The mare in nightmare is not a female horse, but a mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers' chests, causing them to have bad dreams.
Dialect variants, as explained below, include the forms mara, mahr, mahrt, mårt, trud, drute, and others.
In High German, the demon who causes bad dreams is most often called an Alp, a word that is etymologically related to elf.
A mare-induced bad dream is called a nightmare in English, martröð (mare-ride) in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic, mareridt (mare-ride) in Danish, mareritt (mara-ride) in Norwegian, mardröm (mare-dream) in Swedish, and Alpdruck (alp-pressure) or Alptraum (alp-dream) in German.
Even though windows and doors may be tightly closed and locked to keep out the alps, they can still get in through the smallest holes, which they seek out with special pleasure. In the still of the night one can hear the sound that they make in the wall while getting in. If one gets up quickly and plugs up the hole, then they must stay in the room and cannot escape, even after the doors have been opened. Then, before setting them free, one must make them promise to never disturb the place again. On such occasions they have complained pitifully that they have little children at home who will perish if they do not leave.
A trud or an alp often travels a great distance to make his nighttime visits. Once some herdsmen were out in the field in the middle of the night. They were watching their herds not far from a body of water. An alp came by, climbed into a boat, untied it from the bank, rowed it with an oar that he himself had brought along, climbed out, tied up the boat on the other side, and continued on his way. After a while he returned and rowed back.
The herdsmen, however, after observing this for several nights, and allowing it to happen, decided to take the boat away. When the alp returned, he began to complain bitterly, and threatened the herdsmen that they would have to bring the boat back immediately if they wanted to have peace, and that is what they did.
Some people have laid a hackle [an iron-toothed comb for the preparation of flax] on their bodies in order to keep alps away, but an alp often turns it over, pressing the points into the sleeper's body.
A better precaution is to turn one's shoes around at the side of the bed, so that the hooks and the laces are next to you.
When an alp is pressing against you, you can put your thumb in your hand, and he will have to retreat.
Alps often ride your horses during the night, and the next morning you can see how exhausted they are.
They can also be repelled with horse heads.
If you don't move your chair before going to sleep, the mara will ride it during the night. They like to give people hair-snarls (called whole-grain braids or mara braids), by sucking on their hair then braiding it.
When a nurse diapers a child, she must make the sign of the cross and open up a corner, otherwise the alp will re-diaper the child.
If you say to an alp that is pressing upon you, "Trud, come tomorrow, and I will lend you something!" then he will immediately retreat and come the next day in the form of a human, in order to borrow something.
Or you can call out to him, "Come tomorrow and drink with me," then the person who sent him will have to come.
According to Prätorius, such a person's eyebrows grow together along one line. Others claim that such a person's eyebrows grow together on their forehead. There are others who can send an alp to those they hate or are angry with merely with their thoughts. He comes out of their eyebrows, looks like a small white butterfly, and sits on the breast of a sleeping person.
The alp is a demonic being which presses upon sleeping people so that they cannot utter a sound. These attacks are called Alpdrücke (nightmares).
A girl told how the alp came to her through a keyhole. She was not able to call for help. Later, she therefore asked her sister to call out her name in the night, and then the alp would go back out through the keyhole.
In Zwickau they claim that the alp will go away if one invites him for coffee the following morning.
It is also believed that the alp crushes animals to death. For example, if young geese, are placed in a pig pen and then die it is said that the alp crushed them to death. If rabbits die, and it appears that they have been crushed, a broom is placed in their pen, which protects them against the alp.
Two farm workers slept together in one room. One of them was ridden by a mahrt so often that he finally asked his comrade the next time it happened to stop up the knothole in the door so they could capture the mahrt.
The next time he was miserably moaning and groaning in his sleep, his comrade did what he had been asked, then called his friend by name. Awakening, he quickly reached out and grabbed a piece of straw in his hand. Although it twisted and turned, he held it tightly until his comrade had stopped up the knothole. He then laid the piece of straw on the table, and they both fell asleep until morning.
When they awoke they saw a beautiful girl behind the stove. They nearly parted ways disputing whom she belonged to. The one who had stopped up the knothole said that she should be his, because if he had not done that, she would have escaped. The other one said that she belonged to him, because he had captured her.
Finally the one who stopped up the knothole gave in, and the other one married the girl. They had children and lived together quite happily.
However, the woman often begged her husband to show her the knothole where she had entered the room. She said that she would have no peace until she had seen it. The man resisted her pleas for a long time, but once she begged him especially earnestly, saying that she could hear her mother in England calling the pigs, and asked him to allow see her again just once.
Finally he softened and gave in. He went with her and showed her where she had entered the room, but in that instant she flew out through the knothole and never returned.
A cabinetmaker in Bühl slept in a bed in his workshop. Several nights in a row something laid itself onto his chest and pressed against him until he could hardly breathe. After talking the matter over with a friend, the next night he lay awake in bed. At the stroke of twelve a cat slipped in through a hole. The cabinetmaker quickly stopped up the hole, caught the cat, and nailed down one of its paws. Then he went to sleep.
