Incubi and Succubi

Henry Fuseli, An Incubus Leaving Two Girls

It will have been noted from my last posting on fairy lovers that they are, in the British Isles, predominantly female- other than the northern Scottish tradition of male selkies, who will form sexual relationships with human women and father children. 

Older literature often makes reference to incubi and succubi, male and female spirits or demons who take on human form to lie with women and men at night.  These beings have ancient roots, both classical and in the Middle East, and are clearly not identical (or even closely related) to our own faery lovers.  This notwithstanding, the terminology has come to be used indiscriminately (as with nymphs and satyrs) so that there may be some confusion between the two.  Reginald Scot included incubus amongst his list of fairy beings in the Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1584 (in Book 7 c.15 and the ‘Discourse’ c.11). Scot was generally sceptical about all supernatural phenomena, though, and it is very clear from the ‘Shepherd’s Dream’ in William Warner’s Albion’s England (1612) that the poet was inclined to suspect that the incubus, “that begets dadlesse babes on girles asleepe” was just a cover for a much simpler explanation for pregnancies out of marriage.

British faery lovers tend to be involved on a longer-term basis with human partners, rather than simply using them for sexual purposes, but there is some native evidence for a purely carnal faery visitant.  I have previously described the nightmare or hag, a species of being that has also been identified more narrowly with Mab and even Puck.  These are the best known, but not entirely the only, examples of succubi in British tradition. (Note that Reginald Scot regarded the nightmare as a purely physical affliction though).

In Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle (composed between about 1260 and 1300) there is an account given of the conception of Merlin.  His mother described how an unknown but very handsome man used to come to see her at night and, in due course, she found herself pregnant- never having slept with a man.  Amazed by this story, the king sought his counsellors’ advice, and they confirmed that there were ‘wights’ called elves (both male and female) who were known to act like this and to visit men and women at night. 

Þe clerkes sede þat it is in philosofie yfounde

Þat þer beþ in þe eyr an hey ver fram þe grounde  

As a maner gostes wiȝtes as it be

& me may þem ofte an erþe in wilde studes yse

& ofte in mannes forme wommen hii comeþ to

& ofte in wimmen forme hii comeþ to men al so

Þat men clupeþ eluene & parauenture in þis manere

On of hom in þis womman biȝet þis child here.”

This passage is, in fact, fairly easy to read. NB: the letter þ is simply ‘th’ whilst ȝ functions as a ‘y’ or sometimes as a guttural ‘g.’  The verb ‘clypeth’ simply means ‘call.’

“The clerks said (to the king) that it’s accepted by science

That there are, high in the air and far above the ground,

Beings that resemble ghosts

(Whom you can often see in wild, wooded places

And who often come in the shape of men to women

And who in women’s form visit men too)

That we call elves; perhaps in this way

One of them got this woman here pregnant with this child (Merlin).”

Robert of Gloucester was, almost certainly, a learned monk, and his background and education may well have shaped his Chronicle.  Furthermore, he was elaborating the legend of Merlin’s birth that had already been told by Geoffrey of Monmouth and several others.  We may wonder, then, whether this is a literary and scholastic view of elves or derives from folk belief. Notably, from the previous century there’s a story of a handsome fairy male who seduced a young woman at Dunwich (Life of William of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth).

However, the religious text titled Dives and Pauper, which dates to about 1405, very much confirms that the conceptions of elves set out by Robert of Gloucester reflect a more popular belief.  In the twenty-first chapter we are told how:

“The fende … may transfigure hym into lykenesse of man or woman by sufferaunce of god, for mannys synne and womans. And the fendes that tempt folk to lecherie be moste besy to appere in mannys likenes & womans to do lecherie with folk & so bringe them to lecherye. And in speche of folke: they be cleped elvys, but in Latyne whan they appeir in mannis lykenes: they be cleped Incubi. And whane they appier in lykenesse of wymen: they be cleped succubi…”

The idea of fairy men appearing in women’s beds and seducing them in fact proved to be a long lasting one.  Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, was the offspring of just such a union, according to the story of his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests, published in 1628.

Rather more interesting is the account of Goodwin Wharton (1653-1704) of his dealings with a woman called Mary Parrish and her contacts in the fairy kingdom of Lowlands, which lies beneath Hounslow Heath, west of London.  The story is mainly one of a wealthy man being cheated by a woman who holds out hopes of faery power, but it has a sexual element too.

Parrish told Wharton that the recently widowed faery queen, Queen Penelope LaGard, had taken a fancy to him and wished to marry him and make him the new king of Lowlands.  Although plans for face-to-face meetings kept falling through, Wharton had proved so irresistible to Penelope that for some weeks she had secretly visited him at night and had sex with him whilst he was asleep.  Despite his unconscious state, they had intercourse multiple times nightly, a revelation that explained the great tiredness and backache that had recently afflicted him.

Thinking about this, Wharton realised that he remembered one occasion on which they had had sex three times in a row; on the third occasion, the queen had “sucked up her breath” just as they both reached orgasm, the effect of which had been to extract “the very substance of the marrow” from his bones, leaving him drained nearly to the point of death.  This statement accords well with traditional medical beliefs, that saw sperm as a special kind of ‘marrow’ or vital energy.  Queen Penelope was exactly like a succubus, sapping Wharton’s strength.

Fuseli, Queen Mab and Two Girls

For more details on the subject of faery loves, see my new book Love and Sex in Faeryland.