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. The original pagination is indicated by slashes and page numbers.
OPERATION OF DAEMONS (4)
some derive it by inhalation, as for instance, a spirit resident in lungs and nerves and some from moisture, but not as we do, with the mouth, but as sponges and testaceous fishes do, by drawing nourishment from the extraneous moisture lying around them, and they afterwards void a spermatic substance, but they do not all resemble each other in this particular, but only such description of daemons as are allied with matter, such as the Lucifugus, and Aqueous, and Subterranean. And are there many descriptions of daemons, Marcus, I asked again? There are many, said he, and of every possible variety of figure and conformation, so that the air is full of them, both that above and that around us, the earth and the sea are full of them, and the lowest subterranean depths. Then, said I, if it would not be troublesome, would you particularize each? It would be troublesome, said he, to recall to mind matters I have dislodged from hence, yet I cannot refuse, when you command, and so saying he counted off many species of daemons, adding their names, their features and their haunts.
Timothy.—What’s to hinder you then Thracian, enumerating them to us?
Thracian.—I was not very solicitous, my good sir, to retain either the substance or arrangement of that conversation, nor can I now recollect it. What possible benefit could I derive from an over-solicitude to retain their names, their haunts and in what particular do they resemble, and in what differ from each other? therefore I have allowed such insipid matter to escape my memory, yet I retain a little out of a great deal, and whatever that you are curious about, if you inquire of me, you shall know about it.
Timothy.—This in particular I wish to know, how many orders of daemons are there?
Thracian.—He said, there were in all six species of daemons, I know not whether subdividing the entire genus by their habits, or by the degree of attachment to bodies—be that as it may, he said that the sexade [of daemons] were corporeal and mundane, because in that /
number all corporeal circumstances are compromised, and agreeably to it the mundane system was constituted; afterwards he observed, that this first number [the sexade] was represented by the scalene triangle, for that beings of the divine and celestial order were represented by the equilateral triangle, as being consistent with its itself, and with difficulty inclinable to evil, whilst human beings were represented by the isosceles triangle, as being in some measure unreliable in their choice, yet capable of reformation on repentance. Yet on the other hand, the daemonic tribe was represented by the scalene* triangle as being at variance with itself, and not at all approaching to excellence. Whether he were really of this opinion or not, this is certain, he counted off six species of daemons, and first he mentioned Leliurium,† speaking in his barbarous vernacular tongue, a name which signifies Igneous. This order of daemons haunts the air above us, for the entire genus has been expelled from the regions adjacent to the moon, as a prophane thing with us would be expelled from a temple, but the second occupies the air contiguous to us, and is called by the proper name, Aërial, the third is Earthly, the fourth the Aqueous and Marine, the fifth the /
* Here Ethics and Mathematics are curiously blended, few of our modern mathematicians, we believe, are in the habit of assigning a moral meaning to Geometrical problems, theorems or figures; most probably this notion was derived from the Pythagoreans, it at all events, it shews that those who embraced such fanciful opinions were not the illiterate vulgar. It may be necessary to explain this conceit, more particularly to the mere English reader—the equilateral triangle, which was bounded by three equal sides, was considered the emblem of excellence, hence celestial beings were regarded as being represented by it. The Isosceles triangle, which was bounded by two equal and one unequal side, was considered not quite so perfect in its conformation, and was therefore supposed to represent human beings, while the Scalene triangle, which was bounded by three sides, every one unequal to the other, was thought to aptly shadow forth the perverseness and waywardness of the daemonic tribe.
† Query, is this the Lemures of the Latins, and the Leprechauns of the Irish.
