of Plymouth

The Little

The Pilgrim

Uncle Jabez

PHS 1963



Charles I




Psellus on Demons psellus


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.


I asked what she had undergone, and if she could recall to mind anything that had occurred; she said she saw a sort of darksome spectre, resembling a woman with the hair disheveled, springing upon her; that in her terror she had fallen on the bed, and from that time had no recollection of what had occurred. She spoke thus on her recovery. Ever since that event a sort of bond of ambiguity has kept me perplexed, as to how the daemon that harassed this woman could seem feminine, for we may well question whether the distinction of sex prevails amongst the daemons as it does the creatures of the earth; and in the next place, how could it employ the Armenian tongue? For we can hardly conceive that some daemons speak in Greek, some in Chaldee, others in Persic or Syriac; and also why it should crouch at the charmer’s threats, and fear a naked sword; for how can a daemon, which can neither be struck nor slain, suffer from a sword? These doubts perplex me exceedingly; upon these points I require persuasion, which I think you the most competent person to afford, as you are thoroughly acquainted with the sentiments of the ancients, and have acquired a great deal of historical knowledge.

Thracian.—I should wish, Timothy, to render reasons /
cially those which the Gospel declares as such.” (Calmet’s Dict. Art. Daemon.) To much the same purpose is the following, from the Encyclopedia Britannica:—“All that Revelation makes known, all that human reason can conjecture, concerning the existence of various orders of spiritual beings, good and bad, is perfectly consistent with, and even favorable to, the doctrine of daemoniacal possession. It was generally believed throughout the ancient heathen world; it was equally well known to the Jews, and equally respected by them, it is mentioned in the New Testament in such language, and such narratives are related concerning it, that the Gospels cannot be regarded as pieces of imposture, and Jesus Christ must be considered as a man who dishonestly took advantage of the weakness and ignorance of his contemporaries, if this doctrine is nothing but a vulgar error. It teaches nothing inconsistent with the general conduct of Providence; it is not the caution of philosophy, but the pride of reason, that suggests objections against this doctrine.” (Ency. Brit. p.58, edit. Edin., 1823)
for the matters in question, but I am afraid we may seem a pair of triflers, you for searching for what no one has yet discovered, I in attempting to explain what I ought rather to pass over in silence, and especially as I know that things of this kind are made matters of misrepresentation by many; but since, according to [King] Antigonus, one ought to oblige his friend, not merely in what is very easily performed, but sometimes also where there is something of difficulty, I will e’en attempt to loose this bond of ambiguity [you complain of], reconsidering the matter which gave occasion to Marcus’ discourses. He said that no species of daemon was naturally male or female, but that their animal passions were the same with those of the creatures with which they were united; for that the simple daemonic bodies, which are very ductile and flexible, are accommodative to the nature of every form; for, as one may observe the clouds exhibiting the appearance one while of men, at another of bears, at another of serpents, or some other animal, thus also it is with the bodies of daemons; but when the clouds are disturbed by external blasts, diversified forms are presented; thus also it is with the daemons, whose persons are transformed according to their pleasure into whatever appearance they please, and are one moment contracted into a less bulk, the next stretched out into a greater length. The same thing we see exemplified in lubricous animals in the bowels of the earth, owning to the softness and pliability of their nature, which are not merely altered in respect of size but also in respect of appearance, and that in a variety of ways; the body of daemons likewise is accommodative in both particulars; not only is it peculiarly yielding, and takes the impression of objects, but because it is aerial, it is susceptible of all kinds of hues, as is the atmosphere; such is the body of daemons, owing to the imaginative energy inherent in it, and which extends to it the appearance of colours; for, as when we are panic-struck, we first are pale, and afterwards blush, according as the mind is /
variously affected, owing to the soul extending such affections to the body, we may well suppose it is just the same way with the daemons, for they from within and send out to their bodies the semblance of colours; for which reason each, when metamorphosed into that appearance which is agreeable, extending over the surface of his body the appearance of color, sometimes appears as a man, sometimes it is metamorphosed as a woman, and, changing those forms, it retains neither constantly, for its appearance is not substantial, but resembles what occurs in the atmosphere, or water, in which you may no sooner infuse a color, or delineate a form, than straitway it dissolves and is dispelled. We may perceive that the daemons are liable to similar affections, for in them color, and figure, and all appearance whatever is evanescent. In these things Marcus, as I conjecture, said what was probable; and from this time forward let not the question harass you, whether the distinction of sex exists in daemons on account of the genital members appearing in them, for these, whether male or female, are not constant or habitual; therefore consider that the daemon which so much harassed the woman in confinement seemed like a woman, not because it was really and habitually feminine, but because it presented the appearance of a woman.

Timothy.—But how comes it Thracian, that it does not assume one form, and now another, like the other daemons, but is always seen in this form, for I have heard from many, that daemons of the female form only are seen by women in confinement?

