The female succubus, and it’s counterpart the male incubus, are some of the most well known types of demons and are infamous for their nature as sexual fiends who prey men and women.
Mentions of them in popular culture are fairly frequent, however few cultural creations go in-depth in explaining how these mythological creatures operate, and what social purpose they served during their heyday in the European Middle Ages.
- What is a Succubus or Incubus?
- What do Succubi & Incubi look like?
- Succubi & Incubi could produce children
- Succubi & Incubi were used to demonize sex
- Succubi & Incubi were connected to witchcraft
- Succubi and Incubi could be legal loopholes
- Succubi & Incubi as sleep nightmares
- Creation of Incubi and Succubi
- How to get rid of Succubus & Incubus
- Succubi and Incubi equivalents in other cultures
- Succubi & Incubi as demons of sleep paralysis
- From physical demons to psychological ones
What is a Succubus or Incubus?
A succubus is described as a sensual, lewd female demon who pursues men for sex. In Christian and Hebrew mythology, the succubus and her male counterpart, the incubus, visit men and women during their nightly sleep, lie upon their chest and press upon it, while all the while seducing them.
Conjuration of these spirits can be accomplished by witches, sorcerers, or shamans.
During the Middle Age witch hysteria in Europe, incubi and succubi were believed to be instruments of the devil and their sole purpose was to torture people, lead them to more vices, and corrupt their souls.
What do Succubi & Incubi look like?
A succubus or incubus usually assumes human form for its purposes and, of course, a sexually attractive one.
However, theologians of the time insisted that both incubi and succubi were spirits, and that their physical, human form was either them possessing a lifeless human corpse, or by creating and puppeteering an artificial human body. The idea that such demons could create actual life was considered then, and even now, a heresy.
According to some writers, succubi and incubi are visible only to witches, and invisible to common people.
It was common for these demon lovers to appear to their partners or victims as human spouses, wives, and lovers.
In certain cases, they appeared in familiar, but less welcome shapes, as was the case of a medieval nun claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a Bishop Silvanus. The bishop in this case did not deny the allegations, but claimed it was perpetrated by an incubus taking his form, and not he himself.
It is possible, however, to detect the true demonic nature of the incubus in human form through certain signs.
For example, the succubus or incubus had the ability to put everyone else in the house to a deep slumber, so much so that these demons could enjoy their victims while their spouses were besides them, soundly asleep and unable to react.
Often, the unpleasurable sensations the demons caused during intercourse gave clues to their evil origins. This aspect of their lovemaking, however, wasn’t widely accepted until the time of the great witch persecutions.
Witch hunters believed that witches, during their initiation, had to have sexual relations with the Satanic monsters, but that they never really enjoyed them.
Accused witches often gave confessions (usually obtained through torture), that Satan’s sexual organ was ice cold, or painfully large, or built of iron, or all these traits combined. Some even described it as two-pronged.
Men too would also claim that intercourse with a succubi was unpleasurable and painful.
However, other writers claimed that intercourse with a succubi and incubi was much more pleasurable than with a man or woman, and even went to great lengths to extract believable testimonies in this sense, such as this one from an Inquisitor called Dicaste:
The witches claim to derive so much pleasure that they assert there is no other like it on earth. And I think this may be for several reasons. First, because of the very great beauty and grace ot counte nance which those evil spirits assume; second, for the extraordinary largeness of their members. For with the former they attract the eye, and with the latter they cause delight in the most secret parts: Beyond that, the demons pretend to be greatly enamored of the witches, which to these wretched silly women is dearest above all things. The devils can even agitate the thing when it is inside, wherefore the women derive more pleas ure than they do with men.
Succubi & Incubi could produce children
It was a common belief in the Middle Ages that the Devil himself could easily assume either female or male form, depending on the chosen victim.
Thus, the Incubus and the Succubus were seen as the same devil creature, putting on male bodies one night to visit women, and female bodies the next to torment men.
Out of this idea that the Incubus and Succubus was in fact a single, shape-shifting demon, came the theory that devils, spirits or not, could impregnate humans.
