The Greeks and their daimones

This week I thought I’d share another excerpt from my essay “The Angel and the Demon,” which was published recently in the two-volume reference work Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Fears (Greenwood Press, 2006), edited by S.T. Joshi. Regular readers of The Teeming Brain will recall that I’ve already shared a couple of excerpts from this essay in previous blog entries (which you can locate by entering the word “icons” in the search bar in the right-hand menu on this page). My current provocation to offer another excerpt is that the same essay will be included later this year in my second full-length book, a horror collection to be titled Dark Awakenings, and I thought I may as well offer yet another preview or teaser.

Dark Awakenings will be unique, I think, in that it will consist of both fiction and nonfiction. I’m not sure of the exact proportions yet, but roughly half of the book will consist of nearly all of my uncollected fiction that has been published since 2002, while the other half will consist of several essays and papers that I’ve written over the years dealing with horror–both the existential experience and the entertainment genre–and religion. The version of “The Angel and the Demon” that will appear there will be about 30,000 words long, roughly twice the length of the one published in the Icons project. A snippet of the publisher’s description for the Icons project will give an idea of what the essay features: “Horror and the supernatural have fascinated people for centuries, with many of the most central figures appearing over and over again across time and cultures. These figures have starred in the world’s most widely read literary works, most popular films, and most captivating television series. Because of their popularity and influence, they have attained iconic status and a special place in the popular imagination. This book overviews 24 of the most significant icons of horror and the supernatural . . . . Each entry discusses the central qualities of the icon and its lasting influence.”

So my “Angel and Demon” essay surveys the history, formation, development, influence, and various literary and cinematic manifestations of the two title figures. Below is an excerpt from the subsection titled “The Greeks and their daimones” in the main section titled “The prehistory of the demon.” The Greek idea of daimons, personal guiding spirits that attach to individual humans and symbolize and/or provide their fundamental nature and character, has grown into something of acute personal interest for me during the past several years, because it expresses for me some of the deep issues involved in the questions of personal identity, artistic creativity, spirituality, and similar matters that have always captivated me. When I was invited into the Icons project and received the “Angel and Demon” assignment–which I had specifically requested–I was very pleased, since this gave me an excuse to pursue some serious research about the issue. Of course, I was obliged to write about it from an objective viewpoint and in an impartial academic tone owing to the nature of the book. But I enjoy doing that type of work, so it was a pleasure overall.

I hope you find these issues as absorbing as I do. In any event, here’s the excerpt.

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From “The Angel and the Demon” by Matt Cardin

II. The Prehistory of the Demon

The Greeks and their daimones

Although most reasonably educated moderns are familiar with the Olympian gods and goddesses of classical Greek mythology, decidedly fewer are aware that long before the Greeks developed their beliefs about the humanlike gods of Olympus, they believed in vague and mysterious spirits called daimones that exerted a ubiquitous influence over people and events. Using the alternative form “daemon” to refer to these spirits, E.R. Dodds writes in his classic The Greeks and the Irrational that the “daemonic, as distinct from the divine, has at all periods played a large part in Greek popular belief (and still does)” (40). Indeed, as psychologist Stephen A. Diamond points out, while some classical scholars maintain that Greek writers such as Homer, Hesiod, and Plato did use daimon as a synonym for theos (god), others “point to a definite distinction between these terms. The term ‘daimon’ referred to something indeterminate, invisible, incorporeal, amorphous, and unknown, whereas ‘theos’ was the personification of a god, such as Zeus or Apollo” (Diamond 66).

If we are to believe classical scholar Reginald Barrow, modern ignorance of the daimons must be counted among the many ironies of history; Barrow argues provocatively that belief in them was so powerful, important, and prevalent that it actually formed a kind of underground mainstream in ancient Greek religion:

Because the daemons have left few memorials of themselves in architecture and literature, their importance tends to be overlooked. . . . They are omnipresent and all-powerful, they are embedded deep in the religious memories of the peoples, for they go back to days long before the days of Greek philosophy and religion. The cults of the Greek states, recognised and officially sanctioned, were only one-tenth of the iceberg; the rest, the submerged nine-tenths, were the daemons (quoted in Diamond, 67).

Like so many religious beliefs throughout history, the idea of the daimones took many different and sometimes contradictory forms. In the beginning they were conceived as abstract forces in the neuter gender. Hesiod and others described them as “invisible and wrapped in mist” (Diamond 65). Much farther back, Mycenaean and Minoan daimons, in a period ranging from 1100 to 3000 B.C.E., were regarded as servants or attendants to deities and were pictured in the form of animal-human hybrids, much like their Egyptian and Mesopotamian analogs. Barrow offers a concise summary of the evolution of beliefs about these daimons over half a millennium, and also, again, of their vaguely shadowy and underground nature as they lurked perpetually in the background of orthodox Greek religious thought:

[T]he histories of Greek religion or philosophy do not usually say much, if anything, about daemons. Though the idea occurs as early as Homer, it plays little or no part in recognized cults; for it had no mythology of its own; rather it attached itself to existing beliefs. In philosophy it lurks in the background from Thales, to whom “the universe is alive and full of daemons,” through Heraclitus and Xenophanes, to Plato and his pupil Xenocrates, who elaborated it in detail. . . . In Hesiod the daemons are the souls of heroes or past ages now kindly to men; in Aeschylus the dead become daemons; in Theognis and Menander the daemon is the guardian angel of the individual man and sometimes a family (Diamond 66).

