Angels, dæmons & witches

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.

I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.

As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.

Engraving of monkey by Thomas Bewick

Dæmon is a term not to be confused or conflated with our more modern concept of a demon or evil entity. In the form daimon it is variously rendered as genius, lar, or guardian spirit, and derives from the Classical Greek word δαίμων, mostly seen as a protective spirit. For example the Etruscan lar, originally an ancestral deity or spirit, was by the later Roman period seen as a household god; in fact the lar familiaris of each Roman family not only protected the household, it also ensured the continuance of the family’s line.

However, Pullman’s dæmons are associated with individuals, not families: he is reported to have envisaged them as a cross between the guardian angel of Catholic tradition –and thus a protective spirit — and a conscience (Frost 2007: 266). As part of a lengthy discussion of dæmons Laurie Frost (pp263-272) also outlines the trilogy’s concept of humans as tripartite beings comprising spirit, soul and body: the soul is visible as a dæmon, while the spirit becomes a ghost after the death of the body.

All the foregoing seems to represent the philosophical underpinning behind dæmons in Lyra’s world. But what about the psychology? Here, I think, we may need to look at Jungian ideas as possible inspiration, even though I’ve not read — not yet, at least — any speculation elsewhere following this line of enquiry.

18th-century reconstruction of the Tower of the Winds from Stuart & Revett’s ‘The Antiquities of Athens’

Dæmons, you’ll remember, generally take the form of animals, mostly but not exclusively of the opposite sex. And whence the word animal? This comes via the Latin animalis, ‘having breath’, from Latin anima ‘breath, soul’, related to animus ‘mind, soul’, animula ‘little soul’ and animulus ‘darling’. Ultimately the Latin words derive from Greek ἄνεμος, anemos, ‘that which blows or breathes; the wind’. (Ἄνεμοι, Anemoi, were the Wind gods of ancient Greece, who had an octagonal Tower of the Winds in an Athenian agora; a larger scale Tower of the Winds atop the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford was constructed in the late 18th century and may have inspired the Tower of the Angels in this novel’s Cittàgazze.)

So, the link between all these words relates to the idea that inanimate corporeal creations needed breath from a creator to bring them to life, to imbue them with a soul. But Carl Jung also employed the words animus and anima in a different context. For him they described an inner figure (other than the shadow) which appeared in his patients’ dreams, what he defined as the personification of the psychological tendencies in the psyche: “vague feelings and moods, prophetic hunches, receptiveness to the irrational, capacity for personal love, feeling for nature” as well as the dreamer’s relation to the unconscious. Jungian psychologists further postulate that the anima personifies the male unconscious and the animus the female unconscious (Jung et al, 1978: 186).

In Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels individual male and female characters from Lyra’s world tend to have dæmons of the opposite sex — thus Lyra’s Pantalaimon is male, while Lee Scoresby’s Hester is female — though as only heterosexual relations are alluded to this seems not to be an absolute rule. So, as far as I know, Pullman’s concept of the dæmon (Socrates’ conscience, the protective spirit of Greek belief, the soul as discussed later in The Amber Spyglass) has a lot in common with Jung’s theories of the psyche’s anima or animus, and maybe even the popular idea of a platonic soulmate, but all mixed in with a conflation of animula ‘little soul’ and animal.

Before I leave dæmons in The Subtle Knife I want to note Lyra’s reactions to Will not having his own visible dæmon: she figures it’s somehow internal but is also immanent in the cat that Will protects and cuddles — and we remember another cat which was involved in Will involuntary killing in his world, and that this other cat will save him and Lyra from Mrs Coulter’s monkey dæmon after the retrieval of the alethiometer. Lyra devines that Will’s relationship to his own pet back in Winchester and the cat tortured by kids in Cittàgazze is akin to the mutuality that she shares with Pantalaimon.

* * * * *

Assyrian winged genie: bas relief from Nimrud palace (Bristol Museum)

I now come to angels which, as there will be a lot more to come in The Amber Spyglass, I will only discuss briefly in this post. When they first appear in Chapter 6 they’re called Lighted Fliers, because they appear to be composed of light. Later it becomes clear they’re also made up of Dust. They are incorporeal and yet, as we’ll see in The Amber Spyglass, they seem to have substance: this seems to reflect the paradox that quantum entities have dual natures, being both particles and waves, simultaneously and alternatively.

Mary Malone is able to communicate with Dust / Dark Matter in her Oxford laboratory via a computer screen, which we may surmise is the doing of angels (the ghosts in the machine, as it were). Greek ἄγγελος angelos means ‘messenger, envoy’, the equivalent of Hebrew mal’akh, and so it’s entirely appropriate that they send messages via Mary’s computer and Lyra’s alethiometer.

