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 Boogeyman

When I began this series of website entries, it was to demonstrate something of a “unified field theory” of monstrosity, if you will. My reasoning was simple: I am a monster, and if there were other species of hideous man-eaters shuffling over the earth, I would have seen them. For the sake of this experiment, it falls to me to demonstrate that your own mythology, as varied and complex as it is, supports my hypothesis. No monster does better in this capacity than the Boogeyman, and so, in the spirit of this Halloween season, and in celebration of the arrival of my second book, I have decided to pursue that infamous figure shrouded in darkness. My mission takes me from the rooftops to the bowels of the earth.

The Boogeyman is largely undefinable with androgynous leanings and an amorphous appearance, but notable for several key commonalities: he is ubiquitous, terrifying, and born of the shadows. In almost every culture, every country, there is a boogeyman. Spiralling away from Europe into Russia and south to Africa, these divergent stories diverge hardly at all — even their names are closely related linguistically. Variously described as dark, clothed in black, able to blend into the night seamlessly, this monster has one purpose: to torment children.

All the world over, you may goad your little ones with the horrors that could befall them for not eating their vegetables, but you also bless them to protect from such hazards.

There were cases of children vanishing. There were instances of abduction. Long before there were understandings of psychology or criminal analysis, these things were attributed to monsters. And every parent knew that the monster must be invisible to have gotten past their protections.

Every child knows that the monster will find them no matter where they cower and there is no blanket on the planet thick enough to protect them. Sometimes lurking beneath the bed, in the recesses of a closet, or in the corners of rooms by night, this devil invades their dreams. He is just waiting for a moment to gobble them up or spirit them away. The poor dears, heads full of nightmares, go to their beds certain that they have reached the end of their lives.

I think you can see why descriptions of the Boogeyman are never precise. The fear is less tangible now, but in the days of my first memories, death was everywhere, and most children did not live into puberty. The Boogeyman only takes the wicked children, but it is the wicked ones who are most likely to wilfully disregard their parents, or run away into the night to be overcome by the elements or some other horrible calamity. And as you know from reading my short stories, there absolutely were child-predators. The threat was mind-numbingly real, and thus, extremely effective.

But was it all a perfect storm of imagination? Was there ever a real Boogeyman to whom the first instances can be attributed, or is this merely the product of the universality of bad parenting, unseen criminal mischief, and the fear of chaotic reality?

I think not.

In a data set packed with noises beneath beds, knocking on walls, disembodied shadows that shift ominously — all easily explained by heightened awareness and fear — there are a few encounters that speak to me, and some of them come from you, my gentle readers.

Once in a great while, you find a child staring out a window at the man with the sharp smile in their favourite tree. Once in a while, there is the hooded figure on the rooftop next door, looking in as if waiting for something. Once in a great while, a child is saved from drowning by a dark hand. Once in a while, the forest herds a lost little one from its treacherous grasp. Once in a while, the monster with whom they live, turns up dead of a broken neck. Once in a while, the man tracking them vanishes into an orchard and is never seen again.

Once in a great while.

We are dangerous. We are killers, each of us unique. I have never willingly harmed a child outside of war, but I have eaten them. I have my ethics, my feelings, but they are mine alone. I am certain that many of my brethren have spirited your babies away. I am sure that there are many shadowy figures who wait to hear that some little one is nothing but a pain. Perhaps they are salivating in the wings, all too happy to make the baseless threat a reality.

Once in a while, however, a wild child is found.

In the twelfth century, only a few decades after the Norman Conquest of Britain, in the town of Woolpit, two children turned up in a field. They spoke a language no one had ever heard, and were entirely green from head to toe. The young boy was reportedly sickly and died, but the girl acquired English and told her benefactor of a land of eternal twilight. Called St. Martin’s land, its inhabitants were all a fine shade of green. According to this young lady, she and her brother were tending to a flock of animals, when they found a cave and wandered toward the sounds of bells, as if traversing a corridor between worlds.

The accounts that survive are extremely suspect for their vagueness, and modern historians would love to say that whether or not the events actually happened is irrelevant. Some discount it altogether as nothing but folklore, but yet again, they base this assumption only upon the few references to survive the ravages of time. Others believe it must have happened, and that the twilight realm was merely a larger cave, and they wandered out into the sun.

