Agathós Daímōn – A Literary Study

Elani Temperance, 2013

On the second day of the new Hellenistic month, we give sacrifice to (the) Agathós Daímōn, on a day named after the ‘Good Spirit’. The mythology, application and existence of the Agathós Daímōn (ἀγαθός δαίμων) is a bit of a muddled mess. When one researches the term, six basic premises emerge:

  • The Agathós Daímōn is a Theos, married to the Theia Agathe Tyche (Ἀγαθή Τύχη, ‘Good Fortune’)
  • The Agathós Daímōn is an epithet of Zeus, or linked to Zeus Kthesios and/or Zeus Melichios
  • The Agathós Daímōn is linked to Hermes Khthonius
  • The Agathós Daímōn is a fertility daímōn, tied to the harvest and prosperity from agriculture
  • The Agathós Daímōn is a personal guardian spirit, either tied to the person, the family, or the oikos
  • The Agathós Daímōn is the personification of a person’s conscious, or even their muse

A few facts first: all sources but the ones where Agathós Daímōn is identified as Theos, represent the Agathós Daímōn as a snake; this applies to both artwork as assumed physical appearance. The Agathós Daímōn was always a positive in one’s life, and was generally seen as the source of personal or familial good fortune. Libations of (unmixed) wine were given to Him with each newly opened case of wine, and during feasts and symposium, Agathós Daímōn received the first libation. When crossing a snake on the road, it was also customary to pour out a libation, just in case it was a herald of Agathós Daímōn, or Agathós Daímōn Himself.

I feel I must step back from Agathós Daímōn a moment and speak of daímōns in general first. Hesiod gives us our first glimpse into daímōns as he writes about the five Ages of Man in the Theogony. He gives us the following references:

“First of all the deathless gods who dwell on Olympus made a golden race of mortal men who lived in the time of Kronos when he was reigning in heaven. […] But after earth had covered this generation — they are called pure spirits 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.”

“…then they who dwell on Olympus made a second generation which was of silver and less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit. […] But when earth had covered this generation also — they are called blessed spirits of the underworld by men, and, though they are of second order, yet honour attends them also.”

Hesiod’s Ages speak of only one race who became daímōns; those of the Golden Age, yet those of the Silver and Heroic Age also received many honors after their passing, and they were held in high regard. […] Hesiod makes clear distinction between the Theoi and daímōns: the Theoi are Gods, daímōns are members of the Gold Age who gained immortality. This differentiation is much less pronounced in the writings of Hómēros, where God and daímōn are used virtually interchangeably.

This difference led to a misinterpretation of the nature of the race of the Silver Age: they became dangerous daímōns in the eyes of later writers (like Plato), and eventually the demons of Christianity. Yet, neither Hómēros or Hesiod ever intended them to be so: all daímōns were pure and Deathless; they acted as a policing force for humanity. Daímōns fulfill an important role in mythology and life: all aspects of life can be overseen by Deathless beings, without taking away from–or needlessly adding to–the portfolio of the Theoi.

Especially through Neo-Platonists, comes the placement of daímōns between the Theoi and mankind. They are less powerful than the Theoi, with lesser domains; more concerned with the daily happenings of life than the Theoi are, but they, too, are immortal, and deserve honors. Important to note, again, is the destination made between daímōns and Heroes; similar in terms of power of the lives of man, but different in their identities, with the Heroes having very pronounced personalities, accomplishments and cult worship, and the daímōns having none of those. The first libation at symposiums was given to Agathós Daímōn, the second to the Heroes.

Back to defining daímōns; we have first one type of daímōn; Hesiod’s good spirits who watch over us, Deathless, but once mortal. Then—through writers like Plato and his students and philosophical followers—two types, one helpful, the other dangerous. Curiously enough, Wikipedia relates the following on the divide between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ daímōns:

“A cacodemon (or cacodaemon) is an evil spirit or (in the modern sense of the word) a demon. The opposite of a cacodemon is an agathodaemon or eudaemon, a good spirit or angel. The word cacodemon comes through Latin from the Ancient Greek κακοδαίμων (kakodaimōn) meaning an evil spirit, whereas daimon would be a neutral spirit in Greek and Tychodaimon would be a good spirit.”

