Mara (Norse mythology)

Mara (or muru, mora, mera, mare, nattmara, nightmare) in Norse mythology is a being that visits humans and animals during the night, and “rides” them.

I’m starting a new series of posts, where I’m going to talk about different aspects of different mythologies and folklore. If I know myself correctly, then it’ll mostly be about the Norse Mythology and Scandinavian folklore, but we’ll see!

To start this off, I’m going to talk about the creature Mara, which was used to explain, among other things, what we today might call nightmares and sleep paralysis. It could be a manifestation of females sexuality where the woman takes the more active role.

Since most references portray the Mara as female, I’m going to use the pronoun “she” when talking about them to lessen the confusion about to whom I’m referring.

This post is most likely going to be very long, so I’m going to include a table of contents for you to quickly go to a section that catches your interest.

Description

Some common identifying aspects of the Mara, their looks, their behaviour and “victims”. This section will talk about the basics of how, when, and where the Mara appears, and also who may fall victim to her rides.

Physical appearance

Mostly a woman

In most tales, the Mara is a female being. There are references to male ones too, which sometimes are referred to as Marulv[H] instead, which might also be a hint to the close relation with the Varulv (or the werewolf as it’s more known as for English-speaking people) which I’m going to talk more about later on.

In the old Icelandic tales from the Norse mythology, there are similar beings that “rides in the dark and attacks man and beast”. There is something called kveldriður and myrkriður; direct translations would be approximately evening-rider and darkness-rider respectively. These could be considered to be the same being, all references to them are as females. Trollriður (troll-rider) is a more recent term that references both female and males. It could be that over time, these terms have melded and become one being, that we today know as Mara.[I]

The gender roles from that time might be another reason why these are mostly females. There are almost no references to a female being the victim of an attack by the Mara, which could mean that most of these tales of old focus on the problems that concerned males, and females appear in these stories only to help explain something regarding males.[I]

Furthermore, being a male-witch, trollmenn or seidmenn, could be seen as being “woman like”, and tales could, therefore, tell about males sending out female spirits as Mara.[I] Female shapes could be another reason that there are so much more female references than male if even the male ones look as females then many would use the term “she” while speaking of the Mara.

Can be a human

If the Mara is in the shape of a human, it is either young and beautiful, or old and ugly. Some references describe the Mara as having grotesque long arms, fingers, nails or breasts[J]. For example, their breasts might be long enough to throw them around the neck of a horse.

Another common thing to mention when it comes to the humanoid version the Mara is talking about the hair growth. Either the Mara has fur, are a redhead, or even missing some natural hair (beards, armpits, or pubic are common references)[J].

Can be an animal

The Mara is also told to be an animal, and then often in the shape of something fluffy, but most often described as a cat[H].

Often it would be described as “an animal with fur”[H], but also a general focus on hair, fur and even strings are reoccurring aspects[J] while describing the Mara.

Can be a thing

There is also those that portray the Mara as a thing, for example, a grip[F], a ball of tangles[H] or a feather[I].

Transformations

Sending the soul or transforming

Some sources speak of the Mara as the soul leaving the body, or turning the body into smoke. Both are common descriptions. In one, the body will lie in place, almost dead-like with no way of waking up. Some talk about the clothes is in the same position as if there were a body still inside them.[F]

Sending the soul outside of the body, leaving the body in a dormancy, is called sending the hugen outside the physical body[D]. There is also the term hamnløp in the old mytholgoy[I], which translates to soul-jump.

Nightly rides

The Mara rides her victims during the night as both the victim and the household sleeps. Rides happening during the night could be a rest from both the old terms kveldriður and myrkriður.[M]

It might also be a way to describe nightmares and sleep paralysis. Both could be characterised as curses since neither is a pleasant experience to have. And both of these are most often experienced while in bed[I], which is an intimate setting for most. To explain these events happening in your bedroom, the Mara might have been the result – a being that can enter almost anywhere, and causes these feelings of anxiety and makes the victim unable to move. I’ll talk more about this later.

There are some tales about how the Mara has to use the victim’s shoes or clothes to gain access to them or the bed.[B] These stories lead to a common protective gesture to turn the shoes around or to put clothes inside-out.

Riding both man and beast

It’s not only humans that can get a visit from a Mara, but also animals can. The most exposed to these attacks is the Horse.

Going after the horse could be another reference to the attacks against men if going with the belief that the Mara attacks almost exclusively men. The horse wasn’t just any tool, but a sign of the owner’s manhood. An attack against the horse was a direct attack against the male owner.

A man without a horse was not a manInga Berzina

A horse being ridden by a Mara during the night will be found tired and sweaty the next morning, even if they’ve stayed inside the stall. Sometimes they will have their mane tangled, often called marfläta (mare-braid). There are tangles in their manes that it’s almost impossible to comb it out again.

