Soul and Daimon
There is an aspect to the question of what the soul is which is startling and strange, but so widespread that it cannot be avoided. It is connected to the popular idea that we all have a guardian angel. According to a US poll in the 1990s, sixty-nine per cent of Americans believe in angels. Forty-six per cent have their own guardian angels and thirty-two per cent have felt an angelic presence.[i] For example, in her book When Angels Appear, Hope Macdonald describes an incident in which a young mother sees that her three-year-old daughter, Lisa, has escaped from the garden and is sitting on the railway line beyond. At that moment a train comes around the bend, its whistle blowing. 'As she raced from the house screaming her daughter's name, she suddenly saw a striking figure, clothed in pure white, lifting Lisa off the track with an arm around the child.... When the mother reached the daughter's side, Lisa was standing alone.'[ii]
Not many tales of guardian angels are as dramatic as this one; but a surprising number of people attest to some experience that they ascribe to the action of a guardian angel, even if it is only a single word of warning or, as is commonly reported, a simple touch on the shoulder or tug on the sleeve.
While Lisa's angel conforms to popular expectations of an angel -- a white, possibly winged, powerful and protective being -- they may not always be thus. The folklorist Katharine Briggs reported how a friend of hers, a clergyman's widow who suffered from an injured foot, had been sitting one day on a seat in London's Regent's Park, wondering how on Earth she would find the strength to limp home. Suddenly she saw a tiny man in green who looked at her very kindly and said: 'Go home. We promise that your foot shan't pain you tonight.' Then he disappeared. But the intense pain in her foot had gone. She walked home easily and slept painlessly all night.[iii]
And what are we to make of the ‘angels' -- as terse as any doctor -- in this next account, related in the British Medical Journal for December 1998? A woman referred to only as AB heard a voice while sitting at home reading. It told her not to be afraid and said that it was here with a friend to help her. Although AB had no history of psychological problems, she went straight to a psychiatrist who ‘treated' her with counselling and medication, and pronounced her cured. But while she was on holiday soon afterwards, AB heard the voice again -- or, rather, two voices. They told her to return immediately to England because something was wrong with her. She did as they said. Back in London the voices gave her an address to go to. It turned out to be the brain scan department of a hospital. As she arrived, the voices told her to ask for a brain scan for two reasons: she had a tumour on her brain and the brain stem was inflamed. Her original psychiatrist, wishing to reassure her, arranged for the scan, even though there was no indication of any tumour. He was criticised by his colleagues for pandering to AB's hypochondriacal delusions. However, the results showed that she did indeed have a tumour, which was removed. After the operation, the voices came again. They said: ‘We are pleased to have helped you. Goodbye.' AB has since made a full recovery.
Already we see that the idea of guardian angels is both puzzling and varied; and so it might be useful briefly to review their origins in Western culture. These are bound up with the origins of angels in general.
A Little History of Angels
Angels enter our culture via the Old Testament, but they do not feature strongly there. They only became dominant figures in the Jewish apocalyptic writings which date from about the third century BC onwards. It is likely that this is because such writings were influenced by the Zoroastrian religion of Persia where the Jews had been held captive. The Zoroastrians had complex ideas about angels, including a well-developed doctrine of guardian angels -- celestial beings of light who act a bit like the prototype of us humans. But the later Jewish angels tended to be impersonal rather than personal; and, as Harold Bloom reminds us in Omens of Millennium, not at all composed of sweetness and light. Like the archangel Metatron, angels were highly ambiguous, awesome, even terrifying.[iv] We might remember how Muhammad the Prophet asked to look upon the angel Gabriel, who had dictated the Koran to him. As the agent of the Prophet's revelation, Gabriel could well be called his guardian angel. However, when the Prophet was granted his wish, he fainted dead away at the shock of seeing such a vast being, filling the horizon and stretching upwards out of view.[v] In the Book of Enoch (Enoch was held by some to have been transformed into Metatron when 'he walked with God, and was not, because God took him') angels lust after earth women,[vi] like the mysterious angelic Nephilim, who suddenly came down from above in the book of Genesis and 'mated with the daughters of men.' No wonder St Paul warned women in Corinthians ‘to have a veil on their heads, because of the angels...'[vii] In Colossians he warns against worship of angels, implying that there is no difference between angels and demons.
However, angels found their way into European culture less through the Jewish tradition than through the Greek, notably through Dionysius the Areopagite. He was originally believed to have been an Athenian disciple of St Paul's, but is now reckoned to be a Syrian monk of the late fifth century. His book The Celestial Hierarchy is the most influential text in the history of angelology. For example, it was Dionysius who tried to settle the question -- raised by the likes of St Augustine -- of whether or not angels had a material body. He came down decisively on the side of immateriality. Angels were pure spiritual beings, he said - and this idea was taken up enthusiastically by St Thomas Aquinas, and hence by the Roman Catholic Church. It was Dionysius who arranged the angels into the nine orders adopted by Catholic orthodoxy, from Cherubim, Seraphim and Thrones, through Dominations, Virtues and Powers, down to Principalities, Archangels and Angels -- each order a link in the Great Chain of Being which stretched from God down to mankind, the animals, plants and stones.