In their most ancient forms, the daimons were neither good nor evil, or rather were potentially both. In Homer’s time (around the eighth century B.C.E.) people commonly believed that daimons caused all human ailments but at the same time also believed they could cure disease and give blessings such as health and happiness. Several centuries later the Hellenistic Greeks developed the more concrete categories of eudaimones (good daimons) and kakodaimones (evil daimons).

Arguably the most famous description or definition of daimons and the daimonic comes from a “canonical” source: Plato’s Symposium, wherein Plato has the old wise woman Diotima describe the daimonic as a kind of bridge or intermediary between the human and divine worlds:

All that is daemonic lies between the mortal and the immortal. Its functions are to interpret to men communications from the gods—commandments and favours from the gods in return for men’s attentions—and to convey prayers and offerings from men to the gods. Being thus between men and gods the daemon fills up the gap and so acts as a link joining up the whole. Through it as intermediary pass all forms of divination and sorcery. God does not mix with man; the daemonic is the agency through which intercourse and converse take place between men and gods, whether in waking visions or in dreams (quoted in Dodds, Pagan and Christian 86-7).

It is also Plato who provides probably the most familiar example of specific daimonic influence when he writes of Socrates’ famous daimonion (the gender-neutral form of daimon, which is either male or female). This has often been translated into English as the “sign” that Socrates claimed had visited him frequently since childhood in the form of an audible voice that warned him when he was about to commit a mistake.

Socrates’ experience of daimonic communication highlights what is, in fact, the most significant aspect of the matter: The Greeks understood their daimons to have not only objective but also subjective existence. That is, they believed the daimons were objectively real presences that made themselves known through their influence upon and within the human psyche. This tension between the objective and subjective seems to have existed on a kind of continuum. On the one hand were the more typically animistic conceptions of daimons, which associated them with particular places, natural occurrences, circumstances, or souls of the dead. On the other hand were the more subtle, psychologically oriented conceptions that gained preeminence over time and that regarded the daimons as inner influences upon human thoughts and emotions, and even as arbitrators, keepers, conductors, and emblems of individual character and destiny. This second type of understanding can be seen in the fact that the characters in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which were probably composed around the eighth century B.C.E. and represented an inherited oral tradition extending several centuries earlier, attributed many of the events of their lives—not only outer, physical events but also, especially, inner psychological ones such as moods, emotions, sudden insights, bursts of motivation to say or do something or to refrain from speaking or acting —to the influence of daimons. Although Homer’s characters seemed to take this idea relatively lightly—“[W]e get the impression,” writes Dodds, “that they do not always mean it very seriously”—in the three centuries between Homer’s epics and Aeschylus’ Oresteia “the daemons seem to draw closer: they grow more persistent, more insidious, more sinister” (The Greeks and the Irrational, 41).

By “sinister” Dodds may have meant not that the daimons came to be regarded as predominantly evil, but that they became progressively more entangled with human interiority and also progressively more mysterious and autonomous. He calls attention to the fact that many Greek writers after Homer drew a connection between the daimons and “those irrational impulses which arise in a man against his will to tempt him,” and says that “behind [this] lies the old Homeric feeling that these things are not truly part of the self; since they are endowed with a life and energy of their own, and so can force a man, as it were from the outside, into conduct foreign to him” (41).

The twentieth century existential psychologist Rollo May, who resurrected the concept of the daimon and the daimonic for use in modern depth psychotherapy, gave definitive statement to this idea of strange internal influence in Love and Will: “The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person. Sex and eros, anger and rage, and the craving for power are examples. The daimonic can be either creative or destructive and is normally both” (123). Although May wrote about the daimonic in metaphorical terms, his description is still effective for giving an impression of what it must have felt like to the ancients when they found themselves thinking, feeling, saying, and doing things that were outside of their voluntary control. Modern peoples are of course still quite familiar with this experience. We can thus reasonably imagine that ancient peoples must have been all the more awed and disturbed when popular belief attributed these involuntary behaviors to the influence of the mysterious mediators of divine reality. In more dramatic cases of daimonic influence, the internal power might take control completely. “When this power goes awry,” May wrote, “and one element usurps control over the total personality, we have ‘daimon possession,’ the traditional name through history for psychosis” (123).

