An important part of the Harry Potter story is the infamous villain Voldemort, who is so fearsome that the general populace are too afraid to say his name out loud. Instead, they call him “He who must not be named” or “You-know-who“.
The phenomenon of taboo avoidance of names is fascinating and examples can be found all around the world. In ancient China and Japan, it was forbidden by law to say the emperor’s name, to the point that the names of some historical figures have been forgotten. Some Australian Aboriginal cultures do not refer to their dead by name during the mourning period, but instead use titles such as kunmanara, translating to “what’s his name”. In cultures speaking Highland East Cushitic languages such as some parts of Ethiopia, women practice ballishsha – a system where they avoid pronouncing any words beginning with the same syllable as the name of their mother or father-in-law.
This is called avoidance speech and it is typically used as a sign of respect or fear. For example, there are cases of cultures avoiding saying the name of demons or other evil creatures in fear that calling its name may summon it.
Perhaps the best example of this is the bear. The old word for bear is arkto (note that Arctic comes from the same Latin roots, as the North is associated with the constellation Ursa Major and Minor – the bear). However, the bear is a fearsome wild beast and it was thought that saying its name would summon it, which would be particularly problematic if you were a hunter. So instead, they used the word bear, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European word for “the brown one“. This practice became so commonplace that this euphemism became the present formal name for this animal.
An incubus, much like a succubus, is a demon that visits in a dream or while a person is sleeping. An incubus is the male counterpart to the succubus and shares many of its characteristics, such as visiting a person to have sex with them (since it is male, it only attacks women). According to legends, a woman pregnant after having sex with an incubus gives birth to a stillborn or a deformed child. The legend of the incubus most likely arose to explain the hallucinations seen with sleep paralysis and a pregnancy out of wedlock or from a shameful relationship. During the Renaissance when the culture was less restrained around sex than the Middle ages, there was a rise in cases of young girls giving birth to stillborns without knowing who the father was, resulting in debates to whether an incubus could really impregnate a woman.
The most famous “child” of an incubus is Merlin from the King Arthur legends. Merlin’s mother was a woman of high class but gave birth to Merlin after being attacked by an incubus. She was afraid that Merlin would turn out to be an evil person so she took him to the church to cleanse his body. This left Merlin with only mysterious powers, allowing him to be one of the most famous wizards in fiction.
A succubus is a demon that takes the form of an attractive human woman to seduce men, tempting them to have sex with her. Through sex, the succubus leeches away the man’s life force until he wilts away. They tend to visit men in their dreams and use their beauty and charm to lure and enchant their victim. A famous example of a succubus is Lilith, the first wife of Adam. There are other similar demons throughout the world, such as the nine-tailed fox in Asia (kumiho in Korea, kitsune in Japan and Hulijing in China). A similar demon is an incubus – the male equivalent of a succubus.
The origin of the succubus may be explained medically. It is well known that sleep paralysis is related to vivid hallucinations in the hypnagogic state, with countless cases of alien abductions and supernatural sightings ascribed to the phenomenon.
However, another explanation may be that the succubus is an allegory of the femme fatale. Femme fatale – French for “deadly woman” – describes a mysterious and seductive woman who uses her womanly charms to ensnare and manipulate men. A femme fatale is highly able in utilising the various tools at her disposal: beauty, charm, sexual allure, music, seductive dancing, persuasive language, deception, coercion, hypnotising and generally toying with a man’s reproductive instincts.
There are many examples of how different femme fatales – ranging from the biblical Eve to the spy Mata Hari – made an impact in history through the elaborate manipulation of men to their advantage. This is reflected in folklore through the concept of witches and enchantresses who use “magic” and sexual charms to have men do their bidding, essentially having them on a leash.
Essentially, the moral of the story of the succubus (that is, to men) that women can be deadly and are completely capable of sapping a man’s life away if she wished so. That is why men should know when they are actively being deceived or being controlled by a woman with (false) promises of love and sex. Perhaps the flipside moral of the story for women is that with the power of sex, a woman can have a man do anything for her – a valid strategy that has proven to be effective for all of recorded history.
Sometimes just before you fall asleep, or just after you wake up, it is impossible to move any muscles. The panic caused by this sudden paralysis is soon followed by a sense of impending doom and unknown horror. When trying to look around to figure out what is happening, you see a ghost or demon sitting on your chest, pinning you down. This is a typical scenario of sleep paralysis. It occurs when the mind wakes up before the body (in loose terms) and is experienced by everyone at least once throughout their life.
Sleep is divided into two phases: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep. These two phases cycle to make up sleep at a 1:3 ratio (i.e. about 90 minutes non-REM, 30 minutes REM, repeat). NREM sleep is often thought of as “shallow sleep”, but this is incorrect as the third phase of NREM is literally “deep sleep”. This is followed by REM sleep, characterised by relaxation of muscle tone and the eyes darting in all directions (rapid eye movements). The brain cuts off motor signals to the body during REM sleep to prevent it acting out the movements in a dream (without this, many people would injure themselves or others during sleep). For example, patients suffering from diseases such as Parkinson’s disease with REM sleep disorder show vigorous movements during sleep, often hitting their partners in the process.
The problem occurs when the onset of REM atonia (relaxation) comes before the person fully falls asleep, or fails to disappear after waking up. As the motor system has been shut down, the muscles cannot be moved yet the person has regained consciousness. The more frightening thing is that sleep paralysis is usually accompanied by an intense visual and auditory hallucination, which is almost always related the person’s worst nightmares and fears. This explains why so many cultures associate it with demons and ghosts, and it is also possibly the cause of alien abduction experiences and ghost sightings. Reason being, the hallucination is so vivid the person easily believes that it actually happened.
Sleep paralysis can be caused by excessive drinking, stress or the induction of lucid dreams, but tend to be spontaneous and can happen to you on any day.