Agathos Daemon (Bonus Genius, Pšay, Kmēf)

Category: Gods > Gods of Fate and Fortune

Cf. Kmēf and Ouroboros.

1 Disambiguation of ‘Daemon’ from ‘daemon’

Few words in ancient Greek are more polyvalent than δαίμων (daímōn, ‘daemon’). Daemons – not to be confused with Jewish or Christian demons, although this word also comes from daímōn – are often called ‘spirits’ in English, as something more divine than humans, but lesser than gods. This makes it rather confusing that Daemon also occurs as the name of a god in the narrower sense, who is even equated with Zeus, the king of gods, himself!

Of Daemon (Orphic Hymn 73), fumigation of frankincense:
“I call Daemon, the great fearsome ruler,
Propitious Zeus (acc. Día), all-parent, the giver of life to mortals,
Great Zeus (acc. Zêna), the evermoving avenger, universal king,
Giver of wealth, whenever you come revelling into a household;
But reversely, you wear out the life of much-suffering mortals,
For the keys of grief and joy are contained within you!
Thus, blessed, holy one, drive away much-vexing cares,
Whatever destruction of life they send over all the Earth,
And may you grant an honorable, sweet and good outcome of life!

To make sense of this hymn given only the knowledge that a daemon is a lesser divine being is impossible; we require another meaning of the word. Happily, any dictionary of ancient Greek can tell us that daímōn also means ‘fortune’ or ‘luck’, which fits here perfectly. As the male counterpart of Tyche (Fortune) and near-equivalent to Fate, who was equated with Zeus by the Stoics, every attribute ascribed to the god by “Orpheus” becomes transparent, and the motivation for identifiying him with the universal king and parent Zeus is crystal clear.

2 Agathos Daemon (Bonus Genius) and Agathe Tyche (Bona Fortuna)

Much more often than a god Daemon do we encounter Agathos Daemon (Agathós Daímōn), ‘Good Fortune’, sometimes called Agathodaemon (Agathodaímōn).

That said, he is still mentioned much more rarely than Agathe Tyche, whose name likewise means ‘Good Fortune’ (cf. Hesychius s.v.: “Agathe Tyche: Nemesis and Themis”). There are hundreds of inscriptions naming her, sometimes as the receiver of some dedication, sometimes in formulaic expressions like “with Good Fortune, the council has decreed”. Often, the words “Good Fortune” are simply placed at the beginning of an inscription, disconnected from the main text, presumably for its auspiciousness. (Similarly, many inscriptions begin with the disconnected word “Gods”, theoí.) Thus, in the much fewer inscriptions that mention both Agathos Daemon and Agathe Tyche, he is functionally little more than a doublet of the far more famous goddess, and where they were worshipped together, it is hard to see his cult as anything but an extension of hers.

[Pausanias 9.39.5;13]

A further extension occurs in astrology, where of the twelve so-called lots, four are assigned to variations of Fortune. In the words of the Latin astrological writer Firmicus Mater:

  • “The fifth lot (locus) […] is called Bona Fortuna [‘Good Fortune’, gr. Agathe Tyche], because the lot belongs to Venus” (Mathesis 2.19.6)
  • “The sixth lot […] is called Mala Fortuna [‘Bad Fortune’, gr. Kake Tyche], because the lot belongs to Mars” (ibid. 2.19.7).
  • “The eleventh lot […] is called Bonus Daemon or Bonus Genius (‘Good Fortune’) by us, Ἀγαθὸϛ Δαίμων (Agathos Daemon) by the Greeks” (ibid. 2.19.12).
  • “The twelfth lot […] is called Κακὸς Δαίμων by the Greeks, Malus Daemon (‘Bad Fortune’) by us” (ibid. 2.19.13).

3 Agathos Daemon in his own right

Agathos Daemon is not always a doublet or companion of Agathe Tyche, however. In a number of inscriptions from Rhodes and Cos (e.g., IG XII/1.161), for instance, we hear of Agathodaemonists, an association (thiasos) that met for the worship of the god. (They were however not, as -ists suggests in modern English, a group of followers of “Agathodaemonism”; thiasoi were not based on idiosyncratic theology or philosophy but on mainstream devotional practices.) If Tyche had any role to play in these devotions, it was at any rate not as their focal point.

The same word, Agathodaemonists, also appears as a term for a sort of temperance club in Athens (Airstotle, Eudemian Ethics 1233b3, also Hesychius, s.v.: “Agathodaimonists: those who drink little”), implying the existence of a thiasos for the god in that city too. Although little mentioned in surviving literature, these people were prominent enough to be parodied by the Kakodaimonistaí (‘thiasos of Bad Fortune’), a group of Athenian men who were ostentatiously impious and convened at their (presumably excessive rather than temperate) meetings on an inauspicious (apophrás) day, that is, one of the days on which no sacred actions were to be performed (cf. Sallustius XVIII). Lysias, the only one to mention these gentlemen (in a fragment quoted by Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12.76), contrasts them with Noumeniasts, who met on one of the most auspicious days, the Noumenia.

