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Is that the old hag I see or am I just dreaming?

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

Have you heard of the old hag syndrome? The hag phenomenon?

If your answer was no, it may be better if you just scroll on at this point. Because once you fully understand the mythology behind the hag, it is not something you easily forget.

There are some mythological phenomena that are so ubiquitous in the way they span cultures, it is difficult to not place some credence in their existence. The old hag is one of them.

So let’s explore the hag, shall we?

In German folklore, there is a creature that preys on you when you are at your most vulnerable. A creature that waits until you sleep and then she sits upon your chest, sending your sleeping mind running through nightmares after nightmares. All the while feeding on the energy you produce in this state. If you are lucky, you will simply wake feeling exhausted, tangled in your blankets, trying to work out what you ate before bed that caused you to have such horrible dreams.

But for some the nightmare is just the beginning. You wake before this creature has finished her feed and the first thing you register is a weight sitting on your chest. You can hardly breathe. Are unable to move. Are literally paralyzed.

Some of you keep your eyes squeezed tightly shut, desperate for it all to be over. But for others, the fear of not knowing, not seeing, is stronger than the need to keep your eyes closed. You abandon the attempt to convince yourself that this is all just a dream. When you gaze up, you find the old hag sitting on your chest, silently looking down at you. Sometimes, she may have moved away and you can only feel her presence staring at you from deep within the shadows, a glint of her eyes all that is visible. Even from a distance, her malevolence is palpable, able to freeze your muscles. She stands silently at the end of your bed or in the corner of the room, maybe in the doorway.

This creature is known collectively as the old hag, and virtually every culture has a version of her. A being that preys on you when we sleep. The phenomenon is so diverse and has spanned so many centuries that it is almost impossible to list all the names that she goes by. But, I would be remiss of me if I did not name but a few.

Artwork - The Doll - Petra M Costa - Oracle Deck - A Journey through Myth & Legend

In Nordic folklore, she is known as the mare or mara. She ‘rides’ a person while they sleep, leaving them exhausted come morning, their hair matted in 'mare-locks' (martovor) or 'mare-tangles' (marefloker). The Norwegian term for nightmare directly translates as ‘mare-ride’ and our English 'Nightmare' comes from this very creature's name. If you don't believe me, check the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The Mare is often confused with an incubus or succubus, but the similarity ends in the fact that they attack you while you sleep. The incubus’ interest is more sexual in nature, so we will put them aside for now.

There is the ‘alp’ and the ‘drude’ from German folklore. They sit upon a dreamer’s chest and are said to follow you through your dreams. Turkish folklore talks of the ‘karabasan’, the dark assailer, in Mongolia, the term ‘khar darakh’ means ‘to be pressed by the black’. In Korea ‘dip-phok’ translates roughly to ‘oppressed by the dip’, where dip means shadow. There is the ‘bakhtak’ of Persian Mythology that paralyses their victim as they lay sleeping so they can drain their life force, you guessed it, while sitting on their chest. Brazil has the ‘Pisadeira’, an old hag that stalks you during the day and then preys on you while you sleep. The dreamer is said to awaken, unable to move. The Japanese call it ‘kanashibari’, to be ‘bound in metal’ which happens prior to the appearance of a supernatural figure. Interestingly, in the 12th century the Japanese emperor was reported to have suffered from abnormal chest compression while sleeping, that was only cured by the killing of what was said to be a demon.

And the list just goes on and on…

And there is surprisingly little variance between the folklore across cultures.

Are any of you feeling a little uneasy yet?

Yes. Well, it’s ok! Science has you covered.

You can breathe easy!

Well, technically you can’t, not if you are trying to sleep and are in the middle of a hag phenomenon event, but you don’t need to worry because science has an explanation. It’s called sleep paralysis and it's estimated that 40% of the population will experience a sleep paralysis event in their lifetime. Couple sleep paralysis with a dose of hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations (hallucination upon falling asleep and when waking) and you have the makings of a very scary couple of minutes.

Your body shuts down certain signals while you sleep to prevent you from acting out your dreams. This muscle atonia is actually to protect you from harm. I should find this comforting, but truth be told, I find this concept a little unsettling. (Although, I’m sure those of you who have heard about my dreams are more than a little relieved that my brain is preventing me from picking up and running rampant with a wrench.)

Anyway, I digress. When you wake up too quickly, your brain hasn’t had time to reinstate these connections. (Sloppy brain - very sloppy)

This leaves you unable to move or speak. You are fully conscious, but unable to control your body. And then we add a little hallucination, just to get our hearts really pumping. As all of this process is happening when you are entering sleep (hypnagogic) or on waking (hypnopompic), you are aware of your surroundings, so you may merge realistic elements into the hallucination, bringing the hag to life. Sitting right there on your chest.

Wow, I’m so glad that science has explained this whole thing away.

But has it? Has it really?

Universally, people feel a weight upon their chest. So why this inability to breathe? Why the sensation of something sitting on your chest or just out of reach? A creature that means you harm. Is it just panic? The more interesting question to my mind is why has the human psyche been plagued by this same recurring fear, generation after generation?

Surely, as our understanding of our world expands, our fears would likewise alter. So wouldn’t it stand to reason that a joint syndrome of this nature would morph, mirroring that which we as a species are currently most afraid of?

Apparently not. This one has stayed relatively unchanged, not just for centuries, but for millennia, with the first recorded event around 2000 BC.

I have obviously thought about this a lot, and yes, it is this mythology that is the inspiration for the creature that plagues Michael’s dreams in the ‘When Magic Awakes’ urban fantasy series. The doll is my version of the old hag. The incorporation of mythological elements into my writing is the cornerstone of what I am trying to achieve.

And in cases you were wondering. I do suffer from sleep paralysis and the doll is a slightly tweaked version of what I have found walking through my nightmares, and often standing at the end of my bed, for over 40 years.

You understand now why I would dream of reaching for a wrench. 😂

Sleep tight and don't let the bed bugs bite.

Nothing but love.

Petra M Costa

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1 Comment

Brilliant. Think I’ll stay awake tonight

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