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Mare (folklore)

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The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli, 1781

A mare (Old English: mære, Old Dutch: mare, Proto-Slavic *mara; mara in Old High German, Old Norse, and Swedish) is a malicious entity in Germanic and Slavic folklore that walks on people's chests while they sleep, bringing on nightmares.[1]


The word mare comes (through Middle English mare) from the Old English feminine noun mære (which had numerous variant forms, including mare, mere, and mær).[2] These in turn come from Proto-Germanic *marōn. *Marōn is the source of Old Norse: mara, from which are derived Swedish: mara; Icelandic: mara; Faroese: marra; Danish: mare; Norwegian: mare/mara, Dutch: (nacht)merrie, and German: (Nacht)mahr. The -mar in French cauchemar ('nightmare') is borrowed from the Germanic through Old French mare.[1]

Most scholars trace the word back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root *mer-, associated with crushing, pressing and oppressing.[3][4][5] or according to other sources 'to rub away' or 'to harm'.[6] However, other etymologies have been suggested. For example, Éva Pócs saw the term as being cognate with the Greek term Moros (μόρος (Indo-European *móros)), meaning 'doom'.[7][8][9] There is no definite answer among historians about the time of origin of the word. According to the philologist Yeleazar Meletinsky, the Proto-Slavonic root mara passed into the Germanic language no later than the 1st century BC.[10]

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'.


The mare was 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 marefloker 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 ('nightmare pine').

According to Paul Devereux, mares included witches who took on the form of animals when their spirits went out and about while they were in trance (see the Icelandic example of Geirrid, below). These included animals such as frogs, cats, horses, hares, dogs, oxen, birds and often bees and wasps.[8]

By region[edit]


The mare is attested as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century.[11] Here, 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. 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 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".[12] In Sámi mythology, there is an evil elf called Deattán, who transforms into a bird or other animal and sits on the chests of sleeping people, giving nightmares.[13]

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 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."[14]

Another possible example is the account in the Eyrbyggja saga of the sorceress Geirrid 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 here has been equated to the mara by commentators.[15][16][17]


In Germany, they were known as Mara, Mahr, or Mare.

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

Such charms are preceded by the example of the Münchener Nachtsegen of the fourteenth century (See Elf under §Medieval and early modern German texts). Its texts demonstrates that certainly by the Late Middle Ages, the distinction between the Mare, the Alp, and the Trute (Drude) was being blurred, the Mare being described as the Alp's mother.[22]



Mare from Polish folklore – graphics by Kasia Walentynowicz

Etymologically, Polish zmora/mara is connected to Mara/Marzanna, a demon/goddess of winter.[23][page needed] It could be a soul of a person (alive or dead) such as a sinful woman, someone wronged or someone who died without confession. Other signs of someone being a mare could be: being the seventh daughter, having one's name pronounced in a wrong way while being baptised, having multicoloured eyes or a unibrow (exclusive to the Kalisz region, Poland). If a woman was promised to marry a man, but then he married another, the rejected one could also become a mare at night. A very common belief was that one would become a mare if they mispronounced a prayer – e.g. Zmoraś Mario instead of Zdrowaś Mario (an inverted version of Hail Mary[23]). The mare can turn into animals and objects, such as cats, frogs, yarn, straw or apples.[24] People believed that the mare drained people – as well as cattle and horses – of energy and/or blood at night.

Protection practices included:

  • drinking coffee before sleeping,
  • taking the mare's hat,
  • throwing a piece of a noose at the demon,
  • sleeping with a leather, wedding belt or a scythe,
  • inviting the mare for breakfast,[25]
  • changing one's sleeping position,
  • smearing feces on the front door,
  • leaving a bundle of hay in one's bed and going to sleep in another room.

To protect livestock, some people hung mirrors over the manger (to scare the mare with its own face) or affixed dead birds of prey to the stable doors. Sometimes the horses were given red ribbons, or covered in a stinking substance.


A Czech můra denotes a kind of elf or spirit as well as a sphinx moth or "night butterfly".[26] Other Slavic languages with cognates that have the double meaning of moth are: Kashubian mòra,[27] and Slovak mora.[28]

In the northwest and south Russian traditions, the mara is a female character, similar to kikimora. Usually invisible, it can take the form of a black woman with long shaggy hair, which she combs, sitting on a yarn.[clarification needed]

In Croatian, mora refers to a 'nightmare'. Mora or Mara is one of the spirits from ancient Slav mythology, a dark one who becomes a beautiful woman to visit men in their dreams, torturing them with desire before killing them. In Serbia, a mare is called mora, or noćnik/noćnica ('night creature', masculine and feminine respectively).[29] In Romania they were known as Moroi.

