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The Nightmare, circa 1790 by Johann Heinrich Füssli; Deriv

The Night Mare and Being Ridden by the Hag


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.

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.

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


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Vincent Ongkowidjojo's picture

Vincent Ongkowidjojo

Vincent Ongkowidjojo (1979) is the author of Secrets of Asgard (Mandrake, 2011) and Doors of Valhalla (Mandrake, 2016). Earlier he published Runen in de Noordse traditie by a well-known Dutch publisher Ankh Hermes Deventer (2007). His works have always been... Read More

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