It was bigger and older than anyone had expected when researchers explored the subduct site in South Africa back in 2011. They assumed that they would uncover new clues of the people who had lived there. But what they found was truly a revelation. It was a bedroom. Well, not in the sense that you or I would immediately recognize, but to the trained eyes of a team of archaeologists, this cave was something that seems almost fundamental to modern humans and tucked away in a dark corner with something that made all of that clear.
It was a mattress. To be specific, it was a pile of compressed leaves that had been built up over tens of thousands of years of use.
In fact, scientists believe that the bottom oldest layer dates back to at least 77000 years, making it the oldest known mattress in the world. And it was apparently large enough for an entire family to sleep on something that was essential for warmth and safety. Sleep is essential to our survival without rest, our bodies can't repair themselves, a solid night of sleep can help us think better, remember more and perform better on tests. It helps athletes move faster and have better reaction times, and it helps fight off depression and anxiety.
Honestly, I don't know a single person who doesn't agree that sleep is the best thing ever, but it's also when we are the most vulnerable. We might not sleep on a clan sized mattress anymore, but we lock our homes, close our windows and hope that our sleep will be uninterrupted. But that doesn't mean that we'll always get what we want, because not all threats come from the outside world. In the realm of sleep and dreams and internal forces, sometimes the most frightening disturbances can come from within US visions that startle us awake or experiences that are too disturbing to allow us a good night's rest.
We're told that it's all a figment of our imagination, and most of us have wrestled with the horrifying question once or twice before. What happens if our nightmares become reality? I'm Aaron Mangay and this is Laura. Everyone has had a bad dream, in fact, it's one of those experiences that we have in common with just about everyone who has ever lived. In fact, people have been wrestling with nightmares for thousands of years, trying to put a finger on the root cause.
In the second century A.D., the Greek physician, Gailen, tried to explain them with the tools available to him at the time. Remember, this was a man who studied medicine in the legendary city of Alexandria, home to the largest library in the ancient world. But for all the advances in mathematics, physics and geography that were at his disposal, the world of dreams was a lot less documented. The best he was able to offer up was that these bad dreams, which he called a field tease, were a product of gastric disturbances.
Yeah, gas, heartburn, that sort of thing. His logic, at least to the folks in his day, was pretty sound noxious.
Fumes from undigested food were thought to be drifting up to the person's head during the night, causing all sorts of frightening symptoms. And while his approach missed the mark by a wide margin, he wasn't the only person contemplating the condition these people were experiencing. Six hundred years before Gaylan, Chinese writers recorded similar symptoms in a Book of Dreams and some late Saxon manuscripts also mentioned these nightmares while offering up remedies of their own that were said to bring relief. Even the witch hunter, King James, the first of England, spent some time trying to explain it.
In 1097, he wrote about how these troublesome, violent nightmares were afflicting people and said that the cause was Flem. Yeah, really? He said that when these people became horizontal in bed, the Flem in their body shifted to their chest and hearts where it blocked their vital spirits, as he called them. And I get it.
It's really easy to look back on the past from our modern perch and cast judgment on their logic. Look at how barbaric and stupid they were. Right. But always remember these people were doing the best they could with the resources they had. Their wacky ideas weren't born of a lack of intelligence or a stubborn refusal to accept obvious truth to them.
Things like noxious vapors and thick phlegm were the truth, and they had no reason to doubt any of it. But yes, we have learned a lot in the centuries since then. One of Sigmund Freud s own disciples, a man named Ernest Jones, channeled his best Freud impression in the early 19th hundreds and blamed these nightmares on repressed sexuality.
Well, because for Freud and his students, just about everything was rooted in sexuality. Today, we know so much more about these horrible nightmares. We know that at least 45 percent of people have experienced them and that they tend to happen as they are falling asleep or waking up. According to medical experts, those are the two special periods in our sleep cycle when our muscles are less responsive, making it easier to feel out of control or trapped. Some patients even claim to have hallucinations or to hear odd sounds in their room, and many report the oppressive feeling of some force pressing down on their chest, making it difficult to breathe or impossible to move, which is why for the past 50 years or so, scientists have referred to the condition as sleep paralysis.