The idea that angels mediated between God and mankind was actually a much older idea which Dionysius derived from the Neoplatonists. His whole system of theology, in fact, was cribbed wholesale from Plotinus, Iamblichus and Proclus and then Christianised. But in the original, Neoplatonic 'theology' the mediating beings were not angels but daimons The idea of guardian angels comes from the Greek notion of the personal daimon.
In the Symposium, Socrates tells us that ‘only through the daimonic is there intercourse and conversation between men and Gods, whether in the waking state or during sleep. And the man who is an expert in such intercourse is a daimonic man...'[viii] Socrates could speak with authority because his personal daimon was the most famous in antiquity. Apuleius, of Eros and Psyche fame, wrote a book about it, explaining that Socrates' daimon was responsible for mediating between him and the gods. Daimons, claimed Apuleius, inhabit the air and have bodies of so transparent a kind that we cannot see them, only hear them. This was the case with Socrates, whose daimon was famous for simply saying 'No' whenever he was about to encounter danger or do something displeasing to the gods. It was not just Apuleius, but all the Neoplatonists, incidentally, who believed that daimons are as much material as spiritual, despite what later Catholic apologists such as Aquinas claimed. To say they inhabit the air is a metaphor for the middle realm they inhabit between the material and spiritual realms, as it were participating in both. It is the realm which the great scholar of Sufism, Henri Corbin, calls 'the imaginal world' in which a different, daimonic reality prevails. It is the middle realm described by C.G. Jung who called it ‘psychic reality'. Above all, of course, it is the Soul of the World.
We all have a personal daimon, whose duty is not only to protect us but also to summon us to our vocation. But perhaps it is only in those with an exceptionally powerful summons, a striking vocation, that their daimons become unusually apparent. These are the shamans, poets, medicine men, mediums and witch-doctors whom Socrates called ‘experts in daimonic intercourse'.[ix] Jung was just such a medicine man, as his journey into the Underworld of the unconscious makes plain. His first overt encounter with his daimon came in a dream of a winged being, sailing across the sky. He saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. He held a bunch of four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock. The lock he was about to open, of course, was the locked unconscious psyche of Jung. This mysterious figure introduced himself as Philemon; and he visited Jung often after that, not only in dreams but while he was awake as well. 'At times he seemed to me quite real,' wrote Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 'as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru.... Philemon brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which have their own life... I held conversations with him and he said things which I had not consciously thought... He said I treated thoughts as if I generate them myself but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room... It was he who taught me psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche.'[x]
If this is an unconventional picture of a 'guardian angel', it is conservative compared to Napoleon's 'familiar spirit', as described by Aniela Jaffé in Apparitions: ‘it protected him... guided him, as a daemon, and... at particular moments took on the shape of a shining sphere, which he called his star, or which visited him in the figure of a dwarf clothed in red that warned him.'[xi] On the other hand, it was not so eccentric when we consider that, according to Iamblichus, daimons favour luminous appearances or 'phasmata' second only to manifesting in personified form. The phasmata of daimons are 'various and dreadful'. They appear 'at different times... in a different form, and appear at one time great, but at another small, yet are still recognised to be the phasmata of daemons.'[xii] Thus it is not so surprising if a personal daimon shape-shifts, showing itself now as a Gabriel-sized angel, now as a red dwarf.
The idea that we each have a personal daimon is surprisingly widespread. The Romans, of course, called it the genius -- to which they made sacrifices on their birthdays.[xiii] It is the nagual of Central America and the nyarong of the Malays.[xiv] It is the ‘guardian spirit' or ‘personal god' of many North American tribes, whether the ‘agate man' of the Navaho, the sicom of the Dakota or the ‘owl' of the Kwakiutl -- all of which accompany, guide, protect and warn. It would be tedious to trawl through every culture that subscribes to it; but it is worth mentioning two or three to show how subtle the differences can be in its conception, within a broad general agreement about its function as guardian and guide.
Among the Australian aboriginals, for example, C. Strehlow has described how the Aranda recognise an Iningukua who accompanies us through life, warns us of dangers and helps us escape from them. We are both at one with this guardian and separate from it -- it lived before us and will not die with us.[xv] The anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl succinctly sums up the puzzling ambiguity of a person's daimon, ‘who is undoubtedly in him, is himself, makes him what he is, but at the same time surpasses him, differs from him, and keeps him in a state of dependency.'[xvi]
Many West African peoples believe that before you enter the world you draw up a contract with a heavenly double who prescribes what you will do with your life -- how long you will live, whom you will marry, how many children you will have, and so on. ‘Then, just before you are born, you are led to the Tree of Forgetfulness, which you embrace, and from that moment you lose all conscious recollection of your contract.' However, if you do not live up to your contractual obligations ‘you will become ill, and you will need the help of a diviner, who will use all his skill to make contact with your heavenly double and discover what articles of the contract you are failing to fulfil.'[xvii] I cannot help feeling that our psychotherapeutic techniques could learn something from this procedure...
