The Origins of Nightmare

vamp-booksI used to have this recurring dream:

I am in my middle school library, sitting a large table in the back of the room, far from the circulation desk. The table’s surface is covered with large books, all of which have the same brown covers, like those you’d find on bound volumes of periodicals or academic journals. I am going through the books one by one and, aside from the librarian — a woman who looks a lot like the kind-hearted old woman who served as the librarian at my grammar school — there is no one else in the room.

Being the only student in the library doesn’t bother me. I am focused on the contents of the books, which I’m going through page-by-page. I’m looking for a specific bit of information. What that information is I don’t know, but there’s the sense that I’ll know it when I find it.

Suddenly, the lights go out and the nice old librarian turns into a ghoulish vampire who really want to bite me. Stricken with terror, but able to keep my wits about me, I (somehow) know that the only way to get the lights back on and make the librarian return to her old self is to get the book I’m currently looking at into the book-return slot at the circulation desk. Because I’m at the far end of the library, and there is a veritable sea of other tables and study carrels between me and the circulation desk, the room becomes something of a maze. The tables aren’t much of an obstacle, but the carrels are tall and hard to see around, which the librarian/vampire uses to her advantage.

Nevertheless, I keep moving, making my way toward the circulation desk. The vampire is stealthy and quick, but always seems a step too slow. However, knowing that doesn’t diminish my fear. I make it to the desk and slide the book through the return slot. The lights come back on and the librarian becomes a human again. Relieved, I saunter back to my table, sit down, and begin going through another book. Then, just when I’m finally able to relax, the lights go out again….


Nightmare 2It’s been some time (20 or more years!) since I’ve had this dream, but I’ll never forget it. I would wake up trembling, covered in sweat, and breathing heavily. Given this physical reaction and the sense of terror the dream produced, I’ve always referred to it as a nightmare. Recently, however, I learned that word — nightmare — used to mean something very specific, and it didn’t involve looking through books at a library.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a nightmare was originally defined as “A female spirit or monster supposed to beset people and animals by night, settling upon them when they are asleep and producing a feeling of suffocation by its weight.” (The OED cites the first use of the term to be around 1290.)

Obviously, the term has evolved from this very specific definition, but if you read more modern definitions closely,  it’s clear some residue from this early definition remain. For example, OED’s second definition for nightmare reads: “A feeling of suffocation or great distress felt during sleep from which the sleeper vainly endeavors to free himself; a bad dream producing these or similar sensations.”

Similarly, the definition of nightmare in Donohue’s Standard New Century Dictionary of 1914 (the oldest 20th century dictionary in the SDCL’s catalog) states: “A feeling of suffocation during sleep, accompanied by intense horror; some oppressive or stupefying influence.” Likewise, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (2004) offers the following:  “A frightening dream, often accompanied by sensation of oppression or helplessness.”

Suffocation, oppression … indeed, the Latin root of oppression, oppressus, means to squeeze or suffocate. Thus, the spirit may no longer get a mention, but its presence lingers.

Nightmare Etymology

The etymology of nightmare is more forthcoming, however. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories traces it back to Middle English, noting that the term “initially referred to a female evil spirit thought to lie upon and suffocate sleepers; it’s based on night (Old English neaht, niht is Germanic in origin, related to Dutch nacht and German Nacht) and Old English maere ‘incubus’.”

As usual, the Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) offers a slightly different take.

The mare of nightmare is not the same word as mare, “female horse.” It comes from Old English maere, which denoted a sort of evil spirit or goblin, which sat on sleepers’ chests and gave them bad dreams. That is what the compound nightmare meant when it emerged in the early Middle English period, and the metaphorical application to the bad dream supposedly caused by this incubus is not recorded until the mid-16th century.

Putting aside the mention of goblins (?), it’s clear from the OED that the first appearance of this “metaphorical application” is recorded long before the 16th century … assuming you agree that 300 years is a long time.