But let's remember, that's just a modern name to an ancient problem, and we still don't have all the answers. One man thought he did, though. His name was E Baron Von Deamer Brekke, a Dutch physician who lived and worked through much of the 17th century. Now we have to take what he says with a grain of salt, because this was a guy who lived through the plague outbreak of 16 35 and decided that the epidemic was a punishment sent by God to ascend for world.
But he also recorded something else. In 16, 64, he wrote down a medical case about a woman in his care. He starts off with all of the basics. She was roughly 50 years old, in good health, strong and well-fed, but then moves on to the problem. Every night that she lay down to sleep, she claimed to feel a great weight on her chest, making it difficult to breathe. And when she tried to change positions, she would discover that her entire body was paralyzed.
Von Ziemer Brek chalked up the whole experience to a common diagnosis from the 17th century, an overabundance of blood, as you might imagine, his recommendation was bloodletting, possibly with a cutting tool or perhaps with the help of leeches. But that diagnosis ignored something more sinister at work. According to his patient, that great weight on her chest sometimes took the form of the devil who sat upon her and held her down. Other times it appeared to be a large dog, and when she tried to move or cry out, all she could manage was in unintelligible groan.
And it's her revelation here that unlocks a whole new branch of folklore for us to explore, because to her and countless other patients who have experienced these things over the centuries, it's not a matter of tracking down the cause inside themselves. The source, it seems, was someone else entirely. It's a word that everyone knows, and yet very few truly understand nightmare, that simple throwaway term for weird dreams filled with frightening or stressful situations. We see it in pop culture with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Nightmare Before Christmas.
And we reference it in everyday life by referring to bad people or situations as a total nightmare. But the true roots of the word reveal something darker at first appears in print around the year thirteen hundred. At its inception, though, it had a very specific meaning. A nightmare was an evil female spirit that attacked men in their sleep, making them feel trapped and suffocated. It was, in fact, the first term for what we now refer to as sleep paralysis.
But it gets darker. A nightmare when you break it down is a measure that happens at night and there is a word with a pretty consistent meaning across all sorts of cultures, the German ma means incubus or demon. The Old Norse word Mara means the same thing as does the Serbian Mora and the Czech word mirror. Everywhere you look, the word is there and the meaning is the same. A nightmare in its original sense was the visitation of a demonic force on a sleeping person.
And even without that common terminology, it's an idea that can be found all around the world. The Inuit of Canada refer to it as UCU Mangere, Niek, while the Japanese call it kind of shibari, a word that literally means to tie with an iron rope, traveled the world and you'll find it everywhere. Cambodia, Vietnam, Nigeria, Egypt, you name it. The idea of a nightmare as an evil spiritual creature is just about universal. But one great place to look is Portugal.
There they have a very specific and very memorable bit of folklore about it. It's called the Pizza Darah and can best be described by telling you a quick story in the tale, a tiny little man wearing a red cap on his head somehow climbs through the keyhole in a person's bedroom door. Once inside, he climbs on top of the sleeper and forces them to have frightening dreams, placing his hands over their mouth to prevent screaming. By the time the Portuguese fleet arrived to colonise South America in the year 1900, the legend of the Redcap demon was already widespread.
So naturally, they brought those stories with them. But when they arrived, they discovered that the indigenous people of the area had eerily similar stories. People in the local Tupi tribe told stories of the carapella, described as an old woman who arrived at night to deliver unspeakable agonies to her sleeping victims. Another nearby tribe, the Gerta party, told similar tales but with different names. And these strands of folklore were all woven together by the Portuguese in those early days, mingling to become the Brazilian of Deira legends that we have today.
And I know that's a lot of information, a lot of words and places and jumping around. I'm kind of sorry, but I'm kind of not because you can learn so much about a culture through its language, the spread of ideas, the commonalities they share, and the core elemental ideas that all humans fear. But I can't leave this journey alone without one last story. It was recorded in the 1980s by a folklorist named David Hufford, who was working in Newfoundland to collect stories of the old hag, another variant of the nightmare tale.
One of the stories he came upon was that of a young man named Robert, who lived and worked in Newfoundland back in 1915. And if it's true, it's more than a little chilling. According to the tale, Robert worked as a teacher at a local school and as young people are known to do. He fell in love. The trouble was this young woman, Jean, was already committed to another man, but Robert was hopeful. After all, he was a teacher, educated, well-spoken and proper.
