Daemonic in Ancient Greek

The source consulted here= ‘A Greek–English Lexicon’, compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, 8th edition, Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, London, 1897 [see p 322]. This huge dictionary looks at how Greek terms are used in literature, philosophy, religion, politics, everyday life, from the early epic period of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Hesiod, through the age of Tragedy and the Historians, and the Peloponnesian War, right down to late Roman times.

The ancient Greek word ‘daemonic’ has many meanings.


–to be under the power of a daemon;

–to suffer by a divine visitation [Aeschylus].


A Greek speaker said this term ‘daemonizomai’ has the sense of= “something happens to me.”

–each one hath his own fate appointed;

–to have griefs decreed one;

–to be deified [Sophocles];

–to be possessed by a demon, as in epilepsy;

–an inferior divine being, a demon, an evil spirit.


–the Divine Power, the Deity, the Divinity;

–the name by which Socrates called his genius, or the helping spirit that dwelt within him.


A Greek speaker struggled a little with the translation of ‘daimonios’ and said= “clever, no, not exactly clever, inspired and capable of doing extraordinary things.”

–the person addressed is in some astonishing or strange condition

[a] mostly used as a way of reproach= “thou wretch”,

[b] but more rarely by way of admiration= “noble sir! excellent man!”,

[c] also by way of pity= “poor wretch”;

–anything proceeding from the Deity, heaven-sent, divine, miraculous, marvellous;

–a divine intervention [in human affairs, in historical happenings];

–visitations of heaven;

–by divine power;

–ill fortune;

–marvellously, strangely, extraordinarily;

–most clearly by the hands of the gods;

–like a demon, devilish.


–heaven-sent visitation.


–Homer’s use of theoi [gods] and daimones suggest that, while distinct, they are similar in kind= only later are they distinguished;

–in Homer, daemon is mostly used of the deity’s ‘Power’, while theos is used of the deity’s ‘Person’ [e.g. ‘a god in person’];

–most commonly used of ‘The Divine Power’;

–with the Divine Power, by its favour;

–joined with the Divine Power;

–one’s lot or fortune;

–in tragedy, of good and ill fortune; sometimes good fortune, more often ill fortune;

–‘daemones’= souls of men in the golden age, acting as tutelary deities– “the ancestors”; these formed the connecting link between gods and men. Hence ‘daemones’ were sometimes spirits of lesser rank, and when so, THEOS is never used for DAEMON, but DAEMON can be used for THEOS [daemonic becomes the descent from God, not the ascent to God= the descending God]. In later times, ‘daemones’ is used of any departed souls= “The Dead.”


[1] One possible root of the word ‘daemon’ links it with ‘knowing’, and ‘skill in fighting’; the knowledge a warrior needs to fight well. Hence a famous phrase, ‘daimoni dosos’= “I will kill thee.” This suggests that the Daemonic is the strife, and tumult, necessary to spark change.

[2] The more likely root of daemon is ‘daio’ = “to distribute destinies.” The Daemonic allots the fate that befalls each and every person; their human destiny depends on how they react to such a divinely decreed fate. This rules out both passive fatalism [I can do nothing in the grip of fate], and arrogant conquest of fate [I am not defined by the situation into which I am thrown, rather I define that situation]. How the human heart chooses to meet the fate inflicted upon it, with bigness or smallness, will create its destiny.


1= divine visitation;

2= divine visitation as a suffering which one undergoes;

3= divine power;

4= divine power that visits and seizes hold of one; to be in the power of God; to be indwelt by God, by God’s Spirit; to be in communion with ancestors in the Land of the Dead;

5= to be deified by this divine power; to be joined with this divine power, and to be favoured or blessed by this divine power;

6= to be put into a marvellous, strange, miraculous, extraordinary, inspired condition by divine power, a state of creative excellence or of spiritual potency in the doing of certain hard things;

7= the fate God puts upon humanity as a whole, and upon each of us personally, especially our share of human suffering; our lot= in tragedy, sometimes good fortune, more commonly ill fortune;

8= that which, in the grip of, exposes our worst, our lowest, our most abysmal in the negative sense, our most ignoble and mean and small hearted; and that which, seized and possessed by, brings out our genuine nobility, bravery, good heartedness, moral integrity, and luck; and that which, in the power of, makes us poor, wretched, reduced to nothing, pathetic, grieving and sorrowing and pained.

