Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825) - The Nightmare (1790-91)

Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825) – Der Nachtmahr (1790)




The noun mare, which appeared in early Old English, denoted a spirit believed to produce a feeling of suffocation in a sleeping person or animal, hence also a feeling of suffocation experienced during sleep, and an oppressive or terrifying dream.

Unrelated to mare in the sense of the female of a horse, this word is from a Germanic base cognate with the first element of Early Irish morrigain, queen of the elves, and probably also with the first element of the Gaulish personal name Moritasgus mentioned by Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) in Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War, 5. 54). It is also cognate with Bulgarian mora, nightmare, Czech můra, nightmare, moth, Polish zmora, nightmare, and the second element of Russian kikimora, nocturnal apparition, female house-spirit.

The French noun for nightmare is cauchemar. Of Picard origin, it is apparently composed of:

cauche, conjugated form of the verb cauchier, to tread, to oppress, from the Latin verb calcare, of same meaning,
– and mar, from Middle Dutch mare, akin to the English noun.

(In contemporary British English, mare in the sense of a very unpleasant or frustrating experience is an abbreviation of nightmare.)


The compound nightmare appeared around 1300 in the sense of a female spirit or monster supposed to settle on, and produce a feeling of suffocation in, a sleeping person or animal. In The Miller’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer (circa 1340-1400) wrote:

Blisse this hous fri euery euyl wyght ffor the nyghtesmare the whȝt Pater noster.
Bless this house from every evil wight, for the nightmare, the white paternoster.

In The historie of serpents. Or, The second booke of living creatures (1608), the Church of England clergyman and author Edward Topsell († 1625) gave the following advice:

The fatte of dragons is of such vertue that it driveth away venomous beastes. It is also reported, that by the tongue or gall of a dragon sodde [= seethed, boiled] in wine, men are delivered from the spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.


The noun incubus (plural incubi) denotes a male demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping women, while succubus (plural succubi) denotes a female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men.

Late Latin incubus corresponds to classical Latin incubo, meaning one who lies upon, hence nightmare. It is from the verb incubare, composed of the prefix in- and the verb cubare, to lie, and meaning to lie in (a place) or upon (a thing), hence in particular to sit upon eggs, brood (cf. the English verb to incubate).

A masculine form with feminine meaning, the Medieval Latin succubus is an alteration after incubus of Late Latin succuba, meaning one who lies under, hence a prostitute, from the verb succubare, composed of the prefix sub- and the verb cubare, and meaning to lie under. In The discouerie of witchcraft (1584), Reginald Scot († 1599) explained:

M. Mal. Bodin, Hemingius, Hyperius, Danœus, Erastus, and others that take upon them to write heerein, are so abused, or rather seeke to abuse others ; as I woonder at their fond credulitie in this behalfe. For they affirme undoubtedlie, that the divell plaieth Succubus to the man, and carrieth from him the seed of generation, which he delivereth as Incubus to the woman, who manie times that waie is gotten with child ; which will verie naturallie (they saie) become a witch, and such a one they affirme Merline was.


Another term, ephialtes (Greek ἐϕιάλτης), means a demon supposed to cause nightmare and the nightmare itself. It is usually believed to literally mean one who jumps upon, and to be the agent noun of the verb ἐϕιάλλεσθαι (ephiallesthai), variant of ἐϕάλλεσθαι (ephallesthai), to leap upon, composed of ἐπί (epi), on, and ἄλλεσθαι (allesthai), to leap. Observations on Popular Antiquities (1777), by Henry Bourne (1696-1733) and John Brand (1744-1806), contains the following:

The Ephialtes, or Night-Mare, is called by the common people Witch-riding. This is in fact an old Gothic or Scandinavian Superstition. “Mara, from whence our Night-Mare is derived, was in the Runic Theology a Spectre of the Night, which seized Men in their Sleep, and suddenly deprived them of speech and motion.” (See Warton’s first Dissertation)


The poet Martin Llewellyn (1616-82) punned on mare in the sense of the female of a horse:

Some the Night-Mare hath prest
With that weight on their brest,
No Returnes of their breath can passe,
But to us the Tale is addle,
We can take off her saddle,
And turn out the Night Mare to grasse.


In Miscellanies upon various subjects (1696), the antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-97) explained:

In Herefordshire, and other parts, [...] to hinder the night mare, they hang in a string, a flint with a hole in it (naturally) by the manger; but best of all they say, hung about their necks, and a flint will do it that hath not a hole in it. It is to prevent the night mare, viz. the hag from riding their horses, who will sometimes sweat all night. The flint thus hung does hinder it.

Similarly, in A Provincial Glossary, with a collection of local proverbs, and popular superstitions (1787), Francis Grose wrote:

A stone with a hole in it, hung at the bed’s head, will prevent the night-mare: it is therefore called a hag-stone, from that disorder which is occasioned by a hag or witch sitting on the stomach of the party afflicted. It also prevents witches riding horses: for which purpose it is often tied to a stable key.

(also read holy-stone)

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