Skip to main content

The daimonic: The soul of creativity

Rollo May:

"Already in Aeschylus, the daimonic is both subjective and objective – which is the sense in which I use it in this book. The problem is always to see both sides of the daimonic, to see phenomena of the inner experience of the individual without psychologizing away our relation to nature, to fate, and to the ground of our being. If the daimonic is purely objective, you run the danger of sliding into superstition in which man is simply the victim of external powers. If, on the other hand, you take it purely subjectively, you psychologize the daimonic; everything tends to be a projection and to become more and more superficial; you end up without the strength of nature, and you ignore the objective conditions of existence, such as infirmity and death. This latter way leads to a solipsistic oversimplification. Caught in such a solipsism, we lose even our ultimate hope. The greatness of Aeschylus is that he sees and preserves both sides so clearly."

Rudyard Kipling:

"When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, obey."

Allan Bloom:

"But when it [the word "creativity"] was first used for man, it had the odor of blasphemy and paradox. God alone had been called a creator; and this was the miracle of miracles, beyond causality, a denial of the premise of all reason, ex nihilo nihil fit. What defines man is no longer his reason, which is but a tool for his preservation, but his art, for in art man can be said to be creative. There he brings order to chaos. The greatest men are not the knowers but the artists, the Homers, Dantes, Raphaels and Beethovens. Art is not imitation of nature but liberation from nature. A man who can generate visions of a cosmos and ideals by which to live is a genius, a mysterious, demonic being. Such a man's great work of art is himself. He who can take his person, a chaos of impressions and desires, a thing whose very unity is doubtful, and give it order and unity, is a personality."

Adam Phillips:

"‘Criticism,’ Hartman writes, ‘has an unacknowledged penchant for reversal in it, which is near daemonic, and which brings it close to the primacy of art.’ ‘Reversal’ here means that the omnipotent figure previously referred to as God can be accused of setting away with something; that a world in which people can accuse each other of getting away with things is a world of competing authority, a world in which there is no final or absolute authority. A world, as Hartman puts it, of ‘daemonic’ reversals."

Martin Laird described the beliefs of early Egyptian Christian contemplatives:

"The demons could not enter the inner depths of the person. This was the Lord's domain. But the demons could exert considerable effort to keep us ignorant of these inner depths by bombarding us with whatever thoughts would most likely excite our patterns of obsession (the technical term for them is 'the passions')."

Patrick Harpur:

"They are also linked to the fate of individuals, just like the personal daimones, described by Plato in The Republic, which are assigned to us at birth and control our destiny. And I am going to follow Plato in calling all these fairy-like beings daimons (sometimes spelt daemons) – which are not of course to be confused with the demons Christianity turned them into. All daimons share the attributes of the Sidhe. They are emphatically not ‘spirits’ – the word anthropologists use, for want of a better, to describe them – because they are, like the land-spirit Bard, as much physical as spiritual. The notion that daimons are both material and immaterial is the most difficult of their many contradictions to grasp.

* * *

The Romantics imagined Nature in this way. Imagination was coextensive with Creation, just like the Soul of the World. They were identical. Every natural object was both spiritual and physical, as if dryad and tree were the inside and outside of the same thing. Thus every rock and tree was ambivalent: a daimon, a soul, an image." (Harpur, pp. 6-7, 38)

He also wrote:

"Like all monotheistic religions, Christianity is intolerant of daemonic ambiguity. Daimons cannot, for instance, be allowed to be both benevolent and malign; they must be divided into either devils or angels. The man responsible for introducing angels into Christianity was the anonymous fifth-century mystic known as Dionysius the Areopagite. Although he was a Christian, his works were heavily indebted to the Neoplatonists, and particularly to Proclus, who taught in Athens around AD 430. Dionysius appropriated the Neoplatonic daimons, but did away with their ambiguity, making them into purely spiritual, angelic beings." (Harpur, p. 8)


“As traditional cultures suspect, we too many be not so much dual beings as single beings with dual aspects – we differ according to the element we are in. We too are daimonic.” (Harpur, p. 26)

Thomas Moore in Original Self:

The Greeks used the word daimon as a general description of a nameless god or goddess, a spirit that could be powerful but that didn't have an elaborate story or a clear identity. In the Iliad we see the daimon warning and advising the soldiers as they go about their dangerous work, making decisions of life and death. Yeats emphasizes the contrast of wills between a person or group and its inspiring daimon, and he seems to do so more from experience than idea.

