Also Known As: John, Jon Blund, Klaas Vaak, Ole Lukøje
Sweet dreams are made of these…
The Sandman is a figure mainly from Western and Northern European folklore who is responsible for sprinkling the sands of sleep so that people can dream. At its heart, it’s a very simple piece of folklore that doesn’t seem to have much more than that. Rather, I should say that the Sandman is a deceptively major figure of folklore who appears to be a minor power. How much relevance he will have depends on the nature of the stories he is found in and those can vary widely.
Description: It seems as if a lot of popular media and books will have a description of the sandman as a human-looking male wearing a Victorian-style sleeping gown and nightcap with tassel. He might have a bag of sand or just magically produce it from pockets or thin air.
Then you have other sources of media and books that really play with his description and the Sandman will look like however they want him to look. Since the Sandman’s realm is the Land of Nod or Realm of Dreams, he could probably look however he wanted and suited the needs of the story being told.
The Land of Nod
Not the biblical Land of Nod where Cain was exiled to, but as in the Land of Sleep and Dreams.
First, we can thank Dean Jonathon Swift for this delightful play and pun on words with his 1738 book “A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation.”
At any rate, the realm of Dreams, Dream Realm, or Land of Nod is sometimes shown as being the Sandman’s domain where he reigns all-powerful and supreme, so long as people remain asleep or he doesn’t leave it.
Since it’s dreams, the place can look like anything and anywhere, and the Sandman can look however he wants and suit the needs of who’s writing the stories.
Here’s Sand In Your Eyes!
The easiest explanation for a Sandman is the morning crust or rheum that people wake up with around their eyes. It’s common, it happens to everyone, and way back when it was easy to believe and explain to young children where this discharge came from by saying that the Sandman brought it as the dust he sprinkles in people’s eyes so they can dream.
Quite frankly, calling it Sleep or Sand is a lot more poetical than calling it rheum, dried discharge, or mucus.
Getting A Good Night’s Rest
In many places, the Sandman is known by different names and has slightly different appearances.
Canada – Nilus the Sandman was a television series that aired in the 1990’s.
Denmark – The famous author, Hans Christian Andersen’s 1841 story called Ole Lukøje about the Sandman who sprinkles sand in children’s eyes to sleep. The name Ole Lukøje means “Close Eye” in Danish. Ole Lukøje carries two umbrellas, one of which has pictures underneath, that when he opens it over good children, they have good dreams. The other umbrella is blank, this one Ole Lukøje’s hold over naughty children so they will have a heavy, dreamless sleep. Instead of using sand, Ole Lukøje squirts milk into children’s eyes… a little strange. At the end of the story, it is revealed that Ole Lukøje has a brother, who only visits once, bringing Death. The brother’s name is also Ole Lukøie.
Dutch – In the Netherlands and places like South Africa, the Sandman is known as Klaas Vaak.
Germany – Unser Sandmännchen (Our Little Sandman) is very similar to Anderson’s Ole Lukøje and is part of a television series that has been broadcast since 1959. The show has also been adapted into comic book form.
Scandinavia – The Sandman is the traditional folk character who sprinkles sand or dust into people’s eyes, so they sleep and dream. He’s a feature of many children’s stories.
Sweden – In English translations, the Sandman is known as John or Jon Blund.
The Stuff Of Nightmares
Every now and then, someone likes to write a story featuring the Sandman in a more sinister light. Okay… that makes sense when the story of the Sandman likely comes from exasperated parents trying to get their children to go to sleep, that some variations could hold similarities to stories of the Bogeyman.
Bonhome Sept-Heur – Meaning the Seven O’Clock Guy, this is a French-Canadian figure who will throw sand in children’s eyes who refuse to go to sleep so he can blind them before carrying them away in his bag.
Der Sandmann – Written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816 is just one such book wherein the Sandman throws sand in the eyes of children who refuse to go to sleep, causing their eyes to fall out. These would then be collected up and fed to the Sandman’s children on the Moon. Lovely…
In case you’re curious, in 1993, Paul Berry would adapt this story into a stop-motion short that won Craft Prize for “Best Animation” and got an Oscar nomination for “Best Animated Short Film.”
Mos Ene – Meaning Ene the Elder is a Romanian folklore figure very similar to the character described in Der Sandmann.
What Dreams May Come…
DC Comics – there have been a few characters who have carried the name of Sandman, at least one appears to be the actual folkloric figure where the other used hypnotic sand to control people. The latter appears in an episode from the 1960’s Batman series.
Marvel Comics – The Sandman appears as a villain to the hero Spider-man. It must be stressed and noted that this version of Sandman has nothing to do with dreams, just sand, turning into, manipulating, and controlling it.
Marvel has another villain from its Journey Into Mystery comics in 1961. This Sandman was an alien who crash-landed on earth.
The Sandman – This is a 75-part comic book series written by Neil Gaiman that many people are probably familiar with. The title character rules over a dream world and appears to various characters in the series in different guises and names.
There are several other comics that feature a Sandman character.
Miles To Go Before I Sleep…
There are several different songs and poems that all reference Sandman to one degree or another. The most famous of these is the 1954 song “Mister Sandman” by The Chordettes. Other songs and poems will have the Sandman as a focus or just briefly mentioned as allusions to sleep and dreams. Of course, there is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” that isn’t very pleasant as it sings of dreams turning into nightmares.
There are also a few movies that the Sandman has appeared, Disney’s The Santa Clause series where he is a member of the Legendary Council, and Dreamwork’s Rise of the Guardians where the Sandman is one such member and Guardian of Dreams.
Der Sandmann Kommt
Many of our stories for the Sandman begin to appear in the 18th century. Though the stories are likely older as a means of trying to explain the sleep or rheum, crust on one’s eyelids in the morning. Stories of the Sandman could have circulated as cautionary tales to try and get children to behave, especially if Hoffman’s Der Sandmann is used as a source.
In Germany, the idioms for “der Sandmann kommt,” meaning “the Sandman comes” have been found in German to French dictionaries dated to 1771. It’s used to describe a person who’s about to fall asleep. A later 1798 German grammar book posits the idiom as a phrase used by adults in a humorous manner towards children who are tired. That’s just German culture and the understanding is that such an idiom is likely to have been around a while in usage before making its way into dictionaries and grammar books.
Maybe? That seems to stretch it a bit. Though it brings us back to Hans Christian Anderson’s Ole Lukøje and his brother of the same name. Where one brings sleep and the other brings death.
In Greek mythology, Nyx, the goddess of Night, and Erebus, the god of Darkness have two children by the name of Hypnos, the god of Sleep, and Thanatos, the god of Death. These two brothers live near each other in the Underworld. Which suddenly makes Anderson’s tale have a lot more sense.
Taking Hypnos’ Roman name or equivalent deity, Somnus, three of his children are Morpheus, the God of Dreams, Phobetor or Frightener who takes various animal forms, and Phantasos who is Fantasy or Imagination. It needs to be noted that these three of Morpheus, Phobetor, and Phantasos make their first appearances in Ovid’s Metamorphosis and are likely literary concepts used to try and break down, better explain dreams.
It makes it easy to see the Sandman in European folklore as an amalgam of all these deities or he’s just Hypnos/Somnus in the modern day.