Possession, exorcism, and the daimon: A brief history

A few year ago I had two articles published in editor Joe Laycock’s Spirit Possession around the World: Possession, Communion, and Demon Expulsion across Cultures (ABC-CLIO, 2015). One of these was a survey of possession and exorcism in the history of literature. The other was an article about the daimon.

When I submitted the latter of these, Joe got back to me with a request for significant revisions, the better to make the article fit harmoniously with the rest of the encyclopedia’s contents, and the better to make it align with his editorial vision of its place in the book.

As a result, the version that is now published in the encyclopedia is thoroughly different from what I originally wrote. The original version has never been published. And since I own the copyright on that version, I’m free to share it here with Teeming Brain readers. As those of you who have been here for awhile will immediately recognize, this is entirely appropriate, since the article lands right in the middle of several of this blog’s foundational interests, themes, and concerns.

Possession, Exorcism, and the Daimon

The word “daimon” has several possible meanings, but in relation to possession and exorcism it refers to a particular type of autonomous or autonomous-feeling force in the psyche that influences or, in some cases, dominates a person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings. It comes from ancient Greece and the ancient Hellenistic world, where it generally referred to a particular class of deity or spirit being, and where its basic meaning evolved over time to refer as much or more to an inner psychic or subjective force as to an objectively conceived entity. The concept of the daimon is one of the key components in the origin and evolution of the related concepts of the demon and demonic possession. Its adjectival form, daimonic, has been widely used in modern-day depth psychology to refer to a particular aspect of the psyche that lies outside a person’s conscious, voluntary control, and that is especially associated with creativity, anger, and other surging states of mind and emotion that can effectively swamp the conscious ego and result in violent outbursts of creation and destruction.

Among the ancient Greeks, the concept of the daimon led a dual existence as it progressed along two distinct but related strands. On the one hand, daimons were conceived in typically animistic terms as spirits that inhabited or haunted certain places, affected the weather and other natural occurrences, and so on. Some were associated with the spirits of the dead. On the other hand, a spiritualized or psychologized view placed the daimons in a position of deep intertwinement with human subjectivity. Essentially, the Greeks regarded daimons as objectively real presences that made themselves known through their influence upon and within the human psyche. The objective, animistic beliefs about them were thus matched and accompanied by a more subtle and psychologically oriented view that framed them as inner influences upon human thoughts and emotions, and even as the keepers and emblems of individual character and destiny. This second view gradually became dominant over time.

Another significant development occurred when the Hellenistic Greeks divided the daimons into two distinct types: eudaimones (good daimons) and kakodaimones (evil daimons). This laid the groundwork for appropriation of the entire belief system by Christians, who transformed the good daimons into angels and the bad daimons into demons. The word itself, however, was reserved solely for the latter category; contra their original Greek usage, “daimon” and its gender-neutral form “daimonion” are used by the New Testament writers to refer exclusively to evil spiritual beings. With the eventual Christianization of Western culture, this usage became universal: The New Testament daimon became the purely evil Latinized “daemon,” which in turn became today’s “demon.”

This Christian reframing was a response to the pervasive and deep-seated practice of a particular type of spirit worship in the ancient world. Various scholars have maintained that in ancient Greece, the religion of the daimons formed a kind of underground mainstream whose ubiquity dwarfed the worship of the Olympian pantheon. As with most ancient (and many modern) religious traditions, a major aspect of this worship involved the deliberate cultivation of trance possession, and since daimons were already a special type of spiritual being whose nature was deeply implicated in the basic fact of human subjectivity/interiority, they formed a distinct threat to the Christian cultural project and spiritual goal of being united with and filled by the single divine spirit of the supreme and unitary God of monotheism. Thus, the first miraculous act attributed to Jesus in two of the synoptic gospels is an exorcism, and in all three of the synoptic gospels his practice of exorcism is not just a tangential aspect of his mission and ministry but one of its central components. In the Christian view, the ancient daimons infest the world and human beings like a rebel army and a spiritual cancer, and are to be strictly opposed and universally expelled.

