October 28, 2013

Case File #013.10.28: INCUBUS

As you may already know, an incubus is a mythical male ghost or demon that descends upon sleeping human females and has sexual intercourse with them. What you may not know, however, is that the English noun incubus ultimately descended from the classical Latin verb incubare, which meant “to keep watch (over)” and “to lie on or sit on.” The Latin word is also the source of the modern English verb incubate, and while that fact may not be too surprising in and of itself, it does raise an interesting question: how did a word associated with incubation, lying and sitting, and keeping watch also come to be associated with sexually active ghosts and demons? Well, the story goes as follows. A long time ago, many people believed that nightmares were formed when a malevolent demon or spirit sat on the chest of the person sleeping. Sometime during the Late Latin era (a period that spanned roughly from the third century to the sixth), Latin speakers decided there should be a word for the nightmare-causing chest-sitters, and from their verb incubare they derived the noun incubus, which they used to mean both “one who sits or lies on a sleeper” and “nightmare.” Many English speakers of yore also believed in the chest-sitting spirits and demons, and on top of that, the poor sexually repressed bastards imagined that some of these ghostly night visitors took more liberties with their sleeping hosts than just sitting on them. So around 1350, English speakers who were educated (that is, they knew Latin) but also superstitious and horny decided they needed a term they could apply specifically to those night spirits they fantasized were diddling human women, and to that end, they borrowed the Late Latin incubus and simply altered its meaning. By the way, the English word succubus, meaning “a mythical female ghost or demon that has sexual intercourse with sleeping human males,” followed a similar etymological path. It is a semantic alteration of the Medieval Latin noun succubus, which meant “promiscuous woman” or “prostitute” and was itself derived from the classical Latin verb succubare, meaning “to lie under.”

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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