Who Is the Sandman of Mythology and Folklore?

The Sandman is a moniker that’s fairly popular in pop culture. There’s a Sandman in Marvel, one of Spider-Man’s sinister foes. There are many Sandman references in music, from The Chordettes’ ’50s classic “Mr. Sandman” to Metallica’s well-known hit “Enter Sandman.” The Sandman has also appeared in many other songs, as well as TV shows, movies, and, yes, comics. And now, Netflix is bringing to life one of the most famous of all the Sandman. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is coming to the platform as a live-action series. But where did all these tales of sandy men begin? Well, the concept of the Sandman found its start in European mythology. Let’s meet the Sandman of folklore.

Teaser poster for the new Netflix series The Sandman finds Dream with his crow on his shoulder ascending the staircase toward his palace.

Who Is the Sandman of Mythology?

Like with many figures of mythology, the Sandman has convoluted origins. And the roles he plays across fairy tales and stories are complex as well. It seems like the figure of the Sandman most likely got its start in oral tradition, complicating our record of the mysterious being. But many agree the first noted use of Sandman came in 18th-century German dictionaries, which chronicled the idiom “der Sandmann kommt.” This phrase appeared to mean, “The Sandman is coming.” But metaphorically, it referred to the idea that someone looked as though they were about to fall asleep or were rubbing their eyes… As though sand has poured into them.

Sandman fights Spidey at the Statue of Liberty in the No Way Home trailer.
Sony Pictures / Marvel Studios
A Dark Sandman

From there, the mythology of the Sandman split. On the one hand, a dark folklore figure emerged. In an 1818 story by German author E. T. A. Hoffmann titled Der Sandmann, the Sandman takes the form of an evil creature. In this fairy tale, the Sandman is a monstrous mythological figure who throws sand in the eyes of children. And if they do not sleep, their eyes fall out. By all accounts, it is an incredibly creepy and psychological tale.

A Lighter Incarnation

On the other hand, famous fairy tale author, Hans Christian Andersen, gave the Sandman a kinder rendition in his 1841 fairy tale. Hans Christian Andersen’s Ole Lukøje presents us with the titular Sandman, Ole Lukøje. This iteration of the Sandman makes children drowsy and sends them off to sleep. He rewards good children with pleasant dreams. Bad children do receive punishment. But their punishment simply equates to not receiving any dreams.

In the earliest translations of this fairy tale and in the original German, this Sandman was said to throw sweet cream in children’s eyes. The Sandman would do this both to avoid getting spotted by the children and so the children would begin to close their eyes on way to sleep. However, as the translating process continued, this cream transformed into a more recognizable powder, a.k.a. sand.

What Does the Sandman Do in Fairy Tales?

Morpehus sitting in a cage in Netflix's The Sandman

In the end, the more benevolent version of the Sandman won out culturally. Like many other myths, the Sandman story exists to answer a question. In this case, it explains why we have grit in our eyes in the morning. The Sandman myth is the kind of story that gives an answer to questions a child might ask.

Ultimately, the colloquial Sandman is seen as a friendly sprite, a figure that often takes the shape of a kindly old man. This folkloric creature lulls people to sleep and brings pleasant dreams to his charges. Using magic sand sprinkled into the eyes of the sleeping, the Sandman brings good dreams to sleepers, leaving only a fine dusting of sand in their eyes. In some respects, the Sandman is also seen as the bringer of stories. After all, what are dreams but tales our brains concoct?

Ultimately, myths and folklore serve as the basis for many of our modern stories and stories of the Sandman are no different. As viewers enjoy the Sandman’s incarnations on Netflix, in Marvel movies, and more, knowing the original mythology will only enhance their experience.

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