There is a little explored link between fairies and nightmares, an association expressed very well in one of the most famous fairy texts, Mercutio’s description of fairy queen Mab in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. She is (as Shelley crowned her in his poem Queen Mab) the queen of dreams, both good and bad:
“This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,
that presses them and learns them first to bear,
making them women of good carriage.” (Act I, scene 4)
It’s pretty evident here that Shakespeare sees Mab as having a sexual function. She educates- and maybe even seduces- virgin girls, teaching them how to perform in bed. That bearing, or carriage, is not about deportment but about receiving a lover lying on top.
In this passage, Mab is called a ‘hag,’ and to be ‘hag-ridden’ was to suffer nightmares. ‘The hagge’ was imagined as a hideous witch who sat on a sleeper’s stomach, causing bad dreams. The notion of compression was a very early one, as we see from the South English Legendary of about 1300:
“Þe luþere gostes …deriez men in heore slep… And ofte huy ouer-liggez [men], and men cleopiet þe niȝt-mare.”
“The evil ghosts harm men in their sleep and often lie on top of them, which people call ‘the night-mare.’”
There’s a supernatural cause here, but not a fairy one. However, by the early seventeenth century the fae nature of the affliction was established. For example, in the Mad Pranks and Merry Jests of Robin Goodfellow, one of Robin’s companions, Gull the Fairy, explains how:
“Many times I get on men and women and so lie on their stomachs that I cause them great pain; for which they call me by the name of Hagge and Nightmare.”
The victim’s experience is described in The Holly Bush of 1646:
“the nightmare hath prest,
With that weight on their breast,
No returnes of their breath can pass.”
The sixteenth century Scots poem, My Heart is High Above, likewise conveys some sense of how the experience feels: “Then languor on me lies, like Morpheus the mair.” Devon poet, Robert Herrick, in his poem, The Hag, also described the sensation of a being riding the sleeper:
“The Hag is astride,
This night for to ride;
The Devill and shee together:”
In their 1621 play Thierry and Theodoret, playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher emphasise the unpleasant and exhausting nature of the experience:
“goblins ride me in my sleep to jelly.” (I, 2)
However, the sensation he depicted also has something of pixy-leading about it, as well as reminding us of the stories of fairies actually riding human victims at night for want of an available horse:
In these versions, the pressure and shortness of breath are associated with fear rather than sexual activity and arousal, but there was great confusion between the two aspects of the nightmare. We see this in William Sampson’s 1636 play The Vow Breaker- or the Fair Maid of Clifton in Nottinghamshire, when Ursula remarks to Anne:
“you us’d to say Hobgoblins, Fairies and the like were nothing but our own affrightments and yea, oh my Cuz, I once dreamed of a young batchelor and was ridden with a Nightmare.”
Here we elide seamlessly from fairies to nightmares to sexual fantasy within a single sentence. In Drayton’s Nymphidia the sensual nature of the sensation is addressed more explicitly:
“And Mab, his merry queen, by night,
Bestrides young folk that lie up-right,
(in older times the mare that hight.)”
In both passages, the poets’ bawdiness is barely concealed. Ursula being ridden by her lusty young batchelor and the ‘up-right’ wet-dreamers of Drayton are almost solely concerned with erotic dreams rather than horror. This sexual aspect of the nightmare is underlined by Edward Topsell in his Historie of Serpents, where he mentions “The spirits of the night, called Incubi and Succubi, or else Night-mares.” (p.173) These two spirits were believed to be supernatural lovers who came to men and women during the night.
The Victorian magazine, Once A Week, in 1867 carried a feature on Devonshire pixies, which informed its readers that they had control over sleeper’s fantasies: “Some may bring nightmares and others sweet dreams.” Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the pixies of the South West can control the weather and use their powers of glamour to change landmarks and ‘pixy-lead’ victims.
The intertwining of faeries and good and bad dreams is highlighted lastly in Cartwright’s play of 1635, The Ordinary, in which Moth prays that:
“St Francis and St Benedict,
Blesse this house from wicked wight,
From the Nightmare and the Goblin,
That is hight Goodfellow Robin…” (Act III, scene 1)
Here it is Robin Goodfellow himself, otherwise known as Puck, who takes on the role of the wicked wight who brings bad dreams and disturbed sleep.
The word ‘mare’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon mære/ mæra, and derives from a verb meaning ‘to crush.’ In modern English it has fallen together with the word for a female horse (Anglo-Saxon mere). The words have entirely separate origins, although the sense of riding presumably encouraged them to be mixed up. It seems this confusion worked in several directions: for instance, in 1696 John Aubrey in his Miscellanies described precautions taken to “prevent the Night-Mare (viz.) the Hag from riding their Horses.” Fairies are known for taking horses from stables and riding them at night and Aubrey (or perhaps country people he spoke to) understandably, but mistakenly, expanded the term for a fairy dream to cover another well-known fairy activity.
In more recent times, fairies have come to be associated with much sweeter dreams- as in Rose Fyleman’s verse Fairy Lullaby for a Mortal which imagines the faes bringing dreams and brushing away darkness with their “soft, soft wings.” These literary and nursery visions of gentle and benign Faery are a long way from earlier perceptions.