Mare in the word nightmare is not a female horse, but a mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers' chests, causing them bad dreams. Dialect variants include the forms mara, mahr, mahrt, mårt, etc.
In High German, the demon who causes bad dreams is most often called an Alp, a word that is etymologically related to elf. A mare-induced bad dream is called a nightmare in English, martröð ( mare-ride) in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic, mareridt (mare-ride) in Danish, mareritt (mare-ride) in Norwegian, and Alpdruck (alp-pressure) or Alptraum (alp-dream) in German.
The alp is a demonic being which presses upon sleeping people so that they cannot utter a sound. These attacks are called Alpdrücke (nightmares).
It is believed that the alp crushes animals to death. For example, if young geese, are placed in a pig pen and then die it is said that the alp crushed them to death. If rabbits die, and it appears that they have been crushed, a broom is placed in their pen, which protects them against the alp. Even though windows and doors may be tightly closed and locked to keep out the alps, they can still get in through the smallest holes, which they seek out with special pleasure.
- A trud or alp often travels a great distance to make his nighttime visits.
- Alps are said to ride the victim's horses during the night, and the next morning the animals seem to be exhausted
- If a person doesn't move its chair before going to sleep, the mare will ride it during the night
- Mares are said to like giving people hair-snarls (called whole-grain braids or mare braids), by sucking on their hair then braiding it.
How to Ward an Alp off
- In the still of the night one can hear the sound that they make in the wall while getting in. If one gets up quickly and plugs up the hole, then they must stay in the room and cannot escape, even after the doors have been opened. Then, before setting them free, one must make them promise to never disturb the place again. On such occasions they have complained pitifully that they have little children at home who will perish if they do not leave.
- Some people have laid a hackle (iron-toothed comb for the preparation of flax) on their bodies in order to keep alps away. Alps are said to be able to turn it over, pressing the points into the sleeper's body.
- A better precaution is to turn one's shoes around at the side of the bed, so that the hooks and the laces are next to you.
- If attacked by an alp, in order to keep it away the victim has to put its thumb in its hand, and the alp will have to retreat.
- They can also be repelled with horse heads.
- When a nurse diapers a child, she must make the sign of the cross and open up a corner. Otherwise the alp will re-diaper the child.
- If an alp is pressing upon, the victim has to think, "Trud, come tomorrow, and I will lend you something!". The alp will immediately retreat and come the next day in the form of a human, in order to borrow something.
- It is believed that by stopping up the keyhole, placing one's shoes with the toes facing the door, and then getting into bed backwards one can protect oneself against nightmares or "Mortriden."
- Further, one can put something made from steel, for example an old pair of scissors, in one's bed straw.
- In Zwickau they claim that the alp will go away if one invites it for coffee the following morning.
- Once some herdsmen were out in the field in the middle of the night. They were watching their herds not far from a body of water. An alp came by, climbed into a boat, untied it from the bank, rowed it with an oar that he himself had brought along, climbed out, tied up the boat on the other side, and continued on his way. After a while he returned and rowed back. The herdsmen, however, after observing this for several nights, and allowing it to happen, decided to take the boat away. When the alp returned, he began to complain bitterly, and threatened the herdsmen that they would have to bring the boat back immediately if they wanted to have peace, and that is what they did.
- A girl told how the alp came to her through a keyhole. She was not able to call for help. Later, she therefore asked her sister to call out her name in the night, and then the alp would go back out through the keyhole.
- There are people who can send an alp to those they hate or are angry with merely with their thoughts.
The name most often found in northern Germany ends with a pronounced "t," and can be grammatically either masculine or feminine. The compound "nightmårt" is also very common. The forms "mår" (masculine) and "måre" (feminine) also exist. The designation "alp" is recognized as well.
- All of names previously mentioned are used to designate the spirit being that sits upon a sleeping person's chest, thus depriving him of motion and speech.
- The approaching being sounds like the gnawing of a mouse or the quiet creeping of a cat.
- A person whose eyebrows grow together is called a murraue.
- A murraue can be either a man or a woman, but only a person born on Sunday.
- If there are seven boys or seven girls in one family, then one of them will be a night-mare, but will know nothing about it.
How to Ward a Mart Off
- Mårt-pressure (also called a mårt-ride) can be prevented by crossing one's arms and legs before falling asleep.
- In the Oldenburg district, in Saterland, and in East Friesland, the alp is called "wåridèrske" or "wäridèrske."
- In the vicinity of Wendisch-Buchholz the same being is called the Murraue." The fear that it causes the sleeping person does not cease until it gets light in the room.
- Some pine trees have twigs that grow together in curls until they look almost like nests. During a rain storm, one must be careful to not stand beneath such a twig, because if rain drops fall on a person from such a nest, the murraue will surely sit on him during the night.
The mårt can be captured by grasping it with an inherited glove or by closing up all of the room's openings as soon as the sleeping person begins to groan.
- If they are pressing against a victim, the latter should say that they want to give them something, then they will come the next day to get it.
- The murraue creeps up a sleeping person's body from below. First you feel its weight on your feet, next on your stomach, and finally on your chest, and then you cannot move a muscle. However, if you think that you know who it is, you must call it by its name as soon as you perceive it, and it will have to either appear in its physical form or to retreat
- On the island of Baltrum the male mare is called "wålrüder" and the female mare is called "rittmeije."
