Thursday, April 3, 2014

Demons & Daemons

Animism & Dualism

I've seen some discussion in Blog-land this week on the topic of ‘daemons’, and on how that relates to the idea of ‘demons’. I find the Hellenic category daemon to be a useful way of understanding the general category of ‘spirits’ in a Pagan sense. I've written a bit on the topic already, here.


In that sense, I understand Hellenic ‘daimons’ (or daemons – I probably won’t be consistent) to be spirits of almost every type, up to and including the Olympians themselves and down to the smallest pool-sprite or Cloacinian imp. In Hellenic religion these were understood as servants, messengers or persons of the gods, or as active on their own. Members of the mortal Dead might become daimons. One important function of daemones was to carry sacrifices to the gods themselves, and to return with their blessing. These spirits became associated with the rites and tools of domestic and civic cults – the ‘familiars’ of the sacrificers, the ‘genii’ – which means, at base, ‘family spirits’.
In the Hellenic sense a satyr is a daimon, if not a very noble
one. The depiction of daemones with animals characteristics,
including wings and/or horns, is quite traditional;.

In any animist or spiritist system it will be plain that not all spirits are safe, easy or friendly. The Greeks distinguished between eudaimones and kakodaimones – ‘pretty’ spirits and ‘shitty’ spirits, rather literally. Yes, Virginia, there are fairies in the dung… The spirits of rot and decay, so mandatory for the management of a forest floor, become less welcome in human habitation. If there is a daimon in the waterfall, or in the corn, there is surely one in cholera or crib-death as well. Some parts of lovely and holy nature will just plain kill yer butt – the spirits of those parts are often thought of as ‘wrathful’ or even as ‘demons’ in the Hollywood sense. In traditional cultures it is often the task of priests and magicians to manage them.

Then there is the issue of moral dualism. I do not believe that there is a spiritual battle between Good and Evil. The spirits are not lining up into skins versus… other people’s skins… Just like mortals, the spirits go about their business- waterfalls fall water, cholera eats and kills, etc. It does make simple sense for mortals to divide our categories between spirits who benefit us and spirits who might harm us. We do as much with animals, plants and landscapes. However many dangerous, powerful things make good allies, even gods.


Which brings us to operative magic in a traditional European model. The usual powering agencies behind the magic of the Greek Papyri are the daemones, whether of the gods invoked in the rite, or sometimes in general, and sometimes as categories of the Dead. These spirits are tasked with the usual goals of love-spells, revenge, legal cases and sports-betting.

As the Hellenic moral sense became more restrictive (or refined, as you like) theorists began to assert that some daemones became ‘base’ in their desires and inclinations. They hung around boxing-matches, low sport and Underworld sacrifices. As they became base so the mortals they influenced became more inclined to vicious behavior. These spirits became the servants of low sorcerers, essentially thug-spooks for hire. This was not all so much based upon a matter of ‘sin’ as it was on the idea that wallowing in dung makes one stink. (Back to kakodaemones…). Magicians (especially theurgists) proposed that virtuous living supported contact with wiser, calmer, spirits long before Christian dualism developed its spirit hierarchies.

I remain interested in how the Book of Enoch’s notion of ‘fallen angels’ got wrapped up in all of this. Of course we see there the same pattern – divine beings attracted by earthly delights. The separation of the spiritual from the material seems to have been trending in 1 ce or so. One Hellenic notion of the origin of the daemones is that they are the souls of the humans of the Golden Age, ennobled by the gods to act as guardians and aids for mortals. Throw in the jealousy of the God of Sinai, and those noble spirits, children of the first days, become rebellious angels. To the Hellenes and other Indo-European Pagans, the siring of children by mighty spirits with mortal women was neither improper nor unclean. The spirits of such children often became mighty daimones.

As the classical era ends, Paganism slowly becomes illegal in the Roman Empire. Pagan rites are transferred from the public temples to private chapels and living-rooms. In these reduced circumstances we may have the beginnings of ‘high magic’, and certainly of later theurgy. It is from rites of this sort combined with the low magic of the Greek Papyri that the magic of the grimoires is thought to spring, long and winding though the trail from 700 to 1700 may be.

As Christian myth and spiritology became the norm among scholastics (and so among magicians) the baser daemons were reckoned part of the Enemy’s legions and called ‘demons’, while better daemons were assigned to heavenly quires to become ‘angels’ – messengers – of ‘God’. The whole War In Heaven myth is applied, God’s Kingdom opposed to the World, the Flesh and the Devil. The material world being part of the unholy triad of primal Christian thought any spirit not immediately part of the angelic hosts was a ‘demon’ – a subject of the Prince of This World. So elementals, ‘fairies’ even the worldly end of the spiritual hierarchy were considered ‘demons', i.e. fallen angels and/or servants of 'Satan'.