While Jean's current boyfriend was a rough, uneducated man with very little Polish, Robert made his desires known but was rebuffed, which must have been demoralising for him. But about a month after the events began, he had a horrible experience. He laid down one night and fell asleep, only to be awakened much later by a crushing weight on his chest, as if someone were trying to strangle him. Roberts term for his experience was that he was being hanged, that is, he was being attacked at night by a demonic old hag who crept into his room to torment him.
He even claimed that he could hear the had come in and then watch helplessly as she approached his bed. And this hag, he claimed, was being sent by Jean's angry boyfriend. This happened for a number of nights and was beginning to take its toll on him. In fact, he looked physically ill and the people who rented the room to him were convinced that he was going to die. So one day they brought in a local man who claimed that he had a solution to offer.
Robert was instructed to go to bed that night with a plank of wood beneath his sheets and across his chest and to keep a long knife gripped in his hand. The idea was that the board would prevent the old hag from torturing him, acting like a sort of shield, and that should buy him enough time to use the knife to kill her. Robert fell asleep that night, knife in hand and board across his chest. But instead of waking in the middle of the night, just as he had for so many nights in a row, he awoke at the first light of morning and he wondered how the old hag not visited him during the night.
But then he glanced down at the board on his chest. They're standing up as if sprouting from the wood itself was the knife that had been gripped by someone powerful and plunged into the board and yet failed to pierce through and do him harm. And it had been done so at an angle that would have been impossible for Robert to do during his sleep. The meaning was clear to him, the old hag had indeed paid him a visit, but upon finding the knife in his hands, she had chosen to try stabbing him over her usual methods of torture.
Had it not been for the board on his chest, he surely would have been killed. Assuming her mission had been successful. The old hag never returned, and Robert was able to sleep in peace from that day forward. But not all legends of the nightmare are about physical beings like devils or hag's. In fact, some of the most frightening theories speak of nightmares as something much less tangible and much more difficult to control. Ghosts. Catherine's husband, Henry, had a tendency to switch sides, at least that's what everyone around him liked to observe.
She was his third wife, after all, which told them that he was a wanderer, regardless of the fact that his first two wives had passed away. But Henry also switched sides politically, despite being a staunch supporter of the king, he changed his allegiance at the beginning of the English civil war to fall in line with Catherine's family ties to Cromwell and the parliamentarians. Sure, he also did it to prevent harm from falling on his household. But gossiping strangers often miss nuance, don't they?
And most importantly to those around him, he had left his faith behind, switching sides in politics might be something they could work through, but abandoning God, that was an invitation for disaster as far as they were concerned. Looking back, it's amazing how right they were. Catherine and Henry lived on his family estate in the Welsh county of Glamorgan down on the southern tip near Cardiff, but at the onset of the English Civil War and Henry's change of support to the side opposed to the monarchy, he headed off to war, leaving Catherine and their younger children behind.
But while he was away, something happened that was so terrifying that it caught the ear of writer and theologian Richard Baxter. What we know about the events in Catherine's home come to us from Baxter's records. It turns out he was so curious about it all that he sent letters all over the county looking for first hand information to help him build a better picture of the story. What we have today is all thanks to his obsessive detective work. One night, after a long day of managing the household and everything that entailed, Catherine retired to her bedroom for some sleep after extinguishing the candles and climbing into bed.
The silence was broken by what Baxter described as a great noise, much like the sound of a whirlwind and a violent banging of the doors or walls, as if the whole house were falling to pieces. And then out of the darkness, the figure of Catherine's husband, Henry, appeared. Should I come to bed? He asked her. But Catherine was certain that Henry was hundreds of miles away in Ireland serving with the parliamentarian forces there. So she shook her head.
You are not my husband. So no, you may not come into this bed. In response, the figure was said to have wailed in anger at her what he cried, not the husband of thy bosom, but still Catherine denied him what he wanted. Now, while the figure seemed unable to climb into the bed without her permission, it did continue to disturb the peace of the household. So one of Katherine's servants bundled up and rushed out of the house to fetch the local minister for help.
Not long after that, minister arrived with four other members of the clergy and they set up a prayer vigil throughout the rest of the night. And it seems to have worked.
