These legends and myths were translated and edited by D. L. Ashliman and copyrighted in 1997. He states that these texts may be freely used for any non-commercial purpose. For more information on folklore and mythology or these stories in particular, click on the link to his site.
The mare in nightmare is not a female horse, but a mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a spirit that sat on sleepers' chests, causing them to have bad dreams.
Such a mare-induced bad dream is called a nightmare in English, a mareridt in Danish, a couchmar in French, and an Alpdruck or Alptraum in German. The alp is a demonic being which presses upon sleeping people so that they cannot utter a sound. These attacks are called Alpdrücke (nightmares).
Beliefs Concerning Alps and MaresSource: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna: Wilhelm Braumüller, 1880), vol. 2, p. 3.
The MårtSource: A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1848), pp. 418-420. The name most often found in northern Germany ends with a pronounced "t," and can be grammatically either masculine or feminine. The compound "nightmårt" is also very common. The forms "mår" (masculine) and "måre" (feminine) also exist. The designation "alp" is recognized as well.
A Mahrt Is Captured
Two farm workers slept together in one room. One of them was ridden by a mahrt so often that he finally asked his comrade the next time it happened to stop up the knothole in the door so they could capture the mahrt.
The next time he was miserably moaning and groaning in his sleep, his comrade did what he had been asked, then called his friend by name. Awakening, he quickly reached out and grabbed a piece of straw in his hand. Although it twisted and turned, he held it tightly until his comrade had stopped up the knothole. He then laid the piece of straw on the table, and they both fell asleep until morning.
When they awoke they saw a beautiful girl behind the stove. They nearly parted ways disputing whom she belonged to. The one who had stopped up the knothole said that she should be his, because if he had not done that, she would have escaped. The other one said that she belonged to him, because he had captured her.
Finally the one who stopped up the knothole gave in, and the other one married the girl. They had children and lived together quite happily.
However, the woman often begged her husband to show her the knothole where she had entered the room. She said that she would have no peace until she had seen it. The man resisted her pleas for a long time, but once she begged him especially earnestly, saying that she could hear her mother in England calling the pigs, and asked him to allow see her again just once.
Finally he softened and gave in. He went with her and showed her where she had entered the room, but in that instant she flew out through the knothole and never returned.
Werewolf legends were well known. According to these legends, many people possessed the power to transform themselves into wolves by putting on a wolf belt. They would then roam about at night attacking their enemies or their enemies' cattle.
In Fahrenholz in the year 1682 a number of people were accused of being able to transform themselves into wolves and were put on trial.
As late as the mid-1800's these kinds of stories were told even though there had been no wolves in Mecklenburg for more than one hundred years. This proves how widespread these legends formerly must have been.
A man possessed a wolf belt, that is, he had the ability to transform himself into a wolf (werewolf). Once the huntsmen organized a fox hunt and had placed a dead horse in the woods as bait for the foxes. The werewolf went there and was eating from the horse. The huntsmen surprised him and shot at him. He fled, and when they went to the house of the man they suspected of being a werewolf, they found him in bed with a bullet wound.
A young woman whose husband was often unexplainably absent came to the suspicion that he was a werewolf.
One day both were working in the field. The man again left his wife. Suddenly a wolf came forth from the bushes, ran toward her, grabbed her red woolen skirt with its teeth and shook her back and forth. With screams and blows from her hay fork she drove him away.
Soon afterward her husband emerged from the same bushes into which the wolf had disappeared. She told him of her frightening experience. He laughed, thereby revealing the red woolen threads from her skirt that were stuck between his teeth.
She reported him to the judge, and he was burned to death.
A woodcutter was working in the forest with his brother. The latter went away, and soon thereafter a wolf came out of the nearby bushes. The woodcutter wounded him on his right front leg with his ax, and the wolf retreated howling.
That evening when the woodcutter returned home he found his brother in bed with his right arm hidden beneath the covers. Only after repeated threats would he reveal his arm, and on it was the same wound that the woodcutter had given to the wolf.
He reported his brother, who was burned to death.
Fox Hill near Dodow
In the village of Dodow near Wittenburg there lived an old woman who possessed a fox strap. With its help she could transform herself into a fox, and thus her table never lacked for geese, ducks, and all kinds of poultry.
Her grandchild knew about it, and one day when the schoolmaster was talking about magic in the school, the child told about the fox strap, and the next day brought it to school.
The schoolmaster took it into his hand and unintentionally approached his head with it. Suddenly he was standing before the children, transformed into a fox. They broke out with a deafening noise. This so frightened the little schoolmaster that he jumped out the window with a single leap.