The next morning he found a beautiful naked woman in the cat's place. One of her hands was nailed down. She pleased him so much that he married her.
One day, after she had borne him three children, she was with him in his workshop, when he said to her, "Look, that is where you came in!" and he opened the hole that had been stopped up until now.
The woman suddenly turned into a cat, ran out through the opening, and she was never seen again.
Then when she was expecting another child, the lad said to her: "What do you think? In your present condition would you be able to go back through the hole where you came in to me at that time?"
He had scarcely said this when the mahr disappeared through the strap-hole in the door, and she never came back.
Then he said to the boy, that when he heard him moan, he should put the stick in the hole, because he wanted to capture her. In the morning there was a naked woman with a tuft of wool on her back in the room.
However, the man did not know that if you catch a mara, you cannot get rid of her, and so he had to marry her.
The following night, when the mare again tormented her son, the mother jumped out of bed and plugged the hole in the ceiling. The next morning they found a small, pretty, naked girl behind a chest. It was the mare, and she was now their prisoner.
The girl stayed with them. She and the man became good friends. They married and had many children together.
Everything would have gone well if the man had kept silent about what he knew. But many years later, one evening when they were together in the same room, the husband said to his wife: "Do you know what you are, and do you know where you came from?"
No, his wife did not know.
"You are a mare!" he said, and he then took the plug from the hole. "This is how you came in here."
With that his wife disappeared like a mist before his eyes. She had turned into a mare again, and this was because he had not forgiven her.
I lay me here to sleep;
No night-mare shall plague me,
Until they swim all the waters
That flow upon the earth,
And count all the stars
That appear in the firmament!
Thus help me God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen!
The alp, or as it is most often called, the "märt," is frequently encountered in Pomerania. A märt rides on sleeping people at night, pressing against them until at last they can no longer breathe. A märt is usually a girl who has a bad foot. Once in the village of Bork near Stargard there was a smith who had a daughter with a bad foot, and at that time an unusually large number of people complained that they were being ridden by a märt.
S. George, S. George, our ladies knight,
He walkt by daie, so did he by night.
Untill such time as he her found,
He hir beat and he hir bound,
Untill hir troth she to him plight,
She would not come to him that night.
Pulling from my head the longest hair it possessed, and then going through the pantomime of binding a refractory animal, the nurse slowly chanted this spell:
De man o' meicht
He rod a' neicht
We nedder swird
Nor faerd nor leicht,
He socht da mare,
He fand da mare,
He band da mare
Wi' his ain hair,
An' made her swear
By midder's meicht,
Dat shö wad never bide a neicht
What he had rod, dat man o' meicht.
There are different versions of this incantation, and I [Mrs. Saxby] forget which it was that the old nurse used on the occasion mentioned. Therefore I have given the one which is most familiar to me.
He rade a' night,
Wi' open swird
An' candle light.
He sought da mare;
He fan' da mare;
He bund da mare
Wi' her ain hair.
And made da mare
'At she should never
Bide a' night
Whar ever she heard
O' Arthur Knight.
Svegdir's son was named Vanlandi, and he took the kingdom after him and ruled over the Wealth of Uppsala. He was a great warrior and went far over the land. He had stayed one winter in Finland with Snæ the Old, and there married his daughter Driva. In the spring he went away, whilst Driva stayed behind, and he promised to come back after three winters, but he came not for ten winters.
Then Driva had Huld the witch woman called to her, and sent Visbur, hers and Vanlandi's son, to Sweden. Driva paid Huld the witch woman to draw Vanlandi to Finland with sorcery or else to kill him. When the spell was being furthered, Vanlandi was in Uppsala, and he had a longing to go to Finland, but his friends and advisers forbade him, and said that it certainly was Finnish witchcraft which caused his wanderlust. Then he became sleepy and said that the Mare was treading on him. His men sprang up and would help him, but when they came to his head she trod on his feet, so that they were nigh broken; then they resorted to the feet, but then she smothered the head, so that he died there. The Swedes took his body and burned it near a river which was called Skuta; there was his standing-stone set up. Thus says Tjodolv:
But on the way
To Vili's brother
Then there trod
On the warrior lord.
And there was burned
On the Skuta bank
That generous man
Whom the Mare killed.
In Japan, among superstitious people, evil dreams are believed to be the result of evil spirits, and the supernatural creature called Baku is known as Eater of Dreams.
The Baku, like so many mythological beings, is a curious mingling of various animals. It has the face of a lion, the body of a horse, the tail of a cow, the forelock of a rhinoceros, and the feet of a tiger.
Several evil dreams are mentioned in an old Japanese book, such as two snakes twined together, a fox with the voice of a man, blood-stained garments, a talking rice-pot, and so on.
When a Japanese peasant awakens from an evil nightmare, he cries: "Devour, O Baku! devour my evil dream." At one time pictures of the Baku were hung up in Japanese houses and its name written upon pillows. It was believed that if the Baku could be induced to eat a horrible dream, the creature had the power to change it into good fortune
Revised January 27, 2023.