Dæmonology: First Developments. Homer and Hesiod

(An image from a 1539 printing of Works and Days)


First Developments:

Homer and Hesiod


           The oldest known record of the word δαίμων (daimon) appears in the first book of Homer’s Iliad. In verse 222, when the poet says that Athena “returned to Olympus to the palace of aegis-bearing Zeus, to join the company of the other gods[1], the gods in the verse are called “δαίμονας” (daimonas), plural form of δαίμων.

           The study of the etymology of the word reveals roots, however, much older, deep into the Indo-European culture, from which the syllable *da(i) brought with it the meanings of “dividing, distributing, giving lots”, making the Greek daimon originally a divinity which distributes to men the lot that belongs to each one, which, by extension, defines the destiny of each one. So we have Achilles, in the Iliad, and Telemachos, in the Odyssey, describing Zeus as the Supreme Distributor:

The immortals know no care, yet the lot they spin for man is full of sorrow; on the floor of Zeus’ palace there stand two urns, the one filled with evil gifts, and the other with good ones. He for whom Zeus the lord of thunder mixes the gifts he sends, will meet now with good and now with evil fortune; but he to whom Zeus sends none but evil gifts will be pointed at by the finger of scorn, the hand of famine will pursue him to the ends of the world, and he will go up and down the face of the earth, respected neither by gods nor men.[2]

Zeus is who gives to each mortal who eats bread as he wills.[3]

           Although in the Indo-European culture the word might have a more positive meaning, focused on the distribution of blessings and riches that had its parallel in the distribution of food and gifts made by the tribal chief, over time also the misfortunes of life came to be represented in the lot that the gods distribute to every human being. “Distributor,” as well as “immortal,” for example, evolves from an adjective into a term appropriate to divinity.

           Already in Hesiod a major change takes place. First, it is important to know that Hesiod did not use the word “daimon” to address the deities; when referring to them he employs the terms αθανάτων (atanáton = imortals) and θεούς (teoís = gods)[4]. However, the distributive role associated with “daimon” is conspicuously referred to in the narrative:

He [Zeus] is king in the sky, holding the thunder and the blazing thunderbolt himself, since he gained victory in supremacy over his father Cronus; and he distributed well all things alike to the immortals and devised their honors.[5]

Tell how in the first place gods and earth were born, and rivers and the boundless sea seething with its swell, and the shining stars and the broad sky above, and those who were born from them, the gods givers of good things; and how they divided their wealth and distributed their honors, and also how they first took possession of many-folded Olympus.[6]

It is when Hesiod sings about Eos, the goddess of the dawn, that he says:

And to Cephalus she bore a splendid son, powerful Phaethon, a man equal to the gods. While he was young, a delicate-spirited child, and still possessed the tender flower of glorious youth, smile-loving Aphrodite snatched him away, and made him her innermost temple-keeper in her holy temples, a divine spirit [δαίμονα δϊον].[7]

           This is the first recorded instance of the word “daimon” being used in a context different from the one we find in the Homeric works. The distance from that earlier use[8] is emphasized by the employment of the adjective “divine”. The passage opens the way to the use of “daimon” to indicate non-divine spirits and also is the first known indication of the possibility that a human could be “daimonized” by a god, entering into a category different (but close) from the one of the heroes.

           It is in the Work and Days, however, that Hesiod made the most known and commented use of the term. Here it is where the new concept of the “daimon” comes in, when he describes the fate of the Golden Race:

First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Cronos when he was reigning in heaven. And they lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them; but with legs and arms never failing they made merry with feasting beyond the reach of all evils. When they died, it was as though they were overcome with sleep, and they had all good things; for the fruitful earth unforced bare them fruit abundantly and without stint. They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods. But after the earth had covered this generation—they are called pure spirits [δαίμονες ἁγνοὶ] dwelling on the earth, and are kindly, delivering from harm, and guardians of mortal men; for they roam everywhere over the earth, clothed in mist and keep watch on judgements and cruel deeds, givers of wealth; for this royal right also they received.[9]