The following night, though, after Catherine had fallen asleep, the disturbances returned again. The whirlwind shook the house and again the figure appeared out of the shadows. This time, though, the man seemed to bring a cloud of anger and hatred with him. A foul stench filled the room, as did thick smoke and the smell of sulfur. The darkness he brought with him was palpable. And then it evolved, the figure of Henry began to pace around the room and other parts of the house, as well as the sound of his footsteps echoed loudly, he sighed to as if completely disappointed in something.
And sometimes a shadow could be seen on the wall of a figure walking through a room.
But there was no visible figure to cast it. On a later occasion, Catherine was reported to have walked into her bedroom along with two of her mates, only to stop shorts and gasp in horror. There had been movements inside the curtains of her large canopy bed. But after carefully opening the curtains and finding no one there, she decided to climb in and go to sleep. That's when she looked up above her was the thin stretch of fabric that acted as a sort of ceiling to her canopy bed, but there was something odd about it this time.
There was something pressing down on it, like an object. And then as she watched that shape, took on the familiar form of a human body and began to roll across the fabric. Katherine and her maid's past the rest of the night with another prayer vigil, and it seemed to have worked again, but the nightly visitor kept returning to the point that she no longer felt safe in her own house. So she gathered her children and the servants locked up the manor house and fled to her parents estate in nearby.
Hopeful that Henry's apparition wasn't a sign that he had been killed in battle, she sent a letter to him asking him to come home. And weeks later, much to her surprise and relief, he actually did. Although if Baxter's records of the events are accurate, he was more than a little upset about their theories and beliefs. This was a man who had cast off his Christian faith and become an atheist, after all, and apparently talking of ghosts and demons seemed foolish to him.
Henry Bohane eventually returned to Ireland, where he had been stationed, and according to Baxter, the nocturnal visitor never returned to bother Catherine again. But what's interesting about the entire ordeal is the shift in folklore about nightmares. While Catherine might not have experienced many of the classic symptoms heavyweights on her chest or the feeling of suffocation, she did have many of the same visions. And much like those in the distant past who wrestled with the reasons behind their torment, the people around Katherine had their own superstitious ideas.
They believed that a turncoat like Henry Boin, someone who had married multiple wives, flip sides during a national conflict and even turn his back on. God was bound to be afflicted for his sins because his ears were closed to all of that. His wife, Catherine, suffered instead. To them, the real nightmare was Henry Bowen, a man who abandoned his family and household when they needed him the most. A man who at any moment could switch back to his old allegiance to the king and a man whose abandoned faith allowed dangerous forces to step in at night and harm those he was supposed to love.
He was, in many ways their worst nightmare, proving once again that the worst monsters are often the ones we create ourselves.
Nightmares are real. It's clear that our ancestors thought so, and for many people around the world today, that's still the case. The way we frame them has certainly changed. But the affliction itself really hasn't were different people today. And yet we're still tied to the past by those mysterious, disturbing moments. One of the most powerful aspects of the folklore surrounding nightmares, hands down is the nearly universal way cultures around the world have described the symptoms and then built stories to explain their cause.
And along the way, it seems that two separate strands have been consistently present through it all, the physical and the spiritual, whether it was ancient physicians like Gailen or those who study sleep paralysis. Today, the answers for many have been waiting to be discovered inside us. Others have taken a different path to them. These nightmares are external, the logical outcome of an encounter with something otherworldly. And that's the conflict we see in the story of Catherine and Henry Bowen.
The tug of war between the superstitious and the rational, or depending on how you view it, between the sensitive and the obtuse. But of course, their story doesn't end where we think it does. In fact, there's one last detail I think you will find fascinating. As I mentioned earlier, Henry came home from Ireland to a household in chaos, but their theories and beliefs quickly drove him away again. He headed back to his post in Ireland, but eventually Katherine and their children followed him there, settling in at his estate in Limerick.
Within just two years, though, things had taken a darker turn. According to letters sent to Richard Baxter by a local minister, Henry had apparently thrown his family out of the house, leaving them to fend for themselves. They had to beg local acquaintances for help before finally moving back to her parents estate in Wales. Henry, it seems, had begun to lose touch with reality. The minister's letter described how the man had offered him 10000 pounds, roughly three million dollars today, if the minister could prove the truth about God and the afterlife.
