"Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation. . . ." --Joseph Campbell
Since the dawn of human existence, people have been teased, tortured, raped, prodded, and mercilessly intimidated in their sleep. By some accounts, we have the legendary demon-goddess Lilith to thank for inventing the ritual.
Some versions of rabbinical literature state that Lilith was actually the original woman, Adam's first wife. She was a creature of great beauty, with long, flowing black hair. But, unlike the subservient Eve, Lilith demanded to be treated as her husband's equal. She especially disagreed with Adam about taking a position beneath him during sexual intercourse. This battle between the sexes led to Lilith storming out of paradise. Outraged, Adam insisted that God make her come back. But Lilith refused. And for her "sins" of independence, she was demonized and cast out.
After that, she was referred to as the false, the wicked, the black, and the harlot. Gradually, she also developed special titles: Night Hag, Night Monster, and Queen of the Vampires are just a few. But Lilith's most notorious role was as the queen of all succubi.
God hadn't even signed off on Adam's divorce decree when He created Eve for Adam. This new, submissive model was much more to the first man's liking. Adam quickly settled into his role as mankind's original husband and father.
By this time, Adam's ex-wife had become a truly wicked demon, a pariah who despised all mankind. Somehow, being an outcast, along with the memory of Adam's treatment, had transformed Lilith into an evil night-stalker. She strangled infants and killed pregnant mothers. Clearly this embittered throwaway wouldn't allow Adam's familial bliss to go on for too long. Some traditions suggest that Lilith was the demon who flashed that inviting, juicy apple at Eve. It's even been hinted that Lilith herself magically transformed Cain into a murderous, brother-killing savage.
Whatever the motivation for Cain's transgressions, that murderous deed drove poor old Adam to celibacy. How could he possibly bring more children into this cruel, wicked world?
But it wasn't long before the chaste Adam began feeling the pangs of manhood. His separation from Eve left him wide open and vulnerable to his ex-wife, the night-stalker. Lilith came to Adam in his sleep, teasing him with horrific, erotic dreams. Nightly, she rode him to his sexual climax, sucking the life force from the unsuspecting, sleeping first man. Legions of demons were born to Lilith from these nighttime attacks. Lilith released those wicked children, the lilim, upon the earth. Thus, the legend of the succubus was born.
Rabbinical scripture has warned that Lilith will plague men until the end of the earth. Is it possible that Lilith might still be with us today?
Fast forward to modern times and the Zanzibar islands, where every decade or so, a creature with talons and bat-like ears and wings terrorizes men in their beds. The Popobawa, a Cyclops-like dwarf, goes on rampages, sweeping into men's bedrooms at night and sodomizing them. And the men on this island had better believe in the beast, because the Popobawa deliberately targets skeptics.
A recent victim of the beast, Mjaka Hamad, was quoted as saying: "I could feel it, something pressing on me. You feel as if you are screaming with no voice . . . I was thinking it was this Popobawa and he had come to do something terrible to me, something sexual."
After the beast performs his dirty deed, he insists that his victims spread the word of his visit. Otherwise, he threatens, he'll return for another demonstration of just how rough he can be. Island men run wildly through the streets screaming that the Popobawa is here.
The attacks are so real to these men that many of them rush to the emergency room, attributing their broken hips and assortment of wounds and bruises to this one-eyed creature. Large numbers of Islanders are terrified of the beast. Families sleep arm-in-arm in front of their houses, guarding against the monster's invasion. Even Islanders who don't believe in the creature have to admit that the beast is definitely real to the injured, terrified men. And they must wonder: What's going on here?
These men were all victims of a modern day incubus attack. An incubus is a male demon who terrorizes victims in their sleep. It usually preys on women, but as the men of Zanzibar have discovered, that's not always the case. The incubus frequently creates a feeling of pressure on the victim's chest, making the person feel as if he or she is suffocating. Others become temporarily paralyzed. And while the poor victim lies terrified, gasping for breath and physically unable to resist, the incubus often zeroes in for a sexual attack.
