Psellus on Demons
A translation of Michael Psellus' oft-cited Dialogue of the Operation of Demons has not been made available on the web, although innumerable other classic texts on the subject have. As I happened to have a xerox copy (courtsey of my old friend Stephen Skinner) of the rare 1843 Collison translation of the Dialogue into English, I though it might be useful to transcribe this interesting text for other readers.
I have transcribed what I could, and the main text is pretty much complete, although I cannot guarantee the Latin or Greek. In addition, there are two passages in Latin that Mr. Collison dared not render into English. My wife, who was a classics major years ago, has made a stab at what these say, but if anyone could improve upon these notes and send us the translation, we would be very grateful.
OPERATION OF DAEMONS (2)
able with the power and beneficence of the Supreme, why may not the doctrine be laid down? Will it be said that such a supposition is irreconcilable with the immutability and permanency of the Divine laws? Will those who make such objections assert, that the superficial knowledge they may have acquired of nature’s laws warrants them in saying that they understand the Divine laws?—who can tell all the causes that lead to any one, even the most insignificant, event?—and who can tell but that the laws of nature, without our perceiving it, are controlled by daemonic agency? We only can see a few of the links—we cannot see all the links of the chain that lead to any one result.
It may be proper here to examine the Heathen notion of the word daemon, by which means (mutatis mutandis) we will be better able to understand its scriptural application. Its etymology conveys the idea of either an acute intelligence or an appointed agent; but as these may exist separately, in distinct beings, or combined in the same being, it is obvious mere etymology cannot guide us to a safe conclusion in our enquiry. Homer applies the epithet daemons in more than one instance, to the dii majorum getium (Iliad, v.222); but whether he regarded the dii majorum getium as an inferior order of beings, subordinate to a superior intelligence, or heroes advance to this eminence, or merely applied this term as suitable, in its primary sense of an acute intelligence, to beings of the very first order, is somewhat doubtful. The scholiast seems to favor the view last mentioned (Hom. Iliad. Cantab. 1711, vers. 222). We cannot but be persuaded that Homer considered all the gods and goddesses of human origin, and occasionally gave glimpses of his opinion on this point, though he dared not openly to avow his sentiments. One very striking instance of this furtive way of insinuating his private opinions we have in the 22nd book of the Iliad, 74th line, where, speaking of a river in the Troade, he says, Ον Νανθον καλιεουσι Θεοι, ανδρες δε Σκαμανδρον, /
“which the Gods call Xanthus, but men Scamander;” Xanthus being the name by which the ancients designated the river, he almost says the ancients and gods are convertible terms. It may be objected “can Jupiter himself be included under this idea—Jupiter, to whom almighty power and supreme dominion are attributed, and who is styled by the poets, “the father of the gods and men, the greatest and best of beings?” De La Motte’s reply to Madame Dacier is here very apposite—“What! Could Homer seriously believe Jupiter to be the creator of gods and men? Could he think him the father of his own father Saturn, whom he drove out of heaven, or of Juno, his sister and his wife, of Neptune and Pluto, his brothers, or of the nymphs who had charge of him in his childhood, or of the giants who made war upon him, and would have dethroned him, if they had been then arrived at the age of manhood? How well his actions justify the Latin epithets, optimus, maximus, most gracious, most mighty, so often given him, all the world knows.” (De La Critique, seconde partie, Des Dieux.) On the whole, we are rather inclined to think that Homer considered all gods (the dii majorum gentium not excepted) as daemons of human origin. Hesiod follows next in order of time; he seems decidedly of the opinion that all the gods were daemons, and originally human; he intimates that the daemons were men of the golden age, who lived under Saturn and were protectors of mankind (φυλαχας των θνητων ανθρωπων. (Vide Scholiast. on Homer’s Iliad, A. 222). Socrates sentiments on this subject, as also those of Plato and his immediate disciples, may be gathered from the following extract from Plato’s Cratylus “Soc. What shall we consider next? Hermogenes. Daemons, to be sure, and heroes, and men. Soc. Let it be daemons, then, and with what propriety they are so named. Consider, Hermogenes, if I say ought worthy of your attention as to what might have been the sense of the word daemon. Hermog. Proceed. Soc. Are you aware that Hesiod says /
certain are daemons? Hermog. I don’t remember it. Soc. Nor that he says the first generation of men were golden? Herm. I know that, in all events. Soc. Well, then, he speaks thus respecting it:—
‘When destiny concealed this generation
They were called pure subterranean Intelligences* (Daimones),
Excellent, Averters of evil, protectors of mortal men.’
