The Mara is a wraithlike female dream demon, known to mankind since the Dark Ages (Viking times), if not before then. She appears in the Old Norse Sagas, but the belief itself may be even older. The word mara can be traced back to an Indo-European word, meaning "harm." This evil spirit also gave rise to the word nachtmara, which of course is German for "nightmare." In the Norwegian language, mareritt and mareridt (meaning "mare dream" or "mare ride") are two words for nightmare. These creatures steal into the bedrooms of sleeping humans at night, sitting on the chests of their victims. The spirit then gradually becomes heavier and heavier, slowly suffocating the victim. The Mara (which also means "mare," as in a horse) is thought to literally ride its victim like a horse. Sometimes, the Mara even kills her victims, thus absorbing their lifeforce. The experience is terrifying in and of itself, and this is how the Mara feeds. She feeds on the resulting fear and the lifeforce of the victim, bring nightmares to her prey.
The Mara also torments horses, riding the animals all night long. The next
morning, the horse is found to be distressed and completely exhausted, and
covered in sweat. Sometimes, the horse dies after carrying it's owner home. In
some tales, the Mara has a truly bizarre habit of riding trees, resulting in
the branches becoming tangled up. In Sweden, a species of pine tree that grows
on the rocky coasts or wet ground is known as martallar, or "mare pines", because of it's twisted
According to Scandinavian folk beliefs, the roaming spirits (or astral bodies)
of sleeping women are likely to become a Mara, due to the person's own inherent
wickedness or as the result of a sorcerer's or a witch's curse. In the case of
a curse, one must find out who the Mara is. Once that is done, one must say
"You are a Mara" three times. This is thought to be potent enough to
release the woman's soul from the curse.
In Poland, the Mara is known as the Nocnista. She is a night-hag that causes
children to have nightmares, unless deterred by the presence of iron. In other
Slavic countries, the Mara is called the Kikimora. She is an evil spirits that
induces bad dreams in it's victims. According to legend, the Kikimora is said
to be the unhappy soul of a girl who had died without being baptized. This
spirit is able to change her form, becoming a moth or a wisp of hair that lands
on a sleeping victim's lips, causing symptoms similar to those produced by the
Mara's predations. Salt will keep her at bay, and potential victims are known
to fill the keyholes of their bedroom doors with beeswax to keep the Mara out.
Cheung, Theresa. The Element
Encyclopedia of Ghosts & Hauntings. New York: Barnes & Noble,
Inc., by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright ©Theresa Cheung
Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies,
Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses. New York: HarperCollins
Publishers. Copyright ©2009 by Judika Illes.