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The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli

A mara, or a mare is a kind of malignant female wraith in Scandinavian folklore believed to cause nightmares. She also appears in Slavic folklore, but rather as a wraith type, not the specific (named) person. She appears as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga, but the belief itself is probably even older (see below). "Mara" is the Old Norse, Swedish, Finnish and Icelandic name, "mare" is Old English, Norwegian and Danish. In Polish the word mara (female ghost or wraith) is linked to the verb "marzyć" (to wish). However, the positive meaning of dream is rather new, as in the past the word had negative connotation: "to have a nightmare" or as a noun - "the bed of a man in agony". This meaning is still present in old proverb ("idziesz na dzika, szykuj łoże, idziesz na niedźwiedzia, szykuj mary") which means: planning a boar hunt, prepare a bed; planning a bear hunt, prepare a deadman's bed. The mara gave also birth to female demon of winter Marzanna. To this day, there is a folklore ritual still played in Poland: Marzanna (mara) straw dolls are thrown into rivers at the first day of the spring. "Mareritt" is the Norwegian word for nightmare, meaning "ride of the mara".


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 Icelandic, Faroese, and Swedish mara, Danish mare and Norwegian mare/mara), Dutch (nacht)merrie, and German 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".


The mara was thought of as an immaterial being – capable of moving through a keyhole or the opening under a door – who seated herself at the chest of a sleeping person and "rode" him or her, thus causing nightmares. In Norwegian/Danish, the word for nightmare is mareritt/mareridt, meaning "mareride". The Icelandic word martröð has the same meaning, whereas the Swedish mardröm translates as "maredream". The weight of the mara could also result in breathing difficulties or feeling of suffocation (an experience now known as sleep paralysis). This phenomenon is present in the Finnish word for nightmare, painajainen, which is derived from the verb painaa, meaning "to press/to apply pressure". In the Finnish folklore, a Painajainen was originally a malign creature that climbed on the chest of a sleeping person, paralysing or even suffocating the sleeper.

The concept of the mara has very old roots in the folklore of the Germanic peoples, possibly the belief was shaped as early as in proto-Indo-European religion. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word can be traced back to an Indo-European root *mer, meaning to rub away or to harm.[3] The Slavic nightmare spirit mora is likely to have been derived from this root as well, and possibly also the Irish deity Mórrígan and the Buddhist demon Māra (< PIE *mor-o-). The proto-Germanic name is *marōn (< PIE *mor-ōn-), and its Old English derivative is mære. The Anglo-Saxon belief in this creature still echoes in the word nightmare. In later English folklore, hags and witches took on many of the roles of the mara, producing terms such as hagridden and haglock. In Germany the activities of the mara (mahr) were shifted to the elves (nightmare in German is Albtraum or "elf-dream"). According to Dictionnaire de l'Académie française, the French word cauchemar ("sleep-mare") entered the French language from a Middle Dutch mare.[4]

Similar mythical creatures are the succubus/incubus, although the belief in the mara lacks the fundamental sexual element of these beings.


The mara 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. The belief probably originated as an explanation to the Polish plait phenomena, a hair disease. Even trees could be ridden by the mara, 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 author and researcher Paul Devereux, mora 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.[5]

According to a common belief, the free-roaming spirit of sleeping women could become maras, either out of wickedness or as a form of curse. In the latter case, finding out who the cursed person was and repeating "you are a mara" three times was often enough to release her from this condition.

Like other trance practitioners, mora witches traditionally owed their abilities to being born with a caul. In their metamorphosed form they could fly through the night, walk on or hover above water and travel in a sieve. Dead mora witches were said to return as ghosts.

By region


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 in Slovak language mora or another example is the Czech word můra).


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 nocnica, "night woman" in Polish, or éjjeljáró, "night-goer" in Hungarian.[6]


In Germany they were known as mara, mahr, mare, in Romania they were known as Moroi. In Slavic countries the terms included mora, zmoras, morava and moroi; in France, such a witch was the cauchemar. Hungarian folklorist Éva Pócs traces the core term back to the Greek word μόρος moros, death.[5]

Mara in popular culture

  • In Romeo and Juliet, a fairy with similar, if not identical, tendencies appears, but is known as Queen Mab.
  • Several Mara appear in the book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, although the creatures as described have more in common with trolls.
  • The Mara appear in the Doctor Who serials Kinda and Snakedance.
  • In the Torchwood episode Small Worlds, Jack Harkness states that he thinks the evil, sadistic "fairies" are part Mara, which he describes as "kind of malignant wraiths" that suffocate people in their sleep.
  • In White Wolf's Exalted RPG, there is a Second Circle Succubus-like Demon named Mara.
  • In The Elder Scrolls series, Mara appears as one of the Goddesses in the pantheon of the nine divine.
  • In the Blizzard RPG Diablo 2, a unique amulet bears the name "Mara's Kaleidoscope". Mara is the name of NPC in Rogue Encampment.
  • In the Swedish RPG DoDT (Drakar och Demoner Trudvang) it is possible to attract a mara to haunt one's dreams when getting scared enough.
  • A character in Oh My Goddess! is a female demon (first class) named Mara.
  • The rap group Insane Clown Posse often refers to the Mara in their lyrics, calling it "The Witch on your chest." Visitations of the "Witch" are often accompanied by the inability to move, and a crushing feeling on one's chest, preventing them from breathing.
  • In the manga Alice 19th by Yuu Watase, mara is the darkness that lives in people's hearts and causes them to say or do hurtful things.
  • In the popular Space simulator Freespace 2, the Mara is a very powerful Fighter used by the main enemy of the game, the Shivans.
  • The progressive/power metal band Pyramaze has a song called "Touched by the Mara" on their 2008 CD "Immortal".
  • The Russian black/doom metal band Butterfly Temple have a CD entitled "Vremya Mary" ("Time of Mara"), which was released in 2005. The albums also contains a song of the same name.



See also

External Links