Riding the Nightmare


The Nightmare Henry Fuseli 1781












How many nightmares can you spot in the famous painting above?

Nightmare is quite an everyday word. It has the most common meaning of a bad dream. But a situation or a task can be a nightmare, and many a footballer’s ‘ad a ‘mare on the pitch.

If you compare it to dream, it’s a rather strange-sounding and looking relative. The origins of the word are interesting. Night explains itself, but the mare part comes from the old English word mære meaning incubus, anevil female spirit afflicting sleepers with a feeling of suffocation.” (1)

Those of you unfortunate enough to suffer from the condition might recognise this as a description of the feeling of sleep paralysis, in which one wakes up but the muscles remain paralysed, leading to a sense of suffocation and hallucinations of a horrible figure such as an old hag sitting on one’s chest.

Which would be a nightmare, so the original meaning continues to have relevance for those afflicted by sleep paralysis.

It’s more than likely that this condition is the origin of mythical figures such as incubi and succubi (see previous post!), and perhaps even many stories of alien abduction.

So, back to the painting. We could say that the woman is having a nightmare, and of course there is the horrific nightmare sitting on her chest. But if you look to the left you can see a third somewhat literal night mare: the horse casually peeking in through the curtains. The word mare meaning female horse has no etymological link to mære, so perhaps Fuseli added it as a little visual pun to reward the occasional person who might stop to look at the painting carefully.

Whatever his reason, it certainly adds to the many layers of meaning that have been discerned in the painting, as well as its surreal nightmarish quality. So the next time you have a nightmare at work on a Wednesday afternoon, think of the poor lady in the painting and remember things can always be worse.

  1. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=nightmare

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