Those are two opposite definitions is as many sentences, leading to a confusing mess that equates the terms ‘agathodaemon’ (Agathós Daímōn?), ‘eudaemon’ and ‘Tychodaimon’. A good example of Wiki’s usefulness as the start of research, but never its end. So lets take these terms and dig a little deeper. Especially the term ‘Tychodaimon’ seems to have a clear source, even (or especially) in relation to the Agathós Daímōn: in some cult worship, Agathós Daímōn was a male deity, who was married to the Theia (daímōn?) Agathe Tyche. Their worship was known in Athens, and They had a temple at Lebadeia, in Boeotia, where one could visit the oracle of Trophonios–but only after spending a fixed number of days in a building, which was sacred to the ‘Agathei Theoi’—which probably refers to Agathe Tyche and Agathós Daímōn together—and most likely housed one or several snake(s). It was this building the supplicant was brought back to when he returned from the oracle–usually passed out from the experience–in order to recover (Harrison).

To recap: from the Neo-Platonics comes the notion that the daímōns of Hesiod are lower in the hierarchical order than the Theoi, yet Agathós Daímōn was worshiped as a Theos in Athens and Lebadeia at the time of Plato, and most certainly at the time of his student Xenocrates, who furthered Plato’s theory about daímōns. Most likely Agathós Daímōn, the Theos, had been divorced from the genderless daímōns of Hesiod years earlier, and was no longer considered a daímōn in the classical sense, but had been elevated to a Theos, worthy of regular sacrifice. The questions, then, become: when, and how?

It’s interesting to note that Agathós Daímōn is reported as receiving libations of unmixed wine, instead of the standard mixed libations of the Ouranic Theoi. This Khthonic aspect of His worship brings me to two possible explanations of the nature of Agathós Daímōn: a link to Zeus Meilichios (‘the kindly one’), a Khthonic epithet of Zeus, and a link to Zeus Kthesios, the household protector. Artwork found at Lebadeia suggest a marriage between Zeus Meilichios and Agathe Tyche, and Zeus Meilichios—like Agathós Daímōn and Zeus Kthesios—is a snake God, often represented as one as well.

It should be said that Harrison believes Zeus Meilichios is an epithet of Zeus superimposed over an existing snake God: Meilichios, a ‘home-grown, autochtonous [deity, from] before the formulation of Zeus’. Even more telling: the cult of Meilichios was very pronounced in Boeotia, where He was worshiped as a provider of wealth (Harrison, p. 21). I pose that, at the same time Zeus became equated with Meilichios, so did the Agathós Daímōn; a daímōn of good fortune (most likely through fertility and good harvest, the two greatest blessings from the Theoi), superimposed over the snake God Meilichios, exchanging positive qualities while assuming immortality for Himself. Zeus Meilichios adopted Meilichios’ cleansing and purifying qualities.

Alternatively —or, perhaps, secondly— Zeus Kthesios (another snake God) became equated with Agathós Daímōn, and brought the worship of Agathós Daímōn into the household, adding His blessings of fertility and ‘good fortune’ (now a general term) to the beginning of the new month. This would also explain why Agathós Daímōn was honoured on a day of His own, and not on Noumenia, along with Zeus Kthesios; the two are separate entities who provide very distinct blessings—. Zeus Kthesios guards the food stores and contributes to the prosperity of the household, while Agathós Daímōn provides the blessings of fertility and good fortune, a trait inherited from Meilichios and His wife Agathe Tyche, who never did make it into the household.

So, this wraps up three of the theories connected to the Agathós Daímōn. Harrison proposes a link to another well-known deity, Hermes Khthonius, in her ‘Themis: a Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion’. I would encourage the reader to go to the source itself for her explanation, starting from page 294, but the evidence —to me —is flimsy at best. Yes, there is reference to ‘daimon’ in ancient writing, but as we have seen in Hómēros, that is not firm evidence of the theory. Also, although Hermes Himself is often depicted with snakes, it is not mandatory for Hermes Khtonius to be portrayed with them, and there is no artistic evidence of a snake form for Hermes, no matter the epithet.

As for Agathós Daímōn being a personal guardian spirit or the personification of a person’s conscious— or even their muse—, this idea seems to be a Neo-Platonistic evolution of Hesiod’s classical daímōns, popularized by Socrates (and his followers), who described his personal daímōn in his trial. From Plato’s Apology:

“You have often heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, and is the divinity which Meletus ridicules in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of my being a politician.”

As we have seen, Agathós Daímōn had been separated from his Hesiodic cousins by then, and we must assume the term ‘Agathós Daímōn’ is an incorrect name for the guiding spirits of Socrates and Plato. Perhaps ‘eudaemon’ would, indeed, be a better term–not synonymous like Wikipedia claims, but indicating distinctly separate entities with a common origin.

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