Unaware of being a Mara

There are multiple stories about what a Mara is, and I’ll explain them later on, but let us play with the idea that it is the result of a curse on a human. In those cases most references tell of the one “going mara” isn’t aware they are a Mara.

Some might feel tired and ill, and believed they’ve been sleepwalking, while in reality they’ve been out attacking someone as a Mara.[E]

There is even a reference to a farmer, or in some retellings a farmworker, that has trouble with a Mara riding one of the horses during the night. To stop her, he places a scythe on the wall next to the horse. In the morning the Mara will have been attacked and died, leaving the one being cursed dead next to the horse. In the story, the one trying to stop the Mara turns out to be the one dead.[E]

Origin and creation

Some of the tales of who and what the Mara is, where she comes from and how she came to be.

Mothers using Svartkonst to get a less painful labour

One way for a female to become a Mara is for her mother to use Svartkonst, black arts, to try and ease the labour pains. She would crawl through the amniotic sac from a foal.[C] In some sources, the mother is to take it over her head instead three times.[O] Other sources say it should be the actual skin from a newly slaughtered foal, and the pregnant mother should walk through it three times.[H]

By doing this svartkonst, the actions of the mother will curse the child. It’s a sin to change the order of nature, meaning someone will be punished. In these cases, it falls on the child to bear the curse.[O]

If the mother does this, and the child is a boy, then he would become a Varulv (Werewolf) instead of a Mara.[C] He might also be called a Marulv[H] as we talked about previously, the male version of the Mara, and a mixture of the words Mara and Varulv. I’m not sure if the Marulv should be considered more of a Mara or a Varulv.

Some tales have the woman (either pregnant or a bride) crawl through a harness instead of the skin.[G] Some sources say that this is the case when a Mara can ride horses and not only males.[P]

Being cursed

One way to become a Mara is to be cursed by someone else, which forces the Mara to go out at night and ride others. Being cursed means that there is a third-party somewhere, often a wich of some kind, that has enchanted the unfortunate to “go mara” night after night[F].

Curses being the reason for Mara‘s is more common in the southerner parts of Sweden, rather than the northern.[F]

There is also the stories where witches can voluntarily transform themselves into the Mara[I], but I would say this is a bit different and more about sending their spirit outside their bodies rather than turning into a Mara.

Evil or malicious human

The idea that evil people are sending their spirits during the night is the more common explanation in the north.[F]

The Mara would in these cases be a kind of manifestation of the person’s spirit, thoughts, or evil wishes. Jealousy or erotic motives might be what drives her.[J]

Unmarried woman or maiden

Some say that the Mara is the spirit of unmarried women, dead or alive, that in vain are searching for love and closeness. Other say it’s a manifestation from a maiden’s (often older ones) unsatisfactory erotic needs.[J]

The idea of the sexual female could come from the old gender roles. The woman should be passive, while the male takes the active position. But in the stories about the Mara, where she is erotic; it is more common that the Mara is the active role, and the male the passive.[I] Having a female in an active sexual role, it will be another attack on the man’s manliness. The man is powerless against the female taking control, leaving him passive.

It could also be the result of some unrequited love, and sources tell of “a Mara the victim doesn’t know, but in a way loves them”[I], which leads me to think of unrequited love or love of the image/idea of someone else.

Independent being with no relation to humans

Most stories are about the Mara being either the spirit of a human (living or dead) or the human transforms during the night. But not all.

There are a few sources where the Mara is an independent being.[J] These beings might not be human in any way, but they can often take the shape of a human.[I]

Other less common beliefs

Cat jumping an unbaptised child

One uncommon way to become a Mara is if a cat jumps over the child that hasn’t been baptised, then that child will become a Mara.[B]

Spirit of a dead human

When looking at the Mara as the spirit of unmarried women, and especially a dead one, they are said in some stories to be searching for the livings heat and closeness.[C]

A child born in otid

A belief from Västerbotten is that a child born in otid, not-time or maybe out of time, which is between midnight and 1 am, will become a Mara.[O]

Powers and abilities

Attacks by the Mara can bring some variation among the sources, some common, and a few only mentioned scattered throughout the tales of the Mara. Most are attacks on the men; either themselves or their horses.

Riding of humans

In the concept of the Mara is riding a human there is mentions of some different powers, to achieve different effects.

Getting inside the bedroom

To be able to attack a sleeping man, the Mara will have to first get inside the bedroom. She can do this as long as there is the smallest opening; keyholes, the slit between the door and frame, etc. It doesn’t matter how well the door is locked – if there is the tiniest opening the Mara can find it and enter.

