Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Possibly deriving from the Old English night and mara, a specter, indicating a terrifying dream. It is said to be caused by a disorder of the digestive functions during sleep, inducing the temporary belief that some animal or demon is sitting on the chest. Among primitive people it was thought that the affliction proceeded from the attentions of an evil spirit.

Johann Georg Keysler, in his work Antiquitates selectae Septentrionales et Celticae (1720), collected interesting particulars concerning the nightmare. Nactmar, he stated, is from Mair, an old woman, because the specter which appears to press upon the breast and impede the action of the lungs is generally in that form. The English and Dutch words coincide with the German. The French cochemar is Mulier incumbens or incubus. The Swedes use Mara alone, according to the Historia de omnibus Gothorum Sueonumque Regibus of J. Magnus (1554), where he stated that Valender, the son of Suercher, succeeded to the throne of his father, who was suffocated by a demon in his sleep, of that kind which by the scribes is called Mara.

Others ‘‘we suppose Germans,’’ continued Keysler, ‘‘call it Hanon Tramp.’’ The French peasantry called it Dianus which is a corruption either of Diana or of Daezmonium Meridianum for it seems there is a belief which Keysler thought might not improbably be derived from a false interpretation of an expression in the 91st Psalm (‘‘the destruction that wasteth at noonday’’) that persons are most exposed to such attacks at that time and therefore women in child bed are then never left alone.

But though the Daezmonium Meridianum is often used for the Ephialtes, nevertheless it is more correctly any sudden and violent attack which is deprives the patient of his senses.

In some parts of Germany, the name given to this disorder is das Alpdructen, either from the ‘‘mass’’ which appears to press on the sufferer or from Alp or Alf (elf). In Franconia it is die Drud or das Druddructern, from the Druid or Weird Women, and there is a belief that it may not only be chased away, but be made to appear on the morrow in a human shape, and lend something required of it by the following charm: ‘‘Druid tomorrow / So will I borrow.’’

These Druids, it seems were not only in the habit of riding men, but also horses, and in order to keep them out of the stables, the salutary pentalpha (which bears the name of Drudenfuss (Druids foot) should be written on the stable doors, in consecrated chalk on the night of St. Walburgh. It should also be mentioned that the English familiar appellation ‘‘Trot’’ as traced to ‘‘Druid,’’ ‘‘a decrepit old woman such as the Sagas might be,’’ and the same might perhaps be said of a Scottish Saint, Triduana or Tredwin.

In the Glossarium Suiogothicum of Johann Ihre (1769), a somewhat different account of the Mara is given. Here again, we find the ‘‘witch-riding’’ of horses, against which a stone amulet was suggested by the antiquarian John Aubrey, similar to one described below.

Among the incantations by which the nightmare may be chased away, Reginald Scot recorded the following in his Discovery of Witchcraft (1584):

St. George, St. George, or lady’s knight,
He walked by day so did he by night:
Until such times as he her found,
He her beat and he her bound,
Until her troth to him plight,
He would not come to her that night.

‘‘Item,’’ continued this author, ‘‘hand a stone over the afflicted person’s bed, which stone hath naturally such a hole in it, as wherein a string may be put through it, and so be hanged over the diseased or bewitched party, be it man, woman, or horse.’’

Readers of these lines may be reminded of the similar charm which Shakespeare put into the mouth of Edgar as Mad Tom in King Lear:

Saint Withold footed thrice the wold:
He met the night-mare and her ninefold
Bid her alight,
And her troth plight

And aroint thee, witch, aroint thee.

Another charm of earlier date occurs in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale. When the simple Carpenter discovers the crafty Nicholas in his feigned abstraction, he thinks he may perhaps be hagridden, and address him thus:

And there with the night-spell he seide arightes,
On four halvis of the house about,
And on the dreshfold of the dore without,
‘Jesus Christ, and seint Benedight,
Blesse this house from evrey wikid wight,
Fro the night’s mare, the wite paternoster,
Where wennist thou Seint Peter’s sister.

A later author has pointed to some other formularies, and has noticed the Asmodeus was the fiend of most evil repute on these occasions. In the Otia Imperiala of Gervase of Tilbury, some other protecting charms are said to exist.

To turn the medical history of the incubus, Pliny recommended two remedies for this complaint, one of which was the herbal remedy wild peony seed. Another, which it would not be easy to discover in any modern  pharmacopoeia, was a decoction in wine and oil of the tongue, eyes, liver, and bowels of a dragon, wherewith, after it has been left to cool all night in the open air, the patient should be anointed every morning and evening.

Dr. Bond, a physician, who stated that he himself was much afflicted with the nightmare, published an Essay on the Incubus in 1753. At the time at which he wrote, medical attention appears to have been very little called to the disease, and some of the opinions hazarded were sufficiently wild and inconclusive. Thus, a certain Dr. Willis said it was owing to some incongruous matter which is mixed with the nervous fluid in the  cerebellum (de Anima Brutorum), while Bellini thought it imaginary and to be attributed to the idea of some demon which existed in the mind the day before.

Both of these writers might have known better if they would have turned to Fuchsius (with whom Dr. Bond appeared to be equally acquainted), who in his work de Curandi Ratione, published as early as 1548, had an excellent chapter (I, 31) on the causes, symptoms, and cure of nightmare, in which he attributed it to repletion and indigestion, and recommends the customary discipline.

Much of Gothic literature has been ascribed to dreams and nightmares. Horace Walpole’s famous story The Castle of Otranto (1764) derived from a dream in which Walpole saw upon the uppermost banister of a great staircase a vision of a gigantic hand in armor.

In 1816, Mary Shelley had a gruesome and vivid nightmare which was the basis for her story Frankenstein.

Nearly seventy years later, novelist Robert Louis Stevenson had a nightmare that inspired his famous story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which he completed in only three days.

Bram Stoker’s immortal creation of Dracula (1897) was claimed to be the result of a nightmare after a supper of dressed crab, although clearly many of the elements in the story had been germinating in the author’s mind much earlier. Many horror stories have also been inspired nightmares.

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