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.

Monstrous Myths: The Lamia

I thought we might try something a little different this time. I do so dislike proving myself, and think that perhaps it isn’t up to me to demonstrate how human mythologies intertwine and overlap. It seems far better to turn it over to you to hash out. So for the foreseeable future, I will turn this series over to two colleagues of mine: an antrhology student and an artist. Perhaps they can make sense of this far better than I.

This artistic rendering was created by Ain

Hello and welcome to another entry of Monstrous Myths! Blow off the dust and settle in, we’re going for a fun ride.

In a previous post Simon went over the Gorgon, which is a very specific sort of snake monster. Today I’m going to be talking about her distant cousin the Lamia and her place in folklore and ties to Simon’s kin.

Just the lore

The Lamia. A snake bodied seductress best known for her lust for flesh of children. As the purported mother of the famous Scylla of the Odyssey, she is a far more specific beastie with a pedigree. According to myth, Lamia was once the beautiful daughter of king Belus of Egypt who, like every other beautiful woman in Greek myth, fell prey to Zeus’s charms. 

This is where her story gets interesting- compared to Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, there is some historical evidence supporting Lamia being born to actual human parents who were entirely real people. Her father Belus is recorded as having founded a colony on the Euphrates river in Diodorus of Sicily’s Bibliotheca Historica, and while he probably wasn’t exactly as he’s reported (specifically not the spawn of Poseidon and Libya), there is a very good chance he was real and very likely did have at least one daughter. A daughter whose real story has likely been entirely lost to history, though her strange myth lives on.

After being seduced by Zeus, Lamia bore him many children over the course of several years acting secretly as the king-god’s mistress. Eventually Hera discovered their tryst and slaughtered all of Lamia’s children. All but one, a girl cursed into the shape of a hideous creature sent to guard a narrow sea channel with Charybdis.  Most myths agree to all the points up to here, but her appearance has been cause for much debate.

Lamia’s now-signature snakelike appearance isn’t mentioned in older Greek stories, and it has been speculated that this deformity is the result of a Christian lense being put over classic myths, specifically with regard to her seductive nature. Lamia’s original deformity is her wide, strange, staring eyes with no lids, said to be a symptom of her guilt over her children’s deaths, and the ability to remove said eyes. Interestingly enough, the second bit isn’t part of a curse, but a blessing bestowed by Zeus to grant Lamia temporary reprieve from her horrible visions and, perhaps, give her the gift of future site. If this is the case, it’s a mythological blessing she shares with the Graeae.

Perhaps the most tragic part of Lamia’s curse is her mad unsated bloodlust for the flesh of small children. Why is debated, but the most popular interpretation of the myths claim that Hera cursed the woman to consume other’s children as punishment after killing Lamia’s offspring, or that Hera stole or killed Lamia’s children and the loss drove Lamia insane. Her madness caused her to steal and devour the children of others, and this eventually turned her into the strange malformed creature of myth.

Relations to Simon’s Species

With a first glance at the modern interpretations of Lamia, its easy to dismiss her as just a silly morality tale and another sexy clone of the snake in Eden. However, as with most myths, the further back you go in time the less recognizable they get. Lamia’s physical appearance is the first tipoff that she’s a relative of Simon. The strange eyes, gaunt appearance and man-eating appetites are especially obvious.

But let’s not forget that there seems to be evidence the Lamia was a real woman.

My humble theory is that the original Lamia was in fact a flesh and blood person with a name and a life, who got unfortunately involved in some sort of politically dangerous romantic tryst. Maybe it was an affair with a married statesman, maybe she was wed and took a lover, maybe her husband died and she was blamed, maybe a lot of things, but in the end her children from whatever sort of union she had were killed by someone involved in the ensuing dramatic episode. My theory is that the killer was Lamia herself, out of shame or guilt to conceal her crime. It’s probably that the number of children was very small and has been gradually inflated over the years for dramatic effect.

Either soon after or during all of this, a local cousin was probably hunting people without much discrimination in age. It’s feasible to guess that a few children went missing due to the monster’s hunger or from other natural causes. People get emotional when children vanish or are mauled by wild animals, and will blame just about anything to avoid confronting the harsh and painful truth. Regardless of how the people vanished, Lamia was likely exiled, executed or managed to escape and her sudden public disappearance poured fuel on the fire. Rumors of her killing her own children trickled down to the general population as they tend to, and one thing led to another. Assumptions were made, connecting this murderess with the disappearances. I can’t imagine this did good things for the local cousins larder. 

Everything about Lamia screams “thing that consumes humans”, even her name. Aristophenes claimed the name came from the greek word “laimos” or “gullet” in reference to her insatiable hunger.

One of the most frustrating things about Lamia is her gradual evolution from tragic figure to sexy seductress. Placing the two characters next to each other, neither looks like they are in any way related. Even her propensity for eating children has faded as time has gone on. Modern tellings of the myth have overlapped her with Lilith, and erased any possible sympathy the character might have. A creature who has become an interweaving of a woman who committed a historical crime and a cousin in the wrong place at the wrong time has twisted, as many myths do, to fit the moral narratives convenient to the era of a story’s telling.

Simon’s Take On Things

I think it very possible that Ruth is correct in her theory, with one possible alteration. I will draw attention to the things that I discovered about my species, specifically that we appear to be somewhat incensate when not consuming human flesh. We have a natural state, and while we are clever, we are of the earth. Eating people does something very specific for us. So it seems to me that with this knowledge, several possibilities exists for the evolution of Lamia.

It could easily be true that Lamia either murdered her own children or was the victim of some archaic form of justice. But if any children did go missing in the vicinity, it is unlikely to be the responsibility of a cousin. Sheep, yes. Children, unlikely. 

What is most likely?

Well, let us look at the very reason that Laamia is remembered at all. If her father really did found a colony and there is evidence that he did in fact exist, then it is likely that he did have a daughter. If he had a daughter her name would not have been Lamia, as this is her mythical name. Lamia was the monster. And like the gorgon, Lamia was linked with the sea and the serpeant.

But why would anyone care about this young lady? What about her specific story withstood the test of time, even as it twisted and transformed through eons? 

Perhaps because there was a local monster, a cousin of mine. Perhaps there were a few in Ancient Greece. Perhaps they were related, or not, but the Greeks seem to have taken an inordinate amount of notice of them, don’t they? Far more than the modern human does. Perhaps because they weren’t so secretive as they are now. Perhaps there was a girl and there was a Lamia, and perhaps they were friends.

Perhaps the story exists today because of the bizarre association they formed. Perhaps the girl had a bargain with the Lamia, and the two became forever tangled. If the mercenary Lamia did the girl’s bidding, and the girl was driven away or put to death, it is a certainty that the Lamia would putlive her, and if the Greeks believed them to be the same individual, the Lamia would forevermore have been confused for the girl and her controversy.

Be careful making bargains with monsters, my gentle readers.


Ruth Gibbs is an anthropology student at the University of North Texas on her way to a PhD in Folklore with a focus on stories and their cultural impact on society. Her interest in the study of stories started very early in life and has blossomed into what promises to be a very interesting academic career. Special fields of interest include Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Germanic and Eastern European stories and their origins. You can find her at ruthcgibbs@gmail.com or on her Tumblr