Savages regard nightmare as the oppression of a demon or ghost, and the incubus or demon lover was at first the nightmare, but personified like the Greek Ephialtes and the nightmare demons of most European lands. In ancient times and in the Middle Ages some medical enquirers regarded night mare merely as a dream produced by congestion of blood vessels, hindrance to breathing, or some other physical cause.1 The popular view was quite different, and the various names for nightmare show this. Of these the German Mahr with its cognates in Scandinavian speech, ON Mara, Danish Mare, our own “nightmare,” and the French cauchemar, are examples. In Upper Germany Mahr has been displaced by Alp, and the words Trut, Trude, Schrettele, and others are also in use. The Schrettele or Schrat is the medieval pilosus, a shaggy spirit.2

All of these were supposed to ride or press the sleeper, even to cause death. But the sleeper’s feelings varied from great pain or oppression to mild or even voluptuous sensations. He might imagine himself attacked by an animal or a more or less monstrous or shaggy being (e.g., Fauns, Satyrs), or by a male or female person. All depended on his physical state, the position of his body, the nature of his bed, the materials of his bedclothes, no less than upon his preconceived ideas aided by his dream fancies. The Mahr might even be imagined as changing into a straw, a piece of down, or vapour, if, on awaking, the sleeper found himself grasping these or his room filled with smoke.3

The form of the Mahr varies — now a giant, now a dwarf; now deformed, now handsome or lovely. A beautiful elfin was


sometimes supposed to enter a room by the key-hole or a knothole, and, resuming larger proportions, to attack the sleeper. If, knowing the Mahr to have entered or having taken precautions to prevent its attack, he closed such means of egress, the Mahr was found next morning as a beautiful nude woman. She could be forced to promise never to return, or might beg to be set free.4 Often, however, the Mahr was in the form of an animal. It was usually the soul of a person which had left its body in order to torment a sleeper. A witch might cause her soul to act as a Mahr, or it might be the soul of a woman secretly in love with the victim.5 Stories show that the sleeper, finding the Mahr desirable, offered her love or married her. When a Norse husband asked his nightmare wife how she had entered, and she replied that she did not know, he showed her a knothole through which, now becoming small, she vanished. This corresponds to the broken conditions by which a man loses his fairy or Swan-maiden wife, of whom the nightmare is the equivalent. Or she might beg the husband to remove the plug from the hole. This done, she vanished, but might return to tend her children, like the fairy wife or dead mother in other tales. A Swedish story tells how a girl, as a nightmare, tormented a man who refused her love. When he placed a scythe by his bed as a means of riddance, she cried that she would die, and next morning she was found dead in bed.6 The Mahr might be a spectre from the region of the dead, and when questioned regarding herself or whence she came, she vanished. When such a spectre was drawn back to earth by a former promise of marriage, there is a resemblance to the dead lover in the Lenore ballad and its parallels; and where the Mahr is a living woman or her spirit sent forth by her, she resembles the witch or fairy who uses a man as a steed and makes him hag-ridden.

Night is the usual time for the Mahr’s attack, but it might occur to sleepers at noon, and then the Mahr is a form of the Midday demon.7

From old Icelandic literature the best example of an oppressive


nightmare spirit is recorded in the Heimskringla. Vanland, Svegdir’s son, was king of Sweden, and abode one winter with Snær (Snow) the old, and married his daughter Drift. He left her, but promised to return. She sent for Huld the witch in order that she might draw Vanland by spells or slay him. Vanland was sleeping, and cried that a Mara was treading him. His men tried to help him. She went to his head and legs in turn, breaking his legs and smothering him, so that he died.8

That the belief in the Mara was seriously regarded is shown by the ecclesiastical law which ordained that a woman, proved guilty of acting as one and riding a man or his servants, must pay a money fine. If she could not pay, she was outlawed.9