           Hesiod called the spirits of the men from the Golden Race δαίμονες ἁγνοὶ, making them the invisible representatives of Zeus in charge of “watch on judgements and cruel deeds” and also having the typical daimonic feature of being “givers of wealth”. Their function under the aegis of Zeus was also mentioned a few verses ahead:

You princes, mark well this punishment, you also, for the deathless gods are near among men; and mark all those who oppress their fellows with crooked judgements; and heed not the anger of the gods. For upon the bounteous earth Zeus has thrice ten thousand spirits, watchers of mortal men, and these keep watch on judgements and deeds of wrong as they roam, clothed in mist, all over the earth.[10]

           With Hesiod, therefore, the δαίμων no more indicate the gods directly and goes on to refer to a category of intermediate, non-divine or semi-divine beings, who, under the orders of Zeus, guard the human being, distributing riches and watching over their actions.

           In Homer, however, we already encounter several characteristics which will later be attributed to these intermediate spirits. For example:

  1. To communicate to men the wills and counsels of the gods: in the Iliad, Athena, for example, manifests to Achilles at the request of Hera. Athena is a subordinate deity who, at that moment, comes to earth as an intermediary to communicate to a mortal the will of a hierarchically superior goddess.
  2. Bring the prayers and supplications of men to the gods: also in the Iliad, Thetis takes the request of Achilles to Zeus and intercedes in favor of this hero.
  3. To Influence human thoughts and feelings, inspiring ideas and sending dreams, giving energy and strength, as well as affecting others’ perception of the person – the examples are many, and basically they define the interaction between the heroes and the Olympic δαίμονας.

           Still very important is the idea of a personal daimon that we find in the Homeric poems. The most famous example comes from the relationship between Athena and Odysseus, but this is a repeating pattern: Tethys and Achilles, Aphrodite and Paris, Crises and Apollo… Mortals could enjoy the favor of a deity for various causes; so Achilles was the son of Tethys, Chryses was a priest of Apollo, Paris for having elected Aphrodite at the trial, and Odysseus was dear to Athena for having a brilliant mind.

Athena inspires Odysseus for vengeance (1901) Jan Styka

           Along with the personal daimon, the Homeric hero commonly had an antagonist daimon. The best examples are that of Odysseus, who incurs the wrath of Poseidon, and that of Paris, who gains the sworn enmity of Athena and Hera while making Aphrodite his protector. The theme of the two daimons, one good and the other bad, reinterpreted under a moral view, was part of Empedocles’s philosophy, which made mention of the two daimons and the two fates (“two destinies and two daimones receive and lead each of us from birth“)[11] and survived to become quite popular in Christianity

           As the attentive reader must have realized, in Homer and Hesiod are all the key themes of pagan daemonology and its later derivative, Christian demonology. The relationship between the human being and the daimones has also become a very important element in the magic found in the Greek Magical Papyri and the theurgy of Iamblichus; this becomes a theme for a sequence of this text.



[1] Homer, The Iliad with an English Translation, A.T. Murray.

[2] Homer, The Iliad, Samuel Butler.

[3] Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic, Barbara Graziosi.

[4] With one notable exception, when the Ἑκατόγχειρες (Hecatoikeires = Hundred-Handed One) Cottus   adresses Zeus in a speech; he call the supreme god “δαίμόνι”. But here the word is used not in the direct speech of the poet, but in a speech narrated by the poet.

[5] Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days, Testimonia, edited and translated by Glenn w. Most.

[6] Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days, Testimonia, edited and translated by Glenn W. Most.

[7] Hesiod: Theogony and Works and Days, Testimonia, edited and translated by Glenn W. Most.

[8] I am assuming, together with the majority of the specialists, that the Homeric epics are earlier compositions.

[9] Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation, Hugh G. Evelyn-White.

[10] Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation, Hugh G. Evelyn-White.

[11] La démonologie platonicienne : histoire de la notion de daimon de Platon aux derniers néoplatoniciens, Andrei Timotin.

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