He ran to the hill that lay near the village and there built himself a den.
One day a great hunt was organized, and our fox was among those pursued by the huntsmen. A bullet hit him, and suddenly a schoolmaster was lying there before the bewildered huntsman. The bullet had struck the fox strap and ripped it apart.
In memory of this event the people of Dodow gave the name Fox Hill to the place where their schoolmaster had lived.
The Werewolf of Klein-Krams
In the vicinity of Klein-Krams near Ludwigslust in former times there were extensive forests that were so rich with game that the dukes often came to this region to hold their great hunts. During these hunts they almost always saw a wolf who -- even though he came within shooting distance -- could never be killed by a huntsman. Indeed, they even had to watch as he took a piece of game before their very eyes and -- something that was most remarkable to them -- ran with it into the village.
Now once it happened that a hussar from Ludwigslust was traveling through the village and just happened to enter the house of a man named Feeg. When he entered the house a flock of children stormed out of the house with a loud cry and hurried out into the yard. When he asked them about their wild behavior, they told him that except for a small boy, no one from the Feeg family was at home, and that he -- as was his custom when no one was at home -- had transformed himself into a werewolf, and that they were running away from him, because otherwise he would bite them.
Soon afterward the feared wolf appeared, but by now he had laid aside his wolf form. The hussar turned to the Feeg child and tried to learn more about the wolf game, but the child would say nothing. However, the stranger would not give up, and he finally succeeded in making the child talk.
The child told him that his grandmother had a strap, and that if he put it on he would instantly become a wolf. The hussar kindly asked the boy to make an appearance as a werewolf. At first the boy refused, but finally he agreed to do it, if the strange man would first climb into the loft, so that he would be safe from him. The hussar agreed to this, and to be sure pulled up the ladder with which he had climbed into the loft.
As soon as this had happened the boy ran into the main room, and soon came out again as a young wolf and chased away all those who standing in the entryway. After the wolf had run back into the main room and come back out as a boy, the hussar climbed down and had the Feeg child show him the magic belt, but he could not discover anything unusual about it.
Afterward the hussar went to a forester in the vicinity of Klein-Krams and told him what he had experienced in the Feeg house. Upon hearing this story, the forester, who had always been present at the great hunts near Klein-Krams, immediately thought about the werewolf who could not be wounded. He now thought that he would be able to kill the werewolf.
At the next hunt he said to his friends, as he rammed a bullet of inherited silver into the barrel of his rifle, "Today the werewolf will not escape from me!" His companions looked at him in amazement, but he said nothing further.
The hunt soon began, and it did not take long before the wolf showed himself once again. Many of the huntsmen shot at him, but he remained unwounded. Finally he approached the forester, who brought him to the ground. Everyone could see that the wolf was wounded, but soon he jumped up again and ran into the village. The huntsmen followed him, but the werewolf outran them and disappeared into the Feeg farmyard.
In their search, the huntsmen came into the house, where they found the wolf in the grandmother's bed. They recognized it from the tail that was sticking out from under the covers.
The werewolf was no one other than Feeg's grandmother. In her pain she had forgotten to take off the strap, and thus she herself revealed the secret.
The Werewolf of Vietlübbe
A rich farmer by the name of Schlüntz lived a long time ago in Vietlübbe. One day he had gone to Lübz and was returning home in the evening. Upon entering a grove of fir trees, his horse refused to proceed. The farmer suddenly saw a wolf jump from the bushes and begin snapping at the horse. The horse ran off in a gallop, not stopping until it had run out of breath. The wolf caught up and jumped at it.
The farmer knew that a neighbor of his had the reputation of being a sorcerer, and just as the wolf was about to grab his horse by the neck, he called out: "Irnst Jacobs, is that you? Let me say something to you. Irnst Jacobs, listen to me, Irnst Jacobs!" And as he spoke the name the third time, his neighbor stood there before him, begging him to high heaven not to reveal him.
The farmer let him go. It had been the neighbor who had taken on the form of a werewolf.
A Witch as Werewolf
Once a witch was crossing a field in the form of a werewolf in order to bewitch a farmer's cows. Her husband came upon her, and when he saw the wolf, he was afraid that it might be his wife, so he called out, "Marie, Marie, what are you doing here?"
This frightened the woman, who turned herself back into her human form. But even as the man approached her, long red hair was still hanging from her neck and breast, and her eyes were still glowing like wolf's eyes.
