Ephialtes (Incubo)

Category: Ancient Learning > Deities

1 Introduction

Ephialtēs (Ἐφιάλτης) is a delightfully odd topic. First of all, there are unusually many variants of the word.* Secondly, it served as the name of an infamous mythological figure, as an ordinary human name, and as the medical term for night terrors. Thirdly, apparently without connection to the Ephialtes of mythology, Ephialtes in the sense of ‘night terrors’ was also considered a daemon (much like folkloric ‘mare’ who nightmares are named after). Finally, because night terrors fell into the purview of physicians, medical writers are some of the most important sources for understanding this daemon, although they usually tend to refrain from discussing the gods at all. (A result of professional rivalry, or more charitably a division of labor, with priests of healing gods and other ritual specialists.)

*Etymologically, they may really be different words;
we are talking about ancient perception here.

2 The Mythical Ep(h)ialtes

In printed texts of Homer, one encounters a certain Ephialtes in Iliad 5.385 (and Odyssey 11.305). Ancient writers quoting the Iliad passage, however, sometimes spell the name as Epialtes. Neither seems more correct than the other, since there were historical persons called Epialtes as well as Ephialtes.

In any case, this Ep(h)ialtes and his brother Otus (gr. Ōtos) are the Aloadae (gr. Alōadai), sons or grandsons of Poseidon who grew to prodigious size and were infamous for their bold deeds against the gods. In modern languages, they are sometimes called “giants” because of their size, but in Greek, this word (gigas, pl. gigantes) means children of the Earth, which they are not. It might not be approrpriate to call them human either, but they are mortals (Scholia on Iliad 1.544), but mortals who, „like the other offspring of Poseidon, in analogy to the Sea, are wild, monstrous or unusual” (Scholia on Odyssey 9.106, in a passage about Polyphemus).

The account that the Iliad gives of the brothers runs as follows: “Ares suffered, when strong Otus and Ephialtes, / the children of Alōeus, bound him in a strong chain, / and he was bound in a vessel of bronze for thirteen months” (Iliad 5.385–387). (According to the Scholia on the passage, Aphrodite arranged for this as revenge for the death of Adonis.)

Hyginus records two other tales about the brothers in the chapter Otos and Ephialtes (Genealogiae 28). The first is from the Odyssey: “Otos and Ephialtes, the sons of Aloeus and Iphimede, the daughter of Neptune,* are said to have been of marvelous size; they each would grow nine digits every months. As a result, when they were nine years old, they attempted to climb into heaven. They made their approach by placing Mt Ossa on the Pelion – hence Pelion is called Mt Ossa – and adding other mountains. They were caught by Apollo and killed.

*According to the Odyssey, Aloeus was Iphimede’s husband,
but Poseidon/Neptune the father of the Aloadae with her.
Aloeus himself was also a son of Poseidon.

[Content Notice: attempted rape]

“Other authorities, however, say that they were the sons of Neptune and Iphimede, and invulnerable; when they attempted to rape Diana, and she could not defend against their might, Apollo threw a stag between them. When, incensed with anger against it, they meant to kill it with spears, they killed each other.

“They are said to suffer the following punishment in the underworld (ad inferos): they are bound to a pillar with serpents, facing away from each other; between them there is … sitting on the column they are bound to.” (The missing word is transmitted as styx, which makes no sense; strix, ‘screech-owl’ has been proposed as the proper reading, but this seems like a rather desperate replacement.)

There was a Thessalian city Alōïon which the Aloadae are said to have founded (Aelius Herodian, De prosodia catholica, ed. Lentz, vol. 3.1, p. 361), but otherwise they seem to be confined to mythological writing on the one hand (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Library 1.54–55; Severus, Narration 6; Libanius, Progymnasmata 2.38 who says that their sister Elatē became the silver fir, elatē; etc.), and on the other, allegorical interpretations of this myth especially by philosophers. One such reading is that it refers to those who seek to understand metaphysics immediately, without going through the long process of philosophical studies leading up to this (Pseudo-Galen, On the Parts of Philosophy, p. 7).

3 The afflicition of Ephialtes/Incubo

Apparently unconnected to the mythical Aload, as I said, is the daemon/sickness known as Ephialtes in Greek and Incubo or Incubus in Latin. This translatability alone indicates that we are talking about a different (divine) figure, because the brother of Otus is always called Ephialtes in Latin, never Incubo. On the other hand, the lexicographer Aelius Dionysius does seem to conflate the Aload with the daemon, since he writes: “Homer, Hesiod and the Attic-speakers call the daemon Epialtes, but men, Ephialtes with ph” (Aelius Dionysius, Attic Nouns s.v. Ἐπιάλτην).

Oribasius, Libri ad Eunapium 4.117
Paulus, Epitomae medicae libri septem 3.15
Aetius, Iatricorum liber vi 12
Oribasius, Synopsis ad Eustathium filium 8.2
Oribasius, Collectiones medicae

Caelius Aurelianus, Tardae passiones!
Caelius Aurelianus: De speciali significatione diaeticarum passionum
Marcellus, De medicamentis
?Pelagonius, Ars veterinaria: Fatu- ficari-; Hippiatrica?

4 Ephialtes/Incubo outside the medical context


Artemidorus 2.34.13, 2.37.22

Ps-Probus Instituta artis: declinatio  incubonis : numeri singularis hic  incubo  huius  incubonis  huic  incuboni  hunc  incubonem  o  incubo  ab hoc  incubone . hoc si numerum pluralem facere cogetur, ad formam supra scriptam declinabitur.

