Mara: The Nightmare Legend

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1781)

The mara or mare (mara is Old High German or Old Norse, while mare is Old Dutch) is a creature featured in Scandinavian folklore and Nordic legends associated with sleep and nightmares. The mara is described as a being who would sit on the chest of a sleeping person and bring them nightmares. The etymology of the creature’s name is drawn from Nordic words for nightmare (the Norwegian word for nightmare is mareitt, the Icelandic term is martroo, while the Swedish translation is mardrom). Mareitt and martroo roughly translate as “mare-ride”, referencing the original use of the term, while mardrom translates as “mare-dream.” The story of the mara originated in the Norse Ynglinga saga, a 13th century saga written by Snorri Sturlson, an Icelandic poet. In the saga King Vanlandi Sveigoisson of Uppsala is killed by a mara which is conjured by the Finnish sorceress Huld, hired by the king’s abandoned wife.

“Driva bribed the witch-

wife Huld, either that she should bewitch Vanlande to return to

Finland, or kill him.  When this witch-work was going on Vanlande

was at Upsal, and a great desire came over him to go to Finland;

but his friends and counsellors advised him against it, and said

the witchcraft of the Finn people showed itself in this desire of

his to go there.  He then became very drowsy, and laid himself

down to sleep; but when he had slept but a little while he cried

out, saying that the Mara was treading upon him.  His men

hastened to him to help him; but when they took hold of his head

she trod on his legs, and when they laid hold of his legs she

pressed upon his head; and it was his death.  The Swedes took his

body and burnt it at a river called Skytaa, where a standing

stone was raised over him.”

Ynglinga Saga, Verse 16


The mara also appears in the Icelandic Vatnsdæla saga as a spirit connected to the fate of the person it is attached to and in the Eyrbyggja saga (also Icelandic in origin) where the sorceress Geirrid is said to assume the shape of a marlíðendr or “night-rider.”

My Dream, My Bad Dream by Fritz Schwimbeck

The mara legend has also been observed in several places outside of Scandinavia. In Germany there are records of charms and prayers to ward off the mara, such as the below:

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!

-Charm Against Night-Mares

In Polish folklore the mara is described as a soul of a living person who leaves their body at night and are seen by others in the guise of wisps of hair or moths. In Czech lore there are mentions of a “night-butterfly,” also thought to be linked to the mara legend. Russian legends paint the mara as invisible but with the ability to also take the form of a woman with long hair. Other mentions of mara in Slavic folklore include descriptions of the mara as a succubus-like creature who invades men’s dreams and lead them to their doom (Croatia) and as a spirit who enters through the keyhole and strangles you while you sleep (Serbia). In Turkey, the mara is called the Karabasan which translates to “ominous-presser.”

Mara by Johan Egerkrans

The legend of the mara is also connected to the mythos of the old had or night hag, a story used in many cultures to explain sleep paralysis. The first definition of sleep paralysis appears in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary under the term “nightmare”:

Nightmare n.s. [night, and according to Temple, mara, a spirit that in the heathen mythology, was related to torment to suffocate sleepers.] A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast.

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

The folklore of the old hag is seen all over the world including:

  • Folk belief in Newfoundland and parts of the southern United States where the hag leaves her body and sits on the chest of the victim.
  • The legend of the kana tevoro in Fiji where it is seen as a recently deceased family member with unfinished business.
  • Thai belief describes sleep paralysis as being caused by a ghost called Phi Am.
  • In Japan it is referred to as kanashibari, which translates as “to bind” or “to tie.”
  • In Mongolia sleep paralysis is called khar darakh, which translates to “to be pressed by the Black.” (Author’s Note: this is super creepy and I love it.)
  • In Arab cultures it is referred to as Ja-thoom which means “what sits heavily on something.” It is believed sleep paralysis can be prevented by reading the Throne verse of the Quran.
  • In several African cultures (including Nigeria, Egypt, and Ethiopia) sleep paralysis is believe to be caused by a demon who has possessed the body while dreaming.

If you’re curious about learning more about the legend of the mara, visit the links below:

Mare (folklore)-Wikipedia

Night-Mares: D.L. Ashliman

Atlas Obscura

“The Folklore of the Nightmare”-Eric Edwards Collected Works

Mara (folklore)-Project Gutenberg