9= that which is heaven-sent, but in a downward, descending motion;

10= that which clearly comes from the divine, because it is beyond the capacity of the human= the human when dynamized or energized or empowered by the divine; divine empowerment to do something God wants done;

11= divine intervention in human situations, in human history;

12= the Dead can serve the living, because by virtue of passing through death, they have accepted the ultimate fate and the ultimate wound of the Daemonic; they are on the other side of this existence’s Mystery, and its Inexplicable Pain, and its Koan that cannot be solved, and its Cross that cannot be escaped, and hence can help all those of us who are on this side of that Irrationality;

13= the power of God to affect and shake up and reverse and fundamentally change everything, which works as a Mystery beyond all human comprehension, including theological comprehension no less than scientific comprehension or philosophical comprehension; God as Ultimate Darkness, God as Great Mysteriousness, God as the Holiness which operates Irrationally;

14= the daemonic is confused with the demonic, with the evil spirit or devilish spirit, because it is ambiguous= it is the ‘bad’ God does us, for our good, and this differs from the bad that comes from evil, which intends only our destruction.


[1] The archaic distinction between the Daemonic as helping inspiration, and power, however harsh its ethos [‘noble spirit’, from ‘agathos’], and the demonic as malignant influence, and force, however enticing its ethos [‘malicious spirit’, from ‘kakos’], was gradually lost over centuries among the Greeks until it entirely lapsed in Christianity. I once asked a native of Crete, not educated, if he recognized the term ‘Daemonic.’ He looked stumped, then furtive. “A fiery spirit, a red fire” he answered. “But the church has interpreted this as a demon” he added. So, Daemonic became demonic, and God therefore is deemed all Good, all light, whilst the devil is all Evil, all dark. This childish duality, this psychological mechanism of primitive ‘splitting’, misunderstands the paradox, ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction, and reversal, of the Divine Fire of Holiness.

In reality, as one commentator points out, it was Plato who developed ‘characterizations of the daemon as a dangerous, if not evil, lesser spirit.’ Unfortunately, the Greek text of the Septuagint maintains the same Platonic tradition of demoting the Daemonic, since ‘angelos’, or messenger, is used to refer to the good daemon, whilst ‘daimonion’ is used to speak of nature spirits less than God, idols, foreign gods, and in the New Testament, ‘evil spirits.’

[2] The Greeks had more or less turned away from the Daemonic once Hellenism became dominant. Heraclitus can speak of both Eros and the Daemonic with equal authoritativeness, but though Socrates has a spirit guide, Plato is on a very different path from his teacher, despite his interest in Socrates’ account of ‘divine madness.’ Interestingly, it was the priestess Diotima who taught Socrates that the Daemonic, and Eros, were both ways in which the divine goes out of itself [ex-stasis] in relating to the mortal, “transporting divine things” to the human, and “transporting human things” to the divine. This goes beyond mere influence, and hints at the capacity of the Daemonic, and Eros, to divinize the human. Thus, neither the Daemonic, nor Eros, were clear-cut in unequivocally belonging to the divine or to the mortal. Their push and pull operated ‘between’ divine and mortal, bridging that seemingly uncrossable gap. Thus one commentator says that Daemons are spirits ‘of the same nature as both mortals and gods.’

[3] This mixing together of divine and mortal applies in a very potent way to the Daemonic, because in it the divine descends ‘down’ to the human, rather than the human being raised ‘up’ to the divine. If ‘theos’ is used to indicate the ‘turning up’ of divinity ‘in person’, then the Daemonic is understood not as the ‘appearing’ of the divine, but as the impetus or energy of divine power; there is a person behind such power, but not visible to visionary experience, or any kind of imagination. This person is present in a peculiar mode of their activity, an energy with a powerful effect on those whom it ‘possesses.’

