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The Daimon’s Forebears

In The Works of William Blake, published in 1893, Yeats notes that Blake ‘asserts that “the poetic genius,” as he calls the emotional life, “is the true man, and that the body or outward form of man is derived from the poetic genius. Likewise, that the forms of all things are derived from their genius, which by the ancients was called an Angel and Spirit and Demon”’ (WWB1 239), and it is evident that he was already acquainted with the notion of the classical Daimon, and had made the link, through Blake, with the concept of both poetic genius and the sincere emotional nature. He first uses the term ‘Daimon’ explicitly in The Savoy of April 1896, in his essay ‘Verlaine in 1894’, where he writes that: ‘One felt always that he had a great temperament, the servant of a great daimon, and fancied that, as one listened to his vehement sentences that his temperament, his daimon, had been made uncontrollable that he might live the life needful for its perfect expression in art, and yet escape the bonfire’ (UP1 399). Though the figure is used here more metaphorically than literally, the Daimon is seen as a controlling power and, as in the classical tradition of Plutarch, the great man is its servant: ‘of such as are obedient at the first, and presently from their very Nativity hearken unto their proper Daemon, are all the kinds of prophets and diviners, who have the gift to foretell things to come, likewise holy and devout men’, to which Yeats naturally added the vatic poet. It enables destiny, and the action of Verlaine’s Daimon in making the life and art cohere looks forward to Yeats’s formulation of antithetical and Daimonic Unity of Being.

Yeats was no doubt also aware of it in more active mythic terms, from its classical origins, and was no doubt pleased by the respectability of ancient sources, from Socrates onwards. The Daimon figures with particular prominence in the writings of the Neo-Platonists, such as Plotinus, whose vision of his own Daimon was related by Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Plutarch’s treatise ‘Of the Daemon or familiar Spirit of Socrates’, and it is possible that Yeats first encountered the idea in Blavatsky’s reference to this treatise in Isis Unveiled, where she adduces it to support her examination of man’s constitution, viewing the Daimon as a Greek metaphor for the essential Self of Atman, along with nous, Understanding or Intellect, and Augœides, ‘the Shining One’. Anna Kingsford had also taught that every human being had a companion spirit, ‘a genius or daimon, as with Socrates; a ministering spirit, as with the apostles; or an angel, as with Jesus’ (see the Hermetic Society).

The Golden Dawn had taught the invocation of angelic forces, themselves symbolic or intermediate forms of divine forces, and Florence Farr had traced a similar practice in the theurgy of the Egyptian magicians described by Iamblichus, where ‘the highest work’ of this magic was considered to be ‘the Spiritual Alchemy or the Transformation from human Force to Divine Potency’, and she quotes Taylor’s translation: ‘The Priest who invokes is a man; but when he commands powers it is because through arcane symbols, he in a certain respect, is invested with the sacred Form of the Gods’. The Golden Dawn’s invocation of divine forces follows the same pattern, utilising a form of visualisation, acting through an imagined persona or mask of the deity. The majority of such forms are universal and external to the human, and it is only the magician who knows how to harness them through symbolic magic, however there is also the personal deity, and ‘Iamblichus also tells us that the daimon or elemental ruler is received at the hour of birth. It is a personification of the Symbol imprinted on the SAHU or Elemental body; and its action may be defined as that of Fate or Destiny’. In such a context the servant of a great Daimon, such as Verlaine, is a person of great Destiny. The Daimon’s joining with the human at birth, determining the horoscope’s form and therefore destiny, also echoes the idea of Per Amica Silentia Lunae of the two beings choosing each other, which was later displaced in A Vision where Yeats saw a more permanent bond, viewing the Daimon as ‘that being united to man which . . . shapes the body in the womb, and impresses upon the mind its form’ (AV A 220). The Daimon is itself a personification of symbol, a mythic existent, both real and ideal:

Its forces are drawn from the whole of the world, and it is established in the SAHU before the soul descends into generation. He says further:
‘And when the soul has received Him as her leader the Daimon immediately presides over the soul, gives completion to its lives, and binds it to body when it descends. He likewise governs the common animal of the soul (the SAHU) and directs its peculiar life, and imparts to us the principles of all our thought and reasonings. We also perform such things as he suggests to our intellect, and he continues to govern us till, through sacerdotal theurgy, we obtain a God for the inspective guardian and leader of the soul. For then the Daimon either yields or delivers his government to a more excellent nature, or is subjected to him as contributing to his guardianship, or in some other way is ministrant to him as to his Lord.’
When this takes place, and the body, sealed by destiny, is made subject, by initiation, to the Divine Powers . . . . The Lower Self being sacrificed to the Higher Self.

An important element, which reappears in the account of Plotinus’s vision of his Daimon under the guidance of Egyptian priests, is that the Daimon can be summoned, in exceptional circumstances. The extent of the Daimon’s control is wide, governing life and directing the destiny, giving rational thought and prompting action, yet, though it is in many ways alien to the human, it is not its antithesis. Yeats’s Daimon is, and cannot surrender its control, but as the System developed the Yeatses’ Daimons were joined by superior levels of Daimonic existence, Third and Fourth Daimons, and a hierarchy appears in certain formulations.

The Golden Dawn taught the raising of the consciousness to attain contact with the Genius, which is seen as part of the human being’s potential higher faculties but also a power beyond the human, so MacGregor Mathers lectured that ‘Yechidah will, together with Chiah, be the ‘Higher Genius’, though this again will not be the highest self’. Mathers delivered this lecture, on the symbolism of a ritual of the Theoricus Adeptus Minor (5º=6º), on 31 March 1893, by which date Yeats was advancing through the points of this grade (CL1 xvi), and he draws attention to how it is designed to provide three moments of opportunity for ‘a possible exchange of the consciousness from Ruach to Neschamah . . . so that whether he understands it, or not, the Aspirant actually approaches his own Genius’. Referring to the human and Genius, he also speaks of ‘the tension of their union’, a characteristic also of the relationship between Yeats’s human and Daimon; this tension can be slackened ‘if the Genius part, instead of identifying itself with the God part, identifies itself too much with the Neschamah’, when ‘a fall of the Genius takes place’. When, many years later, one of Yeats’s Instructors ‘spoke of the ‘Fall of the Daimon’’ Yeats immediately connected it with ‘this term, used by Macgregor’ (YVP3 96), and whether Mathers used the term Daimon or whether the association was in Yeats’s mind, it is clear that the two concepts are linked, since the Instructor similarly saw this Fall as involving ‘the identification of the Ego [Will] with the Daimon’, so that the two are not separated enough, though the reference to God is of course absent. The Genius of the Golden Dawn is very much an extension of the human, part of the hierarchy of spirituality inherent within the Order’s goal of ascent towards Godhead, yet it is also partly separated and independent in operation, ‘the higher self is in the nature of the Angelic Forces, as the Highest Self is in that of the Divine One’, and elements of this teaching lingered within Yeats’s thinking about the Daimon.

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Text and original images copyright © Neil Mann.