Mare (folklore)

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A Mare (Old English: mære, Old Dutch: mare; mara in Old High German and Old Norse) is a malicious entity in Germanic and Slavic folklore that rides on people's chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams (or "nightmares").[1]


The word "mare" comes (through Middle English mare) from 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 μόρος (Indo-European *moros), meaning "doom".[7][8][9]

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 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 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


The mare is attested as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century.[10] 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." [11]

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."[12]

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.[13][14][15]

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![16]
[Dazu helfe mir Gott Vater, Sohn und heiliger Geist. Amen!][17]
Here I am lying down to sleep;
No night-mare shall plague me
until they have swum through all waters
that flow upon the earth,
and counted all stars
that appear in the firmament.[18]
[Thus help me God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen!][19]

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.[20]

Slavic countries


Mare from Polish folklore - graphics by Kasia Walentynowicz

Etymologically, Polish zmora/mara is connected to Mara/Marzanna, a demon of winter[21]. 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 an unibrow (exclusive to 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 during the nights. 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[21]). The mare can turn into animals and objects, such as cats, frogs, yarn, straw or apples[22]. People believed that the mare drained people - as well as cattle and horses - of energy and/or blood at night.

Common protection practices included:

  • drinking coffee grounds 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[23],
  • 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 the cattle, horses etc., people hanged mirrors over the manger (to scare the mare with its own face) or affixed dead, predatory birds on the stable's door. Sometimes the horses were given red ribbons, or they also were being covered in a stinking substance.

Other countries

A Czech můra denotes a kind of elf or spirit as well as a "sphinx moth" or "night butterfly".[24] Other Slavic languages with cognates that have the double meaning of moth are: Kashubian mòra,[25] and Slovak mora.[citation needed]

In the north-western Russian and South-Russian traditions, the mara means a female character, similar to kikimora. Mara is usually invisible, but can take the form of a woman with long flowing hair, which she combs, sitting on a yarn. According to other sources, the mara is black, shaggy (olonets, tul.), And also a terrible and disheveled creature (Kaluga).

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. In Serbia, a mare is called mora, or noćnik/noćnica ("night creature", masculine and feminine respectively).[26] In Romania they were known as Moroi.

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", "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 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.[27]

In Macedonian a nightmare is called a "ноќна мора" or a "кошмар" both words relating to the mare.

Potential analogues

In Hungarian, the creature is known as éjjeljáró or "night-goer."[28] In Estonia, the mare-like spirit is called Painaja (presser) or Külmking (cold-shoe).[citation needed] In Thailand, this phenomenon is well documented and called ผีอำ (pee ahm), pee meaning "ghost". Buddhist residents wear amulets (พระเครื่อง) blessed by monks to ward off spirits such as these. In Turkey, the mare is known as Karabasan [tr] (ominous-presser).

See also


  • 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.
  • Hilda, a 2018 TV series. Episode 6 "The Nightmare Spirit" focuses on one.


  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. ^ Ynglinga saga, chapter 13 (and quoted stanza from Ynglingatal), in Hødnebø and Magerøy (1979), p. 12
  11. ^ Snorri Sturluson (2010) [1964]. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Hollander, Lee M. (tr.). University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0292786967.
  12. ^ Kelchner, Georgia Dunham (2013) [1935]. Dreams in Old Norse Literature and their Affinities in Folklore. Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN 978-1107620223.
  13. ^ Morris, William; Magnússon, Eiríkr (1892), The Story of the Ere-dwellers (Eyrbyggja Saga), B. Quaritch, pp. 29–, 274, 348
  14. ^ Du Chaillu, Paul Belloni (1890), "The Viking Age: The Early History, Manners, and Customs of the ancestors of the English-speaking Nations", Nature, Scribner's Sons, 1 (1052): 433, Bibcode:1889Natur..41..173F, doi:10.1038/041173a0, hdl:2027/hvd.hn4ttf
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Kuhn, Adalbert (1864). "Indische und germanische Segenssprüche". Zeitschrift für Vergleichende Sprachforschung. 13: 12.
  17. ^ Last line supplied from "541. Mahrsegen" Kuhn 1859, vol. 2, p.191
  18. ^ Mahr, August C. (1935). "A Pennsylvania Dutch 'Hexzettel'". Monatshefte für Deutschen Unterricht. 27 (6): 215–225. JSTOR 30169065.
  19. ^ Last line of translation supplied by Ashliman, D. L. "Night-Mares". Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. Retrieved May 2013. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  20. ^ Hall, Alaric (2007), Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Boydell Press, pp. 125–6, ISBN 978-1843832942 [permanent dead link]
  21. ^ a b Michael., Ostling (2011). Between the devil and the host : imagining witchcraft in early modern Poland. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199587902. OCLC 751748759.
  22. ^ Kolberg, Oskar (1865). The People. Their Customs, Way of Life, Language... Poland.
  23. ^ Gołębiowski, Łukasz (1884). Lud polski, jego zwyczaje, zabobony... Poland.
  24. ^ Grimm 1883, TM 2, 464, note2
  25. ^ Bernard Sychta. Słownik gwar kaszubskich na tle kultury ludowej, Ossolineum, Wrocław - Warszawa - Kraków 1969, tom III, pp. 102-105
  26. ^ Pócs 1999, p. 33 gives the feminine form.
  27. ^ Karadžić, Vuk (1898) [1818], Srpski rječnik, ISBN 9789639116184
  28. ^ Pócs 1999, p. 46


  • Bjordvand, Harald and Lindeman, Fredrik Otto (2007). Våre arveord. Novus. ISBN 978-82-7099-467-0.
  • Devereux, Paul (2001). Haunted Land: Investigations into Ancient Mysteries and Modern Day Phenomena, Piatkus Publishers.[unreliable source?]
  • Grimm, Jacob (1883), "XVII. Wights and Elves", Teutonic Mythology, 2, James Steven Stallybrass (tr.), W. Swan Sonnenschein & Allen, pp. 439–517
  • Hødnebø, Finn and Magerøy, Hallvard (eds.) (1979). Snorres kongesagaer 1, 2nd ed. Gyldendal Norsk Forlag. ISBN 82-05-22184-7.
  • Kuhn, Adalbert (1859), Sagen, Gebräuche und Märchen aus Westfalen und einigen andern, besonders den angrenzenden Gegenden Norddeutschlands, Brockhaus, pp. 18–22, 191
  • Pickett, Joseph P. et al. (eds.) (2000). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-82517-2.
  • Pócs, Éva (1999), Between the living and the dead: a perspective on witches and seers in the early modern age, Central European University Press, ISBN 978-9639116184
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