Cledonius, Ars grammatica: : hic Pan Panos Pani Pana o Pan, ablatiuum non habet quia Graeca est declinatio. Latine Inuus Inui dicitur, id est Panos: Vergilius «Pometios castrumque Inui». alii illum Incubonem next hit dicunt, hic previous hit Incubo next hit huius previous hit Incubonis next hit, huic previous hit Incubo next hit hunc previous hit Incubum next hit o previous hit Incubo next hit ab hoc previous hit Incubone , sicut hic botruo botruonis huic botruo ab hoc botruone.

Pseudo-Lactantius Placidus, Glossae
Hermeneumata Leidensia
Martianus Capella 425
? Mythographus Vaticanus ?
Serv. Aen. 6.775
Porph., S. 2.6.12 (Pseudacro?)
Petr. Sat. 38.8
AUC 1.5.3

Jerome, On Isaiah 5.13: Quodque sequitur: Pilosi saltabunt ibi, vel incubones, vel satyros, 175 vel silvestres quosdam homines, quos nonnulli Fatuos ficarios vocant, aut daemonum genera intelligunt.

Isidore 10.11: 81. Pan dicunt Graeci, Latini Silvanum: deum rusticorum, quem in naturae similitudinem formaverunt; unde et Pan dictus est, id est, omne. Fingunt enim eum ex universali elementorum specie.

82. Habet enim cornua in similitudinem radiorum Solis et Lunae. Distinctam maculis habet pellem, propter coeli sidera. Rubet ejus facies ad similitudinem aetheris. Fistulam septem calamorum gestat, propter harmoniam coeli, in qua septem sunt soni, et septem discrimina vocum.

83. Villosus est, quia tellus est convestita, et agitata ventis. 391 Pars ejus inferior foeda est, propter arbores, et feras, et pecudes. Caprinas ungulas habet, ut soliditatem terrae ostendat, quem volunt rerum et totius naturae Deum; unde Pan, quasi omnia dicunt.

87. Fauni a fando, velut ἀπὸ τῆς φωνῆς dicti, quod voce non signis ostendere viderentur futura; in lucis enim consulebantur a paganis, et responsa illis non signis, sed vocibus dabant.

103. Pilosi, qui Graece Panitae, Latine Incubi appellantur; sive Invi ab ineundo passim cum animalibus: unde, et Incubi dicuntur ab incumbendo, 395 hoc est, stuprando. Saepe enim improbi existunt, etiam mulieribus, et earum peragunt concubitum, (0326B) quos daemones Galli Dusios nuncupant, quia assidue hanc peragunt immunditiam.

104. Quem autem vulgo Incubonem vocant, hunc Romani Faunum Ficarium dicunt, ad quem Horatius dicit:
Faune Nympharum fugientum amator,
Per meos fines, et aprica rura
Lenis incedas.

Isidore 11.3: 21. Satyri, homunciones sunt aduncis naribus, cornua in frontibus (habent), et caprarum pedibus similes, qualem in solitudine Antonius sanctus vidit. Qui etiam interrogatus, Dei servo respondisse fertur, dicens: Mortalis ego sum unus ex accolis eremi, quos vario delusa errore gentilitas Faunos Satyrosque colit. 22. Dicuntur quidam et silvestres homines, quos nonnulli Faunos ficarios vocant.

5 Miscellaneous Addenda

Other variants of Ephialtes are Iphialos (Aelius Herodian, On Orthography s.v. Ἰφίαλος), Epialēs, Ephelēs[?], Epiallēs, Ōphelēs and Epōphelēs (Hesychius s.v. Ἐπιάλης; Ὠφέλης; Ἐπωφέλης).

There is also the word Epialos (used by Alcaeus), and several variants of Ēpialos, which, at least as far as Aelius Herodian tells us, also refer to Epialtes (On Orthography s.v. Ἠπίαλος, citing Apollonius):

  • “Ēpialos, Ēpialēs and Ēpiolēs mean ague, and a daemon that comes to those who are sleeping” (Aelius Herodian, On Orthography s.v. Ἠπίαλος).
  • “Ēpialēs: the daemon who attacks and creeps onto those who are asleep; but Ēpialos […] means something else, the so-called ague (rhigopyreton)” (Phrynichus, Praeparatio sophistica s.v. Ἠπίαλης). Ague is a fever with shivering fits.
  • “Ēpialos is ague” (Photius, Lexicon s.v. Ἠπίαλος).
  • “Ēpialēs, (that is,) Epialēs, is a nightmare (pnigaliōn), as some call it” (ibid. s.v. Ἠπίαλης).
  • “Ēpialēs, (that is,) Epialtēs [!], is a nightmare, as some call it” (Aelius Dionysius, Attic Nouns. s.v. Ἠπίαλης).
  • “Didymus says (ēpialos is) a daemon, whom they call Ēpialēs, Tiphys and Euopas(?)” (Scholia on Aristophanes’ Wasps 1038). This scholium also mentions the meaning of ague.
  • “Epialēs […] Sophron (writes): ‘Herakles throttling Ēpialēs’” (Aelius Herodian, De prosodia catholica, vol. 3.1, p. 69). This should probably connected with another fragment of Sophron, which is called a proverb by : “Ēpiolēs is the one throttling his father”. The word for throttling (pnigōn) reminds us of pnigaliōn, ‘nightmare’ or perhaps rather ‘night terror’.

Tiphys refers to Ephialtēs (cf. Scholia on Aristophanes just above) and to the pilot of the mythical ship Argo (Hesychius s.v. Τῖφυς). According to Moeris, “the Attic-speakers say Tiphys, the (later Koine-speaking) Greeks Ephialtes or Epialtes” (Attic Lexicon s.v. Τῖφυς).

According to the Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda, “Ephialtes is what many call the Baboutzikarios” (s.v. Ἐφιάλτης).