edward Fairfax kept a 1621 account of his daughter Helen’s terrible nightmares, describing an incident in which she complained about a demonic white cat that “has been long upon me and drawn my breath.” The cat, she said, “has left in my mouth and throat so filthy a smell that it does poison me.”
“When the white man landed on the moon, my father cried,” a young Oklahoma Indian told psychologist Robert Coles in the 1970s. “He was sure Indians were crying up there, and trying to hide, and hoping that soon they’d go back to their earth, the white men.” The boy also spoke to his aunt. “The moon is yours to look at and talk to,” she told him, “so don’t worry.”