As well as Lighted Fliers they go under the name Watchers and bene elim (‘sons of god’ in Hebrew) and declare the name angel is also their function. And yet there is a slight problem in terms of their appearance: Pullman’s illustration heading chapter 6 shows the head and torso of a naked human, rather like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man but with wings. This seems to be because humans can only see them according to their expectations: for example, winged angels appear either side of the doorway of the Torre degli Angeli in Cittàgazze: such winged figures symbolising winds were carved on the Athens’ ancient Tower of the Winds (as well as the neoclassical tower at Oxford’s Radcliffe Observatory) and resemble ancient depictions of Nike or Victory.

These classical depictions seem to draw their inspiration from Near Eastern antecedents such as the Assyrian winged genies or antediluvian demigods (Apkallu) seen at Assurnasirpal II’s palace at Nimrud; some of these had male human heads and others the head of a bird of prey. No one seems surprised that wings — the forelimbs of creatures such as birds and bats — should be borne by these genies in addition to arms. In Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost (629ff) Satan “puts on swift wings”, perhaps like armour, before flying towards the Gates of Hell, and perhaps that suited the poet’s vision; but this isn’t the case with Pullman’s angels.

* * * * *

Henry Fuseli’s 1796 painting ‘The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches’

A few lines on from Satan putting on his wings Milton mentions Hecate as ‘the Night-Hag’; followed by her Hell-Hounds,

“when call’d
In secret, rising through the Air she comes
Lur’d with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland Witches…”

Here is one of the sources of Pullman’s Finnish witches: Lapland was traditionally the haven of witches and shamans (even Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors refers to wiles practised by Lapland sorcerers) though of course neither they nor the witches of His Dark Materials were anywhere as bloodthirsty as Milton’s or Henry Fuseli’s Goyaesque painting of gory Medusa-masked orgiastic witches.

If anything, Serafina Pekkala, Ruta Skadi and their sisters are more otherworldly: clad in thin silks, flying with the aid of cloud pines, they only fleetingly remind us of angels — more like the Valkyrie, though without the clichéd horned helmets and shiny breastplates — yet unlike most of Pullman’s angels they are mortal. Their daemons (who would be called familiars in post-medieval accounts) may range further than the humans in Lyra’s world, and their ages may be measured in centuries and not decades, but they have human feelings and passions, feeling rejection more keenly than most: while they may not torture or kill babies they may be apt to harbour vengeance towards a human who has refused them physical love.

* * * * *

Angels, dæmons, witches — three distinct types of beings conjured from Pullman’s imagination, and now resident in ours.

I have a few more words to add to my discussion about this middle instalment of Pullman’s trilogy, but eager readers will have to wait


  • Lawrence Feingold, ‘Fuseli, Another Nightmare: “The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches.”‘ Metropolitan Museum Journal Vol. 17 (1982), pp. 49-61 https://www.jstor.org/stable/i267361
  • Laurie Frost, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: the Definitive Guide. Scholastic (2007).
  • Carl G Jung and M-L von Franz, Joseph L Henderson, Jolande Jacobi, Aniela Jaffé, Man and his Symbols. Picador 1978 (1964).
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost, edited by Christopher Ricks. Penguin 1989 (1968).
  • Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife. Scholastic Press (2001).

8 thoughts on “Angels, dæmons & witches

    1. I’m so glad, Anne, a good writer’s work always repays revisiting. A bit more to come in a week a so about this instalment before I move on to the third in the trilogy, so I hope you’ll come back then.

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    1. I think many Jungian concepts are very beguiling, Jo — Ursula Le Guin apparently was influenced by his Shadow archetype concept as a major plot point in A Wizard of Earthsea — but I don’t have any concrete evidence Pullman was influenced by the anima/animus archetype; I don’t think Laurie Frost, who brought out a substantial encyclopaedia on His Dark Materials, mentions it, nor any of the general guidebooks I’ve got, but I’d need to look more closely.

      As you say, it seems to parallel daemon genders on the whole (there must be some exceptions) so I’m sticking to my theory! 🙂

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  1. I did really like the witches. I have very mixed feelings about the daemons; they’re such an attractive concept, but also…it really bothers me that the daemons settle into a permanent form around puberty, and that form reflects the person’s nature. That kind of seems to me to get rid of free will, in a way…with the more developed characters, it’s wonderful, like with Mrs. Coulter’s beautiful and terrifying monkey, and Hester the hare. But…servants all have servile dog daemons? What if I spend my teenage years being a timid sort of person and have a mouse daemon, but later on I develop a lot more confidence and assertion? I would have really felt a lot better about daemons if they didn’t settle permanently into a form that is supposed to reflect the person’s true nature, as if people cannot change.

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    1. I get what you’re saying, Jean, and I generally agree. It’s a topic I wanted to return to in a discussion after reviewing The Amber Spyglass but, briefly, I think it’s an example of Pullman making a point of how quite a few adults act as though they’re incapable of being flexible about changing received attitudes and notions. A bit heavy-handed, perhaps, but it makes its point.

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