An incubus is a demon in male form who, according to mythological and legendary traditions, lies upon sleeping women in order to engage in sexual activity with them.[1] Its female counterpart is a succubus. Salacious tales of incubi and succubi have been told for many centuries in traditional societies. Some traditions hold that repeated sexual activity with an incubus or succubus may result in the deterioration of health, an impaired mental state, or even death.[2]

Incubus, 1879

Etymological, ancient and religious descriptionsEdit

The word incubus {in'ku-bus} [L. incubāre, to lie upon] is derived from Late Latin incubo "a nightmare induced by such a malevolent evil demon"spirit from incubãā "to lie upon".[3] One of the earliest mentions of an incubus comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, c. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh's father is listed as Lilu.[4] It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams.[5] Two other corresponding demons appear as well: Ardat lili, who visits men by night and begets ghostly children from them, and Idlu lili, who is known as a male counterpart to Ardat lili and visits women by night and begets from them. Ardat lili is derived from ardatu, the word for a woman of marriagable age, and idlu lili is derived from idlu, meaning a grown man.[6][7] These demons were originally storm demons, but they eventually became regarded as night demons because of mistaken etymology.[8]

Incubi were thought to be demons who had sexual relations with women, sometimes producing a child by the woman. Succubi, by contrast, were demons thought to have intercourse with men. Debate about these demons began early in the Christian tradition. St. Augustine touched on the topic in De Civitate Dei ("The City of God"); there were too many alleged attacks by incubi to deny them. He stated "There is also a very general rumor. Many have verified it by their own experience and trustworthy persons have corroborated the experience others told, that sylvans and fauns, commonly called incubi, have often made wicked assaults upon women."[9] Questions about the reproductive capabilities of the demons continued. Eight hundred years later, Thomas Aquinas argued against the possibility of children being conceived by intercourse with demons: "Still, if some are occasionally begotten from demons, it is not from the seed of such demons, nor from their assumed bodies, but from the seed of men, taken for the purpose; as when the demon assumes first the form of a woman, and afterwards of a man; just so they take the seed of other things for other generating purposes".[10] Such a thoroughly human child–like every human–would have a God-created soul and would live by the power of God, the only one who can give life.[11] About three hundred years later, King James, in his dissertation titled Dæmonologie, suggested that a devil would carry out two methods of impregnating women: the first, to steal the sperm out of a dead man and deliver it into a woman. If a demon could extract the semen quickly, the transportation of the substance could not be instantly transported to a female host, causing it to go cold. This explains his view that Succubae and Incubi were the same demonic entity only to be described differently based on the sexes being conversed with. Being abused in such a way caused women at nunneries to be burned if they were found pregnant. The second method was the idea that a dead body could be possessed by a devil, causing it to rise and have sexual relations with others. This is similar to depictions of revenants or vampires and a spirit taking deceased corpse to cause some mischief.[12] It became generally accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, able to switch between male and female forms.[13] A succubus would be able to sleep with a man and collect his sperm. After using dark power to corrupt and strengthen the seed, to guarantee impregnation, the succubus then transforms into an incubus and uses that seed on women. The spirits' offspring were often thought of as supernatural.[14]

Some sources indicate that it may be identified by its unnaturally large or cold penis.[15] Though many tales claim that the incubus is bisexual,[16] others indicate that it is strictly heterosexual and finds attacking a male victim either unpleasant or detrimental.[17]

Incubi are sometimes said to be able to conceive children. The half-human offspring of such a union is sometimes referred to as a cambion. An incubus may pursue sexual relations with a woman in order to father a child, as in the legend of Merlin.[18]

According to the Malleus Maleficarum, exorcism is one of the five ways to overcome the attacks of incubi. The others are Sacramental Confession, the Sign of the Cross (or recital of the Angelic Salutation), moving the afflicted to another location, and by excommunication of the attacking entity, "which is perhaps the same as exorcism".[19] On the other hand, the Franciscan friar Ludovico Maria Sinistrari stated that incubi "do not obey exorcists, have no dread of exorcisms, show no reverence for holy things, at the approach of which they are not in the least overawed".[20]

