Demons, Daemons and Daimons

By Maeve Maddox

The three English words demon, daemon, and daimon all derive from Greek δαίμων (daimôn), the word for a spirit that served as a link between the human and divine spheres. Daimons could be benevolent or malevolent. They were much lower in the divine hierarchy than gods like Jupiter and Diana.

In first century Rome, a good way to make a pagan angry was to refer to all his gods as “daimons.” In Christian writings the word was used to signify “pagan god” or “unclean spirit.” Much later, when the Bible was translated into Old English, “demon” was rendered as “devil.”

One type of “daimon” recognized by pagans was a benevolent spirit, a “guardian angel” that attended the individual from birth to death. This personal “genius” was a kind of soul.

It’s presumably the concept of daimon as soul that underlies the daemons of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Some of Pullman’s readers were bothered by the pronunciation of daemon as [dē’mən] in the movie The Golden Compass (2007).

Although Merriam-Webster and the OED indicate that both demon and daemon are pronounced the same, I’d guess that many a silent reader has been giving daemon a different mental pronunciation. At least one IMDb commentator declares outright that he plans to pronounce daemon “day-mon” in order to distinguish Pullman’s helpful little soul creatures from malevolent demons.

The word daimon [dī’mōn’], with the meaning of “guiding spirit,” is a latecomer to English (earliest OED citation 1852). With its different pronunciation, daimon stands as a possible alternate choice for writers who want the sense of the word without the confusion with demon. Nevertheless, the spelling daemon has its appeal.

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7 Responses to “Demons, Daemons and Daimons”

  • Franklin

    I don’t want to be an ass but it’s Phillip Pullman

  • Sarah @ TM2TS

    Daimons are also the “vampires” in Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series. 🙂

  • Brad K.

    Daemon is also a technical term for programs that run on a computer, that run continuously as long as the system is running, provides a basic system service, and doesn’t have a direct user interface.

    Wikipedia explains one mini-computer type of daemon, the Line Priner Daemon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_Printer_Daemon_protocol).

    I wonder if this is related to myths about ghosts and ‘devils’ in the machine?

  • mand

    I’m sure it is connected, Brad; after all, computer terms generally do not evolve as other vocabulary does, but are chosen.

    My feeling is that daimons are very close to djinn. Also perhaps brownies and similar… I hesitate to mention elves, as that word has many disputed meanings when you get into the specifics.

  • Maeve

    Franklin,
    Thanks for catching my error. Don’t know how the “Paul” got in there.

  • Rarst

    Don’t know if MMORPG talk can be considered English, but in Ultima Online daemon is specific creature while demon is class of creatures (that includes daemon among others).

    It’s interesting how variations of same word can be used to enhance lore in book or game.

  • Rita

    Why do so many people (even on television shows) pronounce and sometimes spell the word “demon”, as “demond”??

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