Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: daemon from The Macquarie Dictionary

Greek Mythology a god.

Plural: daemons



/'dim7n/, /'deemuhn/ /'da1-/, /'duy-/

Variants: daimon, demon

Greek Mythology a subordinate deity, as the genius of a place or a person's attendant spirit.

Plural: daemons


/'dim7n/, /'deemuhn/ /'da1-/, /'duy-/

Computers a service program that is called into action by the operating system.

Plural: daemons

Etymology: Latin, from Greek daim\xc5\x8dn

daemonic /d7'm6n1k/, /duh'monik/ adjective

Summary Article: Demon
from The Classical Tradition

In philosophical (mainly Platonist and Neoplatonist) thinking of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, demons (daimones, singular daimōn) were intermediate beings, sharing immortality, or at worst extreme longevity, with the gods, and susceptibility to emotion with humans. Cosmologically, by inhabiting the space between earth and the moon, they ensured that no zone of the cosmos was devoid of living creatures. Theologically, they accounted for traditional religious beliefs and cults, including the identities of the Olympian and other lesser deities, and were responsible for maintaining contact between humanity and higher power (via oracles, dreams, portents, and prayer). In the individual's life quest, they acted as guardian spirits, and (in some versions) constituted the higher community which the virtuous could hope to join at death. Part of this picture is developed already in Plato's Symposium (202E-203E), but its systematization came later, with the pseudo-Platonic Epinomis (984b-d) and the Middle Platonist Xenocrates. The starting point in Plato, however, guaranteed that the personal daimōn of Socrates was always a central instance and talking point (perhaps most influentially in the 2nd-century Latin of Apuleius' On the God of Socrates).

For classical authors daimones were positive beings, subservient to a benevolent supreme divinity. The only partial exception were the gloomy or even malevolent daimones hypothesized by Xenocrates to account for the more sinister forms of traditional religious observance. Christian writers, however, from the 2nd century onward, exploited the classical doctrine equally vigorously in both positive and negative directions. The combination of Jewish ideas with the religious functions of classical daimones (especially in Xenocrates' version) allowed for the construction of a damning picture of pagan religion as a malevolent fraud practiced on humanity by rebel angels; and the classical perception of the emotionalism and appetites of daimones helped flesh out thinking about the character and modus operandi of the Devil's subordinates more generally. But, equally, a purified version of daimōn theory fed into the construction of late antique and medieval angelology. A key text in this latter connection was the Celestial Hierarchy of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a 6th-century Christian transposition of Neoplatonic demonology that defined the nine canonical orders of angels. Translated into Latin and enriched with a commentary by Eriugena in the 9th century, this work made a major contribution to the teaching on angels of Albert the Great, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas, even as at the same time they were taking other aspects of the classical nexus into their theorizing about demons.

The ambivalent heritage of classical demonology was thus made available to later thinkers for a range of different purposes. Marsilio Ficino expounded the Platonic material (in his essays on Plato's Theages and Symposium) and explored the relevance of daimones to higher, "theurgic" magic, aimed at the purification of the intellect (On Arranging One's Life According to the Heavens, 1489). Cornelius Agrippa (Occult Philosophy, 1533) and Paracelsus (On Nymphs, etc., 1515) adapted different strands of the tradition in accounts of nature and the orders of living beings; Agrippa took the high Neoplatonic line, whereas Paracelsus preferred the elemental spirits of Epinomis, which blended better with popular beliefs. Others used classical theory to help map the hierarchy of evil spirits, especially as involved in witchcraft and black magic, as Jean Bodin did in his On the Demonology of the Sorcerers (1580)—though King James I's Daemonologie (1597) shows much less dependence on classical, as opposed to biblical, authorities. At the same time, classical demons continued to be used, as by the early Christians, in explanations of the origins and typology of pagan religion (e.g., Gerardus Joannes Vossius, Pagan Theology, 1641). From all these sources, shards of classical demonology have remained in circulation in 19th- to 21stcentury esoteric and neo-pagan writing.

Throughout, special attention has continued to be paid to the question of the demon of Socrates, which has been reinterpreted at regular intervals in a startling variety of ways: as a true guardian angel (e.g., Giannozzo Manetti, Life of Socrates 28); as Socrates' own half-understood moral consciousness (Hegel); or (Nietzsche, with a characteristically reductive inflection) as an infection of the inner ear. The case of Socrates has also stimulated some notable attempts to represent a daimōn in visual form: for example, Nicolai Abildgaard's depiction of a contemplative Socrates accompanied by not one but two contending daimonia (1784, drawing on Manetti); or Simeon Solomon's provocatively witty sketch of the daimonion as a naked ephebe (youth) leaning elegantly on his older protector's shoulder (ca. 1865).

  • Daniélou, J., Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture (London1973).
  • Dillon, J., The Middle Platonists (London1977).
  • Walker, D. P., Spiritual and Demonic Magic (London1958).
M.B. T.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

Related Articles

Full text Article demon
The Chambers Dictionary

(also fem dē'moness) an evil spirit, a devil; sometimes (like daemon) a friendly spirit or good genius; an evil or wicked person (fig); a person of

Full text Article Demon
Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

An evil spirit who takes possession of a person, or a devil who torments people in hell. Until the 19th century the word was commonly spelled DAEMON

Full text Article demon
Dictionary of World Philosophy

The Greek philosopher Plato (428–348 BCE), in various dialogues, and the Greek writer and moralist Xenophon ( c. 430– c. 355 BCE), in his ...

See more from Credo