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The Beds Behind Those Bedtime Stories

Apr 24, 2008
Since sleep plays such an important role in our lives it's not surprising that beds feature prominently in many myths, fairytales and other works of literature.

When we imagine the bed in a fairytale like Sleeping Beauty, we inevitably conjure up images of a huge palace chamber and an ornate mahogany four-poster bed draped with beautiful silken fabrics.

However, the characters in the ancient tales don't always sleep in a traditional bed, or even in a bedroom. Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep and dreams, slept in a bed made of ebony in his dimly lit Cave of Sleep. Forest elves make their leafy beds high in the treetops. And a vampire's resting place of choice is, of course, a coffin. It seems when it comes to beds and sleeping in stories, one size doesn't suit all...

Beds to fit everyone

If you've spent the night tossing and turning on an uncomfortable bed, you'll know how important it is to have a mattress of the right firmness. Goldilocks certainly appreciated this when she ventured into the house of the Three Bears. After tasting the porridge and sitting on all the chairs, she wandered upstairs to try out the beds. While Father Bear's bed was too hard and Mother Bear's bed too soft for her liking, Baby Bear's was just right and she was able to nod off straightaway.

Even more particular was the fairytale princess who endured a sleepless night because she could feel a pea underneath twenty mattresses and twenty layers of feather quilts. Her extreme sensitivity showed her to be of truly royal blood, and so she passed the Queen Mother's test and won the hand of the prince. They lived happily ever after, as usual, although you have to wonder how easy she was to share a bed with!

A more gruesome bed-related story can be found in the Greek myth of Procrustes. A sadistic bandit who lived in the hills near Athens, Procrustes would invite unwary travellers to lie down on his iron bed. If the traveller was too tall for the bed, Procrustes would chop his body until it was the right length. Victims who were too short would be stretched out on a rack.

The bed itself was adjustable and Procrustes would alter it as he saw people approaching to make sure it was never a perfect fit. Procrustes' evil deeds were finally stopped by the hero Theseus, who placed Procrustes on his own bed and cut off his head and feet. Today the expression 'a Procrustean bed' means an apparently arbitrary standard to which one is forced to conform.

Falling into an enchanted sleep is common in fairytales and myths, but sometimes beds themselves can be transformed into magical objects. According to Arthurian legend, the wizard Merlin created an enchanted bed that drove everyone who slept in it out of his or her wits. Only the brave Sir Lancelot could resist the spell. More recently, in Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the children travel to London on a bed that can fly, thanks to a magic bedknob.

Sayings and superstitions about beds

Beds are the subject of a number of traditional sayings or expressions. 'A bed of roses,' for example, comes from Christopher Marlowe's 1599 poem, The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, in which he declares, 'And I will make thee beds of roses/And a thousand fragrant posies/A cap of flowers and a kirtle/Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle.' While Marlow had real roses in mind, the expression is used these days to refer to an unrealistic expectation of something being pleasant and easy, eg: 'Marriage isn't a bed of roses.' Saying 'he must have got out on the wrong side of bed' about someone who's been grumpy all day dates back to the ancient Romans, who believed that the left side was unlucky and that to get out on the left of your bed would bring you bad luck.

Other old superstitions suggest that it's bad luck to put a hat on a bed, that a bed facing north or south will bring you misfortune, and that interrupting bed-making results in a restless night's sleep. You should never place a bed with the bottom facing the door, since this symbolises the way you will be carried out (feet first) after your death. Finally, if you're single and you start making a bedspread or quilt, make sure you finish it, or according to folklore you'll never get to share your bed with anyone...
About the Author
Leigh A. Matelas is a freelance writer living in the UK. She regularly contributes articles for Taurus Beds, a leading Bed Shop in London
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