Herm. What then, pray? Soc. I think he calls a generation, the golden [generation], not as produced from gold, but because excellent and glorious; and I conjecture that it is for analogous reasons he says we are an iron generation. Herm. You say the truth. Soc. You think, then, he would say, if anyone of the present age were excellent, he belonged to the golden age? Herm. It is but the natural inference. Soc. Who are excellent but the wise? Herm. The wise, none else. Soc. This, therefore, he specially intimates respecting Intelligences, that he designated them Intelligences because wise and intelligent, and in our ancient speech the word occurs. Accordingly, not only Hesiod, but many other poets also, calls them appropriately thus. How many, too, are in the habit of saying when a good man dies, that he obtains a glorious lot, and dignity, and becomes an intelligence, designating him thus owing to his wisdom? In the same manner, I aver that the intelligent man is every good man, and that the same, whether living or dead, is intellectual, and is correctly called an intelligence.”—Plutarch, who flourished in the second century, gives the following as his doctrine of daemons:— “According to a divine nature and justice, the souls of virtuous men are advanced to the rank or daemons; if they are properly purified, they are exalted into gods, not by any political institution, but according to right reason.” The same author says in another place, (de Isis /
*We have rendered this word, δαιμονς, intelligences, and will throughout. Were we to render it daemons, it would be impossible to convey the agreeable play on the word which afterward occurs.
et Osirus, p.361), that Isis and Osirus were for their virtue changed into gods, as were Hercules and Bacchus afterwards, receiving the united honors of both gods and daemons.
From these data we conclude that the word daemon, as signifying in its abstract sense an intelligence, was occasionally applied from the earliest time to deities of the very first order, but afterward came to be appropriated to deified men; and that the heathen (philosophers excepted) believed in no being identical with or bearing the slightest resemblance to our God. In the language of one who cannot be suspected of any partiality to Christianity, they were “a kind of superstitious atheists, who acknowledged no being that correspond to our idea of a deity.” (Nat. Hist. of Rel., sect. iv.)
The heathen did not pretend to be acquainted with all the existing daemons or intelligences. So sensible were the Greeks of their ignorance on this head, that they actually had, in Paul’s day, an altar at Athens with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” They though by this contrivance to obviate any bad results that might accrue from their ignorance, and secure to every daemon or intelligence a due share of honor. Paul accordingly, with ingenious artifice, takes advantage of the circumstance to introduce Jesus to their notice as a daemon* or intelli- /
* It seems probable that the line of conduct pursued by the Apostle on this occasion was suggested by that remark of the Athenians themselves, “he seems to be a setter forth of strange intelligences,” (usually rendered daemons); because he preached to them τον Ιησυν και την Λνσατασιν, Jesus and Resurrection, they conceived Jesus to be a male intelligence, and Resurrection; Anastasin, to be a female intelligence, according to the custom deifying abstract qualities, and making them gods and goddesses as suited the gender of the name. Nor can the conduct of the Apostle be termed with any propriety, “a pious fraud”. ‘Tis true that though the term daemon in its primary use signifies intelligence, his auditors would be very apt to take the term in its more extended sense. The Apostle, however, could not justly be held responsible for the acceptation in which they chose to take his words; yet it must be admitted that /
gence they were unconsciously worshipping. He thus apologizes on Mars’s Hill (Acts xxvii.21):—“Men of Athens, I perceive that in everything you somewhat surpass in the worship of daemons (κατα παντα ως δεισδαιμονεστερους*); for as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, “to an unknown God;” whom therefore you ignorantly worship, Him I then declare unto you.” In this apology the word daemon does not convey the idea of either an impure nor malignant being, but simply of an intelligence.
