legends and superstitions
about the demons that cause nightmares
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2001


  1. Definitions.

  2. The Alp (Germany, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm).

  3. The Alp (Germany, Johann August Ernst Köhler).

  4. Beliefs Concerning Alps and Mares (Germany, Karl Bartsch).

  5. The Mårt (Germany, A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz).

  6. A Mahrt Is Captured (Poland/Germany, A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz).

  7. An Alp Is Captured (Germany, Bernhard Baader).

  8. Charm against Night-Mares (Germany, A. Kuhn).

  9. The Alp (Poland/Germany, J. D. H. Temme).

  10. A Charm to Control the Night-Mare (England, James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps).

  11. Nightmare Charm or Spell against the Mara (Shetland Islands, Biot Edmonston and Jessie M. E. Saxby).

  12. A Shetland Charm (Shetland Islands, Karl Blind).

  13. Vanlandi, King of Sweden, and Huld, the Witch Woman (Iceland, The Ynglinga Saga of Snorri Sturluson).

  14. Baku, Eater of Dreams (Japan, F. Hadland Davis).

  15. Links to Related Sites.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.


The mare in nightmare is not a female horse, but a mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers' chests, causing them to have bad dreams.

Dialect variants, as explained below, include the forms mara, mahr, mahrt, mårt, and others.

In High German, the demon who causes bad dreams is most often called an Alp, a word that is etymologically related to elf.

A mare-induced bad dream is called a nightmare in English, martröð (mare-ride) in Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic, mareridt (mare-ride) in Danish, mareritt (mare-ride) in Norwegian, and Alpdruck (alp-pressure) or Alptraum (alp-dream) in German.

The Alp


Even though windows and doors may be tightly closed and locked to keep out the alps, they can still get in through the smallest holes, which they seek out with special pleasure. In the still of the night one can hear the sound that they make in the wall while getting in. If one gets up quickly and plugs up the hole, then they must stay in the room and cannot escape, even after the doors have been opened. Then, before setting them free, one must make them promise to never disturb the place again. On such occasions they have complained pitifully that they have little children at home who will perish if they do not leave.

A trud or an alp often travels a great distance to make his nighttime visits. Once some herdsmen were out in the field in the middle of the night. They were watching their herds not far from a body of water. An alp came by, climbed into a boat, untied it from the bank, rowed it with an oar that he himself had brought along, climbed out, tied up the boat on the other side, and continued on his way. After a while he returned and rowed back.

The herdsmen, however, after observing this for several nights, and allowing it to happen, decided to take the boat away. When the alp returned, he began to complain bitterly, and threatened the herdsmen that they would have to bring the boat back immediately if they wanted to have peace, and that is what they did.

Some people have laid a hackle [an iron-toothed comb for the preparation of flax] on their bodies in order to keep alps away, but an alp often turns it over, pressing the points into the sleeper's body.

A better precaution is to turn one's shoes around at the side of the bed, so that the hooks and the laces are next to you.

When an alp is pressing against you, you can put your thumb in your hand, and he will have to retreat.

Alps often ride your horses during the night, and the next morning you can see how exhausted they are.

They can also be repelled with horse heads.

If you don't move your chair before going to sleep, the mare will ride it during the night. They like to give people hair-snarls (called whole-grain braids or mare braids), by sucking on their hair then braiding it.

When a nurse diapers a child, she must make the sign of the cross and open up a corner, otherwise the alp will re-diaper the child.

If you say to an alp that is pressing upon you, "Trud, come tomorrow, and I will lend you something!" then he will immediately retreat and come the next day in the form of a human, in order to borrow something.

Or you can call out to him, "Come tomorrow and drink with me," then the person who sent him will have to come.

According to Prätorius, such a person's eyebrows grow together along one line. Others claim that such a person's eyebrows grow together on their forehead. There are others who can send an alp to those they hate or are angry with merely with their thoughts. He comes out of their eyebrows, looks like a small white butterfly, and sits on the breast of a sleeping person.

The Alp


The alp is a demonic being which presses upon sleeping people so that they cannot utter a sound. These attacks are called Alpdrücke (nightmares).

A girl told how the alp came to her through a keyhole. She was not able to call for help. Later, she therefore asked her sister to call out her name in the night, and then the alp would go back out through the keyhole.

In Zwickau they claim that the alp will go away if one invites him for coffee the following morning.

It is also believed that the alp crushes animals to death. For example, if young geese, are placed in a pig pen and then die it is said that the alp crushed them to death. If rabbits die, and it appears that they have been crushed, a broom is placed in their pen, which protects them against the alp.