But wait, there’s something else going on here …

NightmareAlthough I have no reason to doubt that the Old English word maere refers to “an evil spirit” or “incubus” — indeed Eric Partridge notes much the same in his etymological dictionary of modern English, Origins (he traces incubus to Old English mara) — I think it’s worth pointing out that, according to the Dictionary of World Folklore, an incubus is a masculine evil spirit, or to be more precise: “a demon in the form of a man who visits the beds of sleeping women to have intercourse.”

This is significant because, as noted in the initial definition of nightmare from the OED, it specifically mentions a female spirit or monster. The female version of the incubus, according to the Dictionary of World Folklore, is a succubus, and it’s guilty of the same nighttime shenanigans, only with men instead of women.

Other definitions of succubus report the same. By way of example, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language defines succubus as, “(in folklore) a female demon thought to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men.”

How strange then that there would be a gender-based anomaly between the word’s etymology and its original meaning. I suppose it’s possible that “incubi” is some sort of catch-all term for these male and female demons. Interestingly enough, the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language doesn’t specify a gender to the demon in its definition incubus (like it does for succubus).

Nightmare Indigestion

Whatever the reason behind this shift from female to male might be, I am aware of one book — On the Nightmare (published in 1951 by Ernest Jones, M.D.) — that seems hell-bent on giving credit where credit is due.

The word nightmare … was more particularly used to denote a female night-fiend, night hag, or as she was also called, a night-wytche. The word … comes from the Anglo-Saxon neaht or nicht (=night) and mara (=incubus or succubus). The Anglo-Saxon suffix a denotes an agent, so that mara from the verb merran, literally means ‘a crusher,’ and the connotation of a crushing weight on the breast is common to the corresponding words in allied languages…. From the earliest times the oppressing agency experienced during sleep was personified, more often in a female guise; it was depicted as being either extremely attractive or else extremely hideous.

All of this work on Jones’ part may be for not, however. Despite his exhaustive etymological efforts, it seems more recent texts don’t even mention the gender of these nightmare-causing evil spirits at all.

61aS-s3RljLFor example, in the Webster’s definition from 2004, one of the entries reads, “Folklore An evil spirit believed to haunt and suffocate sleeping people.” The same can be said for psychological references, such as the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, which you would think might have some interest in the history of the word.

Nightmare 1) A terrifying or extremely upsetting dream or, figuratively, an event or experience resembling such a dream. 2) An evil spirit believed to torment and suffocate sleepers. [From night + Old English maere, an evil spirit or incubus]

It’s as if the authors just assume people know what an “incubus” is (or trust their readers will look it up). One finds something similar between the covers of the Psychiatric Dictionary (Campbell), which, although it contains an entry for nightmare, doesn’t even mention the term’s origins. It merely describes the experience of the phenomenon and what such a bad dream might mean in regard to one’s insecurities. Borr-ring.

Sadly, even Teresa Chung’s Dream Dictionary from A to Z, a book brimming with intriguing insights about the activities, creatures, and objects that populate our dreams, steers clear of the nightmare’s fabled origins. Instead, she picks it up in the 19th century, when:

Many people … still blamed nightmares on indigestion; it was only with the publication of Freud’s ideas that they became seen as the expression of unfulfilled wishes and sexual anxiety. Jung described them as part of humankind’s “collective unconscious” and said the helplessness we feel in nightmares is a memory of the fears experienced by primitive peoples. Today, most dream interpreters believe these disturbing dreams are sent to warn the conscious mind that something is being blocked or ignored.

Chung’s book doesn’t even include entries for incubus or succubus. Lucky for her — and us — Jones’ book more than picks up the slack. In addition to incubi and succubi, he goes on to discuss the (psychological) relationship between the nightmare and a host of other figures, including the Devil, vampire, werewolves, and witches. He does not, however, mention anything about vampires working in libraries.

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

2 thoughts on “The Origins of Nightmare

    1. Aside from the book cover, all of the images were obtained from Wikimedia Commons (and all are in the public domain). Not sure what search terms I used other than “nightmare.”


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