The Agathodaemon and Afterlife

Roman marble sculpture of Agathodaemon restored with an unrelated head, as “Antinous Agathodaemon”, purchased in Rome ca. 1760, (Staatliche Museen, Berlin)

The myth of the agathodaemon can neither be proved nor disproved. “Agatho” stems from the Greek “to agathon,” meaning the highest or supreme good in a moral sense, summum bonum. Since the daemon brought both spiritual and material wealth to a household or person, the agathodaemon amounts to the “good spirit.” Each person was assigned a daemon at birth, and the “good spirit” of the daemon protected and guided him through life. Sacrifices of milk and honey were made to the daemon on one’s birthday. Otherwise a cup of consecrated or spiritually pure wine was passed around at dinner, called the cup of the agathodaemon. As we shall see, these rituals were meant as an affirmation of life (and thus as an acknowledgement of death).

The agathodaemon was the “good” half of a good and evil duality. This duality was portrayed in frescoes as a serpent with the head of a lion with 7 or 12 solar rays emanating from it. The serpent portion was called the kakodaemon, representing the underworld and water, and the lion’s head was the agathodaemon, representing the solar fires.

The cosmic interpretation of the daemon as solar provider was tied to the household’s prosperity in the form of the genius. The lion-headed serpent was frequently pictured along with the household genius, the latter shown as a youth holding a horn of plenty and a bowl, or a poppy and ears of corn, representing the growth and abundance of harvest. The harvest imagery along with the serpent as rain and sun were all symbolic of a successful harvest. This worship of things bringing goodness points to an innocent superstition behind common Greek religious practices.

Karl Kerenyi has pointed out the duality in Roman religion of the male “genius,” being Jupiter, and the female “iuna,” being luna or the Moon. In Greek religion there was a duality between Apollo, the Sun god, and Artemis, or Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt and the Moon. Closely related to Artemis was Persephone, who inhabited the underworld or the kingdom of the dead.

Thus two opposite domains, the Olympic and the Chthonic, were in contact. The lion-headed serpent represented the dualities of fire and water, Sun and Moon, and good and evil. There was another duality of Zeus and the primordial Night, sometimes called Erebos; Zeus was in “awe” of the sphere of Night, which was a region bordering the sphere of death and non-existence but not part of it, and bordering too the realm of the gods since Zeus could apprehend it.

The actual religious significance of the agathodaemon comes about when one links “goodness” to an atonement for some kind of “badness.” “To agathon” or supreme goodness may balance out “agos,” meaning a defilement for which one must atone. In particular, agos was the sinful shedding of blood. In the human sense this refers to the menses. Everyday personal hygiene was thus brought into religious practice as something impure, but which could be cleansed, leading to a “goodness.”

In the cosmic sense the shedding of blood is a shedding of stellar waters. Both Apollo and Artemis (the Sun and the Moon) were pure, but they were also in contact with the impure, the female underworld aspect of streaming waters. The Greeks knew that there was no clean separation between good and evil, angels and daemons. The agathodaemon is a testament to that fact, since it is the “good” daemon, on par with the angel, but operating in the border region between existence and non-existence, in the sphere of Night that is connected with the afterlife. By contrast, the angel operates in the Olympic realm. The angel leads mankind to one kind of immortality, associated with the shining realm of the spinning tops, which is a linking back, but the agathodaemon points to pure non-existence associated with the forward stream that ends in the Moon.

The watery kakodaemon as the lunar image might have seemed to the Greek philosopher changeless and somehow frozen in time. But the Sun appeared every morning and this required the solar lion of the agathodaemon to connect the Earth with the gods at the other end of the spectrum. In one sense the agathodaemon pointed to the Sun, but in another sense it pointed to the image of the spinning tops as seen from the Moon, because the lunar temple of the kakodaemon touched Olympic heights through the agathodaemon, if only by a trick of light.

