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Call for Papers

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”: Sleep and Death in the Ancient World
Biennial Classics Graduate Student Conference
New York University
March 7-8, 2024
Keynote Speaker: Angelos Chaniotis

Sleep and death are universal and inevitable human experiences, and therefore omnipresent in life. The formulation of these states as twin brothers in Greek and Roman literature suggests, furthermore, a connection between sleep and death and a closeness within their conceptualization. In Hesiod’s Theogony, they are both born from Nyx (night) and joined by their siblings Ker (Violent Death) and the Oneiroi (Dreams), suggesting that a complex framework of these experiences was already established very early on in Greek literature and its socio-cultural environment. Figures of the dead are described as appearing in dreams (including Homer apparition to Ennius), an understanding of death is granted to the sleeping (such as in Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis), and sleep and its absence are alternately lauded or lamented in the routines of daily life (various accounts of lucubration, or Martial’s comparisons of sleep inside and outside of Rome). This connection between sleep and death is also apparent outside of the Greek and Roman worlds, such as in Gilgamesh’s sleep trial in his quest for immortality.

Despite the integral part sleep plays in human experience both ancient and modern, even today we do not fully understand its intricacies. It is liminal at its essence, and a figurative state between life and death. As shown by S. Montiglio in her 2016 book Sleep and Sleeplessness in Ancient Greek Literature, it is also a crucial element in structuring narrative developments and designating important junctures. Additionally, from a physiological and psychological standpoint, sleep comes hand in hand with altered states of consciousness: the process of falling asleep (hypnagogia), waking up (hypnopompia), and dreaming. Sleep is restorative, but sometimes harmful. Sleep disturbances are associated with a number of medical conditions and mental illnesses, and complete deprivation has profound effects that can include death.

As the fraternal concept to sleep, death operates similarly in an area of liminality, fraught and uncertain for humans. It is the greatest unknown and the one event that cannot be related by the person who has experienced it. In the ancient world we see attempts to grapple with the concept of death in a variety of ways; the inclusion of ghosts and underworld scenes in literature, dreams of the dead, rites and practices to ensure a good afterlife, death masks, and consolation literature, to name a few.

Interrogating sleep and death as liminal spaces in the ancient world and beyond, can offer a refreshing framework that enables us to trace interactions between individuals and their community, ancient experiences of physiological and psychological events, and their socio-cultural framings. The aim of this conference is, therefore, to investigate these two elements of human existence and to trace how they were conceptualized in the ancient world—both in combination with each other or as stand-alone issues in literature, philosophy, and material culture.

We invite abstracts for papers from a wide variety of critical perspectives, including those informed by anthropological and sociological theories, and invite submissions from graduate students specializing in the Greco-Roman world and related disciplines (history, religious studies, philosophy, art history, archaeology, Near Eastern studies, Hebrew and Judaic studies, reception studies et al.), but especially those employing interdisciplinary approaches.

Possible topics include but are by no means limited to:

  • Literary, visual, and historical engagement with sleep and/or death
  • Explorations of literary or iconographic ties between death and sleep
  • Depictions of and interactions with the sleeping, dreaming, or the dead
  • Conceptualizations of dreamlands and the afterlife
  • Death and sleep as both individualized and universal experiences
  • Sleep and death as embodied experiences
  • Altered states through sleep and death; ghosts and resurrection
  • The interconnection between sleep, death, and rituals
  • Prophetic dreams or last words
  • Sleep and health – sleep as a healing device, sleeplessness, sleep disorders, etc.
  • Types and modes of death–e.g. heroic vs unheroic death or untimely deaths
  • Gendered interactions with the concept of death
  • Experiences of grief or near-death experiences

Anonymous abstracts of 300 words, along with an optional bibliography, should be submitted to in pdf format no later than December 1st, 2023. Notifications of acceptance will be sent in mid-December. Please include your name, affiliation, and the title of your paper in the body of your email. Papers should aim to be no longer than 20 minutes. Questions about the conference should be addressed to the conference co-organizers Hannah Cochran, Ricarda Meisl, and Poppy Steel Swayne at the same email address

Call for Papers