Legends from The Grave
A Hand Grows from the Grave: Three Legends from Mecklenburg
Once there was a boy who struck his mother, whereupon he died. After he was buried, his hand grew out of the earth. Then the mother was told that she should beat the hand with a switch. The mother did this, and the dead boy pulled his hand back under. But the next day the hand was always there again. Finally the executioner had to come and chop off the hand. They put it in a box and kept it in the church.
A child's hand, wrapped in a silk cloth, is kept behind the alter in the church at Petschow, between Tessin and Rostock. The people there tell how a wayward child had lifted his hand against his parents. The child died soon afterward and was buried. The hand that had been lifted against the parents grew out of the grave. They placed it back beneath the earth several times, but it always reappeared, until they finally chopped it off.
In the church at Garwitz, a village in the vicinity of Parchim, behind the altarpiece there is a hand that was chopped off just beneath the joint. The following legend is told about it:
A girl abused her parents, and even struck her mother so hard that the mother died of the consequences. Soon after the mother's death, the girl herself died. She had lain in the grave for only a few days when her wicked hand emerged. The villagers beat it with whips and a few times it withdrew back beneath the earth. Finally, because it ceased retreating from the whips' blows, they chopped it off. It is preserved even to this day. The flesh has dried firmly onto the bones, and the entire hand has a black appearance.
The Withered Hand in the Church at Bergen
A withered hand was kept in the church at Bergen into the first half of the nineteenth century. It came from a father murderer. After the murderer's death, the hand is said to have emerged from the grave. However often they reburied the hand, it always came out again, until finally they chopped it off and put it in the church. Punishment such as this always befalls those who raise a hand against their own parents.
An Infant Speaks
Ages ago the cruel custom ruled of entombing infants in the foundations of castles and fortresses in order to provide protection against storms, weather, and the dangers of war. The infants were purchased from their mothers for large sums of money. Once a fortified castle was to be thusly built in the Stargard region. An infant had already been purchased. Before committing the cruel deed, the masons who had been engaged for the construction were talking with one another: "What is sweeter than a mother's nipple?"
The answer came to them from the infant's mouth: "The grace of God!"
Taken aback, the workmen laid down their tools and refused to proceed with the wicked building.
The castle was never completed.
The Entombed Child
When Christianity was introduced to Rügen, they wanted to build a church in Vilmnitz. However, the builders could not complete their task, because whatever they put up during day was torn down again by the Devil that night. Then they purchased a child, gave it a bread-roll in one hand, a light in the other, and set it in a cavity in the foundation, which they quickly mortared shut. Now the Devil could no longer disrupt the building's progress.
It is also said that a child was entombed in the church at Bergen under similar circumstances.
Uncanny things happen at Spyker, the ancient castle of the Wrangels. The tower there is haunted. It is said that while they were building it, every night it would collapse, until they entombed a human within its walls. He now wanders about.
According to others there is a haunted chamber there where someone met his death, and he is the one who wanders about.
There is a lake where every year a virgin is sacrificed. If this does not happen then the water becomes unruly, the waves grow larger and larger, then rise higher and higher until they finally flood the entire land.
There is also a city whose citizens have a virgin entombed within a wall every year. But today no one knows exactly where this is or why it is done. Some claim that this girl is also a sacrifice to a large lake, which otherwise would swallow up the city.
In former times thieves made lights for themselves which had the power to keep the inhabitants of a house asleep as long as the lights were burning. If the rogues knew how many people there were in the house that they wanted to rob, then they would ignite that number of lights, and no one would be able to wake up as long as the lights were burning. These lights were made from unborn children which had been cut from the womb. Therefore it occurred not infrequently that pregnant women were sold to bandits for high prices.
That very thing happened once at a mill. A servant girl who was pregnant worked for the miller. Her fiancé came to visit her one night. He saw a wagon standing before the door of the miller's house. It was covered with a tarp. He heard a stifled groaning sound coming from beneath the tarp. The servant rushed to the living-room window, and inside he saw several fellows with the miller. They were counting out a large pile of silver coins onto the table. The servant immediately became suspicious and rushed back to investigate the wagon. He pulled his own fiancée from beneath the wagon tarp. Her mouth had been bound with a cloth. The servant carried her to safety and then untied her hands and feet. The robbers soon emerged from the house and drove off as fast as their horses could run, thinking that they were carrying with them a rich booty.
Once a rogue slipped into a house during the day. The inhabitants of the house saw him, but although they searched high and low, they could not find him. At nightfall the inhabitants went to bed, but the servant girl could not fall asleep. She was afraid of the stranger, and wanted to look around carefully one last time. To her fright she discovered him hiding in the stove.