When the soul, the fylgja, is outside the body it is often described as an animal, thing, or wind. Even invisible it still takes up space in the room. The Mara has been compared to wind, or a fog, rather than an object, to be able to enter through any available whole, no matter how small.[I]

The Mara becomes a black smoke as she turns from human to Mara, and it is then this smoke that will fly through any opening she can find. Some say that as she turns into the Mara, the body leaves the clothes behind, and as she returns, she rematerialise inside the clothes.[E]

Pressure on chest

The aspect of “riding” comes from the pressure most victims feels across their chest as if something is sitting there. This action can result in both a feeling of being paralysed, but also of being smothered.

It can also connect to the erotic aspect, where the Mara is searching for love and comfort and hugs the victim, or places herself above their heart.

Some sources say that the Mara rides her victims to death, man and animal alike. Some talk about repeated visits from the Mara, leading to believe that she doesn’t always (if ever) kills her victim on the first night.

Creation of nightmares

During an attack of the sleeping human, the Mara can bring forth nightmares[B]; the dreams can be based on thoughts or memories increasing the victim’s anxiety.

Feeling of anxiety

After the attack, the victim might feel weak and an increase in anxiety. It may come from the remembrance of a nightmare. Or from the pressure on the chest leading to anxiety about dying.[I] It could also mean that the man gets anxiety from not being the one in control while being visited by a Mara.[I]

Riding of animals

In the same way that the Mara uses some powers while riding humans, others are more commonly used while attacking animals, and there it is mostly the horse that is the victim.

No energy left

An animal that has been ridden by the Mara during the night will stand in the morning sweaty and with a low amount of energy left.

Less common abilities

There is also a few things that don’t get mentioned as much that might happen because of the Mara.

Markyss (Kiss of the Mara)

There are very few reports about these, but if you woke up with blisters or marks around your mouth, the Mara kissed you during the night, you had got a markyss. The word markyss is an old term for oral herpes.[J] The thought was that these appeared after a night visit from the Mara, or that you had received a kiss from her in some way.

Bloodsucking

Some sources say that the Mara suck blood from her victims, but it is only about 1%[J] of the total quantity of tales about what the Mara can do.

Martovor

As I’ve mentioned, horses could be found in their stables with martovor (mar-tangles) in their mane, tangles that are almost impossible to comb out.

But not only animals can fall victim to the tangles from the Mara, even trees can get them, but those are more commonly known as markvast (mar-broom), or even Häxkvast (Witch’s broom). If a Mara attacks a tree, the tree will stop rising or gain a dense mass of shoots growing from a single point, making a section look like the end of a broom, or a birds nest[J]. This nest can be believed to be where the Mara lives[J] if it’s assumed to be it’s own being and not the soul or transformation of a human.

Weaknesses

There are ways to get rid of the Mara, some by hurting her, some by directing her elsewhere, she will then leave the intended victim alone. Or one can try to break the curse making her a Mara from the start. Another common thing is to trap the Mara so that she cannot return to the place she came from before turning.

Hurting and killing

One way to kill the Mara is by hanging a scythe on the wall in the stables. Doing so will cause trouble if the one that’s been cursed to become a Mara is also the one that tries to protect the horses since he will then end up dead by morning.

Another thing that is repeatedly seen in tales is that if you hurt the Mara, you also injure the human “behind” her. This is regardless of the curse forces the victim to transform into a Mara, or if it is to send their soul out of their body. There are tales of how farmers attack strange things in the stables; the next day someone in the neighbourhood wakes up injured.

If going with the soul theory, the human will die in the spot the body is at the time the Mara dies.[I] There is also tales of the body dying the same way as the Mara, for example, if the Mara is a feather, and someone throws it into the fire, then the body will burn up where it lies as the soul burns.[I]

If going by the transformation version, then the body will be found in human form by morning, in the spot that the Mara died.

Trapping

There is a way to trap the Mara where you have to plug the whole the Mara entered through, and she will be stuck. The fact that you can catch her leads to the idea of her being on a string[I] rather than like wind or fog as discussed in a previous section. She might have something connecting her spirit to her body for example. This means that she will have to figure out or find the exact way she got in. The entrance that the man blocked to catch her before she can return.

The thing that is most common to do after trapping the Mara is to marry her. Becuase having her stay in the room the whole night, she will then be forced into a human shape, or return to her human form, depending on the assumption of how the Mara came to be.

But the Mara will return to where she came from the moment she finds out how to do so, meaning that if the husband tells her where it is she will disappear.

What isn’t said in these tales is what happens the following nights, if she still turns into a Mara but can’t leave the room, or if she from that moment stays human (or human-shaped). Another aspect that’s not mentioned is in the version where Mara is the soul; what happens to the body lying in bed somewhere else?

The point that the man marries the Mara is another note that it is told from the male perspective. There are no mentions of any choice that the Mara has in the matter. The fact that she disappears the first chance she has points more to it not being a mutual marriage. But again it is from the male perspective, so something the man wanted, he gets. Apparently.