According to the lexicographer Hesychius (s.v.), the second day of the (lunar) month, just after the Noumenia, was said to belong to our god – presumably in Athens, although I feel Mikalson (The Sacred and Civil Calendar of the Athenian Year) may be a tad too confident in asserting this as fact.

Solitary temples: 6.20.3-5, 8.36.5(???)

Iconographically, according to the Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC) and its description of some ancient reliefs, Agathos Daemon was depicted in the shape of a man with a scepter and a horn of plenty (#2 LIMC), a horn of plenty and a libation bowl (#3 LIMC), or simply a horn of plenty (r#4 LIMC); in the last case, he is bearded, and in the latter two, accompanied by Agathe Tyche. The first and third reliefs were conveniently labeled by the ancient artists, and the iconography is also described in an anecdote included by John Stobaeus in his massive Anthology (4.15a.16):

“When Socrates was interpreting the horn of Amaltheia (i.e., the horn of plenty), he considered it to refer to something like the following, as being a symbol: if someone is not lazy (málthōn) but hard-working, they can attain all good things. By Amaltheia, not being lazy is indicated, by the horn of cattle, which is so productive, the hard worker. And there is a bunch of grapes and the like within the horn, because all things of which we make use are contained in agriculture. For this reason, Agathos Daemon and Agathe Tyche are introduced as holding it.”

Siculus: daimonos tinos agaqou
Lucian: tina agaqon daimona
Aristides: agaqou tinos daimonos

sun agaqw daimoni; kata tina ouk agaqon daimona; kata tina agaqon daimona (Pausanias)

Plutarch: qysantas agaqw daimoni; hmeis men agaqou daimonos

DL: agaqos daimwn eis thn oikian mou eiselhluqe

Damascius: tw de agaqw ton tou agaqou daimonos
(!) Proclus: ton idion hmwn daimona kai thn toutw sustoixon tuxhn tou agaqou daimonos kai ths agaqhs tuxhs diaferein ouden

Cornutus 51: Agaqos de Daimwn

inscriptions etc., Noumenia
Chariton, Artemidorus, Achilles Tatius, Marcus Aurelius, Plato Spuria 371c6, Eusebius, Porphyry, Iamblichus
“And in Thebes, there was a hero-shrine (hērôion) of Agathos Daemon” (Eudemus, On Rhetorical Expressions f. 2a).

agaqos daimwn as TL of Ahura Mazda (or rather…)

Hesychius: sapsis

4 Agathos Daemon in Hellenized Egypt

Historia Alexandra Magni, Magica, Historia Augusta, Isidorus, CH
Potter’s oracle (link)
Aelian nat. 17.5
Res gestae Alaexandri: daemon melior
Plutarch: amfoterwn men agaqon daimona

Philo; ouroboros etc.!

5 Agathos Daemon and Zeus Soter

Zeus Soter (incrr.), astragal., Orphic Hymns prologue, banquets
Photius: agaqos te daimwn kai agaqh swthria

6 Drinks of Good Luck at Athenian banquets (symposia)

  • “Attics (say) ‘drink (póma) of Agathos Daemon’, Greeks (say) ‘the last drink’ (teleutaía pósis)” (Moeris, Attic Lexicon, s.v.). The “Attics” here are the classical Athenian authors, the “Greeks” the Greek-speakers of Moeris’ own day.
  • “‘Of Agathos Daemon‘: this was what the cup they had after the table was taken away was called by the ancients” (Aelius Dionysius, Attic Words, s.v.).
  • “‘Of Agathos Daemons‘: the ancients had the custom to have a drink of Agathos Daemon after dinner (lit. ‘after the tables’), by having (a cup of) unmixed wine; and this was the third (cup).” (Eudemus, On Rhetorical Expressions f. 2a).

A little differently:

  • “The (drink) ‘of Agathos Daemon’ is the unmixed (cup of wine drunk) after meals, and ‘Hermes’ is the last drink” (Julius Pollux, Onomasticon 6.100).

[Aristophanes, scholia on Aristophanes, Diod. 4.3, Athenaeus, Porphyry De abstin. 2.20]

7 Addressing some misconceptions

It should be clear from section 1 that Agathos Daemon is not the “Good Spirit” or “Good Deity”, but Good Fortune. As such, the fact that daemon and god are sometimes synonymous cannot authorize us to identify the Good God (Agathos Theos) mentioned by Pausanias (8.36.5) with Agathos Daemon, since theós does not mean ‘fortune’ or ‘luck’. So, while it is interesting that there was a temple of a deity called Good God, and also that Pausanias equates him with Zeus, this has nothing to do with Agathodaemon, nor with why Daemon and Zeus are equated in the Orphic Hymn.

