Reflections on the Agathos Daemon

Astalon

The Agathos Daemon is a unique kind of divinity that was worshiped quite widely in antiquity. We know that the Agathos Daemon was widely worshipped owing to multiple records and depictions of this divinity in antiquity. In fact in the Athenian calendar he was given a day every month when he was honored. We know that families tended to worship him as part of their home practice and in a sanctuary of Dionysus he was honored first and foremost. There are numerous statuaries of the Agathos Daemon, some in the form of a snake, others as a youth found throughout Greece, mostly in the homes indicating that he was extensively worshiped in private practice.

However, this divinity is virtually never mentioned in myth. Also barring a temple in Alexandria in Egypt and somewhere on the road between Megalopolis to Maenalus there are no other major Agathos Daemon temples or sanctuaries located anywhere. He is occasionally worshiped alongside Tykhe, Zeus, Hermes, Demeter or Dionysos in their sanctuaries. In this aspect he is worshiped either as a bringer of good fortune or a watcher over the vineyard or cornfield. The Agathos Daemon it seems from historical evidence was primarily worshiped in private and family rites or in the folk religion (though he was also venerated as part of some polis religion) where a few drops of wine or food are offered as part of the offerings.

The question then is who is, or what is the Agathos Daemon? Let us first look at the name itself. The words Agathos Daemon is derived from the word Agathos and Daemon.

Let us look at the word Agathos. Agathos has many meanings depending on how it is used. In general it means “good” or “very good” or “of good nature”. It can also mean “beneficial” or “useful in a good way”. It can also mean “joyful”, “happy”, “pleasant” and “agreeable”. It can also mean “upright” and “honorable”. Sometimes it can even mean “excellent” and “distinguished”. The word in essence connotes something very good, excellent and beneficial. When people worshiped Tyche as Goddess of good fortune she is called Agathos Tyche.

Daemon is essentially translated as “spirit”, though the meaning of daemon is a little more complicated and far more blurred than that. Daemon is essentially an order of divinity that hovers between the Gods and Men. Daemons in general are considered to be below a God both in terms of power and in sphere influence. Technically all nymphs and nature spirits are daemons. Some Gods like Tykhe are also seen as daemons, as are all divinities that have a nymphai aspect like Mnemosyne and the Muses. However in the case of these divinities it is their rank as Gods that is emphasized and honored both in myth and in cult. Hesiod says that all the glorious individuals who died in both Golden and Silver ages transformed into daemons to watch over the world. Daemons were sometimes considered deities with a very limited aspect of influence over nature. Kydoimos for example was the daemon ( but also sometimes God ) of confusion due to battle noise. In the Hellenistic age it was almost the norm to address an individual who has passed on as a daemon and to be revered as such. Daemons in popular practice were oftentimes also divided into eudaemon or kalodaemons versus kakosdaemon or the keres ( essentially good, beneficial, illustrious, blessed daemons versus bad, malignant, defiled, and vile daemons). The eudaemons and kalodaemons were viewed as beneficial spirits that either brought good fortune, made one better, guided one away from erring, guided one towards the good and the upright, brought benefits into one’s life, or watched over the welfare of the individual. The kakosdaemon did the total opposite. In fact we know of one rite, quite elaborately described as to how to get the bad and vile daemons to leave. Plato later suggested that daemons were lower order spirits that were oftentimes malignant. This idea probably did not take on because it is obvious that in popular practice long after Plato people still saw some daemons as being beneficial and good, others as being horrible, and still others as in between. In fact near the end of the Hellenistic and beginning of the Roman period there came an idea that the Gods in fact did not respond to individual prayers but rather it was the daemons who responded to individual prayers. The idea was the Gods dealt with bigger things like city issues or country issues or Empire issues, while small individual issues were dealt with by the daemons. This idea gained ground in the 2nd century CE when the oracles began to fail and displayed inaccuracies and this was put to the fact that the oracles were in fact maintained by Daemons and not by the Gods. While the Gods could not fail, the Daemons clearly could.

So the Agathos Daemon is essentially a good, beneficial spirit. That far has been established. The next natural question of course is who is this good, beneficial spirit? The ancients themselves had many theories. Some think that the Agathos Daemon was Dionysos especially when it came to being protector of the vineyard. (Burkert, the august scholar in the field of ancient Hellenic religion actually wondered whether the Agathos Daemon was a chthonic aspect of Dionysos that never really got elevated to his Olympian status.) Pausanias thought that at least in one case the Agathos Daemon worshiped in a particular temple was actually an aspect of Zeus. The Agathos Daemon was sometimes thought to be the husband or brother of Tyche and is sometimes thought to be Plutus. In Alexandria a snake that got killed was considered an Agathos Daemon. In Alexandria as well the Agathos Daemon got sometimes equated with Serapis. In the city of Thebes there was a hero shrine to the Agathos Daemon, indicating this was someone deceased that has now become an Agathos Daemon.

