The Nightmare, circa 1790 by Johann Heinrich Füssli; Deriv

The Night Mare and Being Ridden by the Hag

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Most people today who have heard that ‘the Nightmare’ is an actual being in European folklore and not just a certain type of dream-state, associate the being with horses. A mare is indeed a horse—but this interpretation is not correct. The mare of ‘the nightmare’ is a demon; and the word for horse and the word for nightmare derive from a different root.

Mara – Evil Spirits and The Night Horse

In Dutch, the nightmare is known as the maar or mare, sometimes called nachtmaar or nachtmare, analogous to the English word. Over time, the Dutch word changed into nachtmerrie where merrie means female horse. We see that the folk etymology of ‘night horse’ was very common.

A nightmarish vision of a demon horse (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A nightmarish vision of a demon horse (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The German word is Mahr. This is seldom used and sometimes rendered as Nachtmahr, but there is no confusion with a female horse because modern German has lost the corresponding cognate of ‘mare’ or merrie. The common German word for nightmare, however, is of interest. They speak of an Alptraum or Albdruck. Both words relate the phenomenon to elves. Modern German Alb, Alp, or Alf is literally translated as ‘evil spirit’ although the connection with ‘elf’ is clear.

Alptraum perches on woman, Nachtmahr – The Nightmare, circa 1790. (Public Domain)

Alptraum perches on woman, Nachtmahr – The Nightmare, circa 1790. (Public Domain)

In Swedish, the night demon is called mara. Old Icelandic has the same word. The being appears in Ynglingasaga and causes the death of king Vanlandi. Although the motif is particular to Germanic folklore, the mare’s name forms the basis of the French word for nightmare, cauchemar.

What is the Nightmare?

Then what is the nightmare exactly? Nowadays, the word designates a bad dream. When we experience strong, frightening emotions while dreaming, the sensation is so overwhelming that we wake up from the dream. The impression is so strong that we have trouble sleeping again. Some of the dream sensation lingers and makes us experience presences in the room, regardless whether this is true or not. The whole phenomenon is explained psychologically.

The strong, frightening emotions of a nightmare can be overwhelming. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The strong, frightening emotions of a nightmare can be overwhelming. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the old days, nightmares visited people in their sleep and caused bad dreams. At least, that is the idea we have. If we compare actual accounts, which in this case are necessarily folk tales, then we must conclude that a nightly visit by the mare was rather different from what we call a bad dream. Reports about the nightmare are recorded up until a hundred years ago. Stories are found in Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia and Great Britain. I will draw mainly from Dutch and Belgian sources.

Being Hag-Ridden by the Night Mare

Either people or horses are ridden by the nightmare. When a person goes to bed, he suddenly feels a pressure on the body, usually in the area of the chest. Sometimes the pressure travels from the feet to the head. The person cannot breathe. When he wants to scream, from shock, he perceives that he cannot. When the crisis is over, the person sweats and feels tired. Victims are both men and women.

A woman is being ‘ridden’ by the evil spirit nightmare. (Public Domain)

A woman is being ‘ridden’ by the evil spirit nightmare. (Public Domain)

When horses are taken by the nightmare, their manes get tangled. The horses become restless and they sweat. They don’t sleep all night. In my opinion, the nightmare has become a scapegoat for the state of such horses because of the confusing folk etymology.

Horses were blended into accounts (Public Domain)

Horses were blended into accounts (Public Domain)

What happens according to eye-witness accounts, is that the person or the animal has been ridden by a woman. Sometimes she was a spirit or witch, but often she was recognized by the victim. In many cases the mare was a real person who suffered from a certain affliction which involved her travelling out-of-body to attack horses or people. The victim was usually known to the ‘mare woman’.  When the mare woman attacked someone, she became very still—even in the middle of an activity. There is an account from Belgium in which a girl worked for a bakery and while she was kneading dough she suddenly stopped. Miles away someone familiar to her was ridden by the mare. We see a sort of out-of-body experience developing.

I believe that the phenomenon might have been part of the training among witches within a Germanic context. We know from Norse myth and saga that certain women practiced this kind of out-of-body techniques. The practice is known as seiðr, although seiðr comprises more than just this. An example is found in Friðþjófssaga in which two women practiced seiðr to control a whale at sea. It appeared to onlookers that the women were riding the whale. In Icelandic folklore, this particular technique is known as a sending.

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