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The words daemon, dæmon, are Latinized spellings of the Greek δαίμων (daimôn), used purposely today to distinguish the daemons of Ancient Greek religion, good or malevolent "supernatural beings between mortals and gods, such as inferior divinities and ghosts of dead heroes" (see Plato's Symposium), from the Judeo-Christian usage demon, a malignant spirit that can seduce, afflict, or possess humans.

In Hesiod's Theogony, Phaëton becomes a daimon, de-materialized, but the ills of mankind released by Pandora are keres not daimones. Hesiod relates how the men of the Golden Age were transmuted into daimones by the will of Zeus, to serve as ineffable guardians of mortals, whom they might serve by their benevolence. In similar ways, the daimon of a venerated hero or a founder figure, located in one place by the construction of a shrine rather than left unburied to wander, would confer good fortune and protection on those who stopped to offer respect. Daemones were not considered evil.

The daemon as a lesser spiritual being of dangerous, even evil character, an invisible numinous presence, was developed by Plato and his pupil Xenocrates, and absorbed in Christian patristic writings along with other neo-Platonic elements. In the Old Testament, evil spirits appear in the book of Judges and Kings. In the Greek translation of the Septuagint, made for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, the Greek angelos translates mal'ak, while daimon (or neuter daimonion) carries the meaning of a natural spirit that is less than divine and translates Hebrew words for idols, alien gods of the Hebrews' neighbors, some hostile natural creatures, and natural evils. The usage of daimon in the New Testament's original Greek text, caused the Greek word to be applied to the Judeo-Christian concept of an evil spirit by the early 2nd century AD.

In classical and Hellenistic philosophy

Carnelian gem imprint representing Socrates, Rome, 1st century BC-1st century AD.
Though in Homer the words θεοί (gods) and δαίμονες (divinities) were practically synonymous, later writers like Plato developed a distinction between the two. Plato in Cratylus (398 b) gives the etymology of δαίμονες (daimones) from δαήμονες (daēmones) (=knowing or wise), though in fact the root of the word is more probably daiō (=to distribute destinies). In Plato's Symposium, the priestess Diotima teaches Socrates that love is not a god, but rather a "great daemon" (202d). She goes on to explain that "everything daemonic is between divine and mortal" (202d-e), and she describes daemons as "interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above..." (202e). In Plato's Apology of Socrates, Socrates claimed to have a daimonion (literally, a "divine something") that frequently warned him - in the form of a "voice" - against mistakes but never told him what to do. However, the Platonic Socrates never refers to the daimonion as a daimōn; it was always an impersonal "something" or "sign".

The Hellenistic Greeks divided daemons into good and evil categories: Eudaemons (also called Kalodaemons) and Kakodaemons, respectively. Eudaemons resembled the Abrahamic idea of the guardian angel or Higher Self in psychology; they watched over mortals to help keep them out of trouble. (Thus eudaemonia, originally the state of having a eudaemon, came to mean "well-being" or "happiness".) A comparable Roman genius accompanied a person or protected and haunted a place (genius loci).

The notion of the daemon as a spiritual being of a lowly order that is largely evil and certainly dangerous has its origin in Plato and his pupil Xenocrates; when the later connotation is read back anachronistically into Homer, the result is distorting: "To emancipate oneself from Plato's manner of speech is no easy matter", Walter Burkert remarked. Daemons scarcely figure in Greek mythology or Greek art: like keres their felt but unseen presence was assumed. There was one exception: the "Good Daemon" Agathos Daemon, who was honored first with a libation in ceremonial wine-drinking, and especially in the sanctuary of Dionysus, and whose numinous presence was signaled in iconography by a chthonic serpent.

After the time of Plato, in the Hellenistic ruler-cult that began with Alexander himself, it was not the ruler but his guiding daemon that was venerated, for in Hellenistic times, the daimon was external to the man whom it inspired and guided, who was "possessed" by this motivating spirit. Similarly, the first-century Romans began by venerating the genius of Augustus, a distinction that blurred in time.

