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The words daemon, dæmon, are Latinized spellings of the Greek δαίμων (daimon), 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. This 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.
In Hesiod Phaethon becomes a daimon, de-materialized, but the ills of mankind released by Pandora are keres not daimones. Hesiod connects the daimones of the deceased great and good in relating 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.
Thus daemones ("replete with knowledge", "divine power", "fate" or "god") were not necessarily evil. Plato in Cratylus (398 b) gives the etymology of δαίμονες (daimones) from δαήμονες (daēmones) (=knowing or wise). In Plato's Symposium, the priestess Diotima teaches Socrates that love is not a god, but rather a good daemon. In Plato's Trial of Socrates, Socrates claimed to have a daimonion, a small daemon, that warned him against mistakes but never told him what to do or coerced him into following it. He claimed that his daemon exhibited greater accuracy than any of the forms of divination practised at the time. 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; 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).
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.
The Greek translation of the Septuagint, made for the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, and the usage of daimon in the New Testament's original Greek text, caused the Greek word to be applied to a Judeo-Christian spirit by the early 2nd century AD. Then in late antiquity, pagan conceptions and exorcisms, part of the cultural atmosphere, became Christian beliefs and exorcism rituals. The transposition has recently been documented in detail, in North Africa, by Maureen Tilley.
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:
“ They are impure and wandering spirits, who, after having been steeped in earthly vices, have departed from their celestial vigour by the contagion of earth, and do not cease, when ruined themselves, to seek the ruin of others; and when degraded themselves, to infuse into others the error of their own degradation. These demons the poets also acknowledge, and Socrates declared that he was instructed and ruled at the will of a demon; and thence the Magi have a power either for mischief or for mockery, of whom, however, the chief Hostanes both says that the form of the true God cannot be seen, and declares that true angels stand round about His throne.
These spirits, therefore, are lurking under the statues and consecrated images: these inspire the breasts of their prophets with their afflatus, animate the fibres of the entrails, direct the flights of birds, rule the lots, give efficiency to oracles, are always mixing up falsehood with truth, for they are both deceived and they deceive; they disturb their life, they disquiet their slumbers; their spirits creeping also into their bodies, secretly terrify their minds, distort their limbs, break their health, excite diseases to force them to worship of themselves, so that when glutted with the steam of the altars and the piles of cattle, they may unloose what they had bound, and so appear to have effected a cure. The only remedy from them is when their own mischief ceases. ” The daemons 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 daemons passed easily into Christian "demons."
In Early Christianity
The specific motivation for the rush of inspired destruction of Greek and Roman sculpture unleashed at the end of the 4th century, as soon as Christianity was in secure control was that it was believed that the images were inhabited by demons. As in all such destruction, the faces were especially attacked: "defaced."
In the process of Christianizing Roman populations in the official Christianity from the late 4th century, theologians, hermits and monks, and the bishops and presbyters who influenced individuals, had their own repertoire of ideas, which were derived from Scripture and from the ambient culture of Late Antiquity. Within the Christian tradition, ideas of "demons" derived as much from the literature that came to be regarded as apocryphal and even heretical as it did from the literature accepted as canonical.
In North Africa
The North African Apuleius summed up their character in the Golden Ass (2nd century AD): "The daemones have an animal nature, a rational mind, a soul subject to passions, an aetherial body and they are immortal." 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 daemones 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 daemons and gave them oversight in various areas of concern to people: oracles, animals, and, interestingly, as "patron daemons" of nations or occupations (compare Principalities and Patron saint).
The lore of Hermes Trismegistus is a source both for pagan and Christian conceptions of daemons, 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. Gall sacramentary testifies to the continuity of this belief of daemones 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."
In modern literature
Dæmons are a key element in Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). In the books, the dæmons are the shape-shifting (mostly in animal forms) souls of humans that accompany them from childhood, and which finally settle into their true form when the humans reach puberty. The form in which the dæmon settles upon is representative of the human's personality or station in life -- servants typically have a dog or domestic animal dæmon, while powerful characters have more exotic dæmons such as leopards or snakes.
In computer terminology
In Unix and other computer multitasking operating systems, a daemon is a computer program that runs in the background, rather than under the direct control of a user. This is related to the mythological concept of a daemon being an intermediary between the gods (the Computer) and humans (the User).
In modern parapsychology
In his book Is There Life After Death, The Extraordinary Science of What Happens When You Die, British writer Anthony Peake suggests that the daemon is a very real aspect of human consciousness and suggests that this being is directly involved in the phenomenon known as Near-Death Experience. He also argues that this daemonic presence may explain the 'voices' experienced by creative individuals such as writers, poets and artists and, in extreme cases, schizophrenics. In the Freudian sense, The Daemon is a powerful network of the Id and Superego together.
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 (Harvard University Press) 1985, pp 179-81. This article largely follows Burkert's characterization of daimones.
3 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.
4 Burkert 1985:180.
5 Hesiod, Theogony 991.
6 Hesiod, Works and Days 122-26.
7 W. W. Tarn, "The Hellenistic Ruler-Cult and the Daemon" The Journal of Hellenic Studies 48.2 (1928), pp. 206-219.
8 Maureen A. Tilley, "Exorcism in North Africa: Localizing the (Un)holy"
- Maureen A. Tilley, "Exorcism in North Africa: Localizing the (Un)holy" explores the meanings of daimon among Christians in Roman Africa and exorcism practices that passed seamlessly into Christian ritual.
- Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol V: Cyprian, "On the Vanity of Idols" e-text Daemons inhabiting the images of gods
- Kakodaemons on Theoi.com (listed under 'demon'; no mention of eudaemones)