The Mystical Origins of the Pillow

For much of human history, pillows had much grander role than just cradling our sleeping heads
By Tatiana Denning
Tatiana Denning
Tatiana Denning
D.O.
Tatiana Denning, D.O. is a preventive family medicine physician and owner of Simpura Weight Loss and Wellness. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health through weight management, healthy habits, and disease prevention.
August 22, 2021 Updated: August 22, 2021

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” – William Shakespeare, “The Tempest”

A good night’s sleep is imperative to both our mental and physical well-being, and allows for the regeneration of both mind and body.

Sleep hygiene, including things such as a regular bedtime and proper sleeping environment, goes a long way toward a good night’s rest. A cool, dark, quiet room, a comfortable bed, and a supportive pillow can all help ensure you get adequate sleep.

While the pillow may seem to be a simple concept, and a common item we take for granted, it hasn’t always been the soft, fluffy nighttime companion we’re accustomed to today. In fact, what ancient societies used for a pillow would give most of us pause.

The First Pillow

The first pillow is believed to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) around the year 7,000 B.C., making the pillow about 9,000 years old (not counting ancient civilizations we may have long forgotten).

This pillow was made of stone, and was used not for comfort or support, but rather for purely utilitarian purposes. It raised the head off the ground to help keep insects and other critters from climbing into a person’s hair, mouth, ears, and nose.

With time, ancient civilizations came to believe that the pillow could also provide support for the head. Stone was thought to be the best way to provide support, and so continued to be used for this reason. Stone was also immune to insects and bugs, unlike various softer materials. But carved stone was expensive, which meant that only the wealthy could afford to own a purpose-built pillow. As such, the pillow came to be viewed as a status symbol in ancient times.

Ancient China

More is probably known about the use of the pillow in ancient China than in any other culture.

The hard pillow maintained its popularity in ancient China. While the people of ancient China had the knowledge and ability to create a soft pillow, most looked down on it, believing a soft pillow robbed the body of its essential energy and vitality.

The ancient Chinese believed the proper pillow, as well as the proper furniture, could also rectify a person’s behavior and personality. While people today desire comfort, the ancient Chinese valued improving one’s moral character over a life of ease. This is one reason ancient Chinese pillows and furniture were made of hard materials.

The hard pillow was believed to have a variety of other benefits. It served to not only support the head and neck, but helped maintain the complex hairstyles of the time while sleeping, increase blood circulation, and improve one’s intellect. According to renowned auction house Christie’s, the ancient Chinese pillow also was used to keep one cool while sleeping, “Poet Zhang Lei of the Northern Song dynasty wrote: ‘Pillow made by Gong is strong and blue; an old friend gave it to me to beat the heat; it cools down the room like a breeze; keeping my head cool while I sleep’.”

A variety of materials were used to make pillows in ancient China, including porcelain, jade, pottery, bamboo, wood, and bronze. It was said that the material a person rested their head upon would influence their health, therefore, one should choose wisely.

Perhaps no material was more popular for pillow making in ancient China than ceramic. According to Christie’s, ceramic reached the height of its popularity during the Tang (618–907 A.D) and Song (960–1279 A.D) dynasties, before eventually being replaced by Western-style stuffed pillows. These pillows were often ornately shaped and decorated, and just like in Mesopotamia, were reserved for the wealthy and viewed as a symbol of status and prosperity. Butterflies, flowers, and children at play were just a few of the auspicious images commonly used on pillows, while inscriptions of Buddhist, Daoist, or Confucius teachings were often put on pillows to help improve one’s moral character.

The hard pillow was also said to ward off evil spirits, something the soft pillow couldn’t do. The lion, tiger, and Chinese dragon, in particular, were said to be effective at keeping evil spirits away.

“Lions were regarded as auspicious creatures with sufficient ferocity, strength, and spiritual energy to ward off evil spirits,” according to Christie’s. Many pillows were either made in the shape of these animals, or bore images of them.

While the hard pillow was viewed most favorably, there were pillows made of other materials for use in special circumstances. One such pillow was the medicinal pillow. According to Taiwan Today, this pillow was made of various herbs wrapped in silk cloth; it was used to improve hearing, keep the eyes sharp, return gray hair to its original color, regrow lost teeth, and cure a variety of diseases.

Due to its close proximity to the head, the pillow was also said to help promote and guide dreams. The ancient Chinese believed dreams had significant meaning, and they were taken as omens of what was to come.

“There was no sharp dichotomy in the division between the two states of spirit and matter in Chinese popular thought,” according to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. “Ghosts, spirits, and visions in dreams were part of the material world and deemed to be interchangeable with life. Thus the pillow could be a material object of great importance, which mediated between the conscious and unconscious, between reality and the illusionary.”