More specifically in West Africa, Major A.B. Ellis reported that the Ewe-speaking peoples believe they have a second individuality living inside them called a kra. As usual, it is a guardian spirit which goes on existing after our death, either entering a newly-born human or an animal; or wandering about the world. Like the Roman genius, it receives homage from its host, especially on his birthday, when an animal sacrifice is made to the kra.
At the same time, the kra can behave like the ‘shadow' or soul. For instance, it can leave the body at will and wander in the Otherworld. Dreams are the adventures of the kra in the Otherworld, and we feel the effects of its actions when, for instance, we wake up with aching limbs after the kra has been working or struggling in the dream-world. The kra looks like us because when it meets others in dreams it is really meeting the kras of others, yet it can recognise the people to whom they belong because of the physical resemblance. Like the soul, then, it can leave the body - and we become cold and pulseless until it returns (if it does not, we die). Yet, say the Ewe-speaking people, the kra is not the soul, which goes on living after death independently of the kra.[xviii]
The neighbouring Ga-speaking people call the kra the okra. They sometimes identify it with the soul, or susuma. But, then again, it is not really the soul because it is more often spoken of as a guardian who has stood by them in times of danger or, in times of misfortune, turned away from them.[xix]
According to Vilhjalmur Stefansson, when an Inuit child is born it comes into the world with a soul, or nappan, of its own. But this soul is so foolish, inexperienced and feeble, just as a baby is, that it needs a wiser and more experienced soul than its own to look after it. Accordingly, the soul of a dead ancestor is summoned to become the child's guardian soul, or atka.
The atka enters the child and teaches it to talk. But when the child talks it is really the atka who speaks, with all the acquired wisdom of the ancestor. Therefore, whatever the child says, it is really the wisest person in the family, regardless of how foolish its words or actions may seem. If the child cries for a knife, for example, its mother should give it a knife at once because it is the ancestor who wants it, and it would be presumptuous of the young mother to think that she knows what is better for the child than its atka. More importantly, if she refused the knife, she would offend the ancestor who in his anger might abandon the child, causing it to fall ill or even die. So the child must be indulged at all times in order to propitiate its atka, the ancestor.
As the child grows up, his own soul or nappan gets stronger and develops in wisdom so that after ten or twelve years, it is competent to look after the child. At that point it becomes less vital to please the atka and so it becomes customary to start punishing and disciplining children at the age of about ten or twelve years.[xx]
Similarly, the Bantus of Southern Africa assert that a man has a daimon, with the same name as himself, who is the spirit of an ancestor or godfather reincarnated within him. This daimon is ‘the sovereign part of his soul, within him and yet without him, surrounding him, guiding him from birth to death.'[xxi] Once again, the daimon is seen to be intensely personal -- it ‘belongs' exclusively to oneself - yet strangely impersonal, existing outside oneself. Among the Ashanti of West Africa, the ntoro is a spirit which protects and guides. However, it is transmitted from father to son via sexual union with the mother (ntoro is sometimes the word for semen).
In ancient Egypt the ka -- as opposed to the ba I have already described -- was a person's vital force, but experienced as something bestowed from outside rather than as emanating from themselves. It was represented in wall paintings by two upraised arms, either on their own or else attached to the head of the person's ‘double'. However the ka was only a personal, protective daimon in the true sense for the king, and perhaps some of the élite nobles, who had been initiated like shamans into the world of the dead where the ka resides. For the ka ‘energy', so to speak, was pooled among the ancestors -- the dead -- who directed this energy towards the physical realm, infusing humans, and also animals and crops, with the ka's vital force. When a person died, they were said to ‘go to their ka' -- that is, the ancestral ka group or clan. Tombs were important because they were ‘the places of ka', like exchanges where the dead and living could communicate.[xxii]
Ordinary people would only experience the ka after death, and probably not as an individual entity but as the ancestral group which absorbed them. For the king, though, the ka was a kind of protective daimon, often depicted as walking behind him like a servant, and whom he could experience as a separate ‘person'. As the Old Kingdom King Pepi says:
‘It goes well with me and my name;
I live with my ka.
It expels the evil that is before me,
It removes the evil that is behind me.'[xxiii]
Doubtless ordinary folk, the uninitiated, experienced the ka at times as a heightened sense of individual power, as we do; but to experience it as part of the psyche's infrastructure was the prerogative of the king alone. The average ancient Egyptian certainly never felt the sense of personal identification with the ka as they felt with the ba.[xxiv]
The raising of Plotinus' daimon
The paradox of the personal daimon is that it can also be impersonal. Katharine Briggs' friend with the injured foot encountered a being that was clearly and intimately to do with her -- yet also almost part of the landscape, like a fairy. I suggest that, while the personal daimon is exactly that -- personal -- it is also always grounded in the impersonal and unknowable depths of the psyche. It is also, in other words, a manifestation of the Anima Mundi, or Soul of the World - as the case of Plotinus makes clear.