With the last note about someone deceased becoming an Agathos Daemon, interestingly enough the Agathos Daemon was oftentimes referred to as being many Agathos Daemons as opposed to a singular. One author in fact wrote of different Agathos Daemons guarding different parts of even a singular city. Therefore in this sense we can also see the Agathos Daemons as a class of divinity of which there are many individual spirits. An interesting allusion to this in fact comes from Alexandria in Egypt from the same snake shrine as mentioned above. If we are to believe the records after the shrine was established the place got filled with snakes and the snakes subsequently moved into individual houses. People then revered these snakes as beneficial spirits. They were revering many distinct spirits as beneficial spirits, not a singular. In fact in later Ptolemaic times the Agathos Daemons were regarded to preside over the home, and that every home had their own Agathos Daemons.

An interesting phenomenon is also noted in Greece where harmless snakes that stayed in a house were regarded to be guardian spirits. While they were sometimes regarded to be Zeus of the Pantry oftentimes they were also called Agathos Daemons. Also a lot of times snakes that dwelled inside the graves were considered to be good daemons who watched over the graves of the deceased ( though they were also sometimes considered to be manifestations of the dead ).

Now the Agathos Daemons does not seem to be limited to a house or home cult. Individuals traveling are known to pray to the Agathos Daemons. Good fortune was sometimes attributed to the Agathos Daemon. Good health was attributed to the Agathos Daemon. Whilst Socrates never mentioned a word about Agathos Daemon, he says that he has a daemon that is far more accurate than any oracle and which prevents him from erring.

By Hellenistic times we begin to have allusions that the Agathos Daemons ( or the eudaemons ) actually steer an individual towards good and watch over them. The later Christian concept of guardian angels was probably a relatively accurate description of how the common people perceived the Agathos Daemons. On top of being guardian spirits like the guardian angels, the Agathos Daemons were sometimes described as bringing one’s message and prayers to the Gods.

There seems by Hellenistic times to be four ways the Agathos Daemons can be seen, each being different and each seemingly representing different Agathos Daemons. The Agathos Daemon can be associated with an activity as in the case of being the guardian and bringer of bounty of cornfields and the vineyards. The Agathos Daemon can be associated as being guardian and bringer of good things of an entire city or a place as in the case of the Agathos Daemon of Alexandria, Thebes and Memphis. The Agathos Daemon can be associated as bringer of bounty and beneficence to a family. The Agathos Daemon can also be associated as protector and bringer of good to an individual, including preventing him from erring towards wrong and protecting his fortune and health.

The Agathos Daemon is usually associated as a God in the first context, where he or she is bringer of county to the cornfields and vineyard and usually associated with Dionysos or Plutus or Zeus in that regard. As protector of the cities he is sometimes associated with either Zeus or Serapis, though at other times it is obvious that he is seen as a spirit only. In the case of families and individuals it seems that the Agathos Daemon in that context is a daemon.

The Agathos Daemons were extremely likely to have been regarded as one and the same as the eudaemons. In literature the rank of the eudaemons involved everything from the Daemons of the Golden and Silver Age to beneficial daemons of the countryside and agriculture to various personifications of Morality or Human Qualities.

It is sometimes said that the Agathos Daemon is an exclusively chthonic deity. Whilst this may have been true in the earlier periods of Greek history where the Agathos Daemon was intimately connected to the snake symbology, by the middle of the Hellenistic and early Roman period this is certainly not true. The Agathos Daemon by the late Hellenistic period and early Roman period was mostly depicted as a young man holding up something to represent bounty or good (a sheaf of wheat, a small cornucopia, a garland of flowers). Plutus was often depicted in a similar manner, except he is usually depicted holding up a very big cornucopia in relation to his body size (the Agathos Daemon is usually depicted as holding a small cornucopia) and is usually paired closely with either Eirene or Tykhe. Sometimes the statues of the Agathos Daemon were that of a young man paired with a snake. Later writings which mention the Agathos Daemon connect him with heavenly activities like the wind.

Unlike the Christians the Hellenes actually honored their guardian spirits. We know that the Agathos Daemons often received offerings, mostly that of a few sprinkles or drops of wine (watered or unwatered) when they honored Hestia at home. We know from records that the Agathos Daemon was honored often impromptu when something good happens. Often it is something simple like that of a few drops of milk. In the later Hellenistic period incense were burnt for the Agathos Daemon. In the major Agathos Daemon sanctuary in Alexandria people actually honored him by offering food.