But no one was certain just yet why Henry was obsessed with such a question. Henry Bowen passed away in 16, 59, but it's not his death that teases us with one final question, but how he lived out his last few years. According to a friend from his military days who tried to pay him a visit in Ireland, Henry had locked himself inside a small broken-Down castle, refusing to speak to anyone else. Well, that's not exactly true, according to the only person he allowed into his presence, a young servant, Henry slept most of the day only to sit up in bed each night and do something that seemed to fly in the face of his years of disbelief.
Having entire conversations with an invisible guest. From our modern perspective, it's easy to dismiss the old stories about where sleep paralysis comes from. But despite that, there are still a few historical events worth exploring because they seem to defy logic and leave us with more questions than answers. Stick around after this brief sponsor break to hear one last chilling tale.
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Stephen of Holland was more than just a wealthy English citizen in 170. He was a night to a lot of people. He was the epitome of success and courage. And yet he had a problem that few people would have believed he was having bad dreams. Well, calling them bad dreams might take a bit of their power away. These were waking dreams in which he would open his eyes to discover that he could no longer move his body and that a feeling of suffocation and oppression was weighing down on his chest and his nightmares had been afflicting him off and on for over 30 years.
Of course, he sought out the best in medical advice and he was willing to pay them handsomely if they could solve this problem, although this was a century and a half before the word nightmare would be coined, his physicians diagnosed him with a condition that would sound very familiar to us, known as finalities. It's a Greek word that means the same as the Latin incubus, but is also translated as the crusher. And that certainly lined up with his experiences, except that giving it a name didn't make it go away.
In fact, he was told that it was common and that there was nothing to be done about it. So every night Stephen went to sleep fearful of what would happen, and his servants were forced to sleep nearby in case the good night needed their assistance. If he had an attack, his hope was that his whimpering and low moans would wake them up and that they could throw off his invisible attacker. At first he asked them to physically take him out of bed and to place him in a chair or prop him up in a standing position.
But when those ideas failed to do the trick, he let them get more violent with him, instructing them to grip his head by the hair and shake it violently around. And as rough as that sounded, it was the only thing that could end the nightmare. Stephen, though, was experiencing more than just sensations, he was seeing things one night opened his eyes to find a small creature standing beside his bed. He described it as a dwarf, a small, strange human like creature that ran around the room and circled his bed menacingly.
You could even see it flexing its tiny fingers as if getting ready to choke him yet again. In desperation, Steven cried out a prayer to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who had been living in exile in Rome for a number of years, and it worked. But his relief was temporary and it was something else, too.
It was confirmation to Steven that his problem was not a simple physical illness, like his doctors assumed this was a spiritual matter. The suffocating experiences returned soon enough and more prayers were offered up to stop them. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it failed. And then Stephen heard news that caused a small spark of hope to ignite in his chest. Archbishop Thomas Becket had been murdered by supporters of the king, giving him a martyr's death.
And no, he wasn't happy about the man's death, but he did see a silver lining in its because of prayers to Beckett had been effective when the man was alive. How much more powerful would prayers be to a Christian martyr? So Steven called his servants and ordered preparations for a large mass to be held in the archbishop's honor. And it worked after the celebratory mass was over, Stephen claimed that his nightly afflictions and the visitations by that mysterious abusive creature had finally been brought to an end after three decades of torment.
I have to imagine the old knight was more than a little relieved. Armed with a new lesson and a message of hope, Stephen changed his life from that day forward, he set aside his wealth and find Clubine in favor of plain Garment's. And then he took to the road traveling the countryside to expose the foolishness of the physicians who had failed him all those years. And look, I get it. Belief in some supernatural creature that attacks us in the night isn't something a lot of people will get on board with.
I'm not even sure it's worth debating about. But to Stephen, this was real. And even more importantly, it was confirmed by his efforts to find relief in the spiritual world. If seeing truly is believing and Steven of Holland had all the proof he needed. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Karl Nella's and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast. There is a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video.
Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make two other podcasts, Aaron monkies cabinet of Curiosities and unobscured and I think you'd enjoy both. Each one explores other areas of our dark history, ranging from bite sized episodes to season long dives into a single topic. And you can learn more about both of those shows and everything else going on over in one central place, grim and mild dotcom. And you can also follow the show on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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