Illustration for The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Illustration in the public domain.
In traditional folklore the Sandman appears in many stories for children. He is a character of myth found in northern and central European folktales. The ‘sleep’ on one’s eyes upon waking is supposedly the magical sand or grit sprinkled into a sleeping child’s eyes to bring good dreams. The Sandman is a ‘night visitor’ of some notoriety who uses a window to gain access to a sleeping child. The Sandman is regarded as one of the most serious of the so-called ‘night visitors’ who also seems to possess the sexual innuendo of the predatory bogeyman (Warner, 1989). Indeed, in the Spanish tradition he is children are chided by their parents with the expression “Que viene el Coco” – or “Here comes the bogeyman.”
Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffman (1776-1832) was a German author known for his two collections of fantastic tales, including Night Pieces (1817) which included his version called The Sandman. In this story of The Sandman he is dressed in witches garb and makes the Sandman an individual of evil omen and intensity. It is Hoffman’s figure of evil intent who sprinkles sand in the eyes of wakeful children. The outcome is that their eyes fall out, then collected by the Sandman and taken home to his roost on the moon, as sustenance for his own offspring.
Today the horrific shape of the Sandman has been softened and ameliorated so that he now appears as a supportive but still capricious helper. In the same sense as the Scottish nursery rhyme about Wee Willie Winkie. The Sandman represents in varying degrees a form of admonishment and threat to coerce children into submission. There are numerous complementary figures to The Sandman which include of course WeeWillie Winkie: the wolf at the door’; the ‘little people’; ‘the dustman is coming’; and also the ‘man in the moon’. In Romanian folklore a very similar figure is Mos Ene or Ene the Elder.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), was the Danish writer of 168 fairy tales which are always popular with children. His stories always combined a whimsicality with a significant amount of irony and morality. He wrote of a Sandman in the form of his character Ole Lukaje in 1841. This individual was an acceptable helper who gently assuaged the sleeplessness of children. Other versions of the story of the Sandman variously show him as taking children away if they do not sleep and are part of a series of tales involving sinister ‘night visitors’ in folklore and fairy tales. The Sandman, as an imaginary figure encouraged by many mothers, became a part of children’s folklore development. A nursery story that arose and grew in the tradition of the bogey he was in reality a benevolent character rather than malevolent.
Andersen, Han C. (1978). Complete Fairy Tales. Wordsworth, London.
Hoffman, E. T. A. (1982). Tales from Hoffman (Classics). London.
Leach M. (1972). Standard Dictionary of Folkore, Mythology and Legend. Funk & Wagnall, New York.
Warner, M. (1989). No Go the Bogeyman. London.