Subterranean, and the last the Lucifugus, which can scarcely be considered sentient beings. All these species of daemons are haters of God, and enemies of man, and they say, that the Aqueous and the Subterranean are worse than merely bad, but that the Lucifugus are eminently malicious and mischievous, for these, said he, not merely impair man’s intellect, by phantasies and illusions, but destroy them with the same alacrity as we would the most savage wild beast. The Aqueous suffocate in the water all that approach them; the Subterranean and the Lucifugus, if they can only insinuate themselves into the lungs of those they meet, seize and choke them, rendering them epileptic and insane; the Aërial and Earthy, with art and cunning, stealthily approach and deceive men’s minds, impelling them to unlawful and unnatural lusts. But how, said I, or by what doing do they accomplish this? is it by lording it over us and leading us about wherever they please, as if we were so many slaves? Not by lording it over us, says Marcus, but by leading us into reminiscences, for when we are in an imaginative spirit, approaching by virtue of their spiritual nature, they whisper descriptions of sensual delights and pleasures, not that they actually emit distinct sounds, but they insinuate a sort of murmur, that serves with them the place of words. But is it impossible, said I, they could utter words without sound? It is not impossible, said he, as you will perceive, if you only reflect, that when one is speaking to another at a distance, he must speak in a high key, but if he be near, he need barely murmur, and whisper in the ear of his auditor, and if one could approach the very essence of the soul, there would be no occasion for any sound whatsoever, but any word we please would reach its destination by a noiseless path; a faculty they say is possessed by disembodied spirits, for they hold communication with each other in a noiseless manner, in the same way daemons hold communication us, without us perceiving it, so it is impossible to discover from what quarter an attack may be/
made upon us.* You need have no doubt on this point, if you only consider what happens in the atmosphere; when the sun shines, he combines colors and forms, and transmits them to objects capable of receiving them (as we may observe in mirrors), thus also the daemons, assuming appearance and colors, and whatever forms they please, transport them into our animal spirit, and occasion us in consequence a vast deal of trouble, suggesting designs, reviving the recollection of pleasures, obtruding representations of sensual delights, both waking and sleeping; sometimes, too, rousing the baser passions by titillations, they incite to insane and unnatural amours, and especially when they find warm perspirations co-operating; for in this way, donning Pluto’s helmet, with craft and the most refined subtlety, they create a motion in men’s minds. The other description of daemons has not a particle of wit, and are incapable of cunning, yet they are dangerous and very terrible, injuring after the manner of the Charonean spirit, for (as they report) the Charonean spirit destroys everything that comes in its way, whether beast, man, or bird; in the same way these daemons terrifically destroy everyone they fall in with, injuring them in body /
* This is indeed “the doctrine of daemons” in all its length, depth, breadth and richness. Were one engaged sinking a well, and life suddenly became extinct, by inhaling chokedamp, his death was occasioned by one of the Lucifugus or Subterranean daemons; was one while bathing to be suddenly seized with cramp, and sink to rise no more, he was pulled under by one of the Aqueous and Marine daemons; was one not keeping the hands or the head industriously employed, to be haunted by the filthy vagrancies of a prurient imagination, this was the work of an Aërial daemon, whispering impure desires into his soul; so that, as Thracian says, “it is impossible to discover from what quarter an attack may be made upon us. How wretched must have been the condition of those enslaved to such a degrading superstition. Well might Horace ask (who probably spoke from a personal experience of this horrible slavery:—
Somnia terrores magicus, miracula, sagas
Noctarnos lemures portentaque, Thessla rides?
Epist. II, book 2, v. 200, 210.
and mind, and subverting their natural habits; sometimes they destroy not merely men, but even irrational animals, in the fire, in the water, or by casting them over precipices.
Timothy.—But what can be their object in entering irrational animals? for this happened to the swine at Gargasa (as the Sacred Writings relate). I am not surprised if, being hostile to men, they injure them; but what is the sense of entering irrational animals?