John Zizoulas argues that the gods and goddess do not really disclose themselves as any sort of genuine personhood, but only as personas, masks, richly gifted ‘personalities’; this is nothing akin to the person in Buber’s I—Thou. However, the gods and goddesses do appear ‘in person’ in the different sense of ‘showing up’, and ‘showing forth’, their particular and varied charismas. The same does not occur with the Daemonic. As Hesiod puts it in his ‘Theogony’, the Daemonic always remains unseen, and is only known by its actions which impact upon people. This is why the Daemonic hardly figures in Greek mythology or in Greek art.

Tacitly, the Ancient Greeks distinguish ‘gods and goddesses’ from ‘spirits’; the gods and goddesses are confined to Mount Olympos, looking at the human condition from above and outside it, from the vantage point of their superior abilities and marvellous talents, but Spirit and spirits penetrate everything and go everywhere, searching out the meaning that cannot be conceived, imagined, envisioned. This is Daemonic.

The Daemonic is God as Spirit – not God as theos, deos, deity.

[4] Nietzsche claimed that Hellenism used the gods and goddesses as a means of denying, virtually a defense against, Daemonic Reality. In his early work, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, he says this=

“The Greeks were keenly aware of the terrors and horrors of existence; in order to be able to live at all they had to place before them the shining fantasy of the Olympians.. Their tremendous distrust of the titanic forces of nature: mercilessly enthroned beyond the knowable world; the vulture which fed on the philanthropist Prometheus; the terrible lot drawn by wise Oedipus; the curse on the house of Atreus which brought Orestes to the murder of his mother: that whole Panic philosophy.. the Greeks conquered — or at least hid from view — by means of this artificial Olympos.

..the tragic hero shoulders the whole Dionysic world and removes the burden from us. …the hero readies himself, not through his victories but through his undoing.”

Nietzsche implies that the only hint of the Daemonic that survives in Hellenism is the cult of Dionysus.

[5] The simplistic duality of ‘angelic versus demonic’ entirely banishes the Daemonic.. The good is static, only evil is dynamic. The good angels are boring and staid, the evil devils are having a ball and riotous. Hence= “Good is the passive that obeys Reason and Evil is the active springing from Energy” [William Blake, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’].

[6] This, in turn, had a hand in introducing the bias in Western culture that favours light and ‘due proportion of form’ over dark and ‘excess of forces.’ Both Eros and the Daemonic were lost as this opposition took hold, with Eros becoming reduced to the Apollonian and the Daemonic becoming reduced to the Dionysic, or in a later and somewhat different version, the opposition becomes Classical versus Romantic.. Eros is more than, though it includes, Apollo; and the Daemonic is more than, though it includes, Dionysus.

In modern times, the clash of Apollo and Dionysus seems little more than a personification of contrasting psychological factors in humanity, rather than having any extra-human significance. Thus, Apollo is merely= conscious and rational and restrained, whilst Dionysus is merely= unconscious and gargantuan and explosive. A false order, established consciously, invites a false energy, brewing unconsciously, to break out from its suppression. This is just a psychological dialectic, born of psychological bias. One extreme swing of the pendulum has to be corrected by the converse extreme swing of the pendulum.

On the relatively few occasions when the Daemonic is remembered in modern Western culture, there is a strong tendency to simply equate it with ‘Dionysic eruptions of the unconscious.’ It becomes easy to confuse mere emotional bursting out, and various neurotic ways in which we rip apart the over-organized fabric of our life, as ‘Daemonic.’ The Daemonic gets demoted to obsession, mania, hysteria, orgies of sex, paroxysms of violence, drugged fantasies.

Goethe does capture something of the atmosphere of the Daemonic, but is himself so identified with the Olympian ideal of the German culture of his day, his statement is partial, and prejudiced=

“..the daemonic element appears in its most terrifying aspect when it manifests itself predominantly in a human being. During the course of my life I have been able to observe several such men, sometimes closely, sometimes from afar. They are not always the most admirable persons, not necessarily the most intelligent nor the most gifted, and rarely are they remarkable for their goodness of heart; but an extraordinary force goes out from them, and they have an incredible power over all creatures, yes, even over the elements; and who can say how far such an effect may not extend? All the moral forces banded together are powerless against them; in vain do the more enlightened among mankind strive to render them suspect as deceivers or deceived; they pull in the masses, and they can only be vanquished by the universe itself with which they are in conflict. It is from observations of this nature that the strange and terrifying saying probably arose. Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse– No one contrary to God, unless God himself” [from Goethe’s autobiography, ‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’–‘Poetry and Truth’].