Now here is where this essay is leading to. I am now going to move into worship of the Agathos Daemon, specifically in the two aspects of being the guardian, watcher and bringer of beneficence to the family and also as a personal guardian spirit. I will share with you my practices, such as how I establish my altars and how I do my rites.

For practical purposes I will split the practice of the family Agathos Daemon and the personal Agathos Daemon into two separate practices. This is not to say that the two Agathos Daemons are necessarily different. Rather this is to acknowledge the difference functions that the two Agathos Daemons in terms of cultus would play at least from my viewpoint and in my practice.

Now some people would ask, why honor the Agathos Daemon as our guardian spirits? Basically this entire essay is saying that the Agathos Daemon as our guardian spirit or our family guardian is not a Theoi right? So why honor him or her?

Let us reflect again why we as humans worship. We worship because we want to develop a relationship with a divinity. We worship because we want to celebrate and venerate the divinity. We worship because we want to develop a reciprocal relationship with a divinity. We worship because we want to thank and show gratitude to a divinity. We worship because we want the good things in our life to continue. We worship because we want continual guidance from the divinity. We worship because we are pious towards divinity. We worship because worship is Good.

The Agathos Daemon as our guardian spirit is not a deity, that is true, but the Agathos Daemon is still a divinity. Being a divinity the Agathos Daemon by default is most worthy of worship. However there are other reasons that make the Agathos Daemon worthy of cultus. The Agathos Daemon is also the closest divinity to us. The Agathos Daemon is always watching over us, always trying to prevent us from erring. The Agathos Daemon watches over our welfare and has our welfare at heart. The Agathos Daemon shields us in so far as he or she can from the Keres and the other horrible influences out there. The Agathos Daemon being a good and beneficent being wishes to bring good and beneficence into our lives. Above all, the Agathos Daemon is most responsive to our prayers owing to the fact that he is closest to us.

Remember this as well, even in our darkest times, our most horrible times, our worst times the Agathos Daemon is there. If it is not for our Agathos Daemon, working hard, toiling long into the night to pull us out of our problems our situation would probably worsen. I for one do not believe our Agathos Daemon ever abandons us or our family. It is my personal belief that they like us humans can be overwhelmed. They may be divinities but they are not Gods. Whilst the Gods do everything without toil, without effort and nothing can ever move against a God, the Agathos Daemon is a good spirit. There are events that can move against our Agathos Daemon no matter how hard he or she seeks to fight against it. However our Agathos Daemon does do his or her best. After all remember that Agathos Daemon does also mean the distinguished and excellent spirit as well.

1. My practice on honoring the Agathos Daemon of the Family and the Home:-

In my personal practice the Agathos Daemon of the Family and the Home is honored at the same time as Hestia. I honor them at the shrine or I honor them outside the house away from their shrines. My shrine to the Agathos Daemon of the Family and the Home is set up directly beside the shrine to Hestia which sits on the window ledge not far from the stove (it is actually over the kitchen sink).

My shrine of Hestia is a globe candle holder with a white candle inside. My shrine to the Agathos Daemon is small polyresin snake statue coiled around an egg which is beside the shrine of Hestia. Separating the white candle holder to Hestia and the polyresin snake that represents the Agathos Daemon is a circular sauce dish in which I sometimes offer flowers, grains, cereals or berries in.

This is my daily morning ritual to the Hestia and the Agathos Daemon of the Home and Family.

First thing, make sure that you are clean. Make sure that at the very least your hands have been washed. Better still take a bath first.

First prepare the offering. My usual tendency is to offer libation. I tend to spondai what I am drinking in the morning, which is usually either coffee or tea or milk. Sometimes I offer watered wine (to make watered wine mix half a glass of wine with an equal portion of clean water). Sometimes I offer cereals.

Then with my palms pointing to the globe candle holder that represents Hestia I would say:-

“I pray to you Hestia, Daughter of Kronos and Sister to Almighty Zeus, hear my prayers. Lady of the Home, Goddess of the Family, thank you for watching over my family and my home, ensuring that all are safe. Please accept this spondai/offering of (whatever you are offering) (note that as you say this you should begin libating, noting that the concept of spondai is to pour about a sipful or a few splashes of the drink to the ground). May this offering be worthy to you. Please continue to watch over my family and my home. Thank you.”

Then with my palms pointing to the snake statuette of the Agathos Daemon I say:-

“Oh Agathos Daemon, Good Spirit who watches over the family. Please accept this offering of (whatever you are offering, remember to offer as you say this). May this offering be pleasing to you. Please continue to watch over the health, wealth and safety of my family, thank you.”

