The Incubus and Succubus – the lore
Written by Doreen Valiente
“An ABC of Witchcraft Past & Present”
The belief in the possibility of sexual intercourse between a spiritual being and a mortal man or woman is very old, and worldwide. In Ancient Greek mythology, the offspring of such strange loves were often demigods. With the coming of Christianity, however, the subject took on a more somber aspect. The incubus and the succubus were alike regarded as devils. The word ‘incubus’ is derived from the Latin, meaning ‘that which lies upon’. The ‘succubus’, by similar derivation, was ‘that which lies beneath’. The incubi were regarded as demons who infested women, while the succubi debauched men.
Learned doctors of the Church had much debate about the nature of incubi and succubi and of the sin involved in coupling with them. Some of them declared that the same demon, being basically sexless, because inhuman, could turn itself into an incubus to lie with a woman and a succubus to tempt a man into carnal sin. Indeed, they stated that such was a devil’s ingenuity in sexual depravity, that it could receive semen from a man by acting as a succubus, usually while he slept, and then, in the form of an incubus, convey this semen into a woman and cause her to conceive a child.
Others, however, denied that the loves of the incubi and succubi could be fruitful, and averred that their sole purpose was to cause men and women to enjoy sex, to their damnation. Still, other learned Churchmen believed that devils could themselves beget children, and had done so; indeed, that Antichrist would be begotten by a devil upon a witch.
This theme has been revived in our own day, in the very successful book and film, Rosemary’s Baby. The idea of the demon-lover has appealed to many writers, one of whom, Joris-Karl Huysmans, treated it with rather more insight than most, in his brilliant and frightening look, La-Bas. Huysmans set out in this book to give a picture of Satanism as it was being practiced in the Paris of his day, the 1890s; and much of what he writes is based on fact.
His hero, Durtal, is seduced into having an affair with a young married woman, Madame Chantelouve, who is a secret Satanist. She boasts to him of a certain strange power she possesses. If there is any man whom she desires, she has only to think fixedly of him before she goes to sleep, to be able to enjoy intercourse with him, or a form in his likeness, in her dreams.
This power, she tells the horrified Durtal, was given to her by the Master Satanist, an unfrocked priest named Canon Docre. Later, she takes Durtal to a Black Mass performed by Canon Docre; but eventually, sickened by what he witnesses, he breaks away from her evil influence. What is particularly interesting about this account of copulation with incubi, is that it precisely echoes another much older account, which it seems rather unlikely that Huysmans would have known about, because it comes from England.
In Thomas Middleton’s old play The witch, from which Shakespeare quotes the song “Black Spirits” used in Macbeth, one of the witches is made to say: What young man can we wish to pleasure us, But we enjoy him in an Incubus? Most of Middleton’s witch lore is taken from Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, in which Scot describes the effects of the Witches’ Salve, as given by Giovanni Battista Porta: “By this means (saith he) in a moonlight night they seem to be carried in the air, to feasting, singing, dancing, kissing, culling, and other acts of venery, with such youths as they love and desire most
There is no mention of the Witches’ Salve in La-Bas (by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Paris, 1891); however, the possibility of such experiences through sheer autosuggestion seems by no means too difficult to imagine.
With regard to sexual experiences while under the influence of hallucinatory drugs, there are certain Mexican witches who make use of an unguent called toloachi. They say that women who use this ‘have no need of men’. Its composition is secret; but the main ingredient is Datura Tatula, a plant which is a relative of the Thornapple.
This particular kind of hallucination, or dream-experience, seems to me to be the real basis of all the stories about incubi and succubi, without needing any recourse to demons and devils. It may surprise readers to know that the phenomena of incubi and succubi still take place today. This is nevertheless a fact.
A friend of mine, an occultist, gave me a personal account of his experience with a case of this kind. He had been asked by a married couple to help them get rid of an unpleasant and frightening haunting, at the lonely farmhouse where they lived. Precise details cannot be given, for obvious reasons. Suffice it to say that he went to visit them, and tried sincerely to help. The phenomena had been occurring intermittently for some time, and the husband had called in various mediums and psychics, without success.
The young and attractive wife seemed to be the focus of the phenomena, and my friend came to the conclusion that an earth-bound spirit was obsessing her. On one occasion this spirit, that of a man, truculent and abusive, purported to take possession of the woman and speak through her. He gave some particulars of his earthly life and defied my friend’s efforts to banish him. Indeed, my friend could make no progress in the case, because he could not in practice get the woman to co-operate in anything he wanted her to do or to avoid doing. Outwardly willing, she would always find some excuse for not carrying out his instructions.
Eventually, in the absence of her husband, he tackled her about her attitude to the case. She admitted that she was not trying to get rid of the obsessing entity; because she said, he came to her as a lover and gave her such sexual pleasure and thrills as she had never experienced from a man. My friend was so shocked and disgusted at the details of the woman’s confession that he abandoned the case forthwith. He said nothing to the husband, except that he could do no more and was leaving. When he told me the details of this case, he was evidently moved by genuine horror and said that he believed the shock of what he had seen and heard had affected his health. He was in fact far from well for some time afterward.