The succubus is the female counterpart of the incubus. Both creatures are said to be shape-shifting monsters, changing their form at will, while preying upon unsuspecting mortals. Many believe the incubus and the succubus are one and the same. Could it actually be that Lilith herself has been terrifying the men on that island? Or perhaps one of her many demon descendants is hard at work in Zanzibar? Lilith allegedly controls armies of succubi. And all of her daughters practice seduction, sorcery, and strangulation. Zanzibar's Popobawa is a revamped version of Lilith.
It's one of many: over the years, the incubus and succubus have appeared in countless, varied forms. The various vampire legends may have evolved from the Lilith myths. Lilith has been known not only as the Queen of the Vampires; she's also been referred to as the original vampire. Like the succubus, vampires prey on their victims as they sleep. They often invade the sleeper's bedroom on bat wings. Also like the succubus, vampires restrict the free will of their victims, blind them with lust, then suck the life force out of them.
Many believe that the recent rash of so-called alien abductions are just more examples of modern-day incubus/succubus visits. As the culture changes, so do its monsters. But the essence of the attacks always remains the same. Millions of people, centuries apart and across all geographical and cultural lines, have experienced essentially the same nighttime attack. It's likely that they're all tapping into some well-established myth, deeply rooted within their subconscious. But how and why did the fable of Lilith get started in the first place?
A large portion of Lilith's tale was originated by Jewish religious scholars. It's no secret how strict Judaic life can be. Frankly, the men who toiled at interpreting the holy writings were sexually repressed. One impure thought could leave them feeling cursed and plagued by guilt. It's safe to assume that more than a few of these learned rabbis were having wet dreams. Freud believed that dreams are a release of the tensions that build up inside us between the primitive, savage part of our psyches and the superego, which embodies the regimentation society places upon us. But, in the minds of those prudent rabbis, even dreaming of the forbidden act was enough to damn them. How much easier would it be to create a succubus demon, a Lilith, and blame all nighttime fantasies on her?
It was a perfect solution, for men everywhere. Let's not for one second imagine that these rabbis were the only members of the male race forced to deny their natural passions. In the Middle Ages, celibate monks struggled against these nighttime occurrences by sleeping with their crucifix-clutching hands crossed over their genitals.
The threat of the incubus/succubus seems to change according to the biggest fear or restraint of the day. In medieval times, people believed that to steal someone's breath was to steal his soul. It was then that a common belief developed that the incubus killed its victim by drinking its breath.
Art has always helped to characterize our demons. In his Philosophie der Mythologie, Friedrich Schelling wrote: "The crisis through which the world and the history of the gods develop is not outside the poets; it takes place in the poets themselves, it makes their poems . . . it is the crisis of the mythological consciousness which in entering into them makes the history of the gods."
Today, movies play a large role in defining our dream monsters. Several years ago, Maureen (a level-headed wife, nurse and mother of three, living in upstate New York) encountered an incubus, perched on her chest. Clearly her attacker (a small blond boy) marched straight off of a Hollywood set and into her psyche -- in describing her monster, Maureen compared him to one of the unnerving children from the movie, Children of the Damned. There were no sexual overtures, but Maureen experienced the tight tension in her chest and difficulty in breathing that is so often associated with these nocturnal attacks. She also sensed an overpowering force of evil in the room with her. Petrified, Maureen struggled to fight off her attacker. Though he was only a small boy, Maureen felt powerless. She could not move. She could not even call out for help. Somehow, the wicked child had taken complete control. The most terrifying part of Maureen's ordeal was that her eyes were wide open! She felt completely awake.
Many of Maureen's symptoms are common to those other attacks we've been looking at; and in fact, countless people throughout history have reported similar attacks. They awaken. A demonic monster, or a sense of something evil lurks nearby. They cannot move. They cannot speak or call out for help. Their eyes are open, yet they are utterly helpless and paralyzed.
