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«The nightmare experience, sleep paralysis and witchcraft accusations1 The historical record shows that personal experience of bewitchment was ...»

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The nightmare experience, sleep paralysis and witchcraft


The historical record shows that personal experience of bewitchment was multifarious,

concerning livestock, goods, chattels, and agricultural processes. However, over the last five

centuries the majority of those experiences that were deemed serious enough to lead to the

formal accusation, prosecution, or physical assault of supposed witches, concerned people

suffering from ill health, or some other form of physical or mental discomfort. Trying to identify exactly what sort of ailments and bodily experiences people attributed to witchcraft is obviously a rather speculative task, bearing in mind the sketchy description of symptoms in the records, and the limited diagnostic categories of illness available to people in the past.

Yet, from the descriptions provided by those suffering from supposed witchcraft in early modern and later trial records, it is possible to recognise a number of modern categories of disease and physical ailments, such as tuberculosis, jaundice, malaria, and rheumatism. Other medical conditions of a psychological or neurophysiological nature, such as depression, schizophrenia and epilepsy are also recognizable. This article will focus on one such identifiable condition, known as sleep paralysis. It has only been properly medically categorised in the last fifty years, and has recently been attracting considerable attention from psychologists and neuroscientists, yet the experience, as described below, has been a matter of medical discussion for many centuries. In the English language, one specific manifestation of the sleep paralysis experience was known as the nightmare, and in many European cultures its cause was attributed to witchcraft. This „nightmare‟ experience can also be identified in other accounts where people claimed to have been nocturnally oppressed by such related supernatural beings as the Devil, animalistic fairies, and the spirits of the dead. By combining historical analysis with contemporary medical knowledge of sleep paralysis, and by comparing contemporary manifestations of the experience with those found in the historical record, further light is shed on human encounters with the supernatural in both past and present societies.

Sleep paralysis is not a rare phenomenon. Recent surveys amongst a variety of populations around the world suggest that 20-45% of people experience at least one sleep paralysis episode in their lifetimes (Kotorii et al. 2001; Cheyne et al. 1999; Blackmore 1998;

Spanos et al. 1995; Wing et al. 1999; Wing et al. 1994; Ohaeri et al. 1992; Fukada et al.

1987). The condition is associated with the disturbance of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep episodes, and usually occurs immediately before sleep onset or upon wakening, most often in 1 the early hours of the morning. Those affected by sleep paralysis can see and hear, because under REM sleep there is intense central nervous system activity, but they are unable to make any significant bodily movements, because during the same phase muscle activity is suppressed. Speech is likewise impeded, and only inarticulate sounds can be made. Most episodes last less than ten minutes, but as long as thirty minutes has been reported (Thorpy 2001, 6). Sufferers may, however, feel their paralysis has gone on for considerably longer.

The experience that will be defined as nightmare in this discussion has a number of other accompanying diagnostic features that occur less frequently, perhaps amongst 5-20% of the population. As Cheyne et al. (1999b, 316) point out, reports suggesting over a third of the population experience sleep paralysis may give the “false impression” that a large proportion of the population are experiencing what I shall now describe.2 With the nightmare, sleep paralysis is accompanied by the feeling of a heavy pressure on the chest, choking sensations, and hypnagogic (accompanying falling asleep) and hypnopompic (accompanying waking from sleep) hallucinations. Although the content of these hallucinations usually contains the same fundamental elements, they are, as we shall see, significantly shaped by cultural beliefs about the origins of the “attack”. They usually concern a sense of a physical presence in the room, which manifests itself either visually, aurally, or both. Those who have had such an experience often describe the strong sense of fear or even terror such presences provoke. One of the respondents to the sleep paralysis forum of the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Neurology website gives an inkling of how frightening the nightmare can be. The man had fought for thirteen consecutive months in frontline combat in Korea, but said of his one nightmare attack in 1964: “Never, before or since, have I ever experienced the fear of that night.”3 Sleep paralysis and nightmares have excited the interest of numerous psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists, and their studies and surveys can shed further light on the experience of witchcraft in past European societies. The nightmare encapsulates a unique aspect of human experience; a moment when reality, hallucination, and belief fuse to form powerful fantasies of supernatural violation. The paralytic nocturnal assault may play a statistically minor role in witchcraft accusations, but its influence on the development of the conception of the witch and associated beliefs may be far greater, though ultimately indemonstrable. The nightmare was not just a symptom, like other bodily conditions associated with witchcraft, but through its hallucinatory content was also a potent confirmation of a witch‟s power and a vivid proof of guilt in some cases. With the nightmare, 2 we find experience shaping witchcraft fantasies, and fantasies being shaped by witchcraft experience.

