LearnGermanwith Us!

Start Learning!

German Language Blog

The German Nightmare Posted by on Jun 6, 2015 in Folklore, History, Language

Guten Tag!

Today I’m going to talk a little about der Schlaf (sleep) or, more specifically, nightmares.

The reason I wanted to write this post is because someone sent me music by the German band Nachtmahr (‘Nightmare’) the other day. I have always known the German word for nightmare to be der Alptraum, so I came to wonder why there are even two words for nightmare in the German language: der Alptraum and die Nachtmahr.

In actual fact there are three words, because Alptraum is sometimes spelt Albtraum, with a B instead of a P. The way I learnt it was Alptraum. Apparently, Albtraum is the new spelling, following the Rechtschreibreform (German orthography reform), and Alptraum is the old spelling. It’s a little confusing, but both spellings are correct, so don’t be surprised if you happen to come across both of them.


The word Albtraum/Alptraum contains the words Alb/Alp and Traum.

Der Alb/Der Alp: A mythical creature from Germanic folklore, similar to demon or goblin, believed to sit on and compress people’s chests as they sleep. The English equivalent of this word would be elf (in fact, the English word elf is cognate with the German word Alp), while the equivalent demon is an incubus or succubus. A related word is der Alpdruck, meaning elf pressure, which is used to refer to the feeling of pressure on one’s chest during a nightmare.

Der Traum: Dream.

Nachtmahr (Abildgaard).jpg
Nachtmahr (Abildgaard)“ von painting: Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard; file: James Steakley – Vestjaellands Art Museum, Sorø. Lizenziert unter Gemeinfrei über Wikimedia Commons.


The word Nachtmahr contains the words Die Nacht and Die Mahr.

Die Nacht:

Die Mahr: The Mahr is basically another name for the Alb (see above). Sometimes it also appears with a masculine gender (der Mahr). The Old English word mare, meaning night-goblin/incubus, has Germanic origins. The English word nightmare comes from the German Nachtmahr, and is a direct translation of it. Nachtmahr is the old German word for nightmare, and is hardly used anymore. Alptraum (or Albtraum) is the new, standard word.


John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare.JPG
John Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare“ von Johann Heinrich Füssliwartburg.edu. Lizenziert unter Gemeinfrei über Wikimedia Commons.


Granted it is a little confusing, but I hope this has clarified the terms somewhat! And I hope you’ll agree that it’s an interesting little bit of folklore. 🙂

More sleep-related words:

Der Nachtschreck/Die Nachtangst – Night terror.

Die Schlafparalyse – Sleep paralysis.

Die Schlafstörung – Sleep disturbance.

Der Nachtalb – Lit. night demon or night elf, a Nachtalb is another word for the Nachtmahr (the creature itself, rather than the nightmare).

Der Schlafwandler/Der Nachtwandler – Sleepwalker

Schlafwandeln – Sleepwalking

Der Klartraum– Lucid dream (lit: ‘clear dream’, also known as der luzider Traum – ‘lucid dream’)

Der Tiefschlaf – Deep sleep

Die außerkörperliche Erfahrung – Out of body experience

Süße Träume… (sweet dreams…)


Athens № 7

Photo: skohlmann on flickr.com under CC BY-SA 2.0


Constanze x

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Share this:
Pin it

About the Author:Constanze

Servus! I'm Constanze. I'm half English and half German. I write here because I'm passionate about my languages and my roots. I also work as a translator & group fitness instructor.


  1. Allan Mahnke:

    Very interesting! Thank you!

    I’m also happy to know that apparently I am not the only one who flinches every time he sees Albtraum instead of Alptraum. Connecting with the “demon” in question, the Italian word for a nightmare is incubo.

    On an obviously related subject, do you know Sebastian Fitzek’s novel, Der Nachtwandler? It’s a great (scary) summer book for the beach.

