Miscellany

“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.”

Miscellany

Astronomers theorizing the existence of small moons orbiting larger moons have proposed calling them “moonmoons.” The planet Kepler-1625b, which has a Neptune-sized moon distantly orbiting it, was cited as “sort of the best-case scenario for a moonmoon.”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

“Considering how seldom people think of looking for sunset at all, and how seldom, if they do, they are in a position from which it can be fully seen,” it’s rare to witness an excellent one, John Ruskin argued in 1843. Evelyn Waugh saw a radiant pink sunset behind a shadow-gray Mount Etna in 1929. “Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature,” he wrote, “was quite so revolting.”

Miscellany

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?”

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

A special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives asked Lewis W. Leeds, a ventilation engineer and prominent critic of the popular belief that night air is inherently harmful to humans, to assess air quality inside the Capitol in 1868. The resulting report concluded that the House Chamber “is really the foulest place in the whole building,” with vents “so choked up with tobacco spittal and sweepings of the floor as to render the air rising from them very disagreeable.”

Miscellany

In Japanese tradition, ghosts and spirits are more likely to appear at dusk or dawn than in the middle of the night. “In order for people to see them and be frightened by them,” wrote folklorist Kunio Yanagita, “emerging in the pitch-dark after even the plants have fallen asleep is, to say the least, just not good business practice.”

Miscellany

Asked whether it was night or day that first emerged when the universe came into existence, sixth-century-bc Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus replied, “Night, earlier by a day.”

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

Into the early modern period, the word bug referred to a phantom in the dark; a 1535 translation of the Bible made for Henry VIII came to be known as the Bug Bible for its rendering of Psalm 91:5 as “Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed of eny bugges by night.” The word was changed to terrors in later editions, but the original sense still colors the common bedtime warning against letting bedbugs bite.

Miscellany

A study of sixty-two mammalian species found that animals around the world have shifted into more nocturnal lives. “Humans are now this ubiquitous, terrifying force on the planet,” said lead author Kaitlyn Gaynor, “and we are driving all the other mammals back into the night-time.” The Southeast Asian sun bear, formerly diurnal, now spends as much as 70 percent more time awake at night to avoid humans.

Miscellany

Emily and Charlotte Brontë, insomniacs both, would walk together in circles around the dining room table until they were tired enough to sleep. When Emily died and Charlotte suffered alone, her insomnia worsened; she added to her route, often wandering down neighborhood streets and into the cemetery until daybreak.

Miscellany

“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.”

Miscellany

Psychologists at the University of California recognized a lack of sleep “as a social repellent” and its effect contagious: “People who come in contact with a sleep-deprived individual, even through a brief one-minute interaction, feel lonelier themselves as a result.”

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

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.”

Miscellany

Setting grim tales during nighttime was critiqued as a cliché in 1594 by Thomas Nashe. “When any poet would describe a horrible tragical accident,” he wrote, “to add the more probability and credence unto it, he dismally begins to tell how it was dark night when it was done.”

Miscellany

Annoyed by a prohibition against nocturnal work in late medieval France—enacted because candles provided insufficient light for quality performance—employers complained to Louis XI that workers occupied themselves from “four or five o’clock until the next day with various games and dissipations, and hardly want to apply themselves to do well.” In the winter of 1467, they received permission to extend working hours to ten pm.

Miscellany

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.

Miscellany

According to his nephew, Pliny the Elder liked to rise in the middle of the night and study by lamplight. “Admittedly, he fell asleep very easily,” Pliny the Younger wrote, “and would often doze and wake up again during his work.”

Miscellany

“The difference between us is very marked,” wrote Frederick Douglass to Harriet Tubman in 1868. “Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day—you in the night.”

Miscellany

“You don’t need a brain to sleep” was a central takeaway for a team of biologists who found that Cassiopea, a genus of upside-down jelly­fish, display signs of sleep deprivation when disturbed by water pulses at twenty-minute intervals throughout the night.