Thracian.—For this too, Marcus assigned a not improbable reason, he said that all daemons have not the same power and inclination, that in this particular there is a great diversity amongst them, for some are irrational, as amongst mortal compound animals, now as amongst them, man, being more endowed with intellectual and rational powers, is gifted with a more discursive imagination, one which extends to almost all sensible objects, both in heaven, and /
around, and on this earth. Horses, oxen, and animals of that sort, with a more confined sort of imagination, which extends but to some things, which exercise the imaginative faculty, [as for instance] their companions at pasture, their stall, or their owners; and gnats, with flies and worms, have this faculty exceedingly restricted, not knowing any of them the hole they leave, where the proceed, or whither they ought to go, but exercising the imagination for the single purpose of aliment, in the same manner also the species of daemons are greatly diversified; for amongst them, some very Empyreal and Aërial are possessed of a very discursive imagination, one that extends to every imaginable object; very different from them are the Subterranean and Lucifugi; they do not assume a variety of forms, for they are incapable of numerous spectral appearances, not being possessed of pliability and versatility of person; the Aqueous and Terrene, occupying an intermediate position with respect to those already described, are incapable of changing their forms, but in whatever forms they delight, in these they constantly continue. But you should not be at all perplexed, if the daemon that harassed the woman in confinement appeared feminine, for being a lascivious daemon, and delighting in impure moistures, changing it form, it naturally assumed that which is best adapted for a life of pleasure,* but with respect to the daemon speaking in the Arminian tongue, that was a point Marcus did not clear up, it will be manifest, however from the following considerations:—It is impossible to ascertain the peculiar tongue of each particular daemon, whether [for instance,] such a daemon speak in the Hebrew, or Greek, or Syriac, or other barbarous tongue; indeed, [I may ask,] what absolute need have they of a voice, who usually hold intercourse without one? [as I already observed,] but in the case of angels† of /
* Spoken like a monk.
† This is speaking very particularly on a subject respecting which we know little or nothing, “secret things belong unto God, but the/

the nations, different angels being appointed over different nations, different angels must associate with each other, they each use the tongue of their respective nations; we /
things are revealed,” &c. We are not under any necessity for supposing, that angelic beings understand each, but a single language, they may have an intuitive perception of all languages, and hold intercourse with each other, in a manner, of which we cannot form the most remote conception, it is idle to speculate on such a subject. Most that can be safely affirmed respecting them, may be comprised within a few words—that they are innumerable—that they are God’s executive—that they are vastly superior to us in mind and intelligence—and are employed doing good offices to the pious. With respect to the manner and circumstances of their appearance, we cannot do better than cite what Calmet says of this subject:—“The discovery of angels has usually been after they had delivered their message, and always for the purpose of a sign, in confirmation of the faith of the party whom they had addressed; it is evident that the angel who appeared to Manoah, was taken by both Manoah and his wife for a prophet only, till after he had delivered his message, he took leave “wonderfully,” to convince them of his extraordinary nature; thus the angel who wrestled with Jacob, at last put the hollow of his thigh out of joint, a token that he was no mere mortal man. The angel who spoke to Zacharias, rendered him dumb—a token beyond the power of mere man, (e. gr., an imposter speaking falsely in the name of God,) to produce: and so of others.” Sometimes angels did not reveal themselves fully, they gave as it were, obscure and very indistinct, though powerful intimations of their presence. When angels were commissioned to appear to certain persons only, others who were in company with those persons had revelations, which indicated an extraordinary occurrence; although the appearance was not to them, yet they seemed to have felt the effects of it, as Dan., x., 7—“I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; the men that were with me saw not the vision; but a great quaking fell upon them, so that they fled to hide themselves.” Paul’s vision was very similar in its effects, see Acts ix, 7, xxii, 9, and xxvi, 14, also that seen by the guards at the sepulchre, on the occasion of our Lord’s Resurrection, Matt., xxviii. Angels being invisibly engaged in the care and service of mankind, we can have no difficulty in admitting that they have had orders on particular occasions to make themselves known as coeslestial intelligences, they may often assume it completely, (as must be supposed, and as nothing forbids,) how can we generally be the wiser, does not the Apostolic exhortation, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,” countenance the idea that such an occurrence is not impossible even now.
may reasonably conclude, that it is the same way with the daemons, for which reason some of them with the Greeks delivered oracles in Heroics, but others with the Chaldees were evoked in Chaldee, whilst among the AEgyptians they were induced to approach by means of AEgyptian incantations, in the same manner too, the daemons amongst the Armenians, if they happen to go elsewhere, prefer to use their tongue [the Armenians’] as if it were the vulgar tongue.

Timothy.—Be it so Thracian; but what sufferings are they capable of, that they fear threats and a sword? what are they to be supposed capable of suffering from such, that they crouch with fear and keep aloof?