    • Constanze:

      @Allan Mahnke Thanks, Allan! I don’t like the word Albtraum either – I’m glad you feel the same way! It’s funny how the spelling of a word can make us feel?! Thanks for the bit of knowledge there re. incubo in Italian. And no, I haven’t read Der Nachtwandler! But I’ll add it to my ever-growing list of books to read! 🙂

  2. Larissa:

    I always wrote it as Alptraum too! I thought I was just writing it wrong when I saw it written as Albtraum. Good to know I wasn’t completely wrong then 🙂

  3. Allan Mahnke:

    Sorry, but one more thing about the Rechtschreibreform. I just came across the term Das süsssaures Ragout. I don’t think sss will ever look right? Süßsaures is so much more elegant.

    • Constanze:

      @Allan Mahnke Agreed, ‘suesssaueres’ looks awful (and even moreso without the Umlaut – I forgot I could copy and paste from your comment, but then thought I’d leave it to prove a point)! Süßsaures at least lets you break the word down (visually) into its two parts. Very important for German learners!

  4. Marie:

    I wonder if “die Alpen” (the mountain chain) has any connection to elves or demons.

    • Constanze:

      @Marie There is a connection, but I’m not 100% sure about it!

      Here’s what the online etmology dictionary has to say about the English words:

      Etymology for Alp: 1590s, “any high, snow-capped mountain,” from Alps, from French Alpes, from Latin Alpes “the Alps,” perhaps from altus “high,” or albus “white” or from a Celtic word (according to Servius), or a pre-Indo-European root.
      Etymology for Alb: late Old English albe, from Late Latin alba (in tunica alba or vestis alba “white vestment”), fem. of albus “white,” from PIE root *albho- “white” (cognates: Greek alphos “white leprosy,” alphiton “barley meal;” Old High German albiz, Old English elfet “swan,” literally “the white bird;” Old Church Slavonic and Russian lebedi, Polish łabędź “swan;” Hittite alpash “cloud”).

      They both have the word ‘white’ in common, which explains the Alps being called the Alps (snow-capped). Demons, elves etc. might’ve been referred to as ‘white’ as a reference to their ghost-like nature? There’s definitely a connection somewhere!

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂 x

  5. Ingrid Kancso:


    I enjoyed reading your explanation of the German “nightmare”.

    Do you happen to know the story, of a German monster, who parents use to make their children behave??

    I know how to SAY it, but not spell, so let me try: Voohie wau gauh???? all together???

    I would REALLY love to know the story, as my parents used this monster, to control our behavior, while we were growing up!!!

    Thank you SO much!!


    • Constanze:

      @Ingrid Kancso Hey, Ingrid! The only monster I know of that’s used to scare children into behaving is Krampus, who comes at Christmas time: https://blogs.transparent.com/german/der-nikolaus-kommt/ ‘Voohie wau gauh’ doesn’t ring any bells! 🙁 Other monster-type creatures for kids are der schwarze Mann (‘the black man’, not referring to his skin colour I should add, but to his ‘dark’ nature!). There’s also a folk song called Es tanzt ein Bi-Ba-Butzemann in unserem Haus herum (“A bi-ba-bogeyman is dancing in our house”): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JoMpflanAho
      If you have any more info it’d be interesting to get to the bottom of this! Is your mum German? Maybe it was a ‘regional’ monster? x

  6. Josh:

    My question would be how to get ride of said demon or a weekness

  7. Josh:

    I’m referring to Alp

  8. Aga:

    It’s funny, I always thought Albtraum was the old spelling and because people devoice the “b”, now the new Rechtschreibung would also allow for it to be spelled with a “p”.
    I prefer Albtraum because you can distinguish between a nightmare and a dream about the Alps (I’m glad somebody asked that question). But I must say I’ve seen Alptraum more frequently in Germany, even on TV and on ARD.
    Coincidentally I know of a clothing label from Bavaria for snowboarding and biking gear called Alptraum. It makes sense!