Is Goethe really speaking of the Daemonic person in this quote, or is he pointing to the Dionysic person in whom there is insufficient Daemonic Spirit? Zorba the Greek, full of Dionysic élan, had a good heart. It is arguable that someone like Hitler, exposed by the Daemonic as having no heart, never the less retained sufficient potency of life energy to magnetically draw many people to him, like moths to a flame.

The other misunderstanding of the Daemonic arises when it is confused with Eros.

Berdyaev, usually reliable in such matters, descends into bathos trying to show that ‘unfettered’ sexuality can stir people to madness, and that this power to burn people up in madness is what is meant by the Daemonic. Thus, an increasingly “frenzied atmosphere” builds up, producing “over tension” in the air, and this generates, in turn, “a hubbub of hell.” Such sexuality is also described as Dionysic, consuming and annihilating the individual; it is “volcanic”, an “explosion of all the forces of passion pent up in humanity. It knows neither law nor form, and its pressure drives the deepest parts of human nature to the surface.” The sexual hysteria is a “leaping flame”, a “devouring fire”, but a fire that becomes “ice”; such fire ends up by reducing us to “extinct volcanoes.”

It is clear that such sexual fever happens, in real life as well as in the soaps on TV. It is nothing to do with the Daemonic. It exemplifies the problems people have with the ‘yielding’ that is necessary to experience the ecstatic ‘going out of self’ in Eros. This is the true release. All human beings have serious resistances against yielding, thus they cannot enter the genuine ecstasy which not only releases the self from its bondage, its in-static stasis, but unites love with sexuality. They run around like chickens without heads, creating a big theatrical performance, but at root they do this crazy ‘venting’ because in truth they cannot surrender to the Energy that would free them from enslavement to the self, and would unite them with the beloved, and as an overflow from this, with all else.. We want to leave the prison cell, but cannot trust the ecstatic love that alone can open the cell door; so we tear the cell apart, hoping to get free. It doesn’t work. Lessons must be learned before we can love ‘erotically.’ We must curb the ego, and its corrupting influence which makes desire ‘grasping’ rather than open handed.

Thus, certain difficult vicissitudes of Eros are mistaken for the Daemonic.

Arguably the worst example of the loss of the Daemonic Spirit in the modern era is Stefan Zweig’s book [1925], ‘The Struggle With The Daemon.’ Though Zweig’s impressionistic language might occasionally be read as acknowledging the Daemonic as a spiritual power outside of, and other to, the human, which descends to and enters the human heart to destroy and recreate it on a blacksmith’s anvil, more usually he mistakenly identifies the Daemonic with supposedly irrational forces of nature which are inherently without any direction, or purpose. At other points, where Zweig tries to give a cosmic dimension to the Daemonic, he conflates it with Eros. Hence, Zweig veers between error and confusion..

When Peter knelt before Christ, and implored Christ to leave him because he was a sinful man, his plea recognized Christ as Daemonic. Heyoka, or Reversal Clowns, and certain Shamanic Holy Persons, as well as certain Warriors, were often feared in Indigenous societies. You do not identify with these people. You tread warily round them, because they do not keep to the social boundaries, but always point straight to the deeper heart in whatever they say or do. When persons strong in heart are wanted, such Daemonic humans are sought out, and asked for help; much of the time they are not wanted, because ordinary people do not want to be reminded of their loss of any heart. They just want to get on with mundane living. They just want to be happy. They just want all the things their particular cultural script tells them they should seek, to fit in, and indeed to rise up towards prominence. So, the true heart, in its agonized ecstasy, is an embarrassment in polite society, which is ‘getting on with’ the job, raising the kids, making money, and the rest.

In such varied ways, the Daemonic has disappeared from the cultural, social, political, parlance.

But the Daemonic continues to operate, named or not named, pictured or not pictured. The Daemonic was always, and still is, ‘shown’ by its results.. Do not look to names, do not look to pictures. Look to actions, energies, powers, that have unexpectedly powerful outcomes..