As a symbol of the underworld the kakodaemon was “not hosia” and thus existed only to point out the necessary opposition to “goodness.” As something shameful the kakodaemon paved the way for atonement and redemption, and thus kept the priest in business. These things were achieved or granted in the daily fill of time. Even in a cosmic sense, mercy and redemption were also marked by time, by the multifold images of the life of a world. Cosmic life and death was mapped out in the heavens, and if the worlds could attain a kind of immortality, surely so could man.

The Romans sanitized and imperialized Artemis and replaced her with the genius and iuna. The genius was male, the iuna female: the combination made a hermaphrodite. Psyche was married to Eros, the son of Aphrodite (Venus). In the Sun-god Apollo’s eyes (and it was only for him to see) the bridegroom was a winged serpent, or at least flew like Mercury (Hermes) between the head and tail of the serpent that spanned the heavens. The celestial waters which connected his mother’s bright birth palace (the spinning tops where Eros turned into a young boy, a golden ray of light, an agathodaemon) became dark and Styxian by the time they reached the Moon, his wife’s dark mountain of death (where Eros became a man again, the Uranian Lord of the Canals, Ku-ur-ku, a kakodaemon). Poor Psyche had married both man and child, both Uranus and, by proxy, Venus. She was pricked by Uranus, who carried the immortal essence of the spinning tops, and she too became immortal.

Wall painting from the Shrine of the Lares from the House of Vettii, Pompeii, about 70 CE.

One might guess that the House of Vettii belonged to a magistrate because the symbols in this painting are common to patrician tombs. The household genius is shown in the center like a kind of human altar, with the household protective spirits, or Lares, shown rampant at either side. The genius is partly an underworld figure — taking the place of Osiris from ancient Samaritan iconography; the Lares taking the place of the winged angels Nephthys and Isis, who resurrected Osiris to the afterlife. The serpent at the bottom of the painting is sacred to the Lares, and as something Artemisian and watery, is also a kakodaemon. This makes the genius a kako-genius or cacogen. The horrifying aspect of the cacogen, the Medusa, had feet that were underworldly and serpentine, but here the cacogen’s true identity is shown, a beautiful boy, and the serpent is separate from the boy so that what is immortal and beautiful may keep its humanity. Not shown is a bas-relief goat skull (festooned with garlands) and a sacrificial knife that sit above the wall painting, indicating that sacrificial offerings were brought to this shrine.

For the ancient Greeks, the sacrifice had the effect of bringing something far afield close by. The sacrificial meal brought about a divine presence — the distant gods were brought directly into the festival arena. The goat was divine to Dionysus, to Artemis, and to Bacchus. For some ancient Greeks, Dionysus was the same as the king of the underworld, Hades, officially the husband of Persephone, and hermetically the husband of Psyche. Psyche is Greek for “soul,” and according to Plato and others, the soul was not affected by death, because death could do nothing to the soul. (Greek logic.) Thus the cacogen, once the mask is torn away and the soul shines through, is unaffected by death. But for the average festival goer a simpler interpretation was sufficient: immortality was simply the ongoing cycle of life, inspired by the heavenly bodies, by the sunrise and sunset, and by the phases of the Moon. The idea of regeneration also came from plant growth and from the reproduction of animals. Thus, indirectly the serpent was a symbol of fertility, and the kakodaemon is shown winding river-like through verdant growth.

The problem for the Roman priest was how to ritualize the myth: how to take something cerebral and complex and distill it into a ceremony. As Karl Kerenyi put it, the sacrificial ceremony necessarily became a “quotation” of myth: a gesture only, which could imitate but not replicate the full myth. In the painting from Pompeii the genius holds a small box in his left hand, lid open, perhaps a censer used during the sacrificial ceremony. In his right hand he holds a dish-like patera. The patera is also called a mundum (literally “universe”), and its raised central knob represents the lifegiving source or freshet of the universe. Otherwise it is simply used as a dish for offerings. The Lares hold cups and baskets filled with offerings. The cups are shaped like goats, and were probably filled with the blood of the sacrificed goat during the ceremony. One can imagine the priest offering the cup to the householder in a gesture of communion, and then flinging the contents onto the sacrificial fire. The artist has added a small altar at bottom right expressly for the kakodaemon, which prepares to eat.