A six hundredth post should not be a repost, should it?
Ideally it should be a piece of feel-good comedy which goes viral with ease, an 800-word guffaw.
But occasionally the laughs will not come to order, and today I seem fixated upon the Mare.
The Mare is the ancient Nordic – and English, and Rumanian, and Indian – explanation for what we call, these days, sleep paralysis. She appears in myths across the globe.
I have never met her: I generally sleep well. She is pictured, usually, crouching on the chest of a sleeper, a small dwarfed hag perched usually on some winsome Victorian beauty, because as any artist knows, any ugly little witch who controls us as we sleep should be shown in the starkest contrast possible.
She sits on your chest and you can’t move.
It happens when you are drifting off to sleep, or perhaps waking up. These days we know that what is really happening is that we remain aware while our body shuts down for REM sleep, or the rapid eye movement stage.
Not only is movement impossible, but research* shows the part of the brain involved in hallucination is very much active. So we might experience waves, or vibrations, or tremors; sound quality may get richer, or someone might hear crackling or ringing tones; you could perceive vibrant or surreal colours, or small details might become incredibly clear. You might feel pressure, or be floating, flying or even feel squeezed through a tunnel.
No wonder the traditional myth places someone malevolent squarely in the room with the sleeper.
First, some German myths say, the hag sits on your feet; then your legs; then stomach, and finally your chest. Some believe there are ways to stop her: if you cross your legs and arms just before you begin to go to sleep, for example; or if you call her by name and offer to lend her something. Then she must come to see you the next day in human form to collect the loan.
It helps if you put your shoes by your bed with the laces and toes facing outward as you sleep. And beware families with seven children in them: for one of them will invariably be a mare, and will know nothing about it.
The Mare haunts many mythologies, from Nordic to Indian. She is a night shadow, a conjured terror, a means to explain something our brain does when it is stressed, or overwrought, or sleep-deprived.
She is a symbol of all that is polarised. She is an extreme: for could anything be worse than a witch-hag sitting on one’s chest? And if we can handle her, surely we can handle anything?
Yet to plunge us into extremes is like throwing a frog into boiling water: we get out as fast as we possibly can. We are bathed in fear from head to toe.
Perhaps the real solution to our problems is in viewing life’s events- large and small – as somewhere on a continuum.
The week ahead, for each one of us, carries unknowns. Some of us cannot wait to get started: others, like me, will be willing ourselves through the days. To everything, there is a season. There will come a time when things are simpler and more enjoyable once more.
But each unknown is neither a hag nor a winsome maiden, but somewhere in between. It is rare indeed that we are subjected to waking Mares. Instead we ride an ocean which is sometimes rough, sometimes smooth; sometimes stunning, others ugly; always, changeable.
Now that’s a different kind of Mer. The sea: a great essential wonder of our planet which never looks the same twice, which shimmers from flat to choppy, which can wrest control from the greatest ocean liner yet accord it to a small tug boat.
And there is a man who captured its essence; the very absence of extremes, the rise and swell of its curves, its existence along a continuum. Claude Debussy wrote La Mer at the beginning of the 20th century, completing it whilst gazing at the English Channel. His gift for capturing tiny detail alongside grand event, and everything in between, is never more potent than in his music-sketches of the ever-changing waters.
Tonight, I lay me down to sleep. And I shall turn my back on the folklore which bids me face unknown terrors. Instead I shall listen to the sounds of the sea, and consider how changeable, and varied, and wonderful this great ocean of a life is.
* Conesa J, “Relationship between isolated sleep paralysis and geomagnetic influences: a case study,” Percept Mot Skills 80 (3 Pt 2): 1263-1273 (Jun 1995).