While he was living in Rome, he was approached by an Egyptian priest who, wishing to show off his theurgical powers, asked if he might be allowed to invoke a visible manifestation of Plotinus' daimon. The sage agreed. The rite took place in the Temple of Isis, the only pure place in Rome according to the priest. But to everyone's surprise, the daimon turned out to be a god -- the priest was so shocked that the god disappeared before it could be questioned.[xxv]
Plotinus himself was eloquent on the subject of the personal daimon. He held that every human psyche is a spectrum of possible levels, on any one of which we may choose to live (each of us is an 'intellectual cosmos'); and, whatever level one chooses, the next one above that serves as one's daimon. If one lives well, one may live at a higher level in the next life, and then the level of one's daimon will accordingly rise, until for the perfect sage the daimon is the One itself, the transcendent source and goal of everything that is. In other words, the daimon was not, for Plotinus, an anthropomorphic being but an inner psychological principle - notably the spiritual level above that on which we conduct our lives.[xxvi] It is therefore both within us and, at the same time, transcendent; and this suggests that it is simultaneously as personal as a 'familiar' and as impersonal as a god. Iamblichus went further, to assert that personal daimons are not fixed but can develop or perhaps unfold in relation to our own spiritual development, rather as Jung might say that, in the course of individuation, we move beyond the personal unconscious to the impersonal, collective unconscious - through the daimonic to the divine. We are assigned a daimon at birth, said Iamblichus, to govern and direct our lives; but our task is to obtain a god in its place.[xxvii]
This doctrine comes from a story or myth told by Plato in The Republic[xxviii] concerning a man called Er, who had what we now call a Near-Death Experience. He brought back news not just of what happens after death, but what happens before birth. We choose the lives we are about to lead, he said, but we are allotted a daimon to act as guardian and to help us fulfil our choice. Then we pass under the throne of Necessity, the pattern of our lives having been fixed, to be born. Our daimons carry the imaginative blueprints of our lives. They lay down the personal myth, as it were, which we are bound to enact in the course of our lives. It is the voice that calls us to our true purpose, our vocation. The reality of the personal daimon is affirmed by the fact that it persists in the human mind, so that no matter how we wish to grow out of Plato's old tale, it crops up in different guises again and again.
The psychologist Julian Jaynes was guided by his daimon while he was writing a book about the problem of what knowledge is and how we can know anything at all. He had become hopelessly bogged down and lost. One afternoon he lay down, as he tells us, ‘in intellectual despair' on a couch. ‘Suddenly, out of an absolute quiet, there came a firm, distinct loud voice from my upper right, which said: "Include the knower and the known!" It lugged me to my feet absurdly exclaiming "Hello?", looking for whoever was in the room.'[xxix]
But Jaynes was a scientist of the mind, and so he naturally thought that the voice had been an ‘auditory hallucination'. To his credit he thought that it was probably quite a common occurrence, especially in the past before our brains had split into right and left hemispheres. Formerly, he thought, the right brain ‘person' would talk directly to the left brain ‘person' - the ‘I'. Now, this communication had been disrupted and we no longer, or only intermittently, heard instructions from the ‘gods'. He described his conclusions in an influential book, The Origin of Consciousness and the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. But we are in position to see that he only did what scientism so often does: it takes up an old myth and re-invents it, but in a literalistic way.
Another example of this literalising is the Just So story[xxx] of the 'selfish gene'. In the early pages of his book of that name, Richard Dawkins finds it impossible to avoid talking about our 'selfish genes' as if they were personal daimons. They 'create form', he says, and 'mould matter' and 'choose'. They are 'the immortals'. They 'possess us'. We are merely 'lumbering robots' whose genes 'created us body and mind'.[xxxi] This anthropomorphic language, I suggest, is hardly the language of science, but let it pass. For Dawkins is unconsciously literalising a myth and part of him knows that it is natural to personify. When he asks us to believe that our most treasured attributes are mere biology, pressed into the service of our genes, he is unwittingly inverting and literalising the traditional - and, I would assert, the true - order which sees our bodily life, on the contrary, as the mere vehicle of our daimon, soul or ‘higher self'.
According to Dawkins and, indeed, to most scientists, the 'selfish gene' is allotted to us by Chance and thereafter subjects us to its inexorable Necessity -- the pattern we are forced by the genes to live out. Chance and Necessity, the twin goddesses of science, are supposed to rule our lives. But Plato's daimon tells another tale, one which science has, once again, not so much replaced as inverted and made literal. The daimon is allotted to us in accordance with the life we have already chosen. We are not merely the random result of the chance meeting of our parents for we have chosen them just as they have, willy-nilly, chosen each other. We really do come into the world as Wordsworth says, 'trailing clouds of glory'. Thereafter we are subject, certainly, to Necessity; but it manifests as a fate or destiny we are also free to deny. Of course, it is not advisable: to cut oneself off from our daimon is to lose its protection and guidance, to court accidents and to lose our way. Besides, to deny the daimon turns out to be only the illusion of freedom. Real freedom, it turns out -- paradoxically -- is freely to choose to subordinate our egotistical desires and wishes to the imperatives of the personal daimon, whose service is perfect freedom.