* * *

We are still driven by daimons, but we give them abstract names — power, greed, ambition, desire, love, will. In each of these a powerful daimon resides, but we prefer to imagine the spirit euphemistically and apotropaically as psychological. As an abstraction and a problem, it can be dealt with intellectually. But the mind is not up to such a presence, which pummels and seduces us in the areas of emotion and meaning.

A daimon is not a problem; it is the source of our creativity and identity. In the daimonic it is not easy to distinguish the good and the bad. If in our fear and confusion we fail to engage it, it becomes difficult to handle, and then the negative qualities appear to dominate. But when we take on this daimonic force courageously — it does call for stoutheartedness — then we may discover how creative and constructive it can be.

Thomas Moore in Care of the Soul:

The Greeks referred to the multitude of unnamed spirits that motivate and guide life as daimons. … When Jung was building his tower, workmen delivered a large piece of stone that was the wrong size. He took this ‘mistake’ as the work of his Mercurial daimon and used the stone for one of his most important sculptures, the Bollingen Stone.

Gloria E. Alzaldúa in Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro:

My naguala (daimon or guiding spirit) is an inner sensibility that directs my life—an image, an action, or an internal experience. My imagination and my naguala are connected—they are aspects of the same process, of creativity. Often my naguala draws me to things that are contrary to my will and purpose (compulsions, addictions, negativities), resulting in an anguished impasse. Overcoming these impasses becomes part of the process. This mode of perception is magical thinking: It reads what happens in the external world in terms of my personal intentions and interests. It uses external events to give meaning to my own myth making. Magical thinking is not traditionally valued in academic writing.

See also Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials which presumes that everyone contains a “Daemon”, an animal spirit.


Rollo May, Love and Will, New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1969. p. 136

Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself, 1936. Quoted in The American Scholar, Autumn 2011, p. 130.

Allan Bloom. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987. pp. 180- 181.

Adam Phillips. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. p. 104.

Martin Laird, O.S.A. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 50.

Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination (2002). Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.

Thomas Moore. Original Self: Living with Paradox and Originality. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. pp. 108, 109.

Thomas Moore. Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. (1992) New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. p. 298.

Gloria E. Alzaldúa. Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. ed. Analouise Keating. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2015. "Preface: Gestures of the Body—Escribiendo para idear."


Popular posts from this blog

Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896)

On March 1, 1896, the Battle of Adwa "cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age – that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans." In this battle, Ethiopians beat back the invading Italians and forced them to retreat permanently. It was not until 1922 that Benito Mussolini would again initiate designs against Ethiopia; despite Ethiopia's defeat in 1936, the nation ultimately retained its independence. "Adwa opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the rollback of European rule in Africa. It was," Raymond Jonas wrote, "an event that determined the color of Africa." (p. 1) It was also significant because it upheld the power of Ethiopia's Christian monarchy that controlled an ethnically diverse nation (p. 333), a nation in which, in the late 19th century, the Christian Emperor Yohannes had tried to force Muslims to convert to Christianity. (p. 36) The Victorian English spelli

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House . Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity. Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be

The ‘prostitute with a gun’ was a middle-class high school girl

On May 19, 1992, Amy Fisher, a 17-year-old high school student in Long Island, N.Y., rang the bell at the home of 37-year-old Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Buttafuoco stepped onto her front porch and had a brief conversation with the girl, whom she had never met before. Fisher then shot her in the face and fled the scene. Neighbors heard the shot and rushed to Buttafuoco's aid. She regained consciousness the next day in a hospital and was able to recall the conversation with her attacker. This information helped police to promptly identify and arrest Fisher. Fisher's explanation of her action shocked the nation. She claimed that she had been lovers with her victim's husband, Joey Buttafuoco, 36, since the previous summer when she was still only 16. While those who knew Buttafuoco believed him to be a pillar of the community, Fisher said he perpetrated auto theft scams. She claimed he introduced her to a life of prostitution, such that she wore a beeper to her high school classes an