Thracian.—Marcus said it was not from any motive of hatred, nor from any hostile intention, that they pounced upon some beasts, but from a vehement desire for animal heat; for, as they inhabit the most profound depths, which are cold to the last degree, and destitute of moisture, they are excessively cold; being contracted and pained in consequence, they naturally long for a moist and vivifying heat to revel in, and spring into irrational animals, and plunge into baths and pits; on the other hand, the heat that proceeds from fire they avoid, because consuming and scorching, but gladly attach themselves to the moisture of animals, as being congenial to their nature, but especially to that of man, as being the most congenial of all; and when infused into them they occasion no small uproar, the pores in which resides the animal spirit being clogged, and the spirit being confined and displaced by the bulk of their bodies, which is the cause of their agitating men’s persons, and injuring their faculties, and obstructing their motions. When a subterranean daemon assails one, he agitates and distorts the person possessed, and speaks through him, using the tongue of the sufferer* as if it were his own./
* Potter, describing the three kinds of theomancers, has a passage which throws considerable light on the above:—“One sort of theomancers were possessed with prophesying daemons, which lodged within them and dictated what they were to answer to those who inquired of them, or spoke out of the bellies or breasts of the possessed persons, they all the while remaining speechless and not so much as moving their tongues or lips, or pronounced the answer themselves, making use of the members of the daemoniac; these were called δαμονιληπτοι, i. e., possessed with daemons;
member; but if a lucifugus daemon clandestinely possesses a person, it occasions a relaxation of his whole system, stops his utterance and almost leaves the sufferer dead; for this last species in more allied to earth than the others, and is therefore excessively cold and dry, and anyone it can secretly possess, it blunts and obscures all the sufferer’s natural power; but because it is irrational and totally devoid of intellect, being governed by irrational whim, it has no more dread of reproof than the most intractable wild beast, for which reason it is designated with great propriety deaf and dumb; nor can a sufferer be dispossessed but by divine power, procurable by prayer and fasting.* “But, Marcus” said I, “physicians would persuade us to be of another way of thinking, for they assert that such affections are not caused by daemons, but are occasioned by an excess or deficiency of humours, or by a disordered state of the animal spirits, and accordingly they endeavor to cure them by medicine or dietetical regimen, but not by incantations nor purifications.” Marcus replied,—“It is not at all surprising that physicians make such an assertion, for they understand nothing but what is perceived by the senses, their whole attention being devoted to the bodily. Lethargies, Syncopes, cases of hypochondriasm, delirium, which they can remove by vomits, or evacuations, or by unguents.†/
and because the spirits either lodged or spoke within their bodies, they were also named εγγαστριμυθοι (which name was also attributed to daemons). It is in allusion to such possessed persons Isaias says, as the Septuagint has it, “If they say unto you, seek unto those whose speech is in their belly, and speak out of the earth, those that utter vain words, that speak from the stomach, shall not a nation seek unto their God? why do they inquire concerning the living from the dead?” Potter’s Antiq., vol i., 352, edit. Edin., 1832.)
*Our Lord says, in reference to the expulsion of daemons, “This kind goeth not forth except by prayer and fasting.” To this declaration, allusion here is evidently made.
† From this we learn that the application of unguents to the sick, referred to by the Apostle James, was not a religious, but a purely medical application.
it is quite correct to say that these are the effects of disordered humours, but enthusiasms, and madness, and possessions, with which when one is seized, he is incapable of making any use of his judgment, his tongue, his imagination, his senses, it is quite another thing moves, and excites them, and speaks what the person seized is unconscious of uttering, although occasionally he prophesies something.” With what propriety [I ask] can these effects be called the disordered movements of matter?
Timothy.—How now, Thracian! do you assent to what Marcus says?
