During sleep, animals do not eat, reproduce or forage. Sleeping animals are vulnerable to predation. Yet, the persistence of sleep despite evolutionary pressures, and the deleterious effects of sleep deprivation, indicate that sleep serves a function or functions that cannot easily be bypassed. Recent research demonstrates sleep to be phylogenetically far more pervasive than previously appreciated; it is possible that the very first animals slept. Here, we give an overview of sleep across various species, with the aim of determining its original purpose. Sleep exists in animals without cephalized nervous systems and can be influenced by non-neuronal signals, including those associated with metabolic rhythms. Together, these observations support the notion that sleep serves metabolic functions in neural and non-neural tissues.