For Lyra Belacqua, the 12-year-old heroine of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels, that’s perfectly normal. Her daemon, Pantalaimon, keeps her company in the stuffy hallways of Oxford, where self-serious men study the stars and have no time for a pre-teen girls’ antics.
More than easy-to-manage pets, daemons are the key to understanding the magical world of His Dark Materials. After a disappointing 2007 adaptation of The Golden Compass, Pullman’s books are getting another shot at a screen adaptation with HBO/BBC’s buzzy series, premiering November 4.
Dafne Keen plays Lyra; a puppet-turned-CGI creation voiced by Kit Connor plays Pantalaimon. But Pan is so much more than a puppet! This is what you need to know about the most memorable aspect of Pullman’s books.
What, exactly, is a daemon?
At first glance, daemons seem to be cute animals that follow humans around, and fin. That’s because the concept of daemons are too enormous to fit into our puny, human-sized imaginations.
It’ll require a logical leap. Are you ready? Deep breath.
A daemon is a talking, animal-shaped manifestation of a person’s soul, tethered to a human counterpart. Humans and their daemons, essentially, are one. That’s why it’s such a breach for people to touch another’s daemon – it’s like petting their soul.
But the concept of daemons are even more nuanced. Daemons have distinct personalities from their counterparts. Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, is a voice of reason, constantly tempering her brashness. They complete each other, but are not each other.
What do daemons look like?
The world of His Dark Materials is swarming with animals. Daemons are a part of the physical world, and can interact with objects and people. Typically, but not always, daemons are the opposite sex of their human counterpart.
Daemons come in nearly every variety of species, from swarms of butterflies to woodpeckers. They also have fantastic, outlandish, multi-syllable names: Lyra’s daemon is Pantalaimon; Lord Asriel’s is a snow leopard named Stemaria. Daemons get their names from the daemons of the humans’ parents.
My personal favorite daemon? Father Corman’s golden-brown cat named Sophonax, which has a “rich and musical voice, with as many tones in it as there were colors in his dæmon's fur.” Cast Sophonax in Cats!
Daemons change shape over time.
Think of daemon transformation as the ultimate allegory for growing up.
The form of prepubescent kids’ daemons are not settled. