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 childbed 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
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 ladys 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
persons 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
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 Chaucers Millers
Tale. When the simple Carpenter discovers the crafty Nicholas
in his feigned abstraction, he thinks he may perhaps be hagridden,
and address him thus
I crouch from the Elves and fro wikid wightes
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 nights mare, the wite paternoster,
Where wennist thou Seint Peters 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
Nielsen, Winnifred Moon Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
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
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
Much of Gothic literature has been ascribed to dreams and
nightmares. Horace Walpoles 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
Bram Stokers 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 authors mind much earlier.
Many horror stories have also been inspired nightmares. (See
also fiction; Succubus)