Before you ask, I cannot tell you if these events actually transpired, as this was before my time in England; Indeed it is before the time I remember as my awakening. I can tell you, however, that the story was extremely well-known in my day, and most everyone believed the siblings had been stolen from their beds by a vindictive witch, the fairies, or our friend, the Boogeyman. Compare the tale to Hansel and Gretel, first transcribed by the Brothers Grimm, but predating them. The abandoned little siblings fed a terrible diet of sweets by their cannibalistic captor, kept in the woods until the time was right to make a tasty pie. Everyone knew the Babes in the Wood, and everyone knew that they were lucky to escape.

The girl supposedly lived a normal life above ground, and she never exhibited any magical talents. She married well and was employed. She seemingly never tried to rediscover her colony of green people. And the green people never came looking for their lost children. If it is folklore, I fail to see the point. It could be the delusions of sickly children, but there are entirely too many details for which there is no account. I find it more likely, as odd as it sounds, that it did happen and that there is an explanation for a cloister of people living underground, suffering from chlorosis.

Anyone who has studied feral children knows that they, by definition, lack language. Yet these two spoke a tongue no one, not even their gentleman host, knew— and in those days, England was a cesspit of languages; Anglo-Saxon, Flemish, Briton, Gaelic, Dutch, Norman French. Someone had to have taught them this language. In an era when traveling was fraught with dangers and very expensive, it is doubtful that their ancestors migrated from a prohibitively distant foreign land to start a colony in a subterranean vault.

It is difficult to imagine what sort of person keeps animals in a cave, herds sheep underground. It must needs be someone who never wants to be seen, but eats meat by the pound.

And then again, there is the name of their idyllic sanctuary: St. Martin’s Land. Saint Martin of Tours is the patron saint of alcoholics. If the savage children had no knowledge of faith or English, I wonder how they know to call it that.

There are many explanations for these events, no doubt. It could be a simple story carrying on the ancient trope of the mystical “other” who reveals itself to align with the tainted world of man. It could be that there was a kindly hermit hoarding orphans who had nowhere else to go. It could be that the Boogeyman meant to gobble them up, and had himself quite the collection.

Hell, it could be all three.

Or it could be something else entirely. What that is, I leave to you. Is the Boogeyman real? Who took all the lost children? What peeks out from the treetops as you sleep? Why is it, over all the world, the creature is the same? Is he bad, good, or just terribly complicated?

Shall We Celebrate? The Tapas Art Competition

art-contest

October is by far and away, my favorite month, because I am a monster. Though I spend most days carefully painted and dressed to blend in, during this season, I am free to be myself. October is the month I celebrate my monster-hood, and so…I would like to propose a competition!

To all you gifted artists, you avid amateurs, you comic contributors, I offer you a challenge: look through the scattered pages of The Creature’s Cookbook or Simon’s Snacks (available only on the Tapas app), and summon up your muses! It will be your task to illustrate my life. You may make use of any medium you wish, and submit as often as you like. Your art will be judged by your peers through “likes”, by the staff at Tapas, and most importantly, by me. The winners – for I dearly hope there will be many – will have their art included in the book or short story from which they drew their inspiration. Your art will be available for all to see, an integral part of my work forevermore. You will be, my gentle readers, published artists.

Think of it as a pairing, of sorts.

This contest can be free to enter. What I mean by “can be” is that many of the chapters are open, but these will, of course, have the most entries. You may open more chapters or stories for the cost of pennies per piece (the total cost of the books do not exceed the amount of purchasing the book at a bookstore). You may also submit a portrait, and I will choose the one I like best to use as a bio-pic for my Tapas author’s profile.

Please submit your illustrations by uploading to the Tapas forum post pertaining to this competition. Vote on the submissions of other artists, and please, as always, be polite!

1. The Work Must Be Original:
You must be the creator of the art that you submit to the competition. Your art must be your own original concept and not a copy of anyone else’s copyrighted material. (If your image infringes upon another’s copyright it will be disqualified.) Upon submitting your work, to this competition, you are solely responsible for any infringement on copyrighted materials.

2. Copyright:
The artist retains all copyrights to their artwork without exception.

3. Multiple Submission:
There are no restrictions to the number of contests in which the artist participates, nor the number of pieces they may submit, nor the number of prizes they can win.

4. Submission Deadlines:
Artworks may be submitted until midnight Pacific Time on 10/31/2016. No artworks will be accepted past the posted deadline.

Note: It is best if the images submitted are no smaller than 800px X 800px

I cannot wait to see what you produce, my lovely friends!

