Monstrous Myths: The Mara


The following is a continuing collaboration between Folklore consultant Ruth Gibbs and the author of this site.

Welcome back to monstrous myths everyone! Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, paralyzed with fear from nightmares? Have you ever felt a crushing weight on your chest as the darkness closes in on you and something slowly, slowly, creeps over the floor towards your bed? According to the Slavs, you might’ve had a run in with a Mare.

Art by Tumblr user @ain-individual

Just the Lore

It is fairly safe to say every person who is reading this has either had a very bad nightmare or knows someone who has had a very bad nightmare. It is part of being human, overactive brains stressed from a long day or week filtering all that pent up emotion, finding a way to release it all in a relatively harmless way. These range from a slight dread and no memory, to something that haunts your waking hours for years to come. We have brain scans nowadays. We can see what the brain is doing when it is asleep, and while the substance of a dream is open to interpretation, the mechanism of it really isn’t anymore.

However, if you lived in ancient Germany, Norway, or various parts of Eastern Europe, that stress nightmare would likely have been caused by a Mara, a small demon creature who sits upon the chest of sleeping people, “riding” them and causing asthmatic fits, thrashing, injuries during the night, and horrific nightmares that awaken the afflicted person with apoplexy and screaming…if they wake up at all. These sleeping-demons tend to be lumped in with the likes of succubi and incubi, but they don’t appear to actually do anything to their victims beyond terrorize, while those other, more well known monsters have serious consequences.
These little beasties didn’t limit themselves to humans, though. In Sweden and Norway they were known to ride horses to sweating exhaustion, causing horrible frustrating knots called marflätor (mare-locks) or martovor (mare-tangles), or ride trees that cause the knots and gnarls in bark. If something looks twisted, exhausted, and upset in the morning… the usual source was a Mare having a fun night out on the countryside. 

Physical descriptions of Mare vary from place to place. Mare’s cousins in Romania, the Moroi, are said to be the resurrected souls of the dead seeking revenge on the living for poor burial, while over in Catalan the Pesanta takes the shape of a huge cat or dog. Mare’s can be anything from foot-tall fuzzy gnomish things to ghoulish gangly things with heads scraping the ceilings. Whatever your brain creates that is the most strange, and terrifying, the Mare is, providing whatever it is you are frightened of is humanoid.

In Russia, the Mara are said to be relatives to the more friendly but no less odd looking Domovoi. Normally the Domovoi are benevolent house spirits who help with housework and scare away mice, and can get a little uppity when left without milk or a little food. However, if the Domovoi goes without appeasement, it will retaliate with more and more violent outbursts, sometimes even killing people. In some parts of western Russia Mara are corrupted, twisted Domovoi who have been separated from their homes or families long enough to forget their nature of helpfulness. 

It is worth noting that in Germanic lore, Mare are specifically female. They only cause strife and misery, but they do have a slightly more charming male counterpart, the Alp. Where Mare appear to be doing what they do for pure entertainment value, the Alp seems to gain some sustenance from his nightly terrorizing, drinking blood from the nipples of men, women, and young children in the night, and even stealing milk from nursing women’s breasts. 

Relation to Simon’s Species

Many people who experience night terrors of sleep paralysis and make the mistake of opening their eyes during this debacle, often describe strange, wriggling things at the corners of their vision, crawling closer and closer every time the sufferer blinks or moves their eyes. Any observant or clever creature could take advantage of that and use the opportunity of a terrorized awake-but-immobile person to have a little fun at their expense. 

For the most part the terror that is Mare’s and their ilk can be attributed to sleep paralysis and the ensuing hallucinations that occur, though I believe not all. If we link all these similar creatures by what they do…we can then look for a more distinct description that may tie in to some footing based in Simon’s physicality. The mare, lietuvens, moroi and pesanta as a “familial group” have striking physical similarities. While the Mare do have a very wide range of possible ways they can look, the other three do not.

Always gaunt, always pale, usually wearing the clothing of the deceased relative they’re meant to be, they are otherwise borderline unrecognizable, similar in many ways to the emancipated zombie in one of Simon’s earlier articles in this series, the Obur.