It can hardly be questioned but that the heathen, when worshipping deified men as daemons, were really worshipping beings that had no existence but in their own imaginations; and that in so doing, though they could not be said to worship any particular daemon, yet might they with propriety be called worshippers of daemons, beings which, whether real or imaginary, were confessedly inferior to the Supreme. In this seems to lie the force of the Apostle’s remark (1st. Cor. x., 19,20.) “What say I, then? that the idol is anything? but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to daemons, and not to God, and I would not that you should have fellowship with /
the Apostle did not in this instance state the whole truth, but merely as much as suited his immediate purpose of extricating himself from the power of those fanatical philosophers. His principal object seems to have been to show on their own principles, which admitted a multiplicity of gods, and regarded without jealously the gods of other nations, they could not in justice or consistency punish him for preaching a God they had never heard of before, even Jesus. With a similar tact the Apostle rescued himself from the malice of the Jews, when arraigned before the High Priest, by avowing himself a Pharisee, and insisting that the doctrine of a future resurrection was the great matter of dispute; but this, as in the former instance, was not the whole truth; it answered, however, the Apostle’s purpose by creating a division in his favour. Surely this was the wisdom of the serpent without its venom.
* The Athenians gloried in the fact that they were δενσιδαμονιστιρους than the other states of Greece, and must have considered the Apostle’s language highly complimentary.
daemons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of daemons. As the Apostle had said, “do I mean to assert that an idol is intrinsically anything? by no means; the veriest tyro in the school of Christ knows that an idol, for eyes they have and see not, &c.; but while I grant this, I still maintain that the things the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to daemons, of which the idols are symbolic representations.” Possibly the particular daemon intended by the idol might have no existence, but idols may be considered with propriety to represent the class, viz., beings intermediate between God and man, inferior to the former, but superior to the latter; “for to all whom come under the description, real or imaginary, good or bad, the name daemons (intelligences) is promiscuously applied. The reality of such intermediary order of beings revelation everywhere supposed, and rational theism does not contradict. Now it is the kind expressed in the definition now given that the pagan deities are represented as corresponding, and not individually to particular daemons actually existing. To say, therefore, that the Gentiles sacrifice to daemons is no more that to say that they sacrifice to beings which, real or imaginary, we perceive, from their own account of them, to lie below the Supreme.” (Campb., Diss. vi., p. 1, §15.)
It may be asked, of what practical utility is a work of this nature—of what practical importance can it be whether we believe or disbelieve the existence of daemons? We humbly conceive it is not optional for us to treat any portion of divine truth as unimportant, because we cannot see its practical bearing on the conduct. If it can be unequivocally shown from the Word of God that daemons exist, the belief of the fact belongs to us, the utility belongs to Him that permits it. At the same time, we cannot forebear observing that, if it be a work of utility to throw light, in the least degree, on any portion of the Word of God, and to rescue a term or a passage from a perverted/
use, then we flatter ourselves such ends may be in some measure effected by the publication of Psellus’ work; but if there were no other reason for its publication than a desire to communicate the arguments with which, in those comparatively early times, men of a philosophic turn of mind fortified themselves in the belief of daemoniacal possessions (as well as in the Apostolic as in their own time), we conceive that none could justly condemn such a laudable motive. Surely a supercilious contempt for the Anakim of ancient literature, which would censure them unheard, or cosign their writings to oblivion, is no mark of liberality or wisdom in the present age./
MICHAEL PSELLUS’ DIALOGUE,
TIMOTHY AND THRACIAN,
ON THE OPERATION OF DEMONS,
Versus Manes and the Euchitae (a.)
Timothy.—Is it long Thracian, since you visited Byzantium?
Thracian.—Yes, it is long, Timothy; two years perhaps, or more: I have been abroad.
Timothy.—But where, and why, and engaged in what business, were you away so long?