The girl then pretended to fall asleep. Now that all was quiet in the house, the rogue climbed out of the stove and ignited as many lights as there were people in the house. But one of the lights would not burn. He believed that the girl was not yet asleep and held a burning light against her feet. However, in her fear she withstood the pain and did not move.
Now satisfied, the rogue placed all the lights on the table and went outside to summon his fellow robbers. The girl jumped up and barred the door shut behind him. She attempted to awaken the people in the house, but to no avail. She then tried to extinguish the lights, but failed to do this as well.
The rogue came to the window and demanded his lights, promising to leave once he had them. The servant girl answered that she could not reach them out to him while there were burning. She said that she had been unable to put them out and asked him what to do. He told her to submerge them in fresh milk. That is exactly what she wanted to know. She submerged them in fresh milk, and the lights went out. She shouted at the fellow that he was not going to get his lights back, and he then did indeed have to made a hasty retreat, for as soon as the lights were extinguished, everyone in the house awoke, and they all came running to see what was the matter.
We all want explanations for happenings that fall outside of our control, especially those that have a direct bearing on our welfare. It is only natural that our forebears wanted to know why some children fail to develop normally. Legends give primitive but satisfying answers to these questions. These accounts -- which, unlike most fantasy tales, were actually widely believed -- suggest that a physically or mentally abnormal child is very likely not the human parents' offspring at all, but rather a changeling -- a creature begotten by some supernatural being and then secretly exchanged for the rightful child. From pre-Christian until recent times, many people have sincerely and actively believed that supernatural beings can and do exchange their own inferior offspring for human children, making such trades either in order to breed new strength and vitality into their own diminutive races or simply to plague humankind. These beliefs continued to exert influence well into the nineteenth century, and in some areas even later. As late as 1924 it was reported that in sections of rural Germany many people were still taking traditional precautions against the demonic exchange of infants.
How to Protect Your Child
Source: Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, 4th ed. (1877), v. 3, pp. 450-460 (items 484, 509, 510, 744).
Changeling Beliefs in AltmarkSource: J. D. H. Temme, Folk Legends from Altmark
The Changeling of Plau
Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, p. 42.
A married couple in Plau had a child that after two years was still only as long as a shoe. It had an enormously large head and could not learn to talk. They shared their concern with an old man, who said: "For sure the underground people have exchanged your child. If you want to be certain about this, then take an empty eggshell and in the presence of the child pour fresh beer into it, then add yeast to make it ferment. If the child then starts to talk, then my suspicion is right." They followed this advice. The beer had scarcely begun to ferment when the child called out from its cradle:
Now I am as oldThe dwarf's actual words, in the original Low German:
Ik bün so olt
The parents determined that the very next night they would throw the child into the Elbe River. They arose after midnight and went to the cradle, where they discovered a strong and healthy child. The underground people had taken back their own child.
The Underground People Try to Steal a Child
In Lanken near Parchim a peasant woman was lying in bed one night with her small child that had not yet been baptized. Because the moon was shining, she blew out the light. Then she suddenly noticed that a little woman was standing at the door next to the bell. She came to the bed and took hold of the boy and wanted to take him away. The peasant woman held as fast as she could, but the small person was pulling almost stronger than she was. Then the peasant woman called for her husband, and when he struck a light, the little woman disappeared.
An Underground Woman in Labor
A woman who died at Neu-Bukow in 1841 at the age of 118 told that when she was a child underground people lived in a mountain near her home town (the name is not given). She herself and other children often saw them, but they always ran away from them. One night an underground man knocked at their door and asked the mother to go with him. His wife was in labor. He also asked to borrow a kettle. The mother went with him and was gone the entire night. She returned the next morning and reported that a little boy had been born.
The Changeling of Spornitz
Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, p. 46.
A young peasant woman in Spornitz had her child stolen by an underground person or a Mönk, and a changeling put in its place in the cradle. The mother saw it happen, but she could neither move nor call out. The maniken told her that her son would someday become the king of the underground people. From time to time they had to exchange one of their king's children for a human child so that earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them. She was told to take good care of the little dwarf prince, and her house would be blessed with good fortune. With that the Mönk laid the changeling on her breast and disappeared with her child. She took care of the child, and the prosperity of her household increased visibly. However, the changeling remained small and ugly, and died in his twentieth year.
The Underground People of Lüth Farm
As she was doing it, the child asked: "What are you doing there?"
She answered: "I'm brewing."
Then the child said:
I am as old
Then the woman said: "I'll throw you in." Then the child began to cry. The underground people heard it and brought her child back.