Acorn and oak
In The Soul's Code, James Hillman -- the best of the post-Jungian analytical psychologists -- develops a whole child psychology based on the idea of the personal daimon. He calls it the acorn theory, according to which 'each life is formed by its unique image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny. As the force of fate, this image acts as a personal daimon, an accompanying guide who remembers your calling.... The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper and especially when it is neglected or opposed.'[xxxii] Indeed, the daimon can manifest itself in both psychic and physical symptoms and disorders, as a kind of preventive medicine, holding us back from taking a false path.
Since it represents the fate of the individual -- since our adult 'oak' life is latent in our acorn state -- the personal daimon is prescient. It knows the future -- not in detail, perhaps, because it cannot manipulate events, but as regards the general pattern. It is that within us which is forever restless and unsatisfied, yearning and homesick, even when we are at home. The existential philosopher Martin Heidegger is referring to exactly this when he speaks of ‘that weird and yet friendly feeling that we have always been who we are, that we are nothing but the unveiling of things decided upon long ago.'[xxxiii]
But we should note that the daimon is not our conscience, which was unknown in the ancient daimon-ridden world. Conscience is a product of Judaeo-Christian culture. It belongs to the idea of morality and, later, to the Freudian superego: the voice of parents, Church, State, whatever social institution prescribes what is right and wrong for us. But the daimon is not a moralist. In fact, it may oppose conscience, as when we think we must ‘do the right thing' -- marry the girl, take the safe job, etc. -- while the daimon whispers: ‘No, don't. They will lead you away from your true self, and you will be left empty and bewildered.' Disconcertingly, it is even possible to ask our daimon to fulfil our own desires, even evil or selfish ones -- we can appropriate the daimon's power for our own egotistical ends.
In short, our behaviour is not just formed by the past, as psychology tends to suppose; it can be formed retroactively by the future -- by the intuition of where our calling will take us and what we are destined to become. Hillman cites many examples from famous people's biographies. Sometimes the child knows what he might become, like Yehudi Menuhin insisting as a tiny child on having a violin, yet smashing the toy violin he was given: his daimon was already grown up and disdained to play a child's toy. Sometimes he fears to know what he must become -- Manolete, bravest and best of bullfighters, clung to his mother's apron strings as if he already knew the dangers he would have to encounter as an adult.[xxxiv] Winston Churchill was a poor scholar, consigned to what we would now call a remedial reading class, as if putting off the moment when he would have to labour for his Nobel Prize for Literature. Thus, when we see bright children going off the rails, we should hesitate to blame their parents and their past. Their daimons are, after all, parentless and have plans for them other than the plans of parents or the conformist demands of school. It is notable that our passion for attributing aberrant behaviour in children to inadequate parenting is highly eccentric: in traditional societies, whatever is wrong always comes from elsewhere. It is attributed to witchcraft, taboo-breaking, neglected rituals, contact with unfavourable places, a remote enemy, an angry god, a hungry ghost, an offended ancestor and so on -- but never to what your mum and dad did to you, or didn't do, years ago. Just as we often find in the biographies of exceptional people clashes with authority and unruliness at school -- all the symptoms of ‘attention deficit disorder', hyperactivity and truancy -- might it not be that such behaviour can in some cases herald an individual whose intuition has told them that mere tuition is an irrelevance to, or distraction from, their high daimonic purpose? It is a constant task for us to look for the angel in our children's errancy, and not be too quick to medicate, subdue or hammer them into line.
Those exceptional souls who become aware of their daimons, as Jung did, have the satisfaction of fulfilling its purpose and hence of fulfilling their true selves. But this does not make them immune to suffering; for who knows what Bad Lands the daimon would have us cross before we reach the Isles of the Blessed? Who knows what wrestling, what injury, we are -- like Jacob -- in for at the hands of our angel? What our daimon teaches us, therefore, is not to always be seeking a cure for our suffering but rather to seek a supernatural use for it.[xxxv] 'I have had much trouble in living with my ideas,' wrote Jung at the end of his long and fruitful life. 'There was a daimon in me.... It overpowered me, and if I was at times ruthless it was because I was in the grip of a daimon.... A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daimon.... The daimon of creativity has ruthlessly had its way with me.'[xxxvi]
While the daimon may be harder to spot in someone who is apparently unexceptional, it is still present. It may not be a call to worldly success or glamour, or to greatness and even holiness, but it is nevertheless a call to character.[xxxvii] We all know people who lead outwardly humdrum lives; who have not been called to exceptional tasks, whether as poet, shaman or world-conqueror. But they seem grounded, fulfilled, relaxed, interested, humorous, good. Moreover they seem happy. The Greek for happiness was eudaimonia, having a good or well-pleased daimon. It is not what they do -- they may be shoe salesmen or shepherds -- but how they do it, with what style, integrity, whole-heartedness. Their calling is not in their work but in their life: in the pub, in the family, in their hobbies. In their unspoken imaginative lives. The unregarded but selfless mother of five is as likely -- perhaps more likely -- to achieve sanctity as any grand artist. For their call might be to efface themselves, to be as conventional as possible, not in a stultifying way but in a celebratory way -- celebrating attention to the small details, from washing up to driving a car; spreading harmony, co-operation and well-being. They are attractively unheroic in an age where suspicion attends the heroic approach: the empire-building, the money-making, the artistic prima donna-ing, the over-achieving... No life is mediocre when it is seen from the inside, from the daimon's point of view.
