The Nightmare, circa 1790 by Johann Heinrich Füssli; Deriv

The Night Mare and Being Ridden by the Hag

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A man is hag-ridden or plagued by the mare in this illustration, 1854. (Public Domain)

A man is hag-ridden or plagued by the mare in this illustration, 1854. (Public Domain)

A few more remedies are worth mentioning. One of them is the mistletoe. The plant was hung under the roof to protect against the mare. In Dutch, the mistletoe is called maretak, ‘mare twig’. This is possibly the reason why mistletoe features in the myth of Balder’s death. One day Balder wakes up from a dream which foretells his own death. Thereupon his mother attempts to protect him, but eventually Balder is killed by the mistletoe.

Another means of protection is the pentagram. We know this, because the symbol is named after the nightmare. In Dutch, the pentagram is called marevoet. According to a German tradition, the same symbol, the Mahrfuss, is applied on the threshold and doorframe of the bedroom for protection on May-Eve.

The pentagram is applied on the threshold and doorframe of the bedroom for protection. (Public Domain)

The pentagram is applied on the threshold and doorframe of the bedroom for protection. (Public Domain)

In German, the same symbol is better known as Drudenfuss; the Dutch equivalent being droedenvoet. In Belgium and Holland, the droede is almost never heard of. According to the German folklore, the Drude is explained as a night demon or elf. The word is supposed to derive from a word meaning ‘to tread’ and may in fact be cognate with it. It is related to Gothic trudan and Old Norse troða with the same meaning. The etymology of Drude conveniently ties in with the nightmare experience of pressure. Nonetheless I would like to link the word with a member of the Norse gods. The daughter of Thor is called Thrud; in Old Norse þruðr. Her name seems much closer to Drude and droede than the Gothic verb trudan. Unfortunately, her name has never been satisfactorily explained.

Thrud is a woman and a character of legend, but not much is known about her. She figures in Alvissmal, a poem from the Edda. In the story, Alviss, a dwarf, visits Thor’s house and asks Thrud’s hand. Thor is not pleased with the proposal and tries to stall the dwarf. The god is delighted when at last the sun rises, because Alviss cannot suffer sunlight. This motif occurs in folklore quite often and might indicate that Alviss and his kind only live at night. The fact that he chooses Thrud as his bride might mean that she, too, is a creature of the night. At least, dwarves were associated with elves. In Norse mythology, they were called dark elves or black elves. Analogously, the nightmare creatures in Germany were called elves. Thrud might well be the mother of a whole class of female beings who operate at night. In passing, it should be noted that the German words Alp, Mahr and Drude could refer to both men and women.

We have established that many folktales explain the nightmare as a projection of a woman’s supernatural powers, whether intentionally or not. In spite of that, she might still be a supernatural being in origin, known as the mara, and of elf-kind.

By Vincent Ongkowidjojo

Top image: The Nightmare, circa 1790 by Johann Heinrich Füssli; Deriv - Public Domain

References

J. Cheyne, Situational factors affecting sleep paralysis and associated hallucinations: position and timing effects; in: Journal of Sleep Research 11, 2002.

Cleasby & Vigfusson, An Icelandic-English Dictionary, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1957.

Draken en andere vreemde wezens. Volksverhalen uit kleurrijk Nederland, Lemniscaat, Rotterdam 1991.

Herkunftswörterbuch, Wahrig, 2009.

Lee M. Hollander, Heimskringla, Universtiy of Texas Press, Austin 1992.

Josef Müller, Karl Meisen, Heinrich Dittmaier & Matthias Zender, Rheinisches Wörterbuch, Bonn/Berlin 1928-1971.

Vincent Ongkowidjojo, Secrets of Asgard, Mandrake, Oxford 2011.

F. Roeck, Volksverhalen uit Belgisch Limburg, Uitgeverij Het Spectrum, Utrecht/Antwerpen 1980.

Victor Spoormaker, Droomsucces, Kosmos-Z&K Uitgevers, Utrecht 2005.

Stefaan Top, Volksverhalen uit Vlaams Brabant, Uitgeverij Het Spectrum, Utrecht/Antwerpen 1982.

Renaat van der Linden & Lieven Cumps, Volksverhalen uit Oost- en West-Vlaanderen, Uitgeverij Het Spectrum, Utrecht/Antwerpen 1979.

Marcel van den Berg, Volksverhalen uit Antwerpen, Uitgeverij Het Spectrum, Utrecht/Antwerpen 1981.

P.A.F. van Veen & Nicoline van der Sijs, Van Dale Groot Etymologisch woordenboek, Van Dale Lexicografie, Utrecht/Antwerpen 1997.

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