Diversion

There are multiple ways to divert the attention of the Mara from the intended victim, making him sleep the night through in peace, regardless if it’s a human or a horse.

One of those things is to play on the compulsive thoughts[C] of the Mara, where she has to count all things. So spreading flaxseed, cohere, or something similar the Mara will have to count them before attacking[C]. Just make sure it is enough for her to occupy herself with for the whole night. Or the length of time until she returns to her body.

Another way is to put up hair from the victim or the horse mane somewhere close by, and the Mara will travel to it to create martovor there instead of attacking the intended victim.[I]

It’s also possible to place clothes and shoes in certain ways to make it so that the Mara cannot get in.[H] There are tales about how to turn your shoes, for example, place them with their toes pointing outwards from the bed, so that the Mara cannot climb in your footsteps onto the bed, and can therefore not reach the man lying there.[B]

Using the markvast is another trick that is mentioned in multiple places. Hanging a markvast or parts of a tree that once contained a markvast can both help, according to different sources. Few say that the Mara shuns the markvast, while others instead say that she will attack the markvast instead of the intended human or animal; that the broom attracts her.[J] Another few sources say that the markvast attracts her because it is a place of home for her and that after capturing her you can throw her out or burn her up to get rid of her.

Break the curse

The typical way to break the curse of being Mara is to tell her that she is one. Some say it has to be a male informing her[E], some say it has to be the moment she returns from her adventures.

But there is also an addition when telling the Mara once she returns – if you tell her to quickly, then all of her might not have transformed back into a human, and the human will lose some part of her body permanently. But she will no longer be a Mara.

Related beings

Beings from mythology are almost always overlapping in some ways, either with other creatures in the same lore or with creatures in different areas of the world. And the Mara is no exception.

In Scandinavian folklore

The Mara has some common traits and activities with other beings within the Scandinavian folklore realm.

Varulv (werewolf)

The Varulv and the Mara are mentioned together in a lot of lore as they are the boy and girl being born from a mother having used svartkonst to ease the birthing process.

Vittra & Gårdstomte

Not only the Mara is said to ride the horses during the nights, sometimes it is one of the underground people, Vittror. Other times it is the malicious Gårdstomte that bothers the horse making it sweaty and weak the next day.

These can also be the reason the horses have strange braids in their main in the morning.

Älvor (a kind of fairy)

This similarity is mainly in the markyss aspect of the Mara, where the Älvor has a similar sickness associated with them. It is even more common for Älvor to cause sickness in humans, but as I’ve written previously, the Mara has a way to cause it too. The most common sickness caused by Älvor is bumps and rashes, which could describe herpes.[J]

Gengångare (a kind of ghost)

There are tales of Gengångare attacking humans in the same way the Mara does; by clamping the victim hard.[J] The Mara is described as riding her victim in much the same way as an Icelandic ghost may do.[L]

Draug

Victims of the Draug is sometimes mentioned to have been crushed, which would come from prolonged and heavy pressure on them.[J] The Mara also puts pressure on her victims.

Häxor (witches)

The cases where the Mara is from a curse, there has to be a witch of some kind to place the curse. There is also the case where a witch can voluntarily transform into the Mara during the nights.

In other mythologies

There are some mentions about similar being in other mythologies when looking to the behaviour and activities of the Mara.

Incubus & Succubus

The Incubus is believed to have visited their victims during the night and seduced them. Some sources say that Incubus and Succubus are but two manifestations of the Mara.[L]

Notes and references

I have gathered all this information from various sources, which I’m listing here so that anyone can read more about them if they feel like it. I’ve skipped most of the details about the name Mara, and it’s history and meaning and possible sources.

There is one source that I’ve not had access to, but would love to have (and I’m so tempted to go to a library to check it out), and that is Föreställningar om maran i nordisk folktro by Catharina Raudvere from 1993. Almost all articles I’ve read references this work when it comes to information about the Mara.

Books

Articles

  • [G] Folklivet i Åkers och Rekarne härader: 3. Tro, vantro, övertro by Gustaf Ericsson
  • [H] Makt & Genus: En analys av maran, berättarna och upptecknarna by Maria Hansson (2011)
  • [I] Mara – uttrykk for fri kvinnelig seksualitet i norrøne kilder og norsk folketro by Inga Bērziņa (2017)
  • [J] Marbuskar, Martovor, Markyssar by Eva Carlsson Werle (2011)
  • [K] The Evidence for Maran, the Anglo-Saxon ‘Nightmares’ by Alaric Hall (2007)
  • [L] The Fearless Vampire Killers: A Note about the Icelandic Draugr and Demonic Contamination in Grettis Saga by Ármann Jakobsson (2009)
  • [M] Trolls and Witches by Gunnar W. Knutsen & Anne Irene Riisøy (2007)

Web pages