Sunday, February 3, 2013

Virgin Saviors and Murderous Succubi

"The Maiden and the Unicorn" by Domenichino.

I presented a round table this last Fall at Sirens Con titled Virgin Savior to Murderous Succubus: Women's Sexual Roles in Fantasy and Folklore. The interest was due to the fact that I was writing another fantasy set in the Kingdom of Xia and my heroine discovers that she is half human and half serpent demon. The serpent demon in Chinese folklore is always a woman--and often portrayed as a predator of men and a succubus. It made me wonder about the role of the hypersexual almost always beautiful woman turned monster--so prevalent in fantasy and folklore across multiple cultures. While on the other side of the coin, the virgin. Almost always female as well, in the original lores--her virginity as something pure and precious--the only person capable of taming unicorns. 

Upon further reflection, I realized that my fascination with this dichotomy is deeply rooted-- ever sense I fell in love with Anne Boleyn and her daughter, Elizabeth I. Years before the Tudors had become as popular as they were in recent years. Anne Boleyn, second wife to Henry VIII and the "cause" for England's break from Rome and the Catholic Church, was beheaded for treason, adultery and incest. All of which could have been avoided if only she had given Henry a healthy son. What is incredible are the charges against her--not only was Anne accused of having had sex with her own brother, but six other men--with allusions to more transgressions. She could not be an ordinary woman who had an affair. No. She had to have bedded her own brother and much of the court as well. Anne was made to appear hypersexual and monstrous (she was said to have had a sixth finger and dabbled in witchcraft)--all of which was justification for hacking her head off. When again, in truth, her worst downfall was never giving Henry a healthy son.

Her daughter, Elizabeth I, in turn, managed to take the throne under circumstances that again made life stranger than fiction. And the only way she felt that she could hold on to power, to put off all her advisors constantly asking: When? When will you take a consort and make an heir? was to take on the role of the Virgin. Elizabeth I would never take a husband, and was instead (by her own words) married to her country and her people. Artists and writers portrayed her as a virgin and a goddess--not an ordinary woman. One has to wonder if she learned some hard lessons from her mother's life, and through Boleyn's infamous demise. 

From my research online, here are just a few examples of succubi types in myth and lore from across the world:

Lilith, created from earth as Adam was--unlike Eve, who was made from his rib. Would not submit to Adam, even in the matters of sex, refusing to take the missionary position. She fled Eden, and chose the demons of the world as her lovers, spawning thousands of demonic children. Yaweh sent three angels to retrieve Lilith to bring back to Eden for Adam. They threatened to kill her demonic children if she refused. Lilith replied that she'd rather suffer through her children's death and her own before ever submitting to Adam. In turn, she cursed newborns and their mothers in childbirth, and threatened to steal men's semen while they slept--to make more demon babies. She is known as the female night demon, mother of demons, the howling one, the first Eve or the first woman.

Indian "mohini" appears to bachelors dressed in a white sari and with her hair unbound and flowers woven in it. She lures men to take her as a wife then kills him by sapping his strength.
Japanese "kitsune" sharing similarities to the Chinese "hu li jing" and Korean "kumiho". Seen alternately as trickster and seductress or guardians, friends, lovers and wives. Common belief in ancient Japan was any woman encountered alone, especially at night or dusk was most likely a fox.
Japan's "hone-onna" or literally, bone woman. she lures men into bed as a beautiful woman then turns into a skeleton and sucks his soul dry.
Huldra from Scandinavian folklore. Often appears as a naked woman with unbound hair but from behind looks like the hollow of a tree. She is found in the forest and sometimes has an animal tail depending on which area the folklore is from. She is known to lure men into the forest for sex, killing them if she isn't satisfied. Some simply lured men into the underworld, and others were said to steal human babies and replace them with changelings. 
And some online research on virgins:
Literally means "maiden".
Vestal Virgins: priestesses of Vesta, Goddes of the Earth. They were chosen between age six and ten and had to devote thirty years of their life to the priesthood and celibacy. 
Virgins taming unicorns rooted in various mythos and cultures. Most popular in the Middle Ages and mentioned in a Greek bestiary. The unicorn is attracted to the virgin maiden's purity and scent, and is tamed after being stroked by her, or suckled, depending on variation. 
One explanation is the unicorn representing Christ and his humility by laying his head in the virgin's lap, and the virgin is represented by the Virgin Mary. There are also paintings featuring the unicorn with the Virgin Mary.

The legend that unicorns have the ability to detect non-virgins and would kill them. Virgin detection ability have also been attributed to the stag, lion and elephant.
Despite Christian influences, the sexual overtones of the unicorn and the maiden depicted in art and folklore are frequent. The virgins are often nude or in states of undress and the horn can alternately be taken as a symbol of purity or virility.

What are your thoughts about virgins and succubi and their portrayal in fantasy novels? Can you think of any novels that uses these types of lore?

Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Her first published short story is featured in Diverse Energies, a multicultural YA dystopian anthology from Tu Books (October 2012). Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website at


  1. yes, i'm commenting on my own post. ha! but i read breanna yovanoff's The Space Between that features a heroine who is the daughter of Lilith, andis half-demon and half-angel. great read!

  2. Great post, Cindy! Super interesting to read :) The only book in recent memory that I recall giving mention of succubi was The Demon's Lexicon.

  3. I really like Diana Peterfreund's spin on virgins and unicorns in her Killer Unicorn stories, she really approached it from a new angle.

  4. Really interesting. Thanks for posting!

  5. mike, agreed! i really enjoyed Rampant
    and need to read her sequel!

  6. Great post! But please don't do what I did and naively google "virgins in fantasy." I need to go scrub my brain now.

  7. thanks, cat! and oh dear, i don't recommend
    googling for Asian Fantasy, either. ha!

    thanks, lori and tara!

  8. Yeesh - google needs a "please no porn" option!

  9. Terrific post, Cindy! I'm fascinated by Melusine stories, which are another variation on the beauty/monster theme. I think Byatt's Possession was the first book that really made me take a hard look at them. Striking how many cultures have some kind of succubi myth - women's power is clearly scary stuff!

  10. amy, thanks! actually, i had not heard
    of Melusine until an editor had mentioned
    my novel on sub reminded her of it. so i looked
    it up. definitely very fascinating.


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