Some demonologists theorized the demon collected the semen from dead corpses; but the more widely spread theory was that the succubus demon collected semen from its male victim, which it then used to impregnate female victims while as an incubus.
Although it used human sperm, these demonic forms of artificial insemination were generally expected to produce deformed and monstrous children.
In some situations, a twin was believed to be a product of an incubus’s attentions.
In some versions, the magician Merlin was said to have had at least one demonic parent.
Due to the fact that devils are not humans, sexual interaction with sucubi or incubi was considered bestiality. A few writers threw in sodomy as well, so that humans suspected of consensual intercourse with a demon would be punished both for diabolism as well as for sexual perversion.
In the Middle Ages there was no widely accepted name for these human-demon hybrid offspring, but starting in the 19th century the term “cambion” started to be used in many cases to describe their demonic children.
The term cambion comes from the Latin “cambiare” or “to exchange”, the context being that what was supposed to be a normal, human child was “exchanged” with a demonic one through intercourse with the Succubi or Incubi.
That being said, later religious writers, starting with the 17th and 18th century, claimed that reproduction with a Succubus and Incubus was not possible, since demons were creations of an ill or sinful mind, rather than actual, physical creatures.
Succubi & Incubi were used to demonize sex
Most Christian theologists and demonologists considered that any form of sexual expression (other than one used in marriage for procreation) was a slippery path to hell that should be avoided.
And since human seducers alone were not sufficient, the clergy of the time decided to create these sexual demons as an extra form of punishment for those who wanted to enjoy their God given bodies.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the misogyny of the time, women were considered to be more susceptible to the temptations of incubi than men were to succubi, as per this quote from the Maleus Maleficarum:
“Yet it does not appear that men thus devilishly fornicate with the same full degree of culpability; for men, being by nature intellectually stronger than women, are more apt to abhor such practices.”
Succubi & Incubi were connected to witchcraft
At first demonologists, followed by the hysterical witch-hunters and inquisitors, were deeply suspicious and believed their victims were guilty until proved innocent.
These religious enforcers believed that witches were given incubi as lovers and familiars as a reward for becoming the servants of Satan.
Necromancers, black magicians and others of their kind were also given demonic mistresses from their demonic overlords, similar to how Mephistopheles conjured up Helen of Troy to delight Faust.
Invariably, when captured and tortured, such people were punished for their general heresy, in which sexual relations with devils played only a minor role.
In contrast, ordinary people who were accused of sleeping with devils were charged with only sexual crimes.
As a defense, ordinary people could claim they were seduced, or even raped, as the incubus took by force what it could not obtain by seduction and temptation.
It was just as sinful to succumb to an incubus’ seduction as to succumb to any other sinful temptation.
Further, witch-hunters claimed that girls who “fall” sexually (to a devil or not) are more easily led into total corruption.
Succubi and Incubi could be legal loopholes
Despite all this, when women lost their virginity many of them claimed rape by an incubus as a convenient legal loophole to minimize or avoid punishment (including, during the Middle Ages, quite a few nuns).
It became a convenient excuse for unmarried mothers, adulterous wives, and women ashamed of deformed children.
Men too frequently used the incubus as a convenient legal loophole as a way to avoid being named fathers to illegitimate children produced during their escapades.
The incubus excuse could even be used as a way to obtain an annulment of their marriage, since they could claim their wives were sleeping with devils, without having too produce much evidence either.
According to a famous 17th century case, a noblewoman was impregnated by her husband in a dream when he had been away from home for four years.
Famous theologians of the time debated if the dream lover had really been the husband (if yes, then the child would become a legal heir) or if the lover was an incubus in her husband’s semblance.
In public, no one seemed to doubt the lady’s honor for a moment. There is no record of the husband’s opinion.
The fact that demonologists were so gullible indicates some crucial thinking on the origin of the incubus and its characteristics.
Succubi & Incubi as sleep nightmares
According to the widespread legend of incubi and succubi, they were either visitors that came at night, or as mental invaders, giving the victim erotic dreams.
