The year is 2007, the place is Zimbabwe. A wave of hysteria sweeps the streets. The Popobawa is here again.

For those that don't know, the Popobawa is a sex demon. Having been accidentally loosed by an incautious magician in the 1970s, the Popobawah (who's name is swahili for "batwing") has come to terrorise the men of the area. How is he doing it? He's using his massive penis.

Though able to shapeshift, the spirit often appears in the form of a winged, dwarf, cylops ogre. He flys at the dark of night and attacks men, espescially unbelievers, in their own bed by pinning them down and sodomising them for hours with his freakishly large penis.

Beyond the obvious trauma of supernatural rape, the men are instructed to tell everyone the ordeal. If they fail to share the story, then the Popobawa will return and rape them again.

Sound ridiculous? For the victims it is a very real experience. Hospitals have had to deal with bruising, broken ribs and a shattered pelvis. The fear is equally as real, during periods of high activity men may choose to sleep outside rather than in the bed where the Popobawa would expect them to be.

Understandably, the international community has looked with scepticism on the claims of our Tanzanian brothers'. With very little effort, we have managed to explain the Popobawa away. There is a physiological quirk with human sleep that means we can't move whilst in REM sleep. Sometimes, this paralysis continues over into the begining of the waking state. The half awake dreamer often adds in something hallucinatory of their own making,and voila, demonic experience.

The experience of Sleep Paralysis often includes a pressing or crushing feeling,so that would explain why the Popobawa is reported as pinning down his victims, but there isn't much in the hypnpompic state that feels like a giant penis repeatedly entering your rectum. Or, for that matter, that would compel you to go out and admit your msenge status. So what's that about?

I, for one, would argue it's about the culture that the victims live in. Sleep Paralysis phenomenon have been around for a long time, and though the basic "I can't move, someone's sitting on my chest" experience always remains central, the window dressing has changed to express the important social dilemnas of the era.

Medieval men had witches ride them, because witches repressented unbound female sexuality and power over men. Monks of the time, who slept with crosses clasped to their groins, where visited by succubi. Female demons who represented sexual sin and nocturnal temptation. (Nuns, conveniently for them, could blame unwanted pregnancies on incubi, the male equivalents of the succubi. Incubi penises, which could be identified by their massive size and freezing temperature, squirted the semen collected by their succubi sisters. Hence why so many of the nun's demonic children looked suspisciously like local men). In the secular era modern America suffers from a surfeit of alien abduction stories, each of which makes an interesting study on America's relationship to the concepts of foreigness and anal-probes.

And Zimbabwe, for all it's comparative liberalism, still suffers from strong taboos against men being penetrated. In a country where same-sex handholding can result in imprisonment, it seems inevitable that the queer should become monstrous. I think it's telling that Popobawa is literally a "one eyed monster".

In all honesty, any country with Mugabe (a rabid,vocal and violent homophobe) at it's head is going to have a gay sex demon in it's head. I find it hard to look at the Popobawa and not see a nation suffering from a masculinity crisis. Popobawa is, to my uninvolved non-sociologist eyes, a voice given to the voicless characters in the national psyche.

But this, I think, is my point. Though it is easy to make a judgement and interperet other people's myths, it's not always the best response. Popobawa shows us that there is a mirroring link between a society and the religion it creates. Our spirits sometimes reflect ourselves more readily than they reflect our reality, and it would be arrogant to assume that the same process is not at work in our own beliefs.

Why, for example, is it important that the Virgin Mary has a perpetual virginity? What does us say about our view of female sexuality? Why are our superheroes straight men,and why can they fly? What does that tell us about our attitudes to the ground and to masculinity?

The Popobawa, for all it's oddness, is an important lesson in the nature of metaphysical belief. As strongly as our beliefs are held, we often hold them for reasons that are more psychological than philosophical.

That's not to say I don't believe giant penises fly through the window. Just that my belief might be based more on personal needs (and who doesn't need a flying penis?) rather than the spiritual reality.

Creative Commons License