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Nightmare or Riding the Night Mare

Posted by Bruce Kahl on March 31, 2000

In Reply to: Nightmare or Riding the Night Mare posted by debbiebarr on March 31, 2000

: Does anyone know the origin of the term "Nightmare"? I've also heard it could have originally been used as "Riding the Night Mare".

From Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary :

Mare \Mare\, n. [AS. mara incubus; akin to OHG. & Icel. mara;
cf. Pol. mora, Bohem. m[*u]ra.] (Med.)
Sighing, suffocative panting, intercepted utterance, with a
sense of pressure across the chest, occurring during sleep;
the incubus; -- obsolete, except in the compound nightmare.
"I will ride thee o' nights like the mare." --Shakespeare

The word is an old one. The OED2 attests to nightmare as early as c. 1290. Night is recorded as early as c. 825, but it is such a basic word that it is likely far older than surviving manuscripts. Mare is dated as early as c. 700. Mare also has cognates in many languages, including Dutch, German, French, Polish, and Czech, and ultimately derives from the Indo-European root *mer-, meaning to rub away or to harm. *mer- is also the root of murder and mortal.

Mare is simply an Old English term for a demon. So a nightmare is a demon that visits you at night--a scary dream. A mare was a demon, known as an incubus (male) or succubus (female) that descended on a sleeper, paralyzing and suffocating them, and had sexual relations with the sleeper. Over the centuries the meaning has become generalized to any frightening dream.

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