Some believe that a mora enters the room through the keyhole, sits on the chest of the sleeper and tries to strangle them (hence moriti, 'to torture', 'to bother', 'to strangle', umoriti, 'to tire', 'to kill', umor, 'tiredness' and umoran, 'tired'). To repel moras, children are advised to look at the window or to turn the pillow and make the sign of the 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 their doors, or putting their belt on top of their sheets, or saying an elaborate prayer poem before they go to sleep.[30]

See also[edit]


  • Paranormal Entity, a 2009 found-footage film featuring a mare named Maron as the antagonist
  • Marianne, a 2011 Swedish horror film featuring mares
  • Borgman, a 2013 Dutch thriller film featuring mares
  • Outlast, a 2013 video game featuring Mares/Alps
  • Hilda, a 2018 TV series. Episode 6 "The Nightmare Spirit" focuses on one
  • Mara, a 2018 American horror film
  • Phasmophobia, a 2020 video game featuring Mares


  1. ^ a b Bjorvand and Lindeman (2007), pp. 719–720.
  2. ^ Alaric Hall, 'The Evidence for Maran, the Anglo-Saxon "Nightmares"', Neophilologus, 91 (2007), 299–317, doi:10.1007/s11061-005-4256-8.
  3. ^ Julius Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. 2 vols. Bern: Francke, 1959. s.v. 5. mer-.
  4. ^ Jan de Vries. Altnordisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. Leiden: Brill, 1961. s.vv. mara, mǫrn.
  5. ^ C. Lecouteux, 'Mara–Ephialtes–Incubus: Le couchemar chez les peuples germaniques.' Études germaniques 42: 1–24 (pp. 4–5).
  6. ^ "mer- Archived 2005-09-10 at the Wayback Machine" in Pickett et al. (2000). Retrieved on 2008-11-22.
  7. ^ Pócs 1999, p. 32
  8. ^ a b Devereux (2001), Haunted Land, p.78
  9. ^ μόρος. Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  10. ^ Yeleazar Meletinsky, ed. (1990). Mythological dictionary (in Russian). Stuttgart: Moscow: Soviet encyclopedia. ISBN 5-85270-032-0.
  11. ^ Ynglinga saga, chapter 13 (and quoted stanza from Ynglingatal), in Hødnebø and Magerøy (1979), p. 12
  12. ^ Snorri Sturluson (2010) [1964]. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Translated by Hollander, Lee M. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0292786967.
  13. ^ Siida – Staalon ja maahisten maa – Kertojien perilliset (in Finnish)
  14. ^ Kelchner, Georgia Dunham (2013) [1935]. Dreams in Old Norse Literature and their Affinities in Folklore. Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN 978-1107620223.
  15. ^ Morris, William; Magnússon, Eiríkr (1892), The Story of the Ere-dwellers (Eyrbyggja Saga), B. Quaritch, pp. 29–, 274, 348
  16. ^ Du Chaillu, Paul Belloni (1890), "The Viking Age: The Early History, Manners, and Customs of the ancestors of the English-speaking Nations", Nature, 1 (1052), Scribner's Sons: 433, Bibcode:1889Natur..41..173F, doi:10.1038/041173a0, hdl:2027/hvd.hn4ttf, S2CID 11662165
  17. ^ Ármann Jakobsson (2009), "The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis Saga", Folklore, 120 (3): 307–316, doi:10.1080/00155870903219771, S2CID 162338244
  18. ^ Kuhn, Adalbert (1864). "Indische und germanische Segenssprüche". Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Sprachforschung. 13: 12.
  19. ^ Last line supplied from "541. Mahrsegen" Kuhn 1859, vol. 2, p.191
  20. ^ Mahr, August C. (1935). "A Pennsylvania Dutch 'Hexzettel'". Monatshefte für Deutschen Unterricht. 27 (6): 215–225. JSTOR 30169065.
  21. ^ Last line of translation supplied by Ashliman, D. L. "Night-Mares". Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. Retrieved 23 May 2013.
  22. ^ Hall, Alaric (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity. Boydell Press. pp. 125–126. ISBN 978-1843832942.
  23. ^ a b Michael, Ostling (2011). Between the devil and the host : imagining witchcraft in early modern Poland. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199587902. OCLC 751748759.
  24. ^ Kolberg, Oskar (1865). The People. Their Customs, Way of Life, Language... Poland.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  25. ^ Gołębiowski, Łukasz (1884). Lud polski, jego zwyczaje, zabobony... Poland.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  26. ^ Grimm 1883, TM 2, 464, note2
  27. ^ Bernard Sychta. Słownik gwar kaszubskich na tle kultury ludowej, Ossolineum, Wrocław - Warszawa - Kraków 1969, tom III, pp. 102-105
  28. ^ "Slovenské slovníky". slovnik.juls.savba.sk. Retrieved 2021-02-06.
  29. ^ Pócs 1999, p. 33 gives the feminine form.
  30. ^ Karadžić, Vuk (1898) [1818], Srpski rječnik, Central European University Press, ISBN 9789639116184

General references[edit]

Further reading[edit]