In Neo-Platonic philosophy

Daemons were important in Neo-Platonic philosophy. In Neoplatonism, a daemon was more like a demigod rather than an evil spirit, as Eros was described as in-between the gods and humankind. In the Christian reception of Platonism, the eudaemons were identified with the angels.

Cyprian was debunking the gods of the pagans as a euhemerist falsehood in his essay On the Vanity of Idols, but he had this to say of daemons:

The dæmons are real enough — "the principle is the same, which misleads and deceives, and with tricks which darken the truth, leads away a credulous and foolish rabble" — it is relying upon them that is deceptive. In this way the dæmons passed easily into Christian "demons."

In North Africa

The North African Apuleius summed up their character in the On The God of Socrates (2nd century AD): "For, to encompass them by a definition, dæmones are living beings in kind, rational creatures in mind, susceptible to emotion in spirit, in body composed of the ær, everlasting in time. Of these five points I have listed, the first three are shared with us, the fourth is their own, the last they have in common with the immortal gods; but they differ from them in their capacity to suffer" The Hellenic and Roman gods were increasingly seen as immovable, untouched by human sorrows and suffering, existing in a perfect heavenly sphere (compare Epicurus, Lucretius). The dæmones were earthbound, passion-tormented, and in Late Antiquity, loremasters were separating them into the noble kinds and troublemaking kinds. The gnostic followers of Valentinus multiplied the circles of dæmons and gave them oversight in various areas of concern to people: oracles, animals, and, interestingly, as "patron dæmons" of nations or occupations (compare Principalities and Patron saint).

In Christianity and Hermeticism

The lore of Hermes Trismegistus is a source both for pagan and Christian conceptions of dæmons, for in the Corpus Hermeticum, they functioned as the gatekeepers of the spheres through which souls passed on their way to the highest heaven, the Empyrean. The Early Medieval St. Gallmarker sacramentary testifies to the continuity of this belief of dæmones in the oldest extant prayer for anointing the dying:
"I anoint you with sanctified oil that in the manner of a warrior prepared through anointing for battle you will be able to prevail over the aery hordes."
The passage to the other world was seen as a migratio through the realm infested with the demons of the upper air.

See also


  1. Daimons were the souls of men of the golden age acting as guardian deities. Entry δαίμων at Liddell & Scott).
  2. Walter Burkert, Greek religion 1985; E. Rexine, Daimon in classical Greek literature 1985, pp 179-81,
  3. Hesiod, Theogony 991.
  4. Hesiod, Works and Days 122-26.
  5. Burkert 1985, section III.3.5 "Daimon".
  6. Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Demonology"
  7. p. 115, John Burnet, Plato's Euthyprho, Apology of Socrates, and Crito, Clarendon 1924.
  8. "daimōn", in Liddell, Henry and Robert Scott. 1996. A Greek-English Lexicon.
  9. Plato, Apology 31c-d, 40a; p. 16, Burnet, Plato's Euthyprho, Apology of Socrates, and Crito.
  10. pp. 16-17, Burnet, Plato's Euthyprho, Apology of Socrates, and Crito; pp. 99-100, M. Joyal, "To Daimonion and the Socratic Problem", Apeiron vol. 38 no. 2, 2005.
  11. p. 16, Burnet, Plato's Euthyprho, Apology of Socrates, and Crito; p. 63, P. Destrée, "The Daimonion and the Philosophical Mission", Apeiron vol. 38 no. 2, 2005.
  12. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press) 1985, pp 179-81. This article largely follows Burkert's characterization of daimones.
  13. Samuel E. Bassett, "ΔΑΙΜΩΝ in Homer" The Classical Review 33.7/8 (November 1919), pp. 134-136, correcting an interpretation in Finsler, Homer 1914; the subject was taken up again by F.A. Wilford, "DAIMON in Homer" Numen12' (1965) pp. 217-32.
  14. Burkert 1985:180.
  15. W. W. Tarn, "The Hellenistic Ruler-Cult and the Daemon" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 48.2 (1928), pp. 206-219.
  16. Quoted by Frederick S. Paxton, Christianizing death: the creation of a ritual process in early medieval Europe, 1996:174

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