- A cabinet maker in Bühl slept in a bed in his workshop. Several nights in a row something laid itself onto his chest and pressed against him until he could hardly breathe. After talking the matter over with a friend, the next night he lay awake in bed. At the stroke of twelve a cat slipped in through a hole. The cabinet maker quickly stopped up the hole, caught the cat, and nailed down one of its paws. Then he went to sleep. The next morning he found a beautiful naked woman in the cat's place. One of her hands was nailed down. She pleased him so much that he married her.
One day, after she had borne him three children, she was with him in his workshop, when he said to her, "Look, that is where you came in!" and he opened the hole that had been stopped up until now. The woman suddenly turned into a cat, ran out through the opening, and she was never seen again.
- Two farm workers slept together in one room. One of them was ridden by a mahrt so often that he finally asked his comrade the next time it happened to stop up the knothole in the door so they could capture the mahrt. The next time he was miserably moaning and groaning in his sleep, his comrade did what he had been asked, then called his friend by name. Awakening, he quickly reached out and grabbed a piece of straw in his hand. Although it twisted and turned, he held it tightly until his comrade had stopped up the knothole. He then laid the piece of straw on the table, and they both fell asleep until morning. When they awoke they saw a beautiful girl behind the stove. They nearly parted ways disputing whom she belonged to. The one who had stopped up the knothole said that she should be his, because if he had not done that, she would have escaped. The other one said that she belonged to him, because he had captured her. Finally the one who stopped up the knothole gave in, and the other one married the girl. They had children and lived together quite happily. However, the woman often begged her husband to show her the knothole where she had entered the room. She said that she would have no peace until she had seen it. The man resisted her pleas for a long time, but once she begged him especially earnestly, saying that she could hear her mother in England calling the pigs, and asked him to allow see her again just once. Finally he softened and gave in. He went with her and showed her where she had entered the room, but in that instant she flew out through the knothole and never returned.
German and Polish Lore
The alp, or as it is most often called, the "märt," is frequently encountered in Pomerania, historic region currently set in the Northwest of Poland. A märt rides on sleeping people at night, pressing against them until at last they can no longer breathe. A märt is usually a girl who has a bad foot. Once in the village of Bork near Stargard there was a smith who had a daughter with a bad foot, and at that time an unusually large number of people complained that they were being ridden by a märt.
Pomerania (Polish Pomorze, German Pommern) is a historic region lying mostly in today's northwest Poland, but partly in northeast Germany.
Stargard is the German name for the Szczecin, a Polish city on the Ina River.
Vanlandi, King of Sweden, and Huld, the Witch Woman', from the Ynglinga Saga of Snorri Sturluson. Svegdir's son was named Vanlandi, and he took the kingdom after him and ruled over the Wealth of Uppsala. He was a great warrior and went far over the land. He had stayed one winter in Finland with Snæ the Old, and there married his daughter Driva. In the spring he went away, whilst Driva stayed behind, and he promised to come back after three winters, but he came not for ten winters. Then Driva had Huld the witch woman called to her, and sent Visbur, hers and Vanlandi's son, to Sweden. Driva paid Huld the witch woman to draw Vanlandi to Finland with sorcery or else to kill him. When the spell was being furthered, Vanlandi was in Uppsala, and he had a longing to go to Finland, but his friends and advisers forbade him, and said that it certainly was Finnish witchcraft which caused his wanderlust. Then he became sleepy and said that the Mare was treading on him. His men sprang up and would help him, but when they came to his head she trod on his feet, so that they were nigh broken; then they resorted to the feet, but then she smothered the head, so that he died there. The Swedes took his body and burned it near a river which was called Skuta; there was his standing-stone set up.
- Joh. Aug. Ernst Köhler, Sagenbuch des Erzgebirges (Schneeberg and Schwarzenberg: Verlag und Druck von Carl Moritz Gärtner, 1886), no. 200, pp. 154-155.
- Bartsch Karl, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1880), vol. 2, p. 3.
- Baader Bernhard, "Alp," Volkssagen aus dem Lande Baden und den angrenzenden Gegenden (Karlsruhe: Verlag der Herder'schen Buchhandlung, 1851), no. 136, p. 126
- Grimm Jacob and Wilhelm, Der Alp, Deutsche Sagen (1816/1818), no. 81.
- Kuhn Adalbert, Sagen, Gebräuche und Märchen aus Westfalen und einigen andern, besonders den angrenzenden Gegenden Norddeutschlands (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1859),
- Kuhn A. and Schwartz W. , "Mahrt gefangen," Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1848), no. 16, pp. 14-15.
- Kuhn A. and Schwartz W. , "Oral, from Swinemünde." Swinemünde is the German name for Swinoujscie, Poland, a city on the Baltic very near the current Polish border with Germany
- Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps James, Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales (London: John Russell Smith, 1849)
- Sturlason Snorre [Snorri], Heimskringla; or, the"Lives of the Norse Kings", edited with notes by Erling Monsen and translated into English with the assistance of A. H. Smith (Cambridge, England: W. Heffer & Sons, 1932), pp. 9-10
- Temme J. D. H., Die Volkssagen von Pommern und Rügen (Berlin: In der Nikolaischen Buchhandlung, 1840), p. 341