Beliefs Concerning Alps and Mares


  1. It is believed that by stopping up the keyhole, placing one's shoes with the toes facing the door, and then getting into bed backwards one can protect oneself against nightmares or "Mortriden." [mare rides].

  2. Further, one can put something made from steel, for example an old pair of scissors, in one's bed straw.

  3. A person suffering from nightmares should urinate into a clean, new bottle, hang the bottle in the sun for three days, carry it -- without saying a word -- to a running stream, and then throw it over one's head into the stream.

The Mårt

A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, Germany

  1. The name most often found in northern Germany ends with a pronounced "t," and can be grammatically either masculine or feminine. The compound "nightmårt" is also very common. The forms "mår" (masculine) and "måre" (feminine) also exist. The designation "alp" is recognized as well.

  2. All of these names are used to designate the spirit being that sits upon a sleeping person's chest, thus depriving him of motion and speech. The approaching being sounds like the gnawing of a mouse or the quiet creeping of a cat. The mårt can be captured by grasping it with an inherited glove or by closing up all of the room's openings as soon as the sleeping person begins to groan.

  3. Mårt-pressure (also called a mårt-ride) can be prevented by crossing one's arms and legs before falling asleep.

  4. In the Oldenburg district, in Saterland, and in East Friesland, the alp is called "wåridèrske" or "wäridèrske."

  5. In the vicinity of Wendisch-Buchholz the same being is called the "Murraue." The fear that it causes the sleeping person does not cease until it gets light in the room.

  6. Some pine trees have twigs that grow together in curls until they look almost like nests. During a rain storm, one must be careful to not stand beneath such a twig, because if rain drops fall on a person from such a nest, the murraue will surely sit on him during the night.

  7. A person whose eyebrows grow together is called a murraue.

  8. A murraue can be either a man or a woman, but only a person born on Sunday. If they are pressing against you, you should say that you want to give them something, then they will come the next day to get it. Braunsdorf near Fürstenwald.

  9. The murraue creeps up a sleeping person's body from below. First you feel her weight on your feet, next on your stomach, and finally on your chest, and then you cannot move a muscle. However, if you think that you know who she is, you must call her by name as soon as you perceive her, and she will have to retreat. Teupitz.

  10. If a mårt is pressing against you, and you presume that it is an acquaintance, you need only call him by name, and he will have to appear in his physical form. Once a mårt was pressing against a man. He called out the name of his beloved, and in an instant she was standing before him. From Elm.

  11. It helps to prevent being ridden by a nightmårt when in the evening one places one's shoes next to the bed with the toes pointing outward. Varneitze near Winsen on the Aller.

  12. If there are seven boys or seven girls in one family, then one of them will be a night-mare, but will know nothing about it. Moorhausmoor.

  13. On the island of Baltrum the male mare is called "wålrüder" and the female mare is called "rittmeije."

A Mahrt Is Captured


Two farm workers slept together in one room. One of them was ridden by a mahrt so often that he finally asked his comrade the next time it happened to stop up the knothole in the door so they could capture the mahrt.

The next time he was miserably moaning and groaning in his sleep, his comrade did what he had been asked, then called his friend by name. Awakening, he quickly reached out and grabbed a piece of straw in his hand. Although it twisted and turned, he held it tightly until his comrade had stopped up the knothole. He then laid the piece of straw on the table, and they both fell asleep until morning.

When they awoke they saw a beautiful girl behind the stove. They nearly parted ways disputing whom she belonged to. The one who had stopped up the knothole said that she should be his, because if he had not done that, she would have escaped. The other one said that she belonged to him, because he had captured her.

Finally the one who stopped up the knothole gave in, and the other one married the girl. They had children and lived together quite happily.

However, the woman often begged her husband to show her the knothole where she had entered the room. She said that she would have no peace until she had seen it. The man resisted her pleas for a long time, but once she begged him especially earnestly, saying that she could hear her mother in England calling the pigs, and asked him to allow see her again just once.

Finally he softened and gave in. He went with her and showed her where she had entered the room, but in that instant she flew out through the knothole and never returned.

An Alp Is Captured


A cabinetmaker in Bühl slept in a bed in his workshop. Several nights in a row something laid itself onto his chest and pressed against him until he could hardly breathe. After talking the matter over with a friend, the next night he lay awake in bed. At the strike of twelve a cat slipped in through a hole. The cabinetmaker quickly stopped up the hole, caught the cat, and nailed down one of its paws. Then he went to sleep.

The next morning he found a beautiful naked woman in the cat's place. One of her hands was nailed down. She pleased him so much that he married her.

