Norse Folklore, The Night Mare

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A Mare is an evil spirit or huldrefolk (hidden folk) in folklore which rides on people’s chests while they sleep, often bringing on bad dreams or “nightmares“.

The mare (Old Norse: mara) is mentioned in the Eyrbyggja saga, Ynglinga saga, and Vatnsdæla sagas. In English, the name appears in the word for “nightmare“. The Swedish word “mardröm” literally means mara-dream, the Norwegian word “mareritt” and the Danish “Mareridt”, both mean ‘Mare-ride’ or the Icelandic word ‘martröð’ means mara-dreaming repeatedly. The Mara is also a demon in Buddhism and some Buddhists have amulets blessed by monks to ward off these evil spirits called ผีอำ ((pee ahm), pee meaning “ghost”) in Thailand.

The mare is thought to sometimes appear as a skinny young woman dressed in a night gown with pale skin and long black hair and nails. 

It is believed to be a dark spirit that takes a form of a beautiful woman and then visits men in their dreams, torturing them with desire while dragging the life out of them – much like a Judeo-Christian Succubus (Lilith).
Wait,.. torturing men with desire while dragging the life out of them… Does marriage come from mara? (Okay bad joke *snicker*)

Folklore claims that mares can slip through the slightest cracks in walls or floors like sand or smoke and re-emerge to terrorize their sleeping victim by “riding” on their chest. By sitting on their chests the mare cause their victim to have nightmares (and sleep paralysis if they awaken) as they are slowly being smothered to death.

sand mare
Sand Woman by WilleWellDesigner

There is controversy as to how they came into being and in some tales the Maras are simply restless children or adolescents whose souls leave their body at night to haunt the living.  Much like how poltergeist (German for “noisy ghost”) activity is believed to be the subconscious psychokinesis of an unaware preteen.  The general belief is that these mare manifestations are the disembodied spirits of the living.

In folklore, zmora or mara are believed to be the souls (Old Norse: hugr) of living people that leave their bodies (Old Norse: likami) during the night. Odin was well known to travel out of his body. He did it so much that he even feared that one day he may not be able to return to his body.  In the The Poetic Edda: Grímnismál, a disguised Odin expresses that he fears that they may not return from their daily flights.

Benjamin Thorpe translation:
Hugin and Munin fly each day
over the spacious earth.
I fear for Hugin, that he come not back,
yet more anxious am I for Munin.

Henry Adams Bellows translation:
O’er Mithgarth Hugin and Munin both
Each day set forth to fly;
For Hugin I fear lest he come not home,
But for Munin my care is more.

<see: Are Odin’s Ravens Muninn and Huginn symbolic for his Mind and Soul?>

His wife was very concerned about this as well. “Freyja’s (probably Frigg) husband, the god Óðr (Probably Odin), is frequently absent. She cries tears of red gold for him.”

These ‘out-of-body’ mara are seen as being wisps, orbs, or as being moths.

Incidentally the words, mara (in Polish) and můra (in Czech), denote both a kind of elf or spirit as well as being the word for a “sphinx moth” or “night butterfly”. Other Slavic languages with cognates that have the double meaning of moth are: Kashubian “mòra” and Slovak “mora”.

They would sometimes ride cattle that, when touched by the Mara, would have their hair or fur tangled and energy drained, while trees would curl up and wilt.

The night mare was believed to entangle the hair of the sleeping individual or beast, which resulted in “marelocks”, called marflätor (“mare-braids”) or martovor (“mare-tangles”) in Swedish or marefletter and marefloker in Norwegian. The belief probably originated as an explanation to the Polish plait phenomenon, a hair disease.

Polish Plait believed to be caused by Mares tangling the victim’s hair at night.

Even trees thought to be ridden or even touched by the mare would cause their branches to become entangled. The undersized, twisted pine-trees growing on coastal rocks and on wet grounds are known in Sweden as martallar (“mare-pines”) or in German as Alptraum-Kiefer (“nightmare pine”).

Similar to an angry nisse/tomte, the mare was also believed to “ride” horses, which left them exhausted and covered in sweat by the morning.

Mares were also believed to be witches (or völva /seiðr) who took on the form of animals when their spirits went out and about while they were in trance.

In folklore, these included animals such as frogs, cats, horses, hares, dogs, oxen, birds and often bees and wasps.

In the modern Norse fiction The Hidden Hollow, an apparition shape-shifted as a cat and sat on the chest of its victim as it grew bigger and heavier, trying to crush and smother them to death.

In the Eyrbyggja saga, the sorceress Geirrid is accused of assuming the shape of a “night-rider” or “ride-by-night” (marlíðendr or kveldriða) and causing serious trampling bruises on Gunnlaug Thorbjornsson. The marlíðendr mentioned in the saga is believed to be the same as a mara

King Vanlandi Sveigðisson of Uppsala lost his life to a nightmare (mara) conjured by the Finnish sorceress Huld or Hulda, hired by the king’s abandoned wife Drífa.
<see: Huldra, Folklore’s Lady of the Forest>

In the saga, the king had broken his promise to return within three years and after ten years had elapsed the wife engaged the sorceress to either lure the king back to her, or failing that, to assassinate him. Vanlandi had scarcely gone to sleep when he complained that the nightmare “rode him;” when the men held the king’s head the it “trod on his legs” on the point of breaking, and when the retinue then “seized his feet” the creature fatally “pressed down on his head.” 

night mare
The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 31 December 1780.

According to the Vatnsdæla saga, Thorkel Silver (Þorkell Silfri) has a dream about riding a red horse that barely touched ground, which he interpreted as a positive omen, but his wife disagreed, explaining that a mare signified a man’s fetch (fylgja), and that the red color boded bloodiness. This association of the nightmare with fetch (fylgja) is thought to be of late origin, an interpolation in the text dating to circa 1300, with the text exhibiting a “confounding of the words marr and mara.”

A female Mare riding on a sleeping man’s chest. (Andy Renard Artwork)

To ward off a mare people took many precautions. These went from possessing blessed amulets to leaving a broom upside down behind the door or putting their belt on top of their sheets. After the Norse became Christianized, the elaborate prayer poem was recited before going to sleep.
<see: The Christianization of the Norse>

In Westphalia Germany, people were taught a prayer to ward off mares:

Hier leg’ ich mich schlafen,
Keine Nachtmahr soll mich plagen,
Bis sie schwemmen alle Wasser,
Die auf Erden fließen,
Und tellet alle Sterne,
Die am Firmament erscheinen!
[Dazu helfe mir Gott Vater, Sohn und heiliger Geist. Amen!]
Here I am lying down to sleep;
No night-mare shall plague me
until they have swum through all the waters
that flow upon the earth,
and counted all stars
that appear in the skies.
[Thus help me God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen!]

Sources:

 by Njord Kane © 2017 Spangenhelm Publishing


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