Simon has told stories of grave robbing sometimes being a necessity to obtain clothes and sustenance, so it’s not entirely infeasible that other Cousins might do the same to avoid having to prey upon living people, thereby avoiding arousing suspicion in local communities. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if some managed to survive decades on freshly buried corpses alone,  assuming the cousin in question correctly scheduled their nighttime grocery collecting and didn’t take too frequently from the same cemetery. 

It’s also worth noting that all of the listed creatures in this article also tend to correspond with similarly-timed animal attacks. Missing or dead livestock stripped to the bone is a popular and common sign that a pesanta has been roaming your farm, and the wild-eyed, sweating horses probably were positively terrified at the predator sneaking past them and into the home of whoever it was they were hunting. 

Anything that scares humans could be the inspiration for the Mara. Simon’s species has spent millennia creeping into the corners of our psyche, inspiring and being blamed for the deepest and darkest of our fears. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the shape our brains decide is the most frightening when we are paralyzed with terror looks strangely like the creatures that live in the forest and sometimes eat human flesh. Or, just maybe, it’s a little bit of primordial fear left over from a time when we weren’t actively ignoring the threat hiding in the trees. 

Simon’s additions 

While the above draws inescapable similarities between creatures of previous articles, I would like to point out the dissimilarities. In the case of the Mara, the creature appears to be something of a trickster. It likes to torment and instill fear. Now while I may be a “nice” creature now, as some have so often framed me, I would like to say that I have not always been.

I know it seems terribly silly to humans, who judge an ancient and secretive species dwelling in secret alongside their own with human eyes and human standards, but allow me to give you a notion from our perspective.  For a moment, strip back all your human assumptions of what is odd, what is timely or “worth it”. Imagine you are perhaps somewhat on the border between sentient and insensible. I’ll make a comparison, because I know it happens to you humans often – have you ever been about to say a word, and forgotten the word itself? Have you stood there mutely unable to speak further because you were looking for that one word that escapes you? Imagine living in that place, when all your thoughts are wordless and everything is an uphill approach without the corresponding gravitational pull toward self-expression, or indeed, any closure of an idea at all.

Now imagine you live on the border of a tiny village. In the ancient areas of Eastern Europe farming communities were usually clustered around rivers upon the edges of forests, and we’re overseen by some sort of land baron. These plots were scoured for resources, the families on them eking out a living while tithing their goods. Imagine you are watching these creatures live out the strange lives, pulling their livestock in and out at different times of the day, dragging metal through the ground to make rows, chopping wood, riding animals, singing songs…

In that hazy in between state of mind…what might you make of them? Would you come closer? Would you wonder why they hang things over their lintels? Would you find their little babies fascinating? Would you be amused and take a dish here, a tool there, and then amuse yourself with their reactions? And the closer you got, the more they stimulate thought, and the more that happens…

The hungrier you get.

Man creates the monster, just as stress creates the nightmare. Perhaps in some tiny little village, a Cousin watched, was tempted, stole ever closer. Perhaps he found reason to be angry. I don’t like to pattern my own psychology onto those of my species, but I know whereof I speak, and I know that I have always been protective of certain things – trees, smaller creatures. I despise injustices on a deep level, such that it feels integral to my nature. 

It seems easy to imagine, for this not-to-creative soul, a Cousin of mine, waiting until nightfall, when the man habitually went indoors, stealing inside and having a look around, disturbing a man from sleep at just the right moment to interfere with the paralytic of sleep, to spring him to uch a degree of fright and confusion so as to utterly paralyze him, and then to lean over his prostrate and petrified form with a menacing and prophetic leer.

“Don’t cut down anymore of my trees, Mr. Human. I am not to be trifled with.”

On a more amusing and personal note, to go back to the oft heard argument “if you’re really that old, then none of those things would matter to you,” I would like to say that I am a trickster. I have many times taken revenge on humans I find insufferable. And to my doubters I say, I  bored! What else am I going to do besides toy with you mayflies? A man beats his horse? How much will I enjoy stacking every single piece of furniture from the roof while he is off in town? He cheats at cards? Well…how much will I enjoy replacing all his coins with pebbles? He abuses his fellow man? How much will I enjoy watching him sleep…while I pluck every hair from his powdered wig and strew it over the floor?

Is it petty? No. I view is as as much a natural force as you are, and all things in Nature achieve an equilibrium. Where would human character be without its tricksters? Where would you be without your nightmares? You would would be flat and two- dimensional without your shadows, my friends.

We’re only helping.

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