It was Plato (again) who gave definitive voice to this newly developing view of the daimonic as primarily an inner force. He closed his most famous work, the Republic, with the “myth of Er,” which teaches that prior to being born, each human being voluntarily chooses its own daimon, understood in this case to be a combination of guardian angel, spiritual double, and life pattern. The daimon accompanies a person throughout his or her life and constantly recalls him or her to the prechosen plan. It guides a person inevitably to evince a certain character, make certain choices, feel certain predilections, and encounter certain experiences, all in the service of fulfilling the fate chosen beforehand. Thus it is that the Greek word eudaimonia, which in later times came to mean “happiness” or “well being,” in its earliest sense literally meant “having a good daimon.” A person with a good daimon was happy and blessed, while a person with a bad daimon was inevitably miserable. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus encapsulated this idea in a cryptic statement that has puzzled and fascinated scholars for the past twenty-five hundred years: Ethos anthropoi daimon. The statement translates literally as “A man’s character is his daimon,” but nobody knows for certain what Heraclitus really meant to convey, although various translations and glosses have been offered, as listed by James Hillman in The Soul’s Code: “Man’s character is his Genius. A man’s character is his guardian divinity. A man’s character is his fate. Character is fate. A man’s character is the immortal and potentially divine portion of him, Character for man is destiny” (256-7).

The bottom line is that it is impossible to overstress the prevalence and significance of beliefs about daimons to the ancient world, and especially to ancient popular understandings of human selfhood and its relation to the divine. For Greek culture, including its underground tradition of daimonism, was destined to become the common coinage, as it were, of the entire ancient world. When first Alexander and then the Romans succeeded in exporting all things Greek to the farthest corners of their respective empires, the resulting Hellenistic cultural matrix was rife with daimons in the Greek mold. According to Dodds, although the Symposium’s “precise definition of the vague terms ‘daemon’ and ‘daemonios’ was something of a novelty in Plato’s day,” by “the second century after Christ it was the expression of a truism. Virtually everyone, pagan, Jewish, Christian or Gnostic, believed in the existence of these beings and in their function as mediators, whether he called them daemons or angels or aions or simply ‘spirits’” (Pagan and Christian 37-8).

About Matt Cardin


Posted on March 19, 2007, in Religion & Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I recently come across reference to this translation, “Character is fate,” realizing the translation may be several iterations from Heraclitus intent. It is curious.

    What seems clear, one may live an ethical and moral life, but not necessarily a religious one. One may lead a religious life, but not necessarily an ethical or moral one.

    Heraclitus is providing more than simple reference to destiny and/or the demons within – what for some can be construed as our conscience with frayed borders and/or cannons of ethics – rules to be guided by and ultimately defined by. I wish I could believe ‘character’ was fate, but there are far too many intervening, random variables in life. For some, these make their character, but not necessarily our fate, for others, it has no impact and yet others, provides vision for the future, destruction/success/moderation/saturation or any number of outcomes. So many elements go into this complicated being we call ‘awake’ and existence.

    The only heartening note, is that there are people that still care about the internal and external deamons of life, ethics, vision and continue to ask the questions – “so shines a good deed in a naughty world.”

  2. Matt, it’s good to hear the full version of “The Angel and The Demon” will be included in Dark Awakenings. I quite liked the version in ICONS and am anxious to see the rest, along with the rest of the previously unpublished non-fiction.

  3. nicholasporter

    dude i have my own blog here now. By the way this is Kaleb Jesse.

  4. Great article. Look forward to reading it in its entirety.

    Im also fascinated by the idea of the daimonic in Greek culture. If you look at Greek tragedies, particularly the Eumenides and Oedipus at Colonus, you see figures who go from having tormenting demons (or kakodaimones) to having good demons (eudaimones).

    Eg Orestes, in the Eumenides, is being pursued by the Furies, but then Athena intercedes for him, there is a magic ritual of sorts (which strongly refers to the Eleusinian Mysteries) and then the Furies are transformed into the kindly ones, the Eumenides, and become the protectors of Athens.

    Likewise, Oedipus is tormented by demons, including the furies, but by the end of Oedipus at Colonus he has made a kind of peace with them, and even gained magical powers through them. Again, this transformation is linked in the play with the Eleusinian Mysteries.

    The Mysteries were a mechanism, it seemed, by which the greeks confronted what was felt as the hostility of their alienated or repressed psyches (represented as the wrath of Demeter), and managed to re-integrate it, to re-assimilate themselves as whole beings, once again at one with the spirit or daemonic realm. So initiates of Eleusis believed themselves to be born again, to be at one with nature, and felt themselves to be filled with eunoia, or good feeling.

    so its interesting that the greeks seemed to believe you could transform your demons. it wasnt necessarily that the demons were bad. its that they are pushing you to change your values, to let go of conventional or artificial values and to accept the whole self. if you manage to do that, then they stop being your enemy, and start being your helper.

    this links in to the original idea of Satan – ‘the tester’. Satan originally worked for God, and was a tester of humans, seeing how true their values were, how easily they were tempted by externals.

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