Thracian.—The questions you put would take too long to answer just now; I must devise Alcinous’ narrative (b) if I was obliged to particularize every thing I was present at, and every thing I endured, while constrained to associate with impious characters—those Euchitae, or, as many call them, Enthusiasts—have you not heard of them at all?
Timothy.—Why, I understand there amongst us individuals as godless as they are absurd, and that in the midst of the sacred quire,* (to speak in comedian style;) but as to their dogmas, their customs, their laws, their proceedings, their discourses, I have not yet been able to learn anything about them; wherefore I beg you to tell me most explicitly whatever you know, if you are disposed to oblige an intimate acquaintance, I will even add, a friend.
Thracian.—Even have it so, friend Timothy, though /
* in holy orders.
it be enough to give one a head-ache if he attempt to describe the outlandish doctrines and doing of daemonry; and though you cannot possibly derive any advantage from such description—for, if it be true what Simonides says, (c) that the statement of facts is their delineation, and that therefore the statement of profitable facts must be profitable, and the statement of unprofitable facts must be the opposite—what possible benefit could you possibly derive from my delineating their seductive statements?
Timothy.—Nay, but I shall be greatly benefited, Thracian, surely it is not unserviceable for physicians to be acquainted with the drugs of a deadly nature, that so none might be endangered by their use: besides, some of the particulars, at all events, will not be unprofitable. We have our choice, therefore, either to carry off from your disquisition what is profitable, or to be on our guard of it if it have anything pernicious.
Thracian.—Agreed, my friend: you shall hear (as the poet says) truths certainly, but most unpleasant ones: but if my narrative avert to certain unseemly proceedings, I require of you, in common justice, not to be angry with me who relate them, but those who do them. This execrable doctrine had its rise with Manes* the Maniac, from him their (the Euchitae) multitudinous origins flowed down from a foetid fountain, for according to the accursed Manes,† there were two origins of all things:/
*Here there is an obvious play on the word Manes, which we have endeavored to preserve, in some measure in the translation; the Greek reads παρα Μανεντος του μανεντος: this description of punning is very ancient. The Jews, playing on the word Beelzebul, signifying God of Heaven, converted it into Beelzebub, God of the Dunghill, he being supposed the god of the fly, that delights in odure.
† The Greek reads επηρτω, which signifies lovely; we cannot but think this either a typographical error, or an error of some transcriber, and that the word, in the original MS., was επαρατω, which signifies acursed: this view is countenanced by the Latin translators, employing, as the synonym, intestabilis.
he, with senseless impiety, opposed a god, the author of evil, to God, the Creator of every good—a ruler of the wickedness of the Terrestrials, to the bounteous Ruler of the Celestials. But the daemoniacal Euchitae have adopted yet a third origin; according to them, two sons, with their father, make the senior and the junior origin; to the father they have assigned the supra-mundane region solely, to the younger son the atmospheric region, and to the elder the government of the things of the world—a theory which differs in nothing from the Greek mythology, according to which the universe is portioned out in three parts. These rotten-minded men, having laid this rotten foundation, thus far are unanimous in their sentiments; but from this point are divided in their judgments into three parties: some yield worship to both sons, maintaining, that though they are at variance, yet that both are equally deserving of being worshipped, because they are sprung from one parent, and will yet be reconciled. But others serve the younger son as being governor of the superior region, which extends immediately over the earth: and yet they do not absolutely disdain the elder son, but are on their guard of him, as one who has it in his power to do them injury; while the third party, who are further sunk in impiety, withdraw altogether from the worship of the celestial son, and enshrine in their hearts, the earthly alone, even Satan, dignifying him with the most august names, as, the First-Begotten, Estranged from the Father, the Creator of Plants and Animals, and the rest of the compound beings. Preferring to make suit to him who is the Destroyer and Murderer, gracious God! how many insults do they make the Celestial, whom they pronounce envious, an unnatural persecutor of his brother, (who administers judiciously the government of the world) and aver, that it is his being puffed up with envy occasions earthquakes and hail and famine, on which account they imprecate on him, as well as other anathemas, as in particular, that horrible one! ********* /
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