A Mare (Old English: mære, Old Dutch: mare; mara in Old High German, Old Norse and Old Church Slavic) is an evil spirit or goblin in Germanic and Slavic folklore which rides on people’s chests while they sleep, bringing on bad dreams (or “nightmares”).
The mare is often similar to the mythical creature’s succubus and incubus.
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 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.
The word may ultimately be traced back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root *mer-, “to rub away” or “to harm”. Hungarian folklorist Éva Pócs endorses an alternate etymology, tracing the core term back to the Greek μόρος (Indo-European *moros), meaning “death”.
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”.
In Polish folklore, zmora or mara 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. Accordingly, Polish mara, Czech můra denote both a kind of elf or spirit as well as a “sphinx moth” or “night butterfly”. Other Slavic languages with cognates that have the double meaning of moth are: Kashubian mòra, and Slovak mora.
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). 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”). 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. To shoo the Mara away upon awakening, the Poles say sen – Mara, Bóg – wiara (dream is Mara, [but] God is faith).
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which an individual, either during falling asleep or awakening, temporarily experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. The Mare is thought to cause this.
It is a transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, characterized by an inability to move muscles. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences (such as strong current running through the upper body). These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one’s chest and difficulty breathing. Another common hallucination type involves intruders (human or supernatural) entering one’s room or lurking outside one’s window, accompanied by a feeling of dread.
One hypothesis is that it results from disrupted REM sleep, which normally induces complete muscle atonia to prevent sleepers from acting out their dreams. Genetics and sleep deprivation are a major cause of sleep paralysis, and it has also been linked to disorders such as narcolepsy, migraines, anxiety disorders, and obstructive sleep apnea. Sleeping in a fixed supine position increases the chance of sleep paralysis.