Incubus. By unknown artist (1870).
A succubus is a supernatural female demon who invades human nightmares and dreams, and who is believed to have sexual relations or intercourse with sleeping men. In order to carry out the seduction the female demon or entity adopts the shape and form of a beautiful human female. Thus the succubus assumes the shape of a beautiful maiden but hides certain deformities that may include bird-like claws and snake-like tail (Davidson, 2012; Guiley, 2008).
In terms of etymology the term succubus comes from medieval Latin and thence late Latin succuba, or paramour from succub (are) meaning to ‘lie under’, thus suc is ‘unde’ and cubare is ‘to lie’. Nonetheless, it cannot be assumed that all succubi were malevolent and in the folklore of later times they were considered as sirens. Lilith, who biblically was the first wife of Adam later became a succubus, see her serpentine and Victorian visualisation in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Lilith (1892) by John Collier
Refusing to return to the Garden of Eden Lilith abandoned Adam and consorted and later mated with the archangel Samael. Originally Lilith originally was one of four demon queens who became the mother of the jinn, and whose children in later myth and lore were called Liliu. A corresponding female demon was Ardat lili of Mesopotamian provenance who seduced sleeping men during the night in order to become pregnant with their ghostly offspring. Moreover, the supernatural female entity called Lilitu came upon men in their erotic dreams and indulged them with sexual intercourse (Patai, 1997).
Figure 2. Lilith Tempting Adam and Eve by Michelangelo
Sexual intercourse of a regular and repeated nature was considered to be deleterious to health and even a cause of death. In 1486 the Malleus Malificarum or ‘Witches Hammer’ (Kramer, 1486) opined that a succubus seduced men and then collected their semen, which male demons of incubi then used to impregnate women of humankind.
An incubus is a male sexual entity that is also considered a nightmare and derives from the Latin word incubus which means nightmare. The incubus who was considered to enter the beds of sleeping women for the purpose of having sexual relations. Circa 2400 BC, in ancient Mesopotamia their list of kings referred to a certain Lilu who was the father of Gilgamesh, and was known to physically seduce women during their slumbers. These supernatural entities perched upon the chests of the female victims, see Figure 3. Now in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Figure 3. The Nightmare (1781)
Again of ancient Mesopotamian origin was Irdu lili, the male equivalent of the female Ardat lili. The Irdu also came upon sleeping women in order to make them pregnant. Indeed, the birth of twins was often believed to be the result of a sexual liaison with an incubus, conceived during a nightmare, see also Figure 4.
Figure 4. La Cauchemar (The Nightmare). By Eugenie Thivier (1894).
For the medieval European mind an incubus was an evil demon who was intent upon having sexual intercourse with sleeping women. Witches were sometimes regarded as having been the outcome of their mothers having had intercourse with an incubus. Despite the cloven hoofs and repulsive odour of an incubus a with was assumed to welcome the liaison. Figure 5 shows a painting of two sleeping women with a demonic incubus leaving the chamber of two sleeping women. The offspring of incubi were called cambions.
Figure 5. The Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women (1793).
Folklore provided remedies and protection against the night-time visitations and molestations of the incubus. A maiden who wished to remain virtuous dring her slumbers could use herbs such as St-John’s-Wort (Hypericum perforatum), vervain (verbena), and also preparations of dill. In addition they could wear protective ring amulets. Vervain is of the herb genus verbena (Verbena officianalis) or common verbena. During antiquity verbena was a Roman sacrificial plant with divine associations with supernatural forces. In ancient Wales the verbena plant was known as the anti-demonic Devil’s Bane (Aubrey, 1721). As both vervain and the plant dill (Anethium graveolens) were assumed to hinder witches in the practices it was thought the same would deter the incubus.
References and Sources consulted
Aubrey’s Miscellanies. (1721).
Davidson, P. (2012). Early Modern Supernatural: the dark side of European culture, 1400-1700. Praeger, California.
Guiley, R. E. (2008). The encyclopaedia of witches, witchcraft and Wicca. 3rd ed. New York.
Kramer, H. & Springer, J. (1846). Malleus Malificarum.
Patai, R. (1997). The Hebrew Goddess. 3rd edition. Wayne University Press.