Among magicians, who were always influenced by but other than orthodoxy, the spiritual hierarchy of, say, any given planet began at an archangel (or a ‘god’ in earlier and later material), descending through layers of servitor spirits. The very lowest layer of those servitor spirits – the actual workers of the magician’s team – were often called ‘demons’. In one of the classical model of spirit-arte demons are commanded by the magician through the agency of the names of the proper angels. In this way the sovereignty of the system’s ‘God’ is preserved, while putting power into the magician’s hands.

We arrive at the era of the famous grimoires with lists of spirits that are known to serve magicians. Some of them seem to be reflections of specific ancient gods, others are more obscure. Some actually do things like slay and coerce, but many create gardens or teach mathematics. If one reads the list of ‘demons’ in, e.g. the Goetia of the Lesser Key one hardly gets the impression of seething evil, disease and revolt. My favorite mythic-style guess is that those spirits began as daemons serving the Gods at the sacrifices, and continued to answer the calls of magicians over the centuries. After all, some sources say that spirits change their names every 40 years…

For many modern magicians approaching the daemones by the names remembered in the early-modern grimoires is a matter of practicality and mechanics. Most grimoire rites involve no diabolism, no worship of Christian mythic figures such as Satan and Lucifer. Rather the piety and focus of the magician allow him to deal with the spirits. The very latest revisions have added a respectful relationship of alliance with these daemones, which seems reasonable to me.

My own opinion is that we can safely discard the whole separation of spirits into ‘angels and demons’. If one prefers to consider spirits who function specifically as ‘messengers’ of a god to be angels, that’s linguistically sensible. There isn’t really much use for ‘demon’ unless one uses it as shorthand for ‘wrathful, dangerous or predatory spirit’. I didn’t mention the idea of spirits who deliberately set themselves against humankind as our enemies, because I’m unsure that such things exist. Of course madness and malice might occur in all classes of intelligent beings, one must assume.


Once again the depiction of daemons (or
'demons' of the later grimoires) is often as
chimeras - a combination of multiple animal
and/or human elements.
To address the question of 'dangers', I can begin by dismissing the idea of there being a danger to my 'salvation' by dismissing the need for salvation. I ain't in that. Most dangers of dealing with the spirits remembered as grimoire demons seem to be the same as dealing with any powerful spirit - to insult or ll-use the spirit can result in a wrathful response. I reject the notion that there is a kind of spirit that makes its business to mislead or destroy humans, and I especially reject the idea that such spirits (should I be wrong about them existing) would brave the protection of magicians to pretend to serve mortals. Since I do not believe there are two opposing moral teams in the spirit-world I don't think there's a danger of choosing the wrong team. 

The original Hellenic analysis may have some merit. Success in human life depends on the cultivation of certain social virtues - moderation, communality, honesty. Nature does not share these virtues widely, and many spirits do not, either. Many noble and useful spirits are no more concerned with human morality than is a plow-horse. The magician is advised, wisely, so work rites that attract spirits of wisdom and sense. Again, if one reads Solomon's Goetia many of those spirits seem to fit the bill. The discernment of early-modern spiritology seems, from my perspective, to have been badly clouded by the 'angels and demons' mythology of the day.

As someone concerned with Celtic and Germanic magic I have no real resonance with the spirit-lists of the early-modern grimoires. I gave some thought to attempting to work with them inside our Druidic fire-sacrifice ritual form. In the end I took the route of prospecting for new spirits. I have no dog in the fight over whether the spirits of the Lesser Key (or of other goetic grimoires) are more dangerous than useful. However, useful things are often dangerous, and I would never advise magicians to play things entirely safe.

4 comments:

faoladh said...

I think that what's most interesting for our purposes in the grimoire tradition is a few instances of calling on fairies, such as "Oberion". I'm told that Skinner's books on Treasure Spirits and Arthur Gauntlet include examples of conjurations of fairies.

IanC said...

They do. Unfortunately they are pretty opaque as to any special or particular nature of what a 'fairie' is. They appear mostly as just another category of spook to conjure in rather the usual ways. All of which makes me inclined to think that the 72 are overrated rather than Oberion et al being underrated.

I'm waiting real hard for Dan Harms' "Book of Oberion".

faoladh said...

"I'm waiting real hard for Dan Harms' "Book of Oberion"."

You and me both!

Could you expand on what you mean about the 72 being overrated as opposed to Oberion being underrated?

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