Academic journal article Folklore

Cheese Gives You Nightmares: Old Hags and Heartburn

Academic journal article Folklore

Cheese Gives You Nightmares: Old Hags and Heartburn

Article excerpt


Stories of witches transforming men into beasts of burden told by Homer, Apuleius, and St Augustine follow a narrative schema also found in legends of people turned into horses by witches with magic bridles. The stories figuratively convey symptoms of the nightmare, known as the "Mare" or "Old Hag." Cheese features in several of them. Although these narratives seem a far cry from the commonplace that cheese is indigestible and causes nightmares, indigestion and the Mare are inextricably entwined. This essay explores the relationships between them. [1]


Aperitif: "Bread and Cheese is Very Well, but Cheese and Cheese is No Sense"

A group of medieval and early modern stories about men transformed by witches was described by Gareth Roberts as having a "Circean configuration" because they share a schema and several motifs with Homer's story of the encounter between Ulysses' companions and Circe (Homer 1979, 159-67 (X); Roberts 1996, 192-4). They tell of youths in foreign territory lodging with witches who offer them food, then transform them into dumb beasts of burden, and exploit them. In its fullest expositions, an older, wiser companion arrives, accepts what the witch offers, but then overpowers her and forces her to restore the younger victim.

Behind the imagery are some of the features of the "Mare" or "Old Hag" type of nightmare, characterised by terror, an impression of being awake but powerless to move or speak, and sensations of weight on the chest. Popular tradition represented such experiences as assaults by witches sitting on sleepers' bellies, inflicting terrifying dreams, and leaving their victims exhausted and haggard ("hag-ridden") in the morning (Hufford 1982, 1-9, 54-5 and 245-6). Reginald Scot in 1584 reported a priest's experience of the Mare:

   There cometh unto mee, almost everie night, a certeine woman,
   unknowne to me, and lieth so heavie upon my brest, that I cannot
   fetch my breath, neither have anie power to crie, neither doo my
   hands serve me to shoove hir awaie, nor my feete to go from hir
   (Scot 1886, 66 [IV.9]).

In some versions, transformation happens during a dream or state of trance. Most victims are turned into horses or asses and burdened with packs or ridden by the witch, conveying the Mare's weighty pressure on the sleeper. Just as sufferers of the Mare experience sleep paralysis and cannot cry out, people transformed by witches are powerless to prevent their transformation and are unable to talk.

Cheese appears in the earliest versions: in Apuleius' Golden Ass it signifies women as sexual partners, much as the term "crumpet" is now used in Britain (Apuleius 1977, I: 4-19). However, Apuleius worked the metaphor into the narrative so subtly that his readers are unlikely to notice its significance unless they already know what it means. St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (AD 345-430), did not; but Shakespeare did and exploited it in The Merry Wives of Windsor (First Quarto edn, 1602) as we shall see below (pp. 214-16). The cheese-woman metaphor was familiar in Europe. Monks in medieval Germany were called "cheese-hunters" (Grimm and Grimm 1854-1954, sub Kasejager). According to a Spanish proverb, "Cheese without a rind is like a maiden without shame" (Lean 1902-4, 1:502). In Britain, "cheese and cheese" referred to two women kissing or on horseback together. As one man explained: "Bread and cheese is very well, but cheese and cheese is no sense" (Wright 1898-1905, 1:576). Men were bread and women were cheese according to their respective areas of agricultural activity, men in the grain fields and women in the dairy. The metaphor is still current: men's magazines feature photographs of "cheesecakes." Anglo-Irish men might call a good-looking woman "a nice piece of cheese" or "a tasty piece of Cheddar"; a girl who has had many boyfriends is a "blue cheese" and one in search of a husband is a "mousetrap" (pers. …

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