Sleep paralysis has been a topic of discussion amongst European and Chinese writers for more than two thousand years. The influential Greek physician Galen examined the causation of the nightmare or ephialtes during the second century AD, and a description of the experience appears in a Chinese book on dreams dated to as early as 400 BC. Descriptions of the “nightmare”, however, only appear in English in the later medieval period. One fourteenth-century manuscript describes, for example, how the “night-mare” lay on top of people at night (Kuhn and Reidy, 1975), and the word was included in the earliest printed English-Latin dictionary, the Promptorium parvulorum of 1499, where it is translated as “Epialtes, vel effialtes, geronoxa, et strix.” Cures for those suffering from the night “mare” appear in late Saxon manuscripts, though these make little mention of the actual symptoms (Jolly 1996, 146, 149; Kittredge 1929, 21). One of the most detailed early medieval accounts of the nightmare experience, concerning a twelfth-century English knight, Stephen of Hoyland, makes no reference to the “nightmare” because it is in Latin, and so the term “ephialtem” is used to describe Stephen‟s “intolerabili phantasia vexari” and “in somnis oppressus”, which was attributed to a demon (Robertson 1876, 44).

The main medical explanations for the experience up until the twentieth century were based upon Galen‟s view that it was the result of gastric disturbances. These led either to noxious undigested vapours rising to the head and irritating the nervous system, or alternatively caused a distension of the stomach, which impeded circulation and led to stagnation of the blood. With the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis during the earlier twentieth century, new explanations for the nightmare were sought in not bodily malfunction but mental conflict. It was one of Freud‟s pupils, Ernest Jones, who put forward the most detailed psychoanalytical interpretation of the experience in his erudite study On the Nightmare (1931). For Jones, the nightmare was symptomatic of pathological Angst neurosis resulting from repressed sexuality. His scholarly and highly imaginative approach to the subject certainly broadened our understanding of the nightmare experience, even if his interpretation was unconvincing. But it was only from the 1950s onwards, with the more sophisticated development of electroencephalography, that a series of scientific studies and surveys began to uncover the phases and nature of sleep episodes. Only then could we really begin to make sense of the physiology, phenomenology, and neurology of sleep paralysis. Finally, from the 1970s onwards, the contemporary, comparative cultural aspects of sleep paralysis began to receive serious academic attention. In particular, the work of Robert Ness and David Hufford, 3 linking the “Old Hag” phenomenon in Newfoundland with sleep paralysis and other similar cultural interpretations from around the world, brought the social significance of the experience to wider attention. Meanwhile some fun was had spotting literary appearances of the nightmare, sightings being confirmed in the work of several nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novelists, such as Guy de Maupassant‟s “Le Horla”, Thomas Hardy‟s “The Withered Arm”, Herman Melville‟s Moby Dick, and Scott Fitzgerald‟s The Beautiful and Damned (Schneck 1994; Davies 1997; Herman 1997; Schneck 1971). The aim of this article is, then, to draw upon this diverse and growing body of knowledge to help us better understand the experience of witchcraft and other supernatural assault traditions in past European societies.

