Wednesday, July 13, 2011

This Mare Has No Stallion

What mare do I have in mind? Let me get there slowly. Another word I chanced across this time caught my attention—although I’d seen it hundreds of times before: hagridden. I’d never looked it up before and assumed it meant an old man nagged to distraction by an old woman. Why, I wondered, don’t we have a word like, say, grump-ridden? Where is the masculine of hag? Boy! Let me tell you. Questions like that do open up the linguistic abyss. To get to the bottom quickly, hag originally comes from diviner or soothsayer, and, in European paganism, these were always and exclusively women. The root of the word is Old English hægtesse (witch, fury). The same word in Old Middle German was hagzusa, from which we get the German Hexe. Remembering Robert Graves (always fondly), it comes to mind that European paganism had a matriarchal background, hence divine males and grumpy old men did not have much standing. To be hagridden, therefore, means to have an old witch badly troubling your dreams.

“Of course!” I said to myself. “That’s why we have nightmares, not nightstallions.” But I was wrong again. The mare in the nightmare is not a member of the genus Equus which comes in female and male genders. No. The mare in nightmare comes from Old English mera or mære meaning goblin, the female kind. Not a horse in sight.

We have to go back to the resolutely masculine Latin culture before we discover the incubus, the masculine dream-entity that lies down and suffocates the sleeper. My favorite etymology dictionary dates it to 1200 as the evil protagonist of nightmares. We have to wait until the 1300s before he is joined by succubus, the female ghost that has sex with men in sleep—that word formed from the Late Latin succuba, a strumpet. Those familiar with Google’s Ngram Viewer† can easily discover that, whether ghost or flesh, males are always much more eager for sex than women:

†Ngram viewer is a Google facility that scans digitized books accessible to Google from 1800 to 2000 and counts the frequency of words used in these sources. You enter two words or phrases separated by a comma. The address of the facility is here.


  1. I find it really surprising that incubus is so much more common than succubus; I'm sure that I've heard people mention the latter more than the former. And one wonders what it is in the 1830s that leads to so much talk about the incubus. A popular Gothic novel, perhaps.

  2. My expectations were the reverse of yours, Brandon, hence I nodded when the graph appeared. What I find interesting is the fading of incubus, the increase in its twin.