Further, the common idea that Agathodaemon has “the double function of protector of the house and guarantor of agricultural fertility” (LIMC, p. 277) is built on very weak foundations. The latter may be based in part on an overly literal interpretation of his iconographical attribute, the horn of plenty, which is loaded with produce; but the god carries this as a general signifier of wealth, which is the principal form of good fortune. The former is not quite so baseless, but still confused.

In Orphic Hymn 73 and elsewhere, mention is made of (Agathos) Daemon entering the household, much as Wealth (Ploutos) does in Aristophanes’ play of the same name. But Wealth is blind, and the Daemon of the Orphic Hymn is changeful; whether they will come or not is an open question. The Lares Familiares, by contrast, who were actually called “household (katoikídioi) gods” (or “heroes” or “daemons”) in Greek, always inhabit their given home. This is obviously a rather different idea, even if in both cases there is a divine presence somehow in the house.

Most often, the connection between the Agathos Daemon and the household is made through his iconography, because (a) in Roman art, the divine protector of a given place (lat. genius loci), including of a house, is depicted as a snake; (b) the idea of such a house snake is also attested for Greece; (c) Agathos Daemon is likewise represented as a snake; and (d) genius can translate daemon. But if we look at each piece of this argument carefully, they contradict the conclusion.

Firstly, while the house snake is indeed attested for Greece, it is not identified as the Agathos Daemon, nor (that I know of) as a permanent guardian of the home, but as a hero (loosely translating, a “ghost”); see Theophrastus, On Superstition. The house snake in modern Greek folklore is admittedly more like the Roman genius loci, that is to say, a constant presence (Bernhard Schmidt, Das Volksleben der Neugriechen und das Hellenische Altertum, pp. 184–187). But it is plausible to attribute this to the confluence of Greek and Roman ideas in the Roman imperial/Byzantine period, and in any case, it still has nothing to do with Agathos Daemon.

Secondly, based on the extant sources, Agathos Daemon’s depiction as a serpent seems to come out of Egypt, and to the extent that the serpent, the name Agathos Daemon, and the worship as a guardian of the home are linked, this appears to be a Greco-Egyptian innovation, not something that has been inherited unchanged from older Greek tradition (let alone classical Athens). Again, if modern Greek folklore shows more similarities to the Greco-Egyptian sources than to the classical Athenian ones, it is reasonable to attribute this to the cultural confluences of the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods, not to unbroken but unrecorded Greek tradition.

Thirdly, while Latin genius can translate Greek daímōn in the sense of ‘fortune’, to my knowledge there is no evidence of Genius and Agathos Daemon being mutually translatable. Our god is instead translated as Bonus Genius, an expression expressly coined for this purpose because there was no ready equivalent.

In short, the idea of the house serpent as a divine guardian of sorts is present in Roman, Egyptian and also Greek tradition, but this does not justify calling it the Agathos Daemon outside of very circumscribed contexts (or on the basis of contemporary convention or “gnosis”, which I do not mean to discredit, but which should be kept distinct from historical precedent).

Further, the god Agathos Daemon is not to be confused with the personal daemon or daimónion (the “guardian angel”, so to speak). While ancient texts do indeed talk about daemons good (agathoi) and evil (kakoí), references to a “good daemon” (which only rarely concern a personal daemon in the first place) must not be conflated with mentions of Agathos Daemon himself. It is only on rare occasions that the line between the two conceptions is genuinely blurred, and that is largely when the personal daímōn is discussed in vague or abstract terms, as someone’s fortune, rather than as a lesser divine being watching over us.

A personal daemon is rarely called “the good daemon” unless in direct contrast to another, evil daemon. But this idea of two personal daemons appears to have been much less common in antiquity than that of two angels (one good and one evil, cf. B. Schmidt, Das Volksleben, pp. 179–180), or the angel and devil on a person’s shoulders, is in Christian culture.

Further, it is not true that the Dioscuri were identified with the Agathos Daemon, as the LIMC claims. It is merely the case that Sextus Empiricus says the Dioscuri are “certain good daemons”, i.e., lesser deities, like the 30,000 daemons of Zeus (from Hesiod’s Works and Days 252–253), which are mentioned immediately afterwards, still in the same sentence (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 9.86).

Finally, it should be noted that, while kakós daímōn means ‘bad fortune, evil daemon’ and kakodaímōn has both an adjectival meaning, ‘unfortunate’, and a (very rare) substantive one, ‘evil daemon’, this is not mirrored exactly by the corresponding positive terms.

Agathós daimōn is exclusively substantive, ‘good fortune, good daemon’; so is Agathodaímōn, (which seems to always mean ‘Good Fortune’). Eudaímōn, on the other hand, is exclusively an adjective in ancient Greek, meaning ‘fortunate’, and does not mean ‘good daemon’.

Therefore, the modern contrast between eudaemons and cacodaemons as two types of daemons has very little to do with ancient terminology.