As one might assume, devout believers, priests, or married folk were not capable of having these dreams of their own, so the only possible explanation for them is that they were caused by the devil himself to tempt away from God.
The idea that such dreams might emerge from an overly restrained sexual drive was never considered.
As a result, the devil as incubus or succubus came to be understood as synonymous with nightmare, a word used for both horrifying dreams and the devils believed to cause them.
The Latin word for nightmare, incubo, comes from incubare, translated as “to lie upon”. These nightmares were generally described as terrifying, but often erotic, and conveying a feeling of a great weight pressing on the chest.
For the pure and chaste clergy any dream that was erotic was horrifying, but they could conveniently interpret any dream as erotic, by classifying some elements in dream as symbols of eroticism, even if they were not explicit.
Modern psychologists sees erotic dreams and fantasies as the main impulse behind those conceptions of incubi and succubi which played so important a part in the demonology of the Middle Ages.
Not only that, but most medieval Christian theologians so detested the idea that sex could be pleasurable and enjoyable that even the dreams were considered sinful and immoral.
Creation of Incubi and Succubi
The belief in incubi and succubi wasn’t entirely created out of hysteria and repression during the medieval period. The predecessors of incubi and succubi originated in more permissive times and places.
Several ancient civilizations created their own nightmare demons and saw them operating either physically or in dreams.
Early Assyrians described beings called lili, which were sexually insatiable female demons wandering the night in search of mortal men.
Eventually, the lili became Lilith, the monster from ancient Hebrew mythology (referred to as the night hag in the book of Isaiah), the very queen and mother of succubi and incubi.
The Early Christian version of Lilith claims she was Adam’s first wife. However, the two did not have a successful relationship because she refused to lie under Adam during intercourse, and demanded to be his equal.
Angered by not being given the status of equal to Adam, Lilith departed the Garden of Eden and went to the Red Sea. There she spent her time among demons, and as a result of her fornication produced over hundred demons (called “lilin” or “lilion”) per day.
Supposedly, many of Lilith’s demonic children were Incubi and Succubi, and inherited her mother’s devilish sexual promiscuity.
In another version, according to some of the fathers of the Church, the incubi were originally angels who fell from heaven because they copulated with mortal women.
How to get rid of Succubus & Incubus
In terms of exorcism and getting rid of succubi and incubi, the writings of the time are surprisingly split on the subject.
The incubus, in fact, was often believed to be powerful enough, in its intrusion into rational or spiritual lives, to resist exorcism or being cast out. Many stories exist of the devil ignoring and even attacking the exorcist.
It was thought that the incubus could withstand exorcism because it was a low-ranking demon, more thick-skinned and stupid than others.
Folklore also offers few magical cures for people suffering from incubi. Several writers mention herbs that can protect innocent beds, such as St John’s wort, vervain, dill, and garlic, which is also said to repel vampires.
Aside from this, the early Christian fathers may have solely relied on their usual prescription of spiritual warfare and protection prayers, mortification of the flesh, and so on, in order to maintain their chastity.
This explanation was likely caused by the fact that some people chose to express their sexuality regardless of the consequences, and so the Church and clergy considered them to be incurably possesed by Succubi and Incubi.
On the other hand, some theologians of the time such as Heinrich Kramer (latinized as Henricus Institor) claimed that banishing Succubi and Incubi was possible, and wrote about these methods in the book Malleus Maleficarum (meaning “Hammer of Witches”), considered for centuries as the instruction manual for banishing witchcraft and demons.
The demonology manual Malleus Maleficarum says that getting rid of a Succubi or Incubi can be done by:
- sacramental confession.
- making the sign of the cross.
- reciting the “Hail Mary” prayer.
- moving to another house or town.
- excommunication of the demon by clergy.
Whenever these strategies failed, medieval witch-hunters and inquisitors turned to punishment of the victim to drive out the incubus.
These disgusting tortures, designed by hysterical minds, were obviously meant to deny women and men’s natural sexual urges.