Etymologies of the nightmare experience The “mare” element of the English “nightmare” derives from the same root as the Germanic mahr and Old Norse mara, a supernatural being, usually female, who lay on people‟s chests at night, thereby suffocating them. Even if knowledge of the “mare” has been largely forgotten, she has left her mark in many European languages. In Norway to have the nightmare is to be mareritt, and we find the nachtmahr in German, nachtmerrie in Dutch, and cauchemar in French. The mare concept also forms the basis of Slavic, and other central and eastern European terms for nightmare – the zmora in Polish, morica in Croatian, mòre in Serbian, muera in Czech, and kikimora in Russian. The presence of the mare in so many languages has understandably led etymologists to assume that it is of Indo-European origin, though there seems no agreement as to its Indo-European meaning. Móros (death), mer (drive out), and mar (to pound, bruise, crush), have all been suggested (Pócs 1999, 32, 36; Skeat 1888).

The sense of pressure or weight is integral to the nightmare as both a concept and as an experience, and so it not surprising that it is also prominent in the linguistics. The first element of the French cauchemar derives from caucher “to tread on”. The second element of the Icelandic martröd comes from troda meaning “to squeeze, press, ride.” The idea of pressure is also present in other terms for the nightmare experience which do not share the mare element. In German we find alpdrücken (elf-pressing) and hexendrücken (witchpressing). The term for the nightmare in medieval French, appesart, Italian pesuarole, Spanish pesadilla, and Portuguese pesadela all derive from the verb peser, meaning to press down upon. The Latin incubus derives from incubare (to lie down upon). The Hungarian boszorkany-nyomas means “witches pressure.” The Estonian word for nightmare, luupainaja, means “the one who presses your bones,” and the Finnish painajainen similarly describes 4 “something weighing upon you.” In the Irish language, tromluí or tromlaige likewise derive from the act of weighing or being pressed upon. The same sensation was also expressed in terms of being straddled across the chest and ridden like a horse, as in the Norwegian mareritt, and the English terms “witch-ridden” and “hag-ridden”, with dialect variants in England and Newfoundland such as “hag-rod” and “hag-rided”.

The nightmare and early modern witchcraft accusations Although the majority of the above terms have no direct etymological link with witchcraft, the experience they described had long been blamed on witches throughout much of Europe.

People who experienced the nightmare sought explanations for such a terrifying event. By the early modern period, the archaic mara was no longer a current concept in a number of countries such as France and England, and the principal figure of supernatural evil in most people‟s lives was the witch. Even in regions where a belief in the mara figure continued, it was closely linked with the living, human witch. In Dalmatian folk belief, for example, a girl born in a red caul became a morica when she grew up, and when she married she became a witch (Vukanović 1989, 11). In Poland, the term zmora usually designated “people who are alive and able to disturb their neighbour‟s sleep, by making them feel an enormous weight resting upon their body” (Schiffmann 1987, 149). In Norwegian folk belief, too, women could become a mara, either by being one of seven daughters, daughters of women who relieved labour pains by supernatural means, or who wore a wolf-skin girdle (Bringsværd 1979, 78;

see also Kvideland and Sehmsdorf 1991, 56-8). The late nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklore records of many European countries contain numerous accounts of witches causing nightmares, but the only way to push back the chronology of belief in this relationship is to examine the trial records of early modern Europe and the North American colonies.

During the prosecution of Olive Barthram for witchcraft at the Suffolk Assizes, England, in 1599, one of her alleged victims, Joan Jorden, testified that a shape-changing spirit sent by Barthram tormented her at night. This nocturnal intruder entered down the chimney and Jorden described it as being “a thick dark substance about a foot high, like to a sugar loaf, white on top”. On the following occasion, however, the spirit appeared in the well-defined

shape of a cat:

… at 11 o‟clock at night, first scraping on the walls, then knocking, after that shuffling in the rushes: and then (as his usual manner was) he clapped the maid on the cheeks about a half score times as to awake her … kissed her three or four times, and slavered

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