Legends of Incubi and Succubae
I’m in a research-y mood, so let’s talk about one of my favorite subjects: mythology. Specifically, let’s talk about incubi and succubae.
What Are They?
Sex demons, basically. The succubus is a fairly common creature in many mythologies, although she goes by different names around the world. Some scholars call Lilith, Adam’s first wife, a succubus. (Others term her a lamia, which is more like a vampire.)
The incubus is the succubus’s male counterpart.
Why Make Up Stories?
There would seem to be better reasons for people to make up a myth about a male demon who visits women and girls in their sleep and has sex with them. One popular theory is that the “incubus” was used to explain unwanted pregnancies in unmarried or virginal women. In most cases, the incubus provided a convenient excuse for the male perpetrators in cases of abuse or incest.
The incubus myth also “excuses” the women victims, since the incubus is a terrifying creature that pinned its victims down and subjected them to its whims. Women could be accountable for having sex with demons (such as witches), but the incubus was unwanted and the sex was rape.
There’s another explanation for both the incubus and the succubus: sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis affects both men and women. While we’re asleep, we dream, particularly when we’re in certain sleep cycles. The dreams can at times be very vivid. In order to protect us from ourselves, the body is actually temporarily “paralyzed.” We can’t flail around and roll into a fire or off a cliff or even out of bed.
If you’ve ever been pulled out of a dead sleep, however, you may have experienced sleep paralysis. This is incredibly nerve-wracking for people. We can explain it today with science, but our ancestors invented other explanations. The incubus was one. Most myths describe it as a heavy weight on one’s chest, coupled with a complete inability to move. Its mere presence induces a feeling of terror.
Another reason for the incubus/succubus myth could be related to erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions, particularly in men.
Variations around the World
One of the most fascinating things about mythology and folklore is that many myths share certain features, no matter where in the world you are. In these cases, they often speak to what seems to be a universal human experience.
Almost everything the incubus/succubus myth touches on would occur in every human culture around the world. Almost every person experiences sleep paralysis whether or not they know. Waking up in the middle of this cycle would create a common experience. Erotic dreams and nocturnal emissions are another frequent occurrence in various human cultures.
It’s no surprise, then, that incubi and succubae exist around the world. German folklore tells of a similar creature called the alp. Some South American cultures tell stories about a deformed dwarf who visits young women in their sleep and may be blamed for unwanted pregnancies. Zanzibar’s Popo Bawa is an interesting case as a male demon who predominately attacks men.
In Hungary, the liderc is a shapeshifter who appears either as a fiery light or as a featherless chicken. In Assam, India, a pori is similar to the incubus, and Turkish culture identifies Karabasan. The Brazilian boto is based on the Amazon River dolphin who shapeshifts, seduces young women, and lures them into the river.
The oldest known story of an incubus occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which hails from Mesopotamia.
The incubus and the succubus both appear in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but the folklore around the female version of the demon is a bit more of a concern throughout history. The succubus often overlaps with other creatures, such as fairies or sirens. For example, in India, Yakshini, the female counterparts of Yaksha, resemble fairies and are depicted as being beautiful, with exaggerated breasts and hips.
In the Judeo-Christian world, Lilith, Adam’s first wife, became a succubus after leaving Adam and mating with an archangel. In a different variation of the myth, the same archangel mated with four women, who then became the four queens of demons.
Succubae are beautiful, but upon closer inspection, their bodies are monstrous, having claws or snake tails. Sex with a succubus is unpleasant, as they drip fluids and are supposed to be as cold as ice. They may be related to other mythological seductresses, such as the Yuki-onna of Japanese folklore or the huldra of Nordic mythology.
Males, Females, and Reproduction
There’s been some considerable debate in the Christian world about whether succubae and incubi are actually female and male individuals of the same “species,” or if they’re actually able to shapeshift. In some traditions, succubae collect sperm from human men, which they then transfer to the male incubi. The incubus then impregnates a human woman, which results in a cambion.
In some traditions, however, there is no such thing as a “succubus” or an “incubus.” Rather, the demons shift between male and female as appropriate to their victim. Thus the same individual can be both an incubus and a succubus at different points in time. In this case, the demon would perform a sex act as a succubus to collect sperm from a male partner, then transform into an incubus to deliver the sperm to a female partner.
Reproduction forms the core of the debate. Most Christian lore says demons can’t reproduce, but often blamed incubi for unwanted pregnancies. They are the exception to the rule, which is responsible for the ongoing debate about the mechanism.
Some Famous Incubi and Succubae
I’ve already mentioned Lilith, who is probably the most well-known succubus in the Judeo-Christian world. Other famous individuals include Lilut and Lililut from the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Pope Sylvester II reportedly cavorted with a succubus named Meridiana, who helped him achieve his high rank in the church. The Uddamareshvara Tantra describes and names thirty-six yakshini.
Stories name very few incubi and succubae, although the mythology is common enough. The succubus and incubus are popular in contemporary media. Anita Blake and Georgina Kinkaid are example in contemporary fiction. Chantinelle and Shiklah are examples from comics.
Many contemporary TV shows or books feature storylines with succubae, although they’re rarely the main characters or part of the central storyline. Incubi are more rare than their female counterparts.
The Cross-Over with Vampires
Vampires share certain features with incubi and succubae, such as both preying on unsuspecting human victims and both being nocturnal. If a person interacts with a demon regularly, they may die.
Historically, there’s some crossover between the incubus/succubus and the vampire. The lamia stemmed from Greek mythology, originally a woman who had trysts with Zeus and became a child-eating monster after Hera killed the lamia’s children. Over time, the lamia took on a role as a seductress. Eventually, translators used the word for “Lilith” in the Bible. They became known as a kind of female reproductive spirit.
The vampire myth also shares some attributes with the lamia—chiefly, a thirst for blood. Slavic traditions link lamiae, succubae, and vampires more thoroughly: these spirits seduce young men and drain their blood.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1896) and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) introduced the modern vampire. In Carmilla, the heroine, Laura, suffers from nightmares and has a dream about a large feline entering her room and biting her chest. While Carmilla is a vampire, she bears some striking resemblance to myths about incubi and succubae.
Better than Vampires?
People often note the explicit sexualization of the vampire, with biting often read as a euphemism for sexual penetration and the subsequent “feeding” an exchange of bodily fluids.
So why have vampires caught on, but not incubi and succubae? Part of the issue appears to be the directness of an incubus or succubus’s sexuality. They are literally sex demons, feeding on sexual energy. The vampire has a muted sexuality. “Energy vampires” and “psychic” vampires are closer to their incubi/succubae cousins, but their sexuality is less prominent. Sweet romances and YA novels prefer this.
Nonetheless, you’d think the incubus and succubus would be a logical choice for spicier romantic fiction. There’s apparently some hang-ups here. Lilith has long been demonized (quite literally) in Judeo-Christian lore.
We still have issues when it comes to women’s sexuality, and the succubus embodies some of those. She’s not just a “whore,” she’s a demon. That goes beyond nymphomania and plays into the conceptualization of “good girls” as sexless virginal angels and “loose women” as whores or worse.
The incubus, by contrast, is relatively little known, making the succubus the more common incarnation. This demon is largely female-driven then, but she’s one complicated by a misogynistic culture. The incubus is almost emasculated beside the seductive succubus. The incubus myth also brings with it issues surrounding consent—but then, so does the vampire myth.
It’s hard to say exactly why vampires became so popular while the incubus took a back seat. Audiences and authors might take a renewed interest in this creature when vampires are boring again.