This leads us to one of the thorniest problems surrounding the personal daimon: why does it only protect us sometimes? For every person who obeys the daimon's whisper and refuses to board the faulty plane, there are a hundred who perish. There is no decisive answer to this. We might say that either the daimon's promptings were not heard or heeded - and this is common enough; or, that it was the destiny of the hundreds to die exactly when and where and how they did. What we can say, though, is that what looks like chance or misfortune from the outside can look like destiny from the inside, through the daimon's eyes. Destiny is the inner meaning of chance. Besides, we might note that the Greek idea of fate had none of the inevitability of fatalism.[xxxviii] It referred to a class of events which, however much we rationalise them in retrospect, remain untoward. Fate was responsible for essentially uncaused events, the ones that do not fit in. In other words, not everything is rigidly laid out in an infallible divine plan, but is subject to daimonic intervention of the sort that simply jogs your elbow or tips you the wink. Moira, fate, means a share or portion. Fate, like the daimon, has only a portion in what happens. So when the daimon thwarts or obstructs or alters our intention with its interventions -- perhaps with something as small as a hesitation or uncanny feeling -- we later say: ‘it was fate.'
Hillman adds an important rider to his acorn theory. The very phrase suggests growth and development, and this is congenial to us because we take it for granted that progress is a good thing and that our lives are all about personal ‘growth'.[xxxix] However, as I have already suggested, we forget that these ideas are not absolutes but comparatively recent inventions. They are the product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which promoted the sovereignty of Reason and the myth of advancement and development. We forget that these words are only metaphors we ought to be chary of taking literally, as if they were facts. We should remember that before the Enlightenment -- at the Renaissance, for instance -- we thought that human nature was unchanging and that a return to a more ideal past was the way forward.
Thus, although we are certainly in the business of ‘making our souls', the metaphor of rational ‘progress' can be misleading. Nor can we model the daimon on metaphors of organic growth or maturation, as so much psychology does in relation to the psyche. For what Plato calls our paradigm (paradeigma), our life image, is carried by the daimon from birth. We are complete at the start. ‘I don't develop;' said Picasso; ‘I am.'[xl] We are more like a many-faceted whole, and it is our task in the course of a lifetime to realise each facet of our selves, as if the daimon were introducing us to different deities in turn -- a journey that is more likely to be downward, circular and labyrinthine than upward, onward and straight.
The daimon overturns the conventional view held by psychotherapy: that what happens early in life determines what happens later. Our lives are not a chain of cause and effect, according to the daimon. We are not the products of our history. Rather, we are a-historical creatures for whom historical events in our childhood and later development are mirrors in which we catch glimpses of our primordial image.
Lastly, to remind us that we are all in cahoots with a divine being, no matter how worthless we appear to others or to ourselves, we can turn to one of the archetypal depictions of the relationship between human and daimon. I am thinking here less of Faust and Mephistopheles than of P. G. Wodehouse's Wooster and Jeeves. How does such a bumbling, footling, useless sort of chap as Bertie Wooster manage to hold on to such a manservant as the god-like Jeeves? The answer, I suppose, is: humility.
‘I say, Jeeves, a man I met at the club last night told me to put my shirt on Privateer for the two o'clock race this afternoon. How about it?'
‘I should not advocate it, sir. The stable is not sanguine.'
‘Talking of shirts, have those mauve ones I ordered arrived yet?'
‘Yes, sir. I sent them back.'
‘Sent them back?'
‘Yes, sir. They would not have become you....'
‘All the other great men of the age are simply in the crowd, watching you go by.'
‘Thank you very much, sir. I endeavour to give satisfaction.'[xli]
Daimon and muse
For the poet, the daimon is not his Muse exactly but it can sometimes look like her. She is often a mixed blessing if Keats's portraits of her in Lamia and La Belle Dame sans Merci are to be credited: white-skinned, cold, irresistibly alluring figures who seduce the poet, drain him like a vampire for their own purposes, and leave him 'alone and palely loitering.' For, once she is awakened, the Muse will drive relentlessly to become the centre of the personality, casting aside whatever we think of as ourselves. The rewards in terms of achievement can be enormous, but they are also dangerous; and everyday life, with its little comforts and satisfactions, can be a casualty.