Today, these beautifully created ancient pillows are sought by collectors, fetching prices in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Ancient Egypt

While less is known about the pillow, or headrest, of ancient Egypt, we do know it served more than just a pragmatic purpose for the ancient Egyptians as well. Most of what is known comes from the discovery of headrests in ancient tombs.

The people of ancient Egypt considered the head to be the spiritual and life center, and as such, they viewed the head as the most sacred part of the body. The pillow served to both support and, perhaps more importantly, protect the head in both life and death.

Like in Mesopotamia, pillows were typically made of stone, but blocks of wood, ceramic, and ivory were sometimes used as well. They were more narrow than ancient Chinese pillows, which supported both the head and the neck, and typically offered support only to the head—thus the name “headrest.”

Religious and magical beliefs were woven throughout ancient Egyptian society, and pillows, as well as other objects, were decorated with images meant to serve as both protection and decoration. One commonly engraved image, according to Pennsylvania’s Glencairn Museum, was that of Bes, “a protective deity whose role involved the protection of the home, mothers and children, and sleeping people.”

It was believed that a sleeping person was particularly vulnerable to evil spirits, and the fearsome image of Bes provided protection from nighttime evils.

The ancient Egyptians placed tremendous importance on the afterlife, so much so that Tutankhamun, the boy king, was buried with eight headrests. Funerary texts contained hundreds of magical spells meant to help guide the dead safely into the afterlife.

“A handful of these spells make explicit reference to the headrest and compare it with the sun’s rising in the horizon. Coffin Text 232 reads: “A spell for the head-rest. May your head be raised, may your brow be made to live, may you speak for your own body, may you be a god, may you always be a god,” the Glencairn Museum states.

While beliefs may have changed, some parts of Africa still use these ancient-style headrests in their daily lives and find them quite enjoyable.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Even less is known about the pillows of ancient Greece and Rome.

What we do know is that the ancient Greeks and Romans eventually developed a penchant for luxury, comfort, and self-indulgence, abandoning the idea that the hard pillow had any physical or mental benefits. With their focus on comfort, they created the predecessor to today’s soft pillow.

The pillow used by everyday citizens of this time period was made of materials such as cotton, straw, or reeds, with pillows made of soft down and feathers being reserved for the wealthy. The pillow was viewed as a symbol of decadence, and people of this era are often pictured reclining on four or five luxurious pillows, even as they dined, often overindulging in food and wine.

According to Jason Linn in his UC–Santa Barbara dissertation on nighttime in ancient Rome, “Luxury pampered these people so greatly that even under dire circumstances they permitted their guards not only to sleep, but also to do so comfortably.”

The Spartans, however, held a different philosophy, and led austere lives without seeking comfort. Linn asks, “How could anyone sleep under such uncomfortable conditions?” The answer, “Doing so led to obedience, perseverance, and victories.” Linn goes on to quote William Arrowsmith, saying “luxury makes a man lose his specific function.”

As time marched on, reaching Europe’s Middle Ages, the soft pillow fell out of common use, and it was seen only as a status symbol. Men viewed the pillow as a sign of weakness, and at one point, only the king and pregnant women were allowed to lay their heads on a pillow at night.

By the 16th century, the pillow had come back into favor, but due to regular infestation by things such as mold, insects, and vermin, it was cumbersome to care for, with the contents of the pillow having to be changed regularly in order to maintain its cleanliness. Later on, pillows came to be used for kneeling in church, or as a place to rest holy texts. In some places, this is still done.

Modern Day

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, people’s way of life began to change across much of the world.

As technology continued to evolve, so did the story of the pillow. With the mass production capabilities of the Industrial Revolution, and the increase in the availability of cotton, the pillow was no longer only for the elite. The average person could now afford to own one, and the pillow gradually became common in every home.

As the Industrial Revolution brought material prosperity, society followed the pattern of the ancient Greeks and Romans: People sought out more comfort, ultimately ushering in a revolution of the soft pillow.

Today, pillows come in a variety of shapes, sizes, material types, and firmness levels. The types of pillows seem to be endless, with everything from gel, memory foam, down, feathers, down-alternative, cotton, innerspring, wool, latex, microbeads, kapok, buckwheat, and water available. That’s quite a list! Pillows can even be customized and personalized according to a person’s preference.

While the comforts of modern-day pillows may make our nights more comfortable, perhaps the ancients were onto something. I’m not inclined toward a return to a stone or ceramic pillow (though you can make your own version), but perhaps we should remember that sometimes a little discomfort in life isn’t such a bad thing.

From the perspective of the ancient Chinese, seeking comfort is rarely the best path. After all, when we endure a little hardship, we become more resilient. And amid life’s turmoils, if we can look within for the lesson, we’ll come out the better for having gone through it.

It seems even the pillow has a lesson to teach.

Tatiana Denning
Tatiana Denning
D.O.
Tatiana Denning, D.O. is a preventive family medicine physician and owner of Simpura Weight Loss and Wellness. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health through weight management, healthy habits, and disease prevention.