With the advent of Christian civilization, and as aided by the foundational writings of, e.g., the early church fathers and the Neoplatonists, the daimon subsisted in its demonic disguise for roughly two millennia, until at last its distinct nature was teased out again by the rise of depth psychology and, to a lesser extent, by certain developments in the field of philosophy during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially as related to the proto-existentialism of such major thinkers as Nietzsche and Heidegger. Carl Jung built his entire psychological system around the idea of what he called “the objectivity of the psyche,” by which he meant that psychological life unfolds and operates according to forces that fundamentally elude the conscious ego’s ability to regulate or control. According to Jung, to be conscious is, in a very real sense, to be possessed by something that is separate from oneself. Jung overtly invoked the term “daimon” in talking about these matters. Moreover, he claimed in his autobiography—whether with a literal or metaphorical intent is difficult to say—that he himself had been possessed by a daimon throughout the majority of his active career.

Similarly, but in a less overtly esoteric and spiritual vein, the existential psychologist Rollo May made the idea of “the daimonic” a centerpiece of his system, defining it as any natural function that has the capacity to take over and dominate the entire person, thus resulting in “daimonic possession,” by which he meant not a supernatural invasion but a natural imbalance that could, in extreme cases, mimic the ancient descriptions of spirit possession. Slightly later, the archetypal psychologist James Hillman developed his own system around the central idea of the daimon in its ancient Platonic guise as the keeper and pattern of a person’s individual character, whose nature often emerges in the form of negative “symptoms” when its basic desires are not being met by the specific circumstances of a person’s life.

The vast majority of these and other modern invocations of the daimon have proceeded from a materialistic worldview, and have thus deployed the terms “daimon” and “daimonic” in a purely metaphorical way. However, in the early twenty-first century there are signs that this near consensus may be changing. A more mystical and/or supernaturalistic understanding of such matters has persisted throughout Western history in the various countercultural currents and movements associated with gnostic and esoteric forms of religion and philosophy, and also with the practice of ritual magic. Associated ideas also gained a brief period of mainstream prominence and near-respectability during the age of spiritualism, séances, and psychical research that briefly flowered in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe and America.

The advent of the third millennium C.E. brought with it a significant revival of such attitudes and ideas, including a revival of their public discussion in mainstream cultural and subcultural discourse on both the popular and the scholarly/academic levels. Aided by the philosophical and ideological free-for-all that is the Internet, the daimon in its supernatural or spiritual guise returned to general awareness and became the focus of a vigorous philosophical and spiritual subculture centered around ritual magic, psychedelics, consciousness expansion, paranormal exploration, “alternative” spirituality, and the like. It remains to be seen whether this represents a transitory phenomenon or an enduring cultural shift.


Cardin, Matt. “The Angel and the Demon.” In Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: An Encyclopedia of Our Worst Nightmares, edited by S. T. Joshi, 31-63. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.

Diamond, Stephen A. Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity. Suny Series in the Philosophy of Psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Dodds, E.R. The Greeks and the Irrational, 1951. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1959.

Mäyrä, Frans Ilkka. “The Ancestry of the Demonic” and “The Demonic in the Self.” In Demonic Texts and Textual Demons: The Demonic Tradition, the Self, and Popular Fiction, by Frans Ilkka Mäyrä, 23-80. Tampere Studies in Literature and Textuality. Tampere, Finland: Tampere University Press, 1999. http://people.uta.fi/~frans.mayra/Demon_2005/.

Trimpi, Helen P. “Demonology.” In Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Philip P. Wiener, 667-670. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=DicHist/uvaBook/tei/DicHist1.xml;chunk.id=dv1-79.

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About Matt Cardin


Posted on February 22, 2018, in Paranormal, Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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