The late Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, called his Muse the ‘poetic self'. It is identical to the daimon. As he writes feelingly in Winter Pollen, it is ‘that other voice which from earliest times came to the poet as a god, took possession of him, delivered the poem, then left him.'[xlii] It was axiomatic, he says, that it lived its own life separate from the poet's everyday personality; that it was entirely outside his control; and that it was, above all, supernatural. Moreover, he goes on, its first principle is ‘the ancient and formerly divine law of psychodynamics, which states: any communion with that other personality especially when it does incorporate some form of the true self, is healing, and redeems the suffering of life, and releases joy.'[xliii]
Hughes consciously related the vocation of poet to that of shamans who, in Siberia at least, often owed their power to female daimons to whom they were symbolically married or else whose female attributes they incorporated in their dress, sometimes even performing women's work and speaking women's language. One rule was paramount for those who were called by the daimon: you must shamanize -- or die. That is, you must learn to make the dangerous journey into the Otherworld, retrieving souls who are lost there and bringing back the songs and myths on which social order depends. If you do not, you may not literally die, but you will lose any life worth living. For you will lose your way, lose your meaning and purpose, lose your own soul. Nor can you easily shake off the faithful daimon which, if it is neglected, will plague you with dreams and images, compulsions and obsessions, driving you mad.
W.B. Yeats was one whom Hughes identified as having the shaman's vocation; and, like Jung, he often experienced the daimon as antagonistic. It comes, said Yeats, ‘not as like to like but seeking its own opposite. Man and daimon feed the hunger in each other's hearts.'[xliv] Here is an image of a dynamic, even erotic relationship between us and our daimons. Indeed, Yeats thought of it as feminine, and equated her with the Anima Mundi. She is the sleeping as opposed to the waking mind. That is, Yeats seems to identify his daimon with the unconscious and, more particularly, as a personification of the collective unconscious or world-soul. His relations with her were inverse and reciprocal, ‘each dying each other's life, living each other's death',[xlv] as he says, adapting a fragment of Heraclitus' and harking back to the Neoplatonic view that the soul grows more beautiful and vigorous as the body diminishes in strength. And so we see that the daimon not only comes to us as a mentor, guru or guide, but can come, as it did for Hughes and Yeats, as strife and opposition - feeding their hunger and their art, yes, but at what cost to their lives?
Ted Hughes' vocation as a poet came in a strange dream, his shape-changing daimon taking an unexpectedly shamanic turn. In his second year at Cambridge University, he tells us, where he was reading English in the hope that it would help him with his writing, he began to feel an inexplicable resistance towards producing essays every week, even though he liked his supervisor and had a strong interest in the subject. This resistance grew and grew. ‘It had a distressful quality, like a fiercely fought defence.' In the end, ‘it brought me to a halt.'
On the last memorable day, he was completely bogged down in an essay, toiling for hours every day and covering many pages - which he promptly tore up. It was two in the morning again, and he was ‘exhausted, sitting in my college room at my table, bent over a page of foolscap that had about four lines written across the top of it... At last I had to give up and go to bed....
‘I began to dream. I dreamed I had never left my table and was still sitting there, bent over the piece of foolscap, staring at the same few lines across the top. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the door. I thought I had heard something there. As I waited, listening, I saw the door was opening slowly. Then a head came round the edge of the door. It was about the height of a man's head but clearly the head of a fox though the light over there was dim.
‘The door opened wide and down the short stair and across the room towards me came a figure that was at the same time a skinny man and a fox walking erect on its hind legs. It was a fox but the size of a wolf. As it approached and came into the light I saw that its body and limbs had just now stepped out of a furnace. Every inch was roasted, smouldering, black-charred, split and bleeding. Its eyes, which were level with mine where I sat, dazzled with the intensity of the pain. It came up until it stood beside me. Then it spread its hand -- a human hand as I now saw, but burned and bleeding like the rest of him -- flat palm down on the blank space of my page. At the same time it said; ‘Stop this - you are destroying us.' Then as it lifted its hand away I saw the blood-print, like a palmist's specimen, with all the lines and creases, in wet glistening blood on the page.
I immediately woke up. The impression of reality was so total, I got out of bed to look at the papers on my table, quite certain that I would see the blood-print there on the page.'[xlvi]
The daimon takes striking, even desperate measures to announce itself to those who are denying it. It took animal shape to summon Hughes away from that academic approach to literature which would stifle his poetic creativity and the instinctual life it depended on. He gave up studying English and completed his degree in the school of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Every shaman would recognise his dream as a qualification for the magic drum which they ride like a horse into the Otherworld. We also see how ambiguous the daimon can be in the forms it takes. It can even trick you into truth. Jack Preger, who had been a farmer for twelve years, was ploughing a field one day in his tractor when he clearly heard a voice telling him that he should be a doctor. He was suspicious. He asked the voice who the hell it was. The voice said: ‘I am the Paraclete'. The word meant nothing to Jack, so he looked it up in the dictionary. It turned out to mean ‘the Holy Spirit'. He was impressed that the voice had as it were proved its objective validity by announcing itself as someone he, as a subject, could not have known. He concluded that the voice was not a delusion but a vocation. He became a doctor and spent many years helping and treating the poorest, most disenfranchised people on the streets of Calcutta.[xlvii]
It is not unusual of course to encounter the daimon as a religious figure, as Jesus or Buddha or the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nor can we categorically assert that people are not encountering the holy personage they claim that they are. We can only remember that the daimon is universal and non-denominational; that it can appear in any guise that most suits the recipient; and that it is the intermediary between us and whatever deity we hold dear. There is no objection to calling it, for instance, God's will.