It is clear that the Church believed that no innocence could escape corruption, once exposed to the devil of lust, either in dream or in flesh.
In those centuries of the Church’s dominance, this belief and the cruelties perpetrated in its name reveal the scale of sexual repression.
The myth of the incubus remains one of the most ugly manifestations in all history of man’s frequent attempts to cripple and pervert his own sexuality in the name of religion.
Succubi and Incubi equivalents in other cultures
In Graeco-Roman mythology, wood nymphs were the equivalent of the succubus, and there numerous tales that describe how they led med to their doom.
The male counterparts of nymphs were the satyrs and fauns, and roughly equal the incubi.
In a similar fashion, the woodland god Pan, with his horns and cloven hooves, predates Satan and influenced early Christian imagination about the Lord of Evil.
Similar sexually demonic figures were the Germanic Lorelei or the Greek Sirens, that used their songs and attractiveness to guide sailors to disasters.
Arab mythology also describes how the jinn would sometimes kill its human lovers through excessive amounts of sex.
However, relations with jinn were not always fatal. In some Arab tales the female jinn was believed to serve as an invisible wife to an unmarried man, and many men in Arab legends were unwilling to trade this invisible wife for a real one.
The Celtic dusii and the Hindu bhut are other such examples of demonic lovers.
Therefore, it seems that man’s mistrust of his own sexuality has always caused him to depict it as demonic.
Succubi & Incubi as demons of sleep paralysis
A modern theory is that Incubi and Succubi, and other similar types of demons, appeared as an explanation for the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is often accompanied by feelings of terror and helplessness. While it has only recently been the subject of scientific study, there are many accounts in both folklore and literature that appear to be describing a similar state.
Many historians point out that throughout European history there have been various tales of demons or other such monsters that come to people as they are falling asleep or waking up and press down on their chests. In medieval Christian mythology they were known as incubus and succubus.
Saint Augustine ( 354-430 C.E.) claimed that
“These attacks are affirmed by persons of such indubitable honesty that it would be impudence to deny it.”
Also, it has been suggested that Henry Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare, showing a small demon crouching on a woman’s chest and a ghost horse in the background, is really a depiction of sleep paralysis.
From physical demons to psychological ones
For more than a thousand years, since the founding of the Church and up until the 12th century, Christian theologians consistently rejected the idea that sex with demons was possible.
This theory was grounded on the idea that demons and devils, like God himself, were mostly metaphysical and spiritual and so would rarely interact directly with the physical world of humans.
By the 14th century however, the Church had firmly become implanted as a very important political structure of European states, and one of its most important goals was to impose Christian social norms upon society, by force if need be.
Sex was a huge topic of Christian social norms, and for the Church to enforce their views of sex (where sex outside of marriage is a sin, and sometimes even within marriage if it wasn’t for the explicit purpose of making children), they had to equate sex with sin.
One of the ways the Church decided to enforce their strict norms regarding sex was to demonize it, by making their unwanted forms of sex be seen as a product of demonic temptation.
This also allowed the Church to enforce stronger penalties for sex outside since now it wasn’t just a simple, forgivable sin of lust.
Now, by adding demons to the mix, the Church had a philosophical argument to make their punishments even more draconian and brutal since the guilty person was also guilty of mingling with demons.
They used this argument extensively, especially to punish so called “witches”.
The theory that sex with demons was possible lasted many hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that social pressures and a weakening of Church authority finally relaxed these views, and intercourse with demons was once again considered impossible.
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- Dictionnaire infernalby Collin de Plancy
- Demon dictionaryby Kimberly Daniels
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- Malleus maleficarum by Heinrich Kraemer
- The encyclopedia of demons and demonology by Rosemary Guiley
- Dictionary of gods and goddesses, devils and demons by Manfred Lurker
- Devils, demons, death, and damnation by Ernst Lehner
- Man, Myth & Magic The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Mythologyby Richard Cavendish
- Demons and elementalsby John Gatehouse