Rich? Powerful? Part of the ruling elite? Sleeping on a rock pillow is for you.
…At least if you lived thousands of years ago it was.
Today, when we lay down to sleep we expect a comfortable bed – and a soft pillow. Some of us like our pillows a little firmer than others, but by and large we think of sleep as a time for soft bedding. Not so in the past.
The pillow as we know it, a sack filled with something soft, has existed since the time of the Greeks and Romans. But around the world and back in time, we see people sleeping on stone, wood, metal and ceramic pillows.
Among the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Chinese, pillows were reserved for the rich and elite of the civilization. They were as much a status symbol as a sleep aid.
Rest Your Head on My Boulder
Although the idea of a stone pillow might seem less comfortable than going without any pillow at all, the pillows supposedly did help with shoulder, head, and back pain during sleep.
Keep in mind also that these stony pillows weren’t put on top of a Memory foam mattress. People likely slept on the ground, or on a raised surface almost equally hard. Without something to support the head, people faced serious neck aches in the morning.
Plus, the hard pillows did more than add some comfort. They had a health benefit too.
Sleeping on, or close to, the ground meant that all kinds of bugs, pests, and vermin have a short trip from the ground to your face. A rocky pillow might help keep centipede out of your nose, nits out of your hair, or other creepy crawlies from your ears, eyes, and mouth. A hard pillow sounds pretty good now right?
These kinds of problems may also be why people didn’t simply make tender piles of leaves, branches, or other soft stuff. Until humans could master sanitation, these natural pillows would be a haven for all kinds of insects (or worse).
Along with this, a hard pillow is far cooler than a soft pillow, or no pillow at all. With an elevated head, the air can circulate, which is particularly comfortable in warmer climates.
There is evidence of pillows in Mesopotamia as far back as 9000 BC.
These pillows were very simple, composed of carved stone with a recessed half-crescent shape. Sleepers didn’t rest their whole heads on the pillow (like we do today) but would rest just the back of their neck and base of their skull in the stone hollow.
The Old Testament
Moving westward, even the bible contains a story of using a stone for a pillow. Genesis, Chapter 28 of the King James Bible says:
“And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.”
After a vision in a dream, Jacob woke “and took the stone that he put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.”
The Egyptians followed a similar style to the Mesopotamian style, elaborating on it in later years with more advanced designs.
There are different theories on the use of these headrests. Some say the sleeper slept on their back, with the weight of the head was supported primarily with the top of the neck and lower skull. Others say sleepers slept on their side, with the headrest just above the ear.
Some have claimed that small cushions were placed on these pillows, to make them more comfortable. However, there’s no direct evidence to support this.
The pillows, or headrests, were constructed of ivory, wood, or stone, and were often decorated with images of gods. These designs were used to ward off evil. In fact, many of the headrest/pillows from Egypt that we have today were not used by the living, but by the dead. In the elaborate mausoleums of pharaohs, the dead were lain to rest with decorated headrests to help them along in their journey to the afterlife.
Far from Mesopotamia and Egypt, another culture rested their heads on hard pillows. The Chinese built their pillows out of stone first, but later used lacquered wood, jade, bronze, and bamboo. However, the best known Chinese pillows are porcelain.
Since the Sui Dynasty, around 600 AD, porcelain pillows have been made in China. With each successive dynasty these pillows changed, so styles include basic geometric shapes, imprinted designs, elaborate human and animal form, and a variety of colors and textures.
The materials used weren’t just for looks, either. Ancient Chinese attributed many powers to their pillows.
Although a soft pillow could sap the body of energy, a hard pillow could revitalize you. Jade pillows were though to increase intelligence, and other kinds of pillows were thought to cure everything from headaches to depression.
Unlike pillows of the Mesopotamia region, Chinese pillows more closely resembled our idea of pillows. Rather than a small headrest to prop up the base of the skull, they were larger, and allowed the resting of the whole head.
Just because we can see that hard pillows were used, doesn’t mean that soft pillows weren’t used in the ancient world.
For one thing, history favors the rich and powerful over the average person. Hard pillows may have been used for kings, noblemen and for elaborate tombs, but what about poor villagers? These people are quickly lost in the flow of history, especially their day-to-day lives. They people indeed have used pillows of leaves, reeds, feathers, or other soft materials – but few record it.
In fact, there is one indication of soft pillows in china, around 1250 – Jacques Gernet writes about ordinary people using pillows made of plaited rushes.
But these rush pillows, and all other soft pillows, rotted centuries ago. For students of history, the best feature of hard pillows is that they are so durable – the pillows have been able to last thousands of years for us to see them.
If you want to live like an ancient nobleman, put away those down-filled pillows. For tonight, you sleep on a rock.
Photo credit: Headrest by konde, on Flickr, lifebeginsat50mm via photopin, Pillow in the form of a reclining girl by michellemaabelle, on Flickr, Gary Lee Todd, via Wikimedia Commons, and Hankering for History