Regional variationsEdit

There are a number of variations on the incubus theme around the world. The alp of Teutonic or German folklore is one of the better known. In Zanzibar, Popo Bawa primarily attacks men and generally behind closed doors.[21] "The Trauco", according to the traditional mythology of the Chiloé Province of Chile, is a hideous deformed dwarf who lulls nubile young women and seduces them. The Trauco is said to be responsible for unwanted pregnancies, especially in unmarried women. Perhaps another variation of this conception is the "Tintín" in Ecuador, a dwarf who is fond of abundant haired women and seduces them at night by playing the guitar outside their windows — a myth that researchers believe was created during the Colonial period of time to explain pregnancies in women who never left their houses without a chaperone. In Hungary, a lidérc can be a Satanic lover that flies at night and appears as a fiery light (an ignis fatuus or will o' the wisp) or, in its more benign form as a featherless chicken.[22]

In Brazil and the rainforests of the Amazon basin, the Amazon river dolphin (or boto) is believed to be a combination of siren and incubus that shape-shifts into a very charming and handsome man who seduces young women and takes them into the river.[23] It is said to be responsible for disappearances and unwanted pregnancies.[24] According to legend, a boto always wears a hat to disguise the breathing hole at the top of its head while in human form, metamorphosing back into a dolphin during the day.[citation needed]

The Southern African incubus demon is the Tokolosh. Chaste women place their beds upon bricks to deter the rather short fellows from attaining their sleeping forms. They also share the hole in the head detail and water dwelling habits of the boto.

In Swedish folklore, there is the mara or mare, a spirit or goblin that rides on the chests of humans while they sleep, giving them bad dreams (or "nightmares").[25] Belief in the mare goes back to the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century,[26] but the belief is probably even older. The mare was likely inspired by sleep paralysis.

In Assam, a north-eastern province of India, it is mostly known as "pori" (Assamese: পৰী, meaning "angel") (pari in Hindi and etymological cousin of fairy). According to the mythology, Pori comes to a man at night in his dreams and seduces him. Gradually the victim's health deteriorates and in some cases develops suicidal tendencies.

In Turkish culture, incubus is known as Karabasan. It is an evil being that descends upon some sleepers at night. These beings are thought to be spirits or jinns. It can be seen or heard in the nightmare and a heavy weight is felt on the chest. Yet, people cannot wake up from that state. Some of the causes are sleeping without adequately covering the body (especially women) and eating in bed.

In the Xhosa, Pondo and Zulu cultures of South Africa, some variations of the impundulu resemble incubi as they are believed to appear as handsome men to seduce women and drink their blood.[27]

Scientific explanationsEdit

Victims may have been experiencing waking dreams or sleep paralysis. The phenomenon of sleep paralysis is well-established. During the fourth phase of sleep (also known as REM sleep), motor centers in the brain are inhibited, producing paralysis. The reason for this is ultimately unknown, but the most common explanation is that this prevents one from acting out one's dreams. Malfunctions of this process can either result in somnambulism (sleepwalking) or, conversely, sleep paralysis—where one remains partially or wholly paralysed for a short time after waking.

Additional to sleep paralysis is hypnagogia. In a near-dream state, it is common to experience auditory and visual hallucinations. Mostly these are forgotten upon fully waking or soon afterwards, in the same manner as dreams. However, most people remember the phenomenon of hearing music or seeing things in near-sleep states at some point in their lives. Typical examples include a feeling of being crushed or suffocated, electric "tingles" or "vibrations", imagined speech and other noises, the imagined presence of a visible or invisible entity, and sometimes intense emotions of fear or euphoria and orgasmic feelings. These often appear quite real and vivid; especially auditory hallucinations of music which can be quite loud, indistinguishable from music being played in the same room. Humanoid and animal figures, often shadowy or blurry, are often present in hypnagogic hallucinations, more so than other hallucinogenic states. This may be a relic of an ancient instinct to detect predatory animals.

