Was it a demon?

There are few topics which raise my sceptical hackles as much as somebody attributing a supernatural explanation to something which has a more plausible natural explanation. When I read this article today on news24.com in which a man was interviewed on local radio about his repeated nite-time rape by a tokolosh I knew that there must be a simpler answer.

For my readers who are not familiar with the tokolosh, it is a mythological creature, belief in which is widely accepted by the Zulu and Xhosa segments of the South African population. The tokoloshe is believed to be an evil spirit which is created by a shaman to harm his enemies. Many people puts bricks under their beds to protect them from the tokoloshe which may be hiding under their beds to attack them, and rape the women, at night.  

The idea of a demonic creature raping women at night is not limited to the tokolosh. The incubus is a male demon who allegedly rapes women in their sleep and can trace his lineage back to ancient Mesopotamia and the Epic of Gilgamesh in which the hero’s father is said to be an incubus known as Lilu. Incubi appear in various forms from the alp of German folklore to the Boto of the Amazon Basin. In Christian mythology Satan often takes the form of a demon and copulates with women, the offspring of such unions are supposedly witches and sorcerers.

The many faces of the incubus make for interesting reading, but as a sceptic and an athiest I find it hard, impossible actually, to accept that mythical demons are actually raping people. What could be a more rational explanation for the experiences described by Radio OFM’s interviewee? Unfortunately, a transcript of the interview is not readily available on the internet (as far as I can see), so I will have to use the information provided by the news24 article. We are told that the interviewee was raped nightly by a demon, and then a caller identified as R. Thirtle provides us with the following opinions;

“It is a fact that the Spirit Incubus rapes people in the evenings,” Thirtle said.

“And it is particularly common among the black people… who follow the traditional religion of ancestor worship. But more general among black women, who are raped by the tokolosh in the evenings.

“It is not a story, it is a fact, there are thousands of witnesses to verify it. It is a very traumatic experience to be raped in the dark by a heavy thing sitting on your legs, over which you have no control.

“And to know that it is a demon that is doing it, is even worse.”

Let us address Thirtle’s claims; firstly he states that it is a FACT that incubi rape people in the evenings. Where there are facts, there is evidence. The only evidence which Thirtle can offer is the testimony of “thousands of witnesses”. I know that I may start to sound like a stuck record, but anecdotal evidence is very weak evidence indeed. His point that tokoloshe rape is a social phenomenon causes alarms and red flags in my brain. Which other social phenomenon shares the properties of incubi? It happens at night, victims feel powerless, afraid, are subjected to examination of the reproductive organs and sometimes raped and impregnated?

You guessed it! Alien abduction. In 1961 Betty and Barney Hill provide us with the first popular account of an alien abduction and the narrative has become a widespread and varied tale which is ertold by thousands of abductees. There is no reliable evidence and as a result there are two distinct camps in the alien abduction world; those who believe and those who don’t. The prevailing academic explanations for abduction are that it is either a folk myth or the result of vivid dreams experienced during sleep paralysis. For an insight into how frightening and disturbing the dreams of someone who experiences sleep paralysis can be please read Michael Meadon‘s account of his own encounter with hypnopompia (sleep paralysis experienced on waking).

As a famous sceptic once said; “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (Carl Sagan – incase you don’t know). The claim that people are being raped by demons, or abducted by aliens for that matter, is extraordinary to the eleventy billionth power. As responsible, reasonable people we have to demand equally extraordinary evidence which supports the claim. Failing this we have to weild Occams razor and produce a few more reasonable explanations for the experiences, such as sleep paralysis, as an explanation for otherwise “inexplicable” pregnancies out of wedlock, as a defence provided by mortal rapists, or by a victim being assaulted by someone he / she trusts who finds it “easier” to blame a mythical demon then the person responsible.




10 responses to “Was it a demon?

  1. Pingback: Black Magic or “headology”? « The Skeptic Detective·

  2. I cannot say if this is demon or not but several times in the last couple years I have been awakened and parts of my body are very sore and bruises are on my inner thighs and breasts in some occurences. I do not remember a thing, my Boyfriend is never awakened and I feel very alone and sad afterwards. This never happened until we moved into our house. ( the house doesnt have a bad history or anything like that )
    Thankfully we are moving soon, it took longer to sell the house than I would have liked thats for sure. anyway I just wanted to reply just to state that not everything is explainable or can be called “demons”

  3. Hello there,

    Nice write-up, and I can certainly understand that an atheist might be skeptical of a supernatural agent being associated with this kind of experience.

    I consider myself to be somewhat of a “liberal” Christian in the sense that I believe that skepticism — or more specifically inquisitiveness — is an important part of discovering higher truths.

    However, I must ask: have you ever experienced anything like this before? I did several times as a child, and there is definitely a supernatural “quality” to the experience.

    Sleep paralysis or “Old Hag” experiences have also been curiously shown to be associated with hauntings. I would very much recommend that you read David Hufford’s 1982 book on the subject “The Terror That Comes in the Night.” You might be able to find it at your local library (or at least through an inter-library loan), but it’s also still in print and available through Amazon.

    As far as I can tell, it remains the definitive work on the subject. It takes an objective stance through a comprehensive series of case studies, interviews, cultural/folkloric research and the physiological processes of sleep paralysis as well as other sleep-related phenomenon.

    Hufford neither supports nor discredits a supernatural cause, though the case studies certainly point in the direction of a phenomenon that is not easily passed off by a purely physiological — or psychological and pathological — explanation.

    Cheers to both theistic and atheistic skepticism, and let me know what your thoughts are if you read the book.

  4. Hi Cathy – sorry for the slow response. Here is the wikipedia entry on possible causes of sleep paralysis;

    Dr Steven Novella, in his blog “Neurologica”, gives the following explanation of sleep paralysis,
    “In a hypnagogic state, dreams leak into wakefulness. It is a state that is defined by the presence of hallucinations, combined often with sleep paralysis and sometimes a sense of pressure or heaviness on the chest. Hallucinations typically involve a menacing entity in the room. This is a well known neurological phenomenon.”
    Full entry can be found here; http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=42#more-42

  5. I have had many experiences with sleep paralysis – fortunately not many recently! It’s a horrible experience…. I was married at the time and I had a signalling system set up – my husband was under strict instructions to wake me up if I started breathing in a certain way – it was the only way I could let him know I was in distress and couldn’t move or wake up. I also suffered from the hallucinations – loud noises and dark shapes swirling around me, and a feeling of rapid movement – and yet I was awake and aware of what was going on.
    I wonder if it has anything to do with stress levels? Has anyone done any research into WHY it happens, as opposed to the fact that it explains alien abductions etc so well?

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