Thracian.—You are not the only person Timothy, who has been perplexed on these points; before I heard your doubts on them I expressed mine to Marcus, and he to remove them, observed, the various species of daemons are bold, and cowardly in the extreme, but especially such as are allied to matter. The Aërial indeed possessing the largest share of intelligence, if one rebukes them, can distinguish the person rebuking, and no one harassed by them can be liberated, unless such a holy character as addicts himself to the worship of God, and relying on the Divine power, calls to his aid the terrible name of the Divine Λογος. Those that are allied to matter, unquestionably fearing a dismissal to abysses and subterranean places, and the angels who are usually despatched against them, when one threatens them with these [the angels,] and their being conveyed away to such places, and calls over them, the designation of the angels appointed to this office, are afraid, and thrown into great perturbation; so that from being deranged, they cannot discern who it is that threatens.

Timothy.—But what advantage, did he say, resulted from the service of the Aërial daemons?

Thracian.—He did not say, my good friend, that any good resulted from these proceedings; indeed the things /
themselves proclaim in a barefaced manner that they are made up of vanity, imposture, and a groundless imagination, however fiery meteors, such as are usually called falling stars, descend from them on their worshippers, which the madmen have the hardihood to call visions of God, though they have no truth, nor certainty, nor stability about them, (for what of a luminous character, could belong to the darkened daemons,) and though they are but ridiculous tricks of theirs,* such things as are usually effected by optical illusions, or by means called miraculous? But really by imposing on the spectators; these things I wretched man discovered long since, and was meditating to abandon this religion, yet up to the present moment, I was kept fascinated, and my perdition had been inevitable, had not you extricated me [from my perilous situation] by the path of truth, shining forth like a Pharos, placed to dispel the darkness of the sea, Marcus having spoke thus shed a flood of tears, and I consoling him said, you can chuse a fitter time for weeping, for now it is seasonable to magnify your salvation, and return thanks to God, by whom both your body and soul are emancipated from perdition. /
*There seems here is an imitation of what took place on the initiation of the individual, at the Eleusinian Mysteries: we are the more confirmed in this opinion, from the Monk Marcus being designate in a previous part of the work τελεττης or εποπτης, i. E., Inspector, (Poll. Antiq., vol. I, 451) Upon complying with certain rites, strange and amazing objects presented themselves, sometimes the places they were in seemed to shake around them; sometimes appeared bright and resplendent with light, and radiant fire, and then again covered with blackness and horror, sometimes thunder and lightning, sometimes frightful voices, and bellowings, sometimes terrible apparitions astonished the trembling spectators; their being present at such sights, was called αντοψια, i. e., initiation.
Timothy.—Tell me this, for I long to know it, whether the bodies of daemons are of such a nature, as to be capable of being struck?

Thracian.—Marcus said, that they could be struck, so as to be pained by a powerful blow inflicted on the person. But how, said I, can that be, as they are spirit, and not solid or compound, for the faculty of sensation belongs to compound bodies? I am amazed, said he, you should be ignorant of the fact, that it is not the bone or nerve of any is endowed with the faculty of sensation, but the spirit inherent in them, therefore, whether the nerve be pained from the immission of spirit into spirit, for a compound body is not capable of being pained by virtue of itself, but by virtue of its union with spirit, for when dissected or dead, it is incapable of suffering, because deprive of the spirit; also a daemon being altogether spirit, and of a sensitive constitution in every part of it, sees and hears, and is capable of the sense of touch, without the intervention of organs of sense, it is pained after the manner of solid bodies, with the difference, however, that whereas when they are divided, they are with difficulty, or never made whole, this when divided, straightway unites, like the particles of air or water, when some solid body displaces them; but though the spirit unties swifter than speech, yet is it pained in the very moment of separation; this is the reason why it fears and dreads the points of iron instruments—and exorcists, well aware of their aversion, when they do not wish the daemons to approach a specific place, set darts and swords erect, and provide certain other things, either diverting them from that spot by their antipathies, or alluring them to another by their attachments. In these particulars, Marcus’ explanation respecting the daemons, in my judgment, seems probable.

Timothy.—But did he tell you this Thracian? did he tell you whether the daemons were gifted with foreknowledge? /
Thracian.—Yes, but not as a causal or intelligent, nor experimental foreknowledge, but merely conjectural, for which reason it most generally fails, so they can scarcely ever utter a particle of truth.

Timothy.—Can’t you describe to me, the nature of that foreknowledge, which is inherent in them?

Thracian.—I would describe it, if time permitted me but now ‘tis time to return home, for as you see, the air is hazy, and charged with rain, and if we sit here in the open air, we will be wet through-and-through.

Timothy.—Friend, consider what you do, leaving your discourse unfinished.

Thracian.—Don’t be uneasy, my best friend, for please God, the first opportunity you and I meet again, I will make good whatever is wanting, and that in the Syracusan style. [Literally beyond the declines of Syracusans.] /

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