Soul, self and daimon
To try and summarise; the personal daimon has been called, with good reason, the soul. Or, the ‘higher soul'. Or, one of several souls. But really it is the guide and guardian of the soul whose potentiality, like a paradigm, it bears. The harder we look for it, the more it evades our grasp; for, like all daimons, it is elusive and shape-changing. We cannot even assign it a gender since it may appear as angel or animal, masculine or feminine -- or neither. Socrates always referred to his daimon in the neuter gender: daimonion.
The daimon can be understood, like the ka, as a personification of the ancestors -- an apt metaphor because, like the daimon, the ancestors are both intimately related to us yet, like the dead, separate and remote. It can be thought of as a specific ancestor, as the Inuit believe, standing in for our fledgling souls until its wings are formed and it can fly for itself. It is like the voice of the unconscious, or of our ‘higher selves'. It is the ‘still small voice' we must listen for in the midst of the turbulence and earthquake of existence. If it is not itself a god, as it may very well be, it is the intermediary through whom we communicate with the gods and they with us. It can be a Doppelgänger whose estrangement means illness, madness or even death. It is most alive when we are dying, most conscious when we sleep. It directs the unfolding of our souls, but it does not itself develop. It is a paradox.
If we are in harmony with our daimons they will draw near, filling us with a sense of unique purpose. Our egocentric life dissolves and we see beyond ourselves, wondering at how far we have come, at how we have accomplished far more than we thought ourselves capable of. We are amazed at how much we have changed -- and at how little, being at the same time the same person we were in earliest childhood. We have all looked momentarily through the daimon's eyes and glimpsed the vista of our lives stretching forwards, foreshadowing what we have yet to perfect; or, rather, since it is the viewpoint of completion, the life we must live as if backwards. We have all, I dare say, been vouchsafed a visionary inkling of the pains we will have to endure, perhaps; but this is palliated by the sense of destiny, of rightness and of a life filled with meaning.
The last word on personal daimons goes to Yeats, who wrote in his book Mythologies: 'I think it was Heraclitus who said: the Daimon is our destiny. When I think of life as a struggle with the Daimon who would ever set us to the hardest work among those not impossible, I understand why there is a deep enmity between a man and his destiny, and why a man loves nothing but his destiny.... I am persuaded that the Daimon delivers and deceives us, and that he wove the netting from the stars and threw the net from his shoulder....'[xlviii] Here is a portrait of the personal daimon which is both daunting and beautiful and, like Jung's, tinged with a poignant melancholy. For the daimon is our hard taskmaster, driving us to perform the most difficult work possible for us, no matter what the human cost. No wonder our feelings for it are as ambiguous as it shows itself to be. Anyone who invokes their guardian angel, therefore, should beware. It may not be as friendly and sweet as the many little New Age books on angels would have you believe. It will protect you, yes -- but only the 'you' who serves its plan for your self. It will guide you, certainly -- but who knows what sojourn in the wilderness this might entail? And, because the personal daimon is, finally, grounded in the impersonal Ground of Being itself, you will inevitably be led way, way out of your depth.
Image by Patrick Hoesly, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
[i] Bloom p.42
[ii] Macdonald p.39
[iii] Briggs p.132
[iv] Bloom p.202-3
[v] Ibid. p.202
[vi] Ibid. p.47
[vii] 11: 10
[viii] Quoted in Dodds (1975) p.37
[x] Jung (1967) p.208-9
[xi] Jaffé p.108
[xii] Iamblichus, III, iii-iv
[xiii] Onians p.137-8; 161-2
[xiv] Lévy-Bruhl p.234
[xv] Ibid. p.190-1
[xvi] Ibid. p.192
[xvii] Stephens p.192
[xviii] Lévy-Bruhl p.193-4
[xix] Ibid. p.195
[xx] Cited in Auden (1971) p.164
[xxi] Lévy-Bruhl p.200
[xxii] Naydler (1996) p.193-5
[xxiii] Ibid. p.198
[xxiv] Ibid. p.200
[xxv] Plotinus p.cx
[xxvi] Wallis p.71
[xxvii] Iamblichus. IX, vi
[xxviii] X, 620E
[xxix] Quoted in Peake p.231-2
[xxx] Lewontin p.100
[xxxi] Dawkins p.8
[xxxii] Hillman (1997) p.39-40
[xxxiii] Quoted in Avens, Roberts. The New Gnosis (Dallas, 1984) p.79-80
[xxxiv] Hillman (1997) p.14-17
[xxxv] Weil (1972) p.73
[xxxvi] Jung (1967) p.356
[xxxvii] Hillman (1997) p.4-7; 251-3
[xxxviii] Ibid. p.193f
[xxxix] Ibid. p.41f
[xl] Quoted ibid. p.7
[xli] Quoted in Auden (1963) p.144-5
[xlii] Hughes p.268
[xliii] Ibid p.275
[xliv] Yeats (1959) p.335
[xlv] Quoted in Raine (1986) p.163
[xlvii] I copied down this story about Preger from a TV programme, the details of which I have lost.
[xlviii] Yeats (1959) p.336Tweet