Often, a creature sits on the victim's chest. The person feels as if she is being smothered. She struggles to fight the beast. The harder she tries to move, the more useless it becomes. She becomes more and more terrified. Her heart rate quickens. She begins to sweat. It all seems so real! She fears she might die of fright. That is, if the evil intruder doesn't slaughter her first. These experiences have been well documented. Some of the attacks are sexually stimulating, but often the creature comes only to terrify the unsuspecting soul.
Encounters like these have been reported for over two thousand years. In China, a book that was written several hundred years before Christ referred to "dreams of surprise," which many believe referenced these succubus/incubus attacks. Somewhere between the years 30-124 A.D., this condition was listed in a Chinese dictionary. In China, the experience is now known as ghost oppression.
Most people today scoff at the Lilith myths and the idea that nocturnal attacks are really caused by demonic spirits. Sleep researchers have come up with a scientific explanation for these encounters. They claim that these experiences are, in fact, a physiological condition known as sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon sometimes referred to as a "waking dream." This is a twilight state in which our dreams are so vivid and bizarre, they seem terrifyingly real. These dreams are powerful, as the persistence of the myth demonstrates.
Sleep paralysis strikes during the transition between REM sleep and becoming fully awake. While you are in REM sleep, your body temporarily paralyzes you. This is to safeguard you from acting out your dreams. But occasionally something short-circuits in the mechanism that controls the waking and sleeping states. We wake up, or feel as if we have awakened, but the body hasn't yet switched off the paralyzation that protects us in our sleeping world. Often, our dreams haven't been totally switched off either. And since neither our essential organs nor our eyes are paralyzed while we sleep, the victim's eyes can be wide open. He can literally watch his nightmare unfold around him in the waking world. His inner demons can look him straight in the eye. His heart will race and he'll be, understandably, terrified.
Sleep paralysis can be accompanied by strange noises or familiar sounds -- like footsteps. Some people envision eerie lights. Often, one feels pressure on the chest, as if one were suffocating. Uncannily, most people report sensing an evil presence.
Clearly, this state brings out your worst nightmares. Some individuals fear they're going insane. It's been estimated that a large majority of sufferers do not even report these incidents, fearing demeaning societal labels. And though this state generally passes within a few minutes, and is almost never harmful, most victims report that at the time of the occurrence, they feel certain they are going to die.
Though many people have never heard of sleep paralysis, the condition is not rare. A recent compilation of studies indicates that anywhere from 6 to 66% of the U.S. population has experienced this phenomenon, to some degree, at least once. But most people still don't realize exactly what sleep paralysis is. It's much more likely that one would spend Saturday night watching a movie about alien abductions, than viewing a documentary on sleep paralysis. So, if our TV watcher were to awaken Sunday morning and feel paralyzed, hear unfamiliar whirring noises, see bizarre lights flickering in the room, sense, or even see, an evil invader, chances are she would not take a deep breath and declare: Ah haaa. . . . This appears to be a classic case of clinical sleep paralysis. Space invaders would seem the more likely diagnosis. Just as centuries ago, the fear that an evil intruder had come to steal one's breath would seem unbearably real.
One of the more prevalent sleep paralysis demons is the Old Hag, a legend that grew out of Newfoundland. In fact, another name for sleep paralysis is Old Hag Syndrome. This old hag is another direct descendant of Lilith, who was also known as the Night Hag. The Old Hag is generally toothless and haggard, with white hair and scales on her face. She sits on her victim's chest, sometimes trying to suffocate him.
Countless legends have sprung from people's visions while experiencing sleep paralysis. There's the fiend with the black cape known in "Sleep Paralysis Circles" as The Intruder. There are Watchers, Fallen Angels, Shadows on the Wall, and Night Demons. Some even believe that traditional ghost sightings can be attributed to this condition. Every culture seems to have at least one unique entity that evolved from the experience of sleep paralysis. In many Asian countries, people believe that spirits of unbaptized children come to paralyze and torture you in the night. And of course, off the coast of the African continent, there is the Popobawa.