One day, after she had borne him three children, she was with him in his workshop, when he said to her, "Look, that is where you came in!" and he opened the hole that had been stopped up until now.

The woman suddenly turned into a cat, ran out through the opening, and she was never seen again.

Charm against Night-Mares


I lay me here to sleep;
No night-mare shall plague me,
Until they swim all the waters
That flow upon the earth,
And count all the stars
That appear in the firmament!
Thus help me God Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen!
Original German:
Hier leg' ich mich schlafen,
Keine Nachtmahr soll mich plagen,
Bis sie schwemmen alle Wasser,
Die auf Erden fließen,
Und tellet alle Sterne,
Die am Firmament erscheinen!
Dazu helfe mir Gott Vater, Sohn und heiliger Geist. Amen!

The Alp


The alp, or as it is most often called, the "märt," is frequently encountered in Pomerania. A märt rides on sleeping people at night, pressing against them until at last they can no longer breathe. A märt is usually a girl who has a bad foot. Once in the village of Bork near Stargard there was a smith who had a daughter with a bad foot, and at that time an unusually large number of people complained that they were being ridden by a märt.

A Charm to Control the Night-Mare


S. George, S. George, our ladies knight,
He walkt by daie, so did he by night.
Untill such time as he her found,
He hir beat and he hir bound,
Untill hir troth she to him plight,
She would not come to him that night.

Nightmare Charm or Spell against the Mara

Shetland Islands (Unst)

Pulling from my head the longest hair it possessed, and then going through the pantomime of binding a refractory animal, the nurse slowly chanted this spell:

De man o' meicht
He rod a' neicht
We nedder swird
Nor faerd nor leicht,
He socht da mare,
He fand da mare,
He band da mare
Wi' his ain hair,
An' made her swear
By midder's meicht,
Dat shö wad never bide a neicht
What he had rod, dat man o' meicht.

There are different versions of this incantation, and I [Mrs. Saxby] forget which it was that the old nurse used on the occasion mentioned. Therefore I have given the one which is most familiar to me.

A Shetland Charm

Shetland Islands

Arthur Knight
He rade a' night,
Wi' open swird
An' candle light.
He sought da mare;
He fan' da mare;
He bund da mare
Wi' her ain hair.
And made da mare
Ta swear:
'At she should never
Bide a' night
Whar ever she heard
O' Arthur Knight.

Vanlandi, King of Sweden, and Huld, the Witch Woman

From the Ynglinga Saga of Snorri Sturluson

Svegdir's son was named Vanlandi, and he took the kingdom after him and ruled over the Wealth of Uppsala. He was a great warrior and went far over the land. He had stayed one winter in Finland with Snæ the Old, and there married his daughter Driva. In the spring he went away, whilst Driva stayed behind, and he promised to come back after three winters, but he came not for ten winters.

Then Driva had Huld the witch woman called to her, and sent Visbur, hers and Vanlandi's son, to Sweden. Driva paid Huld the witch woman to draw Vanlandi to Finland with sorcery or else to kill him. When the spell was being furthered, Vanlandi was in Uppsala, and he had a longing to go to Finland, but his friends and advisers forbade him, and said that it certainly was Finnish witchcraft which caused his wanderlust. Then he became sleepy and said that the Mare was treading on him. His men sprang up and would help him, but when they came to his head she trod on his feet, so that they were nigh broken; then they resorted to the feet, but then she smothered the head, so that he died there. The Swedes took his body and burned it near a river which was called Skuta; there was his standing-stone set up. Thus says Tjodolv:

But on the way
To Vili's brother
Evil wights
Bore Vanlandi;
Then there trod
The troll-wise
On the warrior lord.
And there was burned
On the Skuta bank
That generous man
Whom the Mare killed.

Baku, Eater of Dreams


In Japan, among superstitious people, evil dreams are believed to be the result of evil spirits, and the supernatural creature called Baku is known as Eater of Dreams.

The Baku, like so many mythological beings, is a curious mingling of various animals. It has the face of a lion, the body of a horse, the tail of a cow, the forelock of a rhinoceros, and the feet of a tiger.

Several evil dreams are mentioned in an old Japanese book, such as two snakes twined together, a fox with the voice of a man, blood-stained garments, a talking rice-pot, and so on.

When a Japanese peasant awakens from an evil nightmare, he cries: "Devour, O Baku! devour my evil dream." At one time pictures of the Baku were hung up in Japanese houses and its name written upon pillows. It was believed that if the Baku could be induced to eat a horrible dream, the creature had the power to change it into good fortune

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Revised August 27, 2001.