Thracian.—Most undoubtedly, Timothy, for how could I do otherwise, when I recollect what the holy Gospels relate concerning persons possessed with daemons, and what befell the man of Corinth at Paul’s command and how many wonderful things are related of them by the Fathers; and moreover saw with my own eyes, and heard with my own ears, their doings at Elason; for a man of that place was in the habit of delivering oracles after the manner of the priests of Phoebus, and, amongst other things, predicted not a few concerning myself. Having collected the multitude of the initiated about him, he said,—“I apprise the present company of the fact that an individual will be sent against us, by whom the mysteries of our worship will be persecuted, and the mysteries of our service abolished; myself and many others will be apprehended by that person, but, though he be very anxious to carry me off a prisoner to Byzantium, he shall not do it—not though he make many and vigorous efforts to accomplish it.” Such predictions he uttered, though I had never gone as far from the city as to the neighboring villages. He described, too, my aspect, deportment, and occupation, and many that passed to and fro told me the facts. At length, when I did apprehend him, I asked him how he came to be gifted with the prophetic art? He, though he did not want to divulge the secret, yet, labouring under a laconic necessity, confessed the truth, for he said that /
he had come to the knowledge of daemoniacal practices through a certain vagabond African, who, bringing him by night to a mountain, causing him to partake of a certain herb, spitting into his mouth, and anointing his eyes with a certain unguent, enabled him to see a host of daemons, among which he perceived a sort of raven fly towards him, and down his throat into his stomach. From that time up to the present moment he could predict, but only respecting such things, and at such times, as the daemon who possessed him wished, but on Passion week, and the Resurrection day, so much venerated by Christians, not so he himself should so greatly desire it, it is the daemon who possessed him disposed to suggest anything. These things he told me, and, when one of my followers struck him on the cheek, “you,” said he, “for this one blow shall receive many, and you,” said he, turning to me, “shall suffer great calamities in your person, for the daemons are fearfully incensed against you for subverting their service, and will involve you in harassing dangers, such as you cannot by any possibility escape, except some power superior to that of the daemons extricate you.† These things the polluted wretch predicted, as if uttering oracles at the Delphic Tripod; for they all happened, and I have been /
* This is just in the oracular style. There was always some proviso attached to oracular responses, or some ambiguity in them, which was calculated to save the oracle’s credit. Thus when Croesus applied to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, to know whether he should march against Cyrus, he received for answer—
”Croesus Halym penetrans, magnam pervertet opum vim.”
”If Croesus crosses the river Halys, he shall overturn a great empire.”
The event proved his own overthrow. The same ambiguity attends to the famous reply of the same oracle to Phyrrus:—
Aio Aeacida, Romanos vincere possuin.”
”I do pronounce that Rome
Phyrrus shall overcome.”
Which may be interpreted to mean, either that Rome should overcome Phyrrus, or that Phyrrus should overcome Rome. It is in /
almost undone by the numerous dangers that beset me; from which my Saviour alone wonderfully rescued me; but who that has seen the oracle in which daemons play upon wind instruments,* will say that madness in all its forms are but vitiated movements of matter?
Timothy.—I am not at all surprised, Thracian, that physicians are of this way of thinking; for how many cannot at all understand this sort of thing? For my part, I was first of their opinion, until I saw what was absolutely portentous and monstrous in its character, which, as it is quite apropos of the current topic, I shall relate. An old man like me, and who has, besides, assumed the monastic habit, is incapable of telling a falsehood. I had an elder brother married to a woman, who was on the whole of a good disposition, but quite perverse; she was, too, afflicted by a variety of diseases. She, in her confinement, was very ill, and raved extravagantly, tearing her bedgown, muttered a sort of barbarous tongue, in a /
* This is a passage on which we confess ourselves utterly unable to throw any light; we scarcely dare to hazard a conjecture. It strikes us, however, that a very successful imposture might be played off by means of Æolian harps. Perhaps it is to something of that nature allusion is made. We may observe, by the way, it is a great mistake to assume oracles ceased universally on the coming of Christ (as what is here mentioned proves). Though daily declining, they continued long after, as the laws of the Emperors Theodosius, Gracian, and Valerian against such as consulted them clearly evince. It would be more proper to say wherever the power of Christ was brought to bear upon them they ceased, and eventually died out. Their cessation is attested to by Strabo, Juvenal, Lucan, and others. Plutarch accounts for it by saying that the benefits of the gods are not eternal, as themselves, or that the genii who presided over oracles are subject to death; while Anathasius tells the Pagans they have been witnesses themselves that the sign of the cross puts the daemons to flight, silences oracles, and dissipates enchantments, which is confirmed by Arnobius, Lactantius, Prudentius, Minutius Felix, and others. Lucius says that the oracles were chiefly of the subtleties of the Epicureans and the Christians.
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