I most of the time tend to libate the drink onto the ground outside the window. (I usually open the window directly behind the shrine and directly libate it onto the ground by extending my hands over the shrine onto the ground). Sometimes I libate the drink onto the hot element of my stove though it is not a practice I recommend unless it is watered wine or very lightly brewed tea. Coffee and milk tends to smoke up the entire house.

This is my personal practice in honoring the Agathos Daemon of the Family and the Home. It is very connected to my practice in honoring Hestia.

2. My practice on honoring the Agathos Daemon as a personal guardian spirit:-

My practice of honoring the Agathos Daemon as my personal guardian spirit is different. In this case his rite and shrine is standalone.

I have two shrines to the Agathos Daemon as my personal guardian spirit. One is at work, and the other is in my house.

Now I have a very unique view of my own Agathos Daemon. To me he takes on the form either as a small grass snake, a young man or interestingly enough a sparrow. The sparrow form of the Agathos Daemon is not orthopraxic by the way. That is just my personal view of my own Agathos Daemon.

As such my shrine to him reflects that.

On the windowsill in my room I have a shallow bowl filled with river stone pebbles. On the bowl is the picture of a sparrow jumping on grass. This is my altar to my personal Agathos Daemon.

Every Sunday I first wash my hands. Then I will mix some watered wine in a very small glass (usually just a shot glass, filled half with wine, half with watered wine).

Then I will go to the altar, and there I will say, “To you Agathos Daemon, my guardian daemon, my personal daemon. Oh Good Spirit who watches over me, thank you for bringing goodness, health and happiness into my life this week. Thank you for guiding me towards good. Thank you for preventing me from erring too much this week. Please accept this offering of watered wine. May this be pleasing to you.”

What I do in this situation is not libate the watered wine. Rather I dip my right hand in the watered wine and sprinkle the watered wine over the gravels.

As for celebration, I have a minor celebration which I do every fourth Sunday. Every first Saturday or Sunday of every month ( or the first day I am off work of every month, that is highly variable ) I will put a small bowl on top of the altar.

Now I have prepared beforehand either barley or a mixture of grains.

I will with clean hands go forth to the altar and say, “Oh Agathos Daemon, Guardian Spirit, Good Spirit. I thank you for your protection. I thank you for your bounty. I thank you for the good you have given to me. Please accept this offering of grains. Let it be worthy to you.”

I will then fill up the bowl to the brim. Then I will then lift the bowl from the altar, walk out of the house with the bowl then put it down on the lawn and say, “Oh Agathos Daemon, you who love sparrows and all creatures of air, please come and take this offering of grains.”

Then I step back and walk away and leave the birds to take the offering on behalf of my personal daemon.

Now at work I also have another altar to the Agathos Daemon but this one is less conspicuous. It is a small lidded jar altar which I keep alongside my other cookie jar altar to Zeus Meilikhios.

To me it is important to honor the Agathos Daemon at work as where else do we need the guidance of the daemon more than at work?

This lidded jar has a picture of a small grass snake. It is a really small lidded jar. This is my altar to the Agathos Daemon as my protector.

Now I have sweets at work, not because I eat them (I hardly ever eat sweets) but because I tend to offer them to people.

Everyday I will make an offering of sweets to both Zeus Meilikhios and to the Agathos Daemons, though I consider them separate rituals.

In the case of the Agathos Daemon here is my ritual.

“Oh Agathos Daemon, hear my prayers. Please guide me and give me the means so that I may do well at work today. Please accept this offering of sweet. May it be worthy of you. Thank you.”

Now when the jar is full I then start the festivity to honor my personal Agathos Daemon. Since I have offered the sweets I cannot myself partake in what has been given (that which is offered cannot be taken back). However it does not mean that others cannot partake in it.

When the jar is nearly full to the brim I usually lift up the jar and pray, “Good Spirit, bringer of bounty and goodness, bringer of health and wealth, today let us share and celebrate your bountiful nature. Today I thank you for granting me the means to honor you oh Guardian Spirit with this much sweets. I pray that you continue to shower blessings on me. Let us celebrate this by spreading the joy around. Thank you.”

With this I tip the jar out and offer the sweets to my colleagues on one big plate. I personally discovered that my Agathos Daemon is always delighted by this. He considers this to be a form of celebration as do I.

I do have a similar ritual with Zeus Meilikhios except in the case of Zeus Meilikhios I do divination first.

This is how I honor my personal Agathos Daemon.

I hope the above essay and my personal worship style to the Agathos Daemon will help one in honoring and celebrating this divinity.

 

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