Mare (folklore)

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A mare or nightmare (Proto-Germanic: *marōn; Old English: mære; Old Norse: mara; German: Nachtmahr) is an evil spirit or goblin in Germanic folklore which rides on people's chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams (or "nightmares").[1]

The mare is often similar to the mythical creatures succubus and incubus, and was likely inspired by sleep paralysis.[citation needed]


The word "mare" comes (through Middle English mare) from Old English mære, mare, or mere, all feminine nouns. These in turn come from Common Germanic *marōn. *Marōn is the source of Old Norse: mara (from which come Swedish: mara; Icelandic: mara; Faroese: mara; Danish: mare; Norwegian: mare/mara), Dutch: (nacht)merrie, and German German: (Nacht)mahr. The -mar in French cauchemar ("nightmare") is borrowed from the Germanic through Old French mare.[1] The word can ultimately be traced back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root *mer-, "to rub away" or "to harm".[2]

In Norwegian and Danish, the words for "nightmare" are mareritt and mareridt respectively, which can be directly translated as "mare-ride". The Icelandic word martröð has the same meaning (-tröð from the verb troða, "trample", "stamp on", related to "tread"), whereas the Swedish mardröm translates as "mare-dream".

Hungarian folklorist Éva Pócs traces the core term back to the Greek word μόρος moros, "death".[3] Another possibility is that the Slavic mora and the Germanic mara come from the same root.


The mare was also believed to "ride" horses, which left them exhausted and covered in sweat by the morning. She could also entangle the hair of the sleeping man or beast, resulting in "marelocks", called marflätor "mare-braids" or martovor "mare-tangles" in Swedish or marefletter and marelokker in Norwegian. The belief probably originated as an explanation to the Polish plait phenomenon, a hair disease.

Even trees were thought to be ridden by the mare, resulting in branches being 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.

According to Paul Devereux, mares included witches who took on the form of animals when their spirits went out while they were in trance. Animals such as frogs, cats, horses, hares, dogs, oxen, birds and often bees and wasps.[3]

By region[edit]


The mare is attested as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century.[4]

As in English, the name appears in the word for "nightmare" in the Nordic languages (e.g. the Swedish word "mardröm" literally meaning mara-dream, the Norwegian word "mareritt" and the Danish "Mareridt", both meaning Mare-ride or the Icelandic word "martröð" meaning mara-dreaming repeatedly).


In Germany they were known as mara, mahr, mare.

German Folklorist Franz Felix Adalbert Kuhn records a Westphalian charm or prayer used to ward off mares, from Wilhelmsburg near Paderborn:

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![5]
[Dazu helfe mir Gott Vater, Sohn und heiliger Geist. Amen!][6]
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.[7]
[Thus help me God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen!][8]


In Romania they were known as Moroi.

In Croatian, mora refers to a "nightmare". Mora or Mara is one of the spirits from ancient Slav mythology. Mara was a dark spirit that takes a form of a beautiful woman and then visits men in their dreams, torturing them with desire, and dragging life out of them. Other names were noćnica, "night woman" in Polish, or éjjeljáró, "nightwalker" in Hungarian.[9]

In Serbia, a mare is called mora, or noćnik/noćnica ("night creature", masculine and feminine respectively). It is a common belief that mora enters the room through the keyhole, sits on the chest of the sleepers and tries to strangle them (hence moriti, "to torture", "to bother", "to strangle"). To repel moras, children are advised to look at the window or to turn the pillow and make a sign of cross on it (prekrstiti jastuk); in the early 19th century, Vuk Karadžić mentions that people would repel moras by leaving a broom upside down behind the door, or putting their belt on top of their sheets, or saying an elaborate prayer poem before they go to sleep.[10]


In Polish folklore, mora are the souls of living people that leave the body during the night, and are seen as wisps of straw or hair or as moths. In certain Slavic languages, variations of the word mora actually mean moth (such as Kashubian mòra,[11] Slovak mora or Czech můra).[citation needed]

In Estonia the mare-like spirit is called Painaja (presser) or Külmking (cold-shoe).[citation needed]

In Turkey the mare is known as Karabasan(ominous-presser).[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bjorvand and Lindeman (2007:719–720).
  2. ^ "mer-" in Pickett et al. (2000). Retrieved on 2008-11-22.
  3. ^ a b Haunted Land, Piatkus, 2001, p 78
  4. ^ Ynglinga saga, stanza 13, in Hødnebø and Magerøy (1979:12).
  5. ^ Kuhn, Adalbert (1864). "Indische und germanische Segenssprüche". Zeitschrift für vergleichende Spruchforschung 13: 12. 
  6. ^ Last line supplied from "541. Mahrsegen" Kuhn 1859, vol. 2, p.191
  7. ^ Mahr, August C. (1935). "A Pennsylvania Dutch 'Hexzettel'". Monatshefte für deutschen Unterricht 27 (6): 215–225.  JSTOR 3016906
  8. ^ Last line of translation supplied by Ashliman, D. L. "Night-Mares". Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. Retrieved May 2013. 
  9. ^ Between the living and the dead, Éva Pócs, 1999, p 46
  10. ^ Vuk Karadžić, Srpski rječnik, 1898, p. 380 (first edition 1818, second edition 1852)[1]
  11. ^ Bernard Sychta. Słownik gwar kaszubskich na tle kultury ludowej, Ossolineum, Wrocław - Warszawa - Kraków 1969, tom III, pp. 102-105