On my recent vacation, I read James Hillman’s famous work, The Soul’s Code, in which he talks about the daimon, or the idea that, “The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born,” and that this companion of the soul exists to help each one of us recognize what we are called to do and adhere to it. As he explains further:
For centuries we have searched for the right term for this “call.” The Romans named it your genius; the Greeks, your daimon; and the Christians your guardian angel. The Romantics, like Keats, said the call came from the heart, and … the Neoplatonists referred to an imaginal body, the ochema, that carried you like a vehicle. It was your personal bearer or support. For some it is Lady Luck or Fortuna; for others a genie or jinn, a bad seed or evil genius. In Egypt, it might have been the ka or the ba with whom you could converse. Among the people we refer to as Eskimos and others who follow shamanistic practices, it is your spirit, your free-soul, your breath-soul.
Whether or not you can accept this idea is not the point of this blog entry. Rather, I’d like to focus on the word itself, for as Hillman oddly confesses, although “these many words and names do not tell us what it is, they do confirm that it is.”
You’d think that Hillman, a smart guy, would offer a rock-solid definition of a word that plays such a central role in his book, but he doesn’t. How can this be?
Perhaps the texts populating the shelves of the Lonely Reference Library have something to say about this mysterious and antiquated word.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines daimon as “one’s genius or demon,” while the editors of the Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, who abandon the Greek spelling in favor of daemon, define the word as (in Greek mythology), “any of the secondary divinities ranking between the gods and men; hence, a guardian spirit; inspiring or inner spirit. A demon; devil.” The Oxford Latin Dictionary also uses the spelling daemon, but omits the evil and defines the word as “a supernatural being or spirit.”
The etymological dictionaries at my disposal seem somewhat more discerning and tend to split the word in half, separating the light from the dark if you will. For example, the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, which lacks an entry for daimon or daemon, explains the roots of demon this way:
demon [Middle English] This is from medieval Latin, from Latin daemon, from Greek daimon ‘deity, genius’; the English sense ‘evil spirit’ is from Latin daemonium ‘lesser spirit,’ from Greek daemonion. The spelling daemon was common from the mid-16th century until the 19th century.
The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins sings a similar tune.
demon English acquired this word from Latin in two forms. Classical Latin daemon and medieval Latin demon, which were once used fairly interchangeably for ‘evil spirit’ but have now split apart. Demon retains the sense ‘evil spirit,’ but this was in fact a relatively late semantic development. Greek daimon (source of Latin daemon) meant ‘divine power, fate, god.’ … It was used in Greek myths as a term for ‘minor deity’ and it was also applied to a ‘guiding spirit,’ (senses now usually denoted by daemon in English). It seems to be from this latter usage that the sense ‘evil spirit’ arose.
Oddly enough, this notion of dividing the daemon/daimon into good and evil halves fits nicely with the mythology surrounding these mysterious creatures and may explain why they’re described in terms of both darkness and light (i.e., a guardian spirit and a devil). As explained by the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Religion, Literature, and Art, these creatures were widely seen as “intermediaries” between the gods and humankind and, in doing the bidding of deities, played both good and evil roles. Thus, those that got involved in people’s lives were but one type of a larger class of daimon.
“Another kind of daemones are those who were attached to individual men, attending them, like the Roman genius, for their birth onward through their whole life. In later times, two daemones, a good and bad, were sometimes assumed for every one. This belief was, however, not universal, the prevalent idea being that the good and bad alike proceeded at different times from the daemon of each individual; and that one person had a powerful and benevolent, another a weak and malevolent daemon.”
Then again, as suggested by the Continuum Dictionary of Symbols’ (CDS) matter of fact tone, the definition of daemon/daimon has such great latitude because there was simply no consensus on the benevolence or malignancy of these mythical beings.
Demon – From the Greek “daimon.” The term was originally used to describe gods and later referred to mediary beings between gods and humans who could influence human destines and cosmic events for good or evil.
A tidy and satisfying summation of my attempt to better understand the term daimon it is not, but I can live with it. Besides, given the shitty job my “guiding spirit” seems to be doing, this explanation from the CDS seems to be the most accurate of them all.