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800px-Succubus-1

In writing about dreams and nightmares, I would be remiss not to write about the dominant dream monsters from western mythology—incubus and the succubus. Stories about these dream demons and demonesses originated in ancient Mesopotamia and have been common ever since (actually, considering that writing originated in Mesopotamia, myths about this sort of dream demon probably go back even further). As you have noticed, these demons are very prominently gendered: an incubus is male and a succubus is female (indeed the former is extravagantly male and the latter amply female). This fact explains the enduring popularity of the concept: these beings are sex demons which represent fundamental human drives and fears. According to tradition, they steal into a person’s bedroom at night and lay with him or her. The nocturnal demons are also reckoned to be spirit vampires of a sort—they steal the life force of their victims by sleeping with them.

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

Lilith (John Collier, 1892, oil on canvas)

While all sorts of gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, and supernatural entities were curtailed by the spread of monotheism (with its jealous single god), the incubus and succubus effortlessly jumped right into the folklore of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam at the very beginning and have stubbornly remained there ever since. Lilith—the demonic first consort of Adam–came into the Babylonian Talmud directly from Babylon (although some modern Talmudists dispute this and assert that the sexual demons are an eighth century addition to the Talmud). In Islamic folklore, there is a persistant belief in the qarînah (قرينة) which are invisible demons which have relations with humans in dreams (according to superstition they can be seen by some holy/magical folk and frequently hide in animal bodies).

 

The Malleability (artist unknown)

The Malleability (artist unknown)

There is no shortage of supernatural beings analogous to incubi in other parts of the world either. An incomplete list of these demons includes the Tokoloshe of South Africa; the Trauco of Chile (which preys exclusively on unmarried women); the pink botu of the Amazon, a shape-shifting river dolphin which seduces adolescents; the Indian pori (a seductive angel whichleads men towards suicide); and the Turkish Karabasan. The Teutonic mare or mara is a heavy goblin which crouches upon the victim’s chest (straddling the line between sleep apnea and salaciousness)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

The Nightmare (Henry Fuseli, 1781, oil on canvas)

There are very obvious reasons why this myth winds through so many human cultures: the dream demon is a fairly transparent proxy for powerful erotic dreams and feelings (I probably don’t have to explain the specifics of this to anyone who has passed through puberty). I have included some “heavy metal” looking paintings and prints in this article to illustrate the dream demon as a symbol of unbridled adolescent lust and nighttime dreams of forbidden lovemaking.

 

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

Succubus (by Arsenal21)

All of which seems to be a part of growing up. Disturbingly, though the incubus and succubus have a much darker abusive side. In traditional cultures (and therefore probably in ancient ones as well) the incubus was often blamed for pregnancies which should have been impossible (as for young women who were secluded or kept under close chaperone). It is not unreasonable to suppose that the demon was thus as a pretext for incest or sexual abuse at home. This makes the original definition of the monster especially sad and appropriate. For too many people, abuse is indeed a life drinking demon which can not be escaped or even discussed. The happy world of people with upstanding loving families…and indeed the law itself are only beginning to find out about some of these kinds of abuses, so it is no wonder they were originally cloaked in myth. Nevertheless, this illustrates that those sanctimonious people who say stuff like “these things never used to happen in the old days” have a rather shallow grasp of history AND human behavior. Additionally it illustrates that made-up supernatural horrors are no match for actual human abuse.

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Woodcut (Erich Heckel, ca. 1925-1930, woodblock print)

Albizia julibrissin leaves and blossoms

At the corner of my block there is a small lovely tropical-looking tree covered with candyfloss flowers of princess pink.  Since I live in Brooklyn (which occasionally gets very cold), I have been wondering if the tree is a hallucination or some cunning model made of plastic, but it turns out that the tree is a mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin), aka the Persian silk tree.  Like the green parakeets which live in my neighborhood, this little tree is evidently not as tropical as it seems.

A member of the legume family, the small to medium-sized tree has a springy crown which spreads out like an irregular umbrella.  Its delicate bipinnate leaves look like fern fronds (or like Mimoseae plants, to which the Persian silk tree is not closely related).  The tree has smooth olive colored bark which becomes striped as it ages.  It produces dense clusters of down-like pink flowers all summer.  These flowers are attractive to bees and hummingbirds. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the tree 9other than the pretty flowers) is how animated it is—during the evenings or rain storms the leaves close up and the tree takes on a hunched forlorn appearance.  When it is sunny and warm it spreads out like a kid on a comfy sofa.   Because of this habit the Persians call it “shabkhosb”—the night sleeper.  Apparently its Japanese name is similar and the tree has become representative of sleepy summer evenings in Japanese literature and art.

The trees originally came from Asia and are native to a huge swath of the world from Persia to China. In the past two centuries people planted Albizia julibrissin trees everywhere as an ornamentals and, you guessed it, the species has become invasive.  It can be found growing wild in the United States from southern New York west to Missouri and south to Texas.  I wonder if my neighbors even planted their specimen or whether it just showed up like all of the trees of heaven which live around every American city.

Albizia julibrissin tree

A tea made out of this tree is used in traditional medicine to ward off confusion and dark feelings and indeed a clinical study by Korean physicians found that the methylene chloride fraction of Albizzia julibrissin extract produced an antidepressant-like effect in mice (most likely by affecting 5-HT1A receptors—a neural receptor shared by humans).

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