The Nightmare, circa 1790 by Johann Heinrich Füssli; Deriv

The Night Mare and Being Ridden by the Hag

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In Ynglingasaga, chapter 7, Odin is said to possess the same ability. From Lee Hollander’s translation: “Odin could shift his appearance. When he did so his body would lie there as if he were asleep or dead; but he himself, in an instant, in the shape of a bird or animal, a fish or serpent, went to distant countries…” The passage implies that he could be at two places simultaneously. We see the motif recur in the nightmare stories.

The Norse god Odin on his horse Sleipnir, featured on the Tjängvide image stone in Vallhalla. (Public Domain)

The Norse god Odin on his horse Sleipnir, featured on the Tjängvide image stone in Vallhalla. (Public Domain)

Only a few pages later we find the story of Vanlandi. In chapter 13 of Ynglingasaga, Huld is asked to perform her sorcery to compel Vanlandi to return to Finland or else kill him. According to the text, when Huld exercises her seiðr, Vanlandi is overcome by sleep and senses somebody atop of him. He identifies the presence as a mara, but the weight is so heavy that it crushes his legs. Eventually it kills the king. Clearly, the mara has been sent by Huld.

In folk stories the nightmare is identified by a particular technique. When the victim complains of being ridden by the mare he is usually given the advice to hold a knife to his chest on the following night. The person does this but consciously or subconsciously misunderstands the advice and holds the knife pointed upwards. When the mare attacks him in the night, she screams and disappears. On the following morning, the woman who is the mare is found injured or dead. She is usually the one who gave the advice about the knife in the first place. The motif with the knife is very common in Belgium.

Nightmares only Sleep Paralysis?

In all instances the nightmare phenomenon is experienced as a pressure. A heavy weight is felt on the chest or on the whole body. The victim is unable to move, breathe or scream. In my opinion, the phenomenon occurs naturally when a person wakes up during a certain part of the sleep cycle. It is well known that the human body rests in a condition of paralysis or near-paralysis during the REM or dreaming phase; this is called REM atonia. It is explained by the fact that the sleeping person would otherwise walk, move, and act according to the impulses in the dream state. The inhibition of movement prevents the person from harming himself unknowingly. I believe that a person who wakes up suddenly during his sleep and cannot move his body, is coming straight out of an REM phase. Why the person would suddenly wake up remains a mystery.

All the nightmare concepts seem to indicate paralysis. The word ‘mare’ would be cognate with the Old Norse verb merja, which means ‘to crush’, related to English ‘to mar’.  The German terminology indicates the same. ‘ Druck’ in Alpdruck means ‘push’. Even the French word for nightmare refers to pressure. The old French word cauchier means ‘to press’ and forms the first part of cauchemar. The traditional expression for experiencing this sudden nightly pressure is ‘to be ridden by the mare’. In Dutch, the expression is door de mare bereden . German folklore has Mahrreiten.

The victim experiences a being on top of him. It means that the person lies on his back. Most folklore reports seem to indicate the same. I wonder whether this position somehow encourages this strange phenomenon. Besides REM atonia there is another experience which might shed light on the subject, and this is sleep paralysis. In these cases, the person incidentally experiences paralysis when falling asleep. According to experts, sleep paralysis occurs mostly when the person lies on his back.

How to Drive Out the Demons

In beating the nightmare, we have already mentioned the motif of the knife. But the nightmare seems to have been so common that a whole load of remedies existed to keep the demon out. One of the most fascinating techniques was to swap your shoes, or slippers, in front of the bed; the right one where the left would be and the other way around. Similarly, bricks were hung crosswise in front of the house or barn. The intention was to confuse the mare.

Verses were sung before going to bed. They are similar in wording to charms against witches. The verses ask the nightmare to count all the blades of grass, for instance. This and similar actions keep the demons occupied all night.

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