The Underground People Steal a Child
The woman noticed the exchange the next day and asked her neighbor for advice. She told her that she should "brew through an egg." The mother followed this advice, and the changeling, who until now had not uttered a sound, cried out:
I am as old
At this the woman cried out: "To the devil with you! You are not my child!" Then there was a great commotion, and the changeling disappeared, and the mother got back her own child.
Source: A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1848), pp. 92-93.
The Nickert is a small gray person that lives in the water and has a great desire for human children. If they have not yet been baptized, he will steal them, leaving his own children in their place. They are very small, but have large, broad heads.
Once a woman on a journey gave birth to a child. As soon as she had recovered and was crossing the Ruthe Bridge on her way home, the Nickert came upon her without being seen and stole her newborn child, leaving in its place his malformed brat with its thick head. It lived for eight years, and then died. If the woman had not crossed over running water with her newborn, the Nickert would not have been able to do anything to her.
The changelings that the Nickert substitutes for human children are very strong, often having more strength than three strong men together.
Once there was a large Nickert child that was completely wild. He dirtied himself, and was almost like an animal. One day a worker came home with a heavily loaded wagon full of grain and ran into the gatepost so hard that he could not get loose. The Nickert child, who was sitting inside next to the window, saw what had happened and asked, "Should I help you?"
The bad-tempered worker replied, "You stupid quack, it's too heavy for you!" Then the Nickert child came outside and with one powerful shove pushed the wagon free. Three days later the Nickert child disappeared.
J. D. H. Temme, translated by D. L. Ashliman
In the part of the Island of Rügen named Jasmund, not far from Stubbenkammer, one can still see remnants--especially the outer wall--of Hertha Castle, which has stood there for many centuries, ever since the days of heathenism. In this castle the heathens of Rügen worshipped an idol that they called Hertha, whom they perceived to be Mother Earth.
Not far from Hertha Castle there is a deep, black lake, surrounded by woods and hills. The goddess bathed there several times each year. She rode there in a carriage covered with a mysterious veil and drawn by two cows. Only her consecrated priest was allowed to accompany her. Slaves were also brought along to lead the draft animals, but they were drowned in the lake immediately upon completing their task, because any unconsecrated person who caught sight of the goddess would have to die. For this reason nothing more is known about the worship of this goddess.
There are all kinds of stories about uncanny happenings near this lake. Some believe that these are caused by the devil, who, in the form of the goddess Hertha, was worshipped by the heathens and who therefore still lays claim to the lake. Others believe that these happenings are caused by an ancient queen or princess who had been banished to this place.
Especially when the moon is shining brightly, a beautiful woman is often seen emerging from the woods adjacent to Hertha Castle. She proceeds to the lake, where she bathes herself. She is surrounded by many female servants, who accompany her into the water. Then they all disappear, but they can be heard splashing about. After a while they all appear again, and they can be seen returning to the woods dressed in long white veils.
It is very dangerous for a wanderer to observe this, for he will be drawn by force into the lake where the white woman is bathing, and as soon as he touches the water, he will be powerless; the water will swallow him up. They say that the woman has to lure one human into the water every year.
No one is allowed to use boats or nets on this lake. Some time ago some people dared to bring a boat to the lake. They left it afloat overnight, and when they returned the next morning, it had disappeared. After a long search, they found it atop a beech tree on the bank. It was spirits of the lake that had put it up there during the night, for when the people were getting it back down, they heard a spiteful voice calling to them from beneath the lake, saying: "My brother Nickel and I did it!"
The Expulsion of Rats from the Island of Ummanz
Many years ago there were so many rats on the Island of Ummanz that the inhabitants could not find refuge from the vermin. Then a sorcerer from abroad presented himself, offering -- for a large sum of money -- to drive all the rats from the island. The people of Ummanz agreed to pay this very high price, even though he stated from the beginning that he would be able to ban the rats only for the lifetime of the population that currently lived there. Then the sorcerer drove all the rats to the southwestern point of Ummanz and into the water. This region is thus called the Rott even today.
They say that the soil from this area formerly could be used as protection against rats. People who were plagued with rats would go to Ummanz and get a sack of soil from the Rott. A small handful of this soil shook into the rat holes would be sufficient to drive the rats away within a few hours. All this was credited to the foreign sorcerer.
More recently, however, following the death of the earlier population and after many outsiders had come to Ummanz, rats found their way back to the island, and since then not even soil from the Rott will help to drive them away.
Superstitions in Germany
Cures, Charms, and Curses
Holidays and Holy Days
Male and Female
Courtship and Marriage
Husband and Wife
Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Postnatal Care
Aging and Death