Nightmare’s lost creature

There is a whole menagerie of semi-human creatures from folklore that live only in our imagination, in children’s stories and, at their worst, in our nightmares.

It is from one particular group of these creatures, that we now call incubi (singular incubus), that truly gave us nightmares. In medieval times incubus was used to denote a wicked creature or demon that would copulate with women while the women were asleep. There were also the succubi, female demons, that had their dark way with men. They were perhaps convenient creatures to explain a multitude of sins and crimes.

The word incubus is closely related to incubate. It comes from the Latin incubare, which means to lie upon. Succubus, also comes from Latin, succubare meaning to lie under.

However before the evil demon’s name was latinised to incubus by the church scholars of the Middle Ages these creatures were known as mara. They were spirits or goblins that rode on people’s chests creating a feeling of suffocation while the victims slept. Note the image used for the post is by Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas from the Detroit Institute of Arts which shows this very graphically. Also note the nightmare peeping through the curtain.

The word, mara, is found in most of the early Germanic languages. This includes English (in Old English, mære; Old Norse, mara; German, Mahr; Swedish: mara; Norwegian: mare/mara; etc). It is present in the folklore of other language groups but not always describing the same demon. In Romanian folklore moroi is a type of vampire or ghost, for instance. Morrigan the Great Queen or war goddess of Irish mythology may even be translated as queen of the mara (mara with rigan for queen).

By the 13th century in England mara or maere had been compounded with night to become night-mare. By the 16th century the meaning had shifted from the demonic creature to the suffocating anxiety it caused at night. By the 19th century the meaning had shifted to the modern meaning of both a bad dream and any unpleasant experience that resembled a bad dream.

So sadly in English folklore we have lost our mara, those anxiety creating creatures of the night. Now they are only faintly remembered as bad dreams in the word nightmare. We are left with the uncomfortable synonym, the more carnal incubi given to us by the Medieval church, to replace it.