The combination of sleep paralysis and hypnagogic hallucination could easily cause someone to believe that a "demon was holding them down". Nocturnal arousal etc. could be explained by creatures causing otherwise guilt-producing behavior. Add to this the common phenomena of nocturnal arousal and nocturnal emission, and all the elements required to believe in an incubus are present.[14]

On the other hand, some victims of incubi may have been the victims of real sexual assault. Some authors speculate that rapists may have attributed the rapes of sleeping men and women to demons in order to escape punishment. Robert Masello asserts that a friend or relative is at the top of the list in such cases and would be kept secret by the intervention of "spirits".[20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Incubus (demon)". Retrieved October 16, 2017.
  2. ^ Stephens, Walter (2002), Demon Lovers, p. 23, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-77261-6
  3. ^ "Incubus". Retrieved September 26, 2014.
  4. ^ Raphael Patai, p. 221, The Hebrew Goddess: Third Enlarged Edition, ISBN 978-0-8143-2271-0
  5. ^ Siegmund Hurwitz, Lilith: The First Eve ISBN 978-3-85630-522-2
  6. ^ Wilson, John Albert; Allen, Thomas George (1973). The Sumerian King List (4th ed.). London: Oriential Institute of the University of chicago. p. 90. ISBN 0226622738.
  7. ^ Campbell Thompson, R (1 Feb 2000). Semitic Magic: Its Origins and Development. New York: Weiser books. ISBN 9781609253813.
  8. ^ Raphael Patai, The Hebrew Goddess, Third Enlarged Edition, p. 221–222, ISBN 978-0-8143-2271-0
  9. ^ Augustine (410), The City of God 15.23,'The City of God'[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Aquinus, Thomas (1265–1274), "Summa Theologica", "Summa Theological, as Augustine says (De Trin. ii), so that the person born is not the child of a demon but of a man."
  11. ^ Aquinas, Thomas, "Summa Theological", FP_Q51_A1.html
  12. ^ Warren, Brett (2016). The Annotated Dæmonologie of King James. A Critical Edition. In Modern English. pp. 79–83. ISBN 978-1-5329-6891-4.
  13. ^ Carus, Paul (1900), The History of The Devil and The Idea of Evil From The Earliest Times to The Present Day, "The Devil's Prime", at
  14. ^ a b Lewis, James R., Oliver, Evelyn Dorothy, Sisung Kelle S. (Editor) (1996), Angels A to Z, Entry: Incubi and Succubi, pp. 218, 219, Visible Ink Press, ISBN 0-7876-0652-9
  15. ^ Russel, Jeffrey Burton (1972), Witchcraft in The Middle Ages, pp. 239, 235 Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, ISBN 0-8014-0697-8
  16. ^ Russell, Jeffrey Burton (1972), Witchcraft in The Middle Ages, p. 145, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, ISBN 0-8014-0697-8
  17. ^ Stephens, Walter (2002), Demon Lovers, pp. 54, 55, 332, 333, The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-77261-6
  18. ^ Merlin's father was said to be an incubus in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae and many later tales. See Lacy, Norris J. (1991). "Merlin". In Norris J. Lacy, The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, p. 322. (New York: Garland, 1991). ISBN 0-8240-4377-4.
  19. ^ Kramer, Heinrich and Sprenger, James (1486), Summers, Montague (translator – 1928), The Malleus Maleficarum, Part 2, Chapter 1, "The Remedies prescribed by the Holy Church against Incubus and Succubus Devils", at
  20. ^ a b Masello, Robert (2004), Fallen Angels and Spirits of The Dark, p. 66, The Berkley Publishing Group, 200 Madison Ave. New York, NY 10016, ISBN 0-399-51889-4
  21. ^ Maclean, William (Reuters) (May 16, 2005). "Belief in sex-mad demon tests nerves". World-Wide Religious News. Retrieved December 11, 2011.
  22. ^ Mack, Dinah, Mack, Carol K. (1999), A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits, p. 209, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, ISBN 0-8050-6270-X
  23. ^ "Whales and Dolphins" Archived 2011-07-23 at the Wayback Machine at Archived 2007-04-10 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ Boto Archived 2010-10-21 at the Wayback Machine at Archived 2007-04-07 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ Bjorvand and Lindeman (2007:719–720).
  26. ^ Ynglinga saga, stanza 13, in Hødnebø and Magerøy (1979:12).
  27. ^ Jȩdrej, M. Charles; Rosalind Shaw (1992). Dreaming, Religion and Society in. BRILL. p. 155. ISBN 90-04-05243-7.