Such a story, of course, raises many questions, both occult and psychological. Psychic researchers have encountered similar phenomena, sometimes with the added horror of alleged vampirism. The theme of sexual intercourse with the Devil, or with a demon lover, often occurs in the confessions extorted from witches and read during the witch trials of olden times.
A great many such ‘confessions’, of course, were simply forced from the accused by torture, and in many cases people were tortured into confessing what their accusers required. One confession, however, which was made voluntarily, is that by the young Scottish witch, Isabel Gowdie, who gave herself up and was hanged. Her motives in doing so have never been fathomed, but her confession is very detailed, and includes a description of her sexual intercourse with the Devil.
She says that he was “a meikle, blak, roch man, werie cold; and I fand his nature als cold within me as spring-wellwater”.
This detail, of the Devil’s icy coldness, is found in the confessions of witches at many different times and places. For another instance, a witch of the Pays de Labourde, in 1616, one Sylvanie de Ia Plaine, confessed that the Devil’s member was like that of a stallion, and “in entering it is cold like ice, jets very cold sperm, and in coming out it burns as if it were fire”.
These descriptions are typical of a great many more, from all parts of Europe; and the details of the Devil’s cold penis and ice-cold sperm have intrigued many modern writers. Margaret Murray believed they could be explained by the Devil being a man in ritual disguise, wearing a horned mask, a costume of skins which covered his whole body, and an artificial phallus.
This explanation does in fact cover the details of many stories of copulation with the Devil. The ‘Devil’ of the coven was a man playing the part of the Horned God. Intercourse with him was a religious rite; this is why the artificial phallus was used.
The Great God Pan was always potent; he was not subject to human weaknesses. The frisson which a woman would have experienced when the cold phallus entered her, was enough to produce the illusion of ice-cold sperm. In many of the earlier accounts of sexual relations between incubi and succubi and human beings, the emphasis is placed on the intense pleasure derived from such embraces. After about 1470, however, the accounts (all of course compiled and published by the witch-hunters) begin to change their attitude, and horrifying and disgusting stories are told, of how intercourse with the Devil was repulsive and agonizing. As in the case of descriptions of the witches’ Sabbat, the authorities realized that it must not be made to sound attractive. Accused witches were, therefore, under torture, required to assent to every farrago of repulsiveness that the prurient imaginations of sadistic and repressed celibates could devise.
The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum are notably interested in the details of witches’ sexual relations with devils. This book, first published circa 1486, was the official handbook for many years of the persecution of witches. Its priestly authors give a less unpleasant description of copulation between woman and incubi than many, and one which shows the possibly auto-suggestive nature of such intercourse. They say that in all the cases of which they have had knowledge, the devil has always appeared visibly to the witch.
“But with regard to any bystanders, the witches themselves have often been seen lying on their backs in the fields or the woods, naked up to the very navel, and it has been apparent from the disposition of those limbs and members which pertain to the venereal act and orgasm, as also from the agitation of their legs and thighs, that, all invisibly to the bystanders, they have been copulating with Incubus devils; yet sometimes, howbeit this is rare, at the end of the act a very black vapour, of about the stature of a man, rises up into the air from the witch.”
Given the atmosphere of the Middle Ages, when sexual enjoyment was equated with sin, and ignorance, superstition, and repression ruled people’s minds, such scenes are fully understandable without the intervention of any ‘devils’, except those which existed in the minds of the participants, both the woman and the concealed ‘bystander’.
Accounts of the relations of men with succubi are less frequently met with. When they do occur, they sometimes follow the pattern of the stories of incubi. The succubus takes the form of a beautiful woman, but her vagina is ice-cold, and sometimes her lover sees her shapely legs terminating in cloven hoofs. Again, the earlier accounts of succubi present them as beautiful and passionately alluring she-devils, who appeared to priests and holy hermits in order to tempt them-an enterprise in which they were often successful. Pope Sylvester II (999-1003} is one of the Popes who is supposed to have been secretly addicted to sorcery, and legend says that he enjoyed the embraces of a succubus called Meridiana, who was his familiar spirit. The accounts of the ice-cold body of the succubus seem to be merely imitated from those similar tales of incubi; because the majority of the stories of succubi represent them as being diabolically seductive and alluring, and even as taking the form of courtesans and prostitutes to tempt men.
The Lamiae and Empusae of pagan legend were similar beings, and the origin of most of these stories seems to lie in erotic dreams, which come to men by night without their conscious volition. Mostly such dreams are pleasurable; but if feelings of guilt and the terror of sin intervene, the phantasms take on a darker tone, and the dreamer enters the realms of nightmare.