Exploring the night’s mysteries | Sunday Observer

Exploring the night’s mysteries

In our childhood days we were scared of darkness. Elders used to say demons, witches and other abominable creatures come out when darkness spreads its long wings. We would huddle together for security and mother would come out with a Jataka story. But we were more interested in ghost stories usually narrated by Simon, an elderly villager who had no fixed abode or income.

When it got dark, even adults felt edgy. During the day they would boast that they were not afraid of demons but at night their bravery disappeared. Once in a while, a villager would visit us carrying a huluatta (a lighted branch of coconut leaves) and stay for some time. People talked about “being overtaken” by the night. For them, night meant fear of demons, witches, owls and bats. Later in life, I heard that in one English parish people were frightened of fairies. We loved to see fairies because we had seen their lovely pictures in story books.

Roger Ekirch studied the pre-industrial night for 17 years and concluded that he would switch his attention from the electrified present to nights of previous centuries, when the landscape was eerily moonlit or not lit at all. The dramatist John Crowne way back in 1681 observed:

“Night is the time when cities oft are set on fire

When robberies and murders are committed

When bandogshowle, and shreichowles warn the dying

When spirits walk and ghosts break up their graves.”

Ekirch explored the nights when darkness was thick. He read old newspapers and more than 400 diaries to study the impact of night on humans. His research forced him to read many travel accounts, memoirs and letters. In addition, he studied old poems, plays, novels and laws dealing with night, crimes and curfews. He came across a wealth of working-class autobiographies, proverbs, nursery rhymes, ballads, sermons and folklore related to darkness.

In the pre-electricity era, night was different from day. Night’s darkness loomed so large in their consciousness that people evolved a vocabulary to describe its manifestations. In Ireland, the hour when a person became indistinguishable from a bush was called “day dapple.” The midnight was called “candle night”. For them, moonlight was the “parish lantern” which guided night travellers. The moon also helped those who robbed night travellers, especially, businessmen.

Even when there was moonlight, it did not prevent accidents. In our own village, people fell into ditches, ponds and rivers. Despite such accidents children loved to catch fireflies and put them in bottles which let out some kind of dim light. Some elders did not like the way children caught fireflies. They said it would be a sin to catch them.


In some countries a strategy for travelling in the dark was to wear light-coloured clothes. Another was riding a white horse. In southern England’s chalky landscape people who went on night trips piled mounds of light-coloured soil to guide them in the moonlight. Other people stripped the bark from trees to expose the white inner wood.

In villages children and even adults began to memorize their local terrain. They also memorized the magical terrain, spots where ghosts and other weird creatures lurked. In some places, especially, cemeteries, villagers never whistled at night because that invited the demons. Some villagers wore charmed amulets round their necks. Others displayed horse shoes in their homes to ward off evil.

According to Ekirch, besides the danger of witches and accidental drownings, another reason pre-industrial people feared was the darkness. They believed that night descended along with a kind of malignant air. To protect themselves, sleepers wore night-caps. Bed curtains offered privacy, but also fended off miasmal draughts. The 17th century London diarist Samuel Pepys used to tie his hands inside his bed so that they would not flop outside the curtains and expose themselves to night air.

Ekirch was born in 1950 and was inspired by his father to study history at Dartmouth College and John Hopkins University. His research for his doctorate was triggered by a university friend’s observation that historians have virtually ignored the night. Ekirch’s attention was drawn to the pre-Edison night which was a kind of no-man’s land. Ekirch’s findings confirmed that people used the night to poach, smuggle, pilfer and cut down trees illegally.

Even in villages night-time crime rates were high. Villagers lived in fear of robbers who would break into houses and assault people before robbing them of their cash and valuables. According to historians, the Mohawks, a British gang of the early 1700s, sliced off people’s noses and ears under the cover of darkness.

In London, poor people frequented all-night taverns despite the fear of crimes and falling into ditches. Some poor people sought escape at night. It is said even slaves in America sneaked at night to dances and parties. Some of them even visited their wives, mistresses and children.

After-dark sessions

When night fell in rural villages, men would start chewing betel while women and children gathered for after-dark sessions. As a child I enjoyed such sessions because I loved to listen to stories transmitting folklore, tales of the heroic and the supernatural. Women described ‘Mahasona’ as a very dark, tall and ferocious demon. ‘Reeriyaka’ was even worse than ‘Mahasona’. Darkness and the flickering lamplight added drama. Some village women used the time to swap stories and gossip. What is more, it was a time to get away from men.

When there was no electricity, you might think that people enjoyed a sound sleep lasting seven or eight hours. It was not to be. Their sleep was segmented. They would lie down on a mat for an hour or more before falling asleep. After a few hours they would wake up to have a cup of coffee. Again they would go back to sleep. However, they were never sleep deprived.

Scientists believe that darkness leads to longer periods of undisturbed sleep. This increases the level of prolactin hormone that promotes a state of quiet restfulness. Ekirch says, “Thomas Edison hammered the last nail in the old night’s coffin.”

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