Joe Nickell, an investigator for CSICOP, (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) states with certainty that the "Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar" originates from mass hallucinations brought on by episodes of sleep paralysis. Nickell also refers to Peter Huston's findings on the subject, as Huston reported them in CSICOP's Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
Huston has logical explanations for all of this madness. If one wakes and finds herself paralyzed, naturally she will be terrified. Her heart rate will zoom, causing her to feel pressure on the chest. And the brain, which is still partially asleep in this state, will provide a reasonable accompanying nightmare. Naturally, when one is so petrified, her respiratory rate will go up. She will hyperventilate, which leads to CO2 retention. And CO2 retention leads to sexual arousal. So it seems quite plausible that all these physical manifestations could bring about horrible, and sometimes sexual, waking nightmares.
It's even been theorized that our nightmares might be good for us, that they serve a useful function. Sleep paralysis, and the accompanying horrific images, occurs most frequently when people are stressed, sleep deprived, or under extreme pressure. Joseph Campbell, in the book, Myths, Dreams, and Religion pointed out: "Like a body in disease, so the diseased psyche undertakes to resist and expel infection; and the force of its protest will be expressed in madness, or in lesser cases, morbid anxieties, troubled sleep, and terrible dreams."
That means that even the horror of sleep paralysis could be therapeutic. But does that also mean that mankind can finally stop worrying about Lilith and her armies of demon descendants?
We might not so eagerly laugh at these entities, if we were to explore the findings of David J. Hufford, Professor and Director at the Doctors Kienle Center for Humanistic Medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine. In his book, The Terror That Comes in the Night, Hufford notes the remarkably consistent content of the hallucinations of victims of sleep paralysis. He is especially amazed at the similarities of those who have claimed to see the Old Hag. Hufford points out that the hag attacks have been documented in countries all over the world. Many of the victims had no knowledge of the folklore surrounding these attacks.
Perhaps the explanation to that lies in Carl Jung's theory of consciousness. Jung believed that when our dream visions rise from the personal unconscious, they reveal themselves through personalized associations, recollections, and reflections. But Jung also spoke of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is a function not of biography but of biology. To this area of the psyche Jung ascribed those dreams and patterns of symbolism that have a transpersonal quality.
Signals that stem from this realm cannot be decoded according to personal interpretations. They will be of the order of myth. In many cases, the visionary can dream of myths of which he has never heard; he can experience firsthand the archetypes of mythology.
For whatever mankind may or may not believe about the collective unconscious, or about Lilith, our favorite demon-goddess isn't planning on fading into the sunset any time soon. Modern-day feminists have resurrected her memory, and are determined to untarnish her image. They see the original woman as a hero, a strong, independent thinker, who would rather relinquish the paradise of Eden than settle for anything less than full equality. According to these feminists, it was patriarchal men who failed to understand Lilith and thus demonized her.
"Lilith Fair," an annual women's festival, was named after the demon-goddess. Even a current magazine for Jewish feminists bears Lilith's name on its masthead. The original first lady must be overjoyed that after all these millennia, someone has finally recognized and celebrated her fiercely independent nature.
But despite the recent adulation and scientific explanations, will the discarded First Lady of Paradise willingly surrender her role as the Queen of the Succubi? Millions of people across the globe still believe in Lilith's armies of demons. To this day, Maureen, our otherwise rational nurse, believes that her blond attacker could have been real. And those petrified men in Zanzibar don't flood the hospital emergency rooms with imagined injuries.
It's been written and ordained that Lilith will plague man until the end of the earth. Perhaps she will. After all, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorn'd.
Copyright © 2003 Karen A. Carpenter
Karen Carpenter's non-fiction articles alert readers to the eerie and mysterious possibilities of life. Her fiction takes readers directly inside those forbidden, supernatural realsms. Look for more of Karen's work at Apocalypse Fiction, Underworlds Magazine, and in the upcoming anthologies Raging Horrormones and Mistletoe Madness. Also look for more of her uncanny tales in the recent anthologies from the Garden State Horror Writers.