Monstrous Myths: Rå

Deep in the forests, mountains, and fjords of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark dwell a secret race of wardens, the rå. This myth is often conflated with the alfar or elves of German folklore, but they are markedly different. While the elvish appear to be aloof and supernaturally beautiful (at least, as far as the Medieval writer was concerned), unencumbered by the minutia of human life, and just as likely to smite as to assist, have an almost paternal awareness of mankind.

Pardon a short digression — a moment to explain why I will not be comparing my race to the elves.

I do not believe they exist. They are simply what happens to the hidden when the imagination of man takes over. Perhaps there are some particularly handsome members of my species, and perhaps they truly are ambivalent to people, but honestly, I do not think this is true. More than likely, pockets of humanity (towns and villages used to be quite isolated, especially during the colder months) met one or two of my species and learned that the only way to coexist was to pay homage, engage with care and deference. Given enough time and veneration, anything can me made godlike. Look at Gnesha, the elephant-headed many-limbed god of luck of Hinduism. He is not terribly attractive, but he has devotees the world over.

So for you fans of Tolkein, I am sorry. There will be no elves, just as there will be no vampires. Now please allow me to return to the myth at hand.

come in many forms: huldrå of the forests, the sjörå of the lakes, havsrå of the sea, bergsrå of the caves. Their duty, as perceived by man, is to protect and care for the particular natural element they inhabited. When you look closely at their descriptions, however, I think you will find that they are one species, a kind of nexus of all the previous myths we have addressed. One race, living on the outskirts of the remotest regions, fending for themselves, camouflaged or clothed, crossing paths with man to varying consequences.

You say, “But they have tails, don’t they, Simon?”

Not necessarily. Some tales have tails. Others do not. And the fact is, someone could merely have misinterpreted a dead animal hanging from a belt as a tail. When you live away from humanity, and have a tenuous grip on sentience, spinning wheels are not so common. You get what you steal, and often that means you don’t get anything. Not to mention the fact that clothes often interfere with our movement. a belt is the only thing worth making really.

huldra_by_timswit

Hulderfolk, or ”hidden ones”, dwell in the woods, and while the “female” of the species are supposedly comely, the “male” are quite ugly, with rather prominent noses. I think it safe to point out that there probably are no gender distinctions to be made. The more attractive ones were merely much more approachable, and thusly, equated with femininity. So too is it possible, as one image from the 1800’s suggests, that the “females” were simply dressed as women. Keep in mind also, the standards of beauty for the region: pale skin, lustrous hair, strong muscle. Dark eyes and hair would have been exotic, perhaps even lovely. Thus, the myths of beautiful forrest-dwellers can probably be distilled down to an encounter in the twilight of the North with a thin, pallid, creature in a dress, who looked nothing like anything the poor sod had ever seen before. She smiled demurely, and he was smitten. So, let us take these distinctions with a grain of salt, for all the in all their masculine and feminine forms.

What is important to note, is that the humans who worked the kilns would often leave huldrå gifts of food, in exchange for their assistance in guarding their fires at night. In ancient Germanic folklore, the holda was a witch, her festival celebrated during the “dead time” of winter when corpses were thought to roam: “The Twelve”. You may know it as The Twelve Days of Christmas…

The havsrå are an analogue to the mermaid, in some respects. Like any myth that has persisted for a lengthy time, they have many descriptions and forms. The most common image is a lithe and naked woman, combing her unwieldy, seaweed-like hair atop a rock. They too will provide their services in exchange for provisions. Similarly, the freshwater variety appear to float up from the depths and stare at passers-by, eat fish at them, or capsize craft and rob the struggling swimmers. But they too have a kindly streak, often guiding drowning men to safety.

Bergsrå of the mountains are cave-dwellers, and while they usually spend most of their time driving miners mad by stealing their tools, eating their food, and scaring the holy breath out of them, they are also known to kidnap the odd wanderer, spend an evening acquainting themselves with him, and then setting him upon the path home.

Who can really say if any of these tales are factual? I find it more likely that men capsized their own boats while staring at the eerie, nude monster along the shore, who was doing nothing more nefarious than eating lunch. Perhaps the wayward travelers were understandably exhausted and woke to find their fires being tended by creatures they’d rather befriend than antagonize. I have done many things for humans, including tend kilns, and so long as payment was received, my teeth were never bared. Once home, these humans told wild tales, and forevermore, any passing bird that cawed at the sound of thunder was thought to be a transformed sea nymph, any woman who crossed paths with you in the forest was a witch, and any odd sound from an unstable mineshaft was probably a troll.

Who can say? What I do know is that there were many men who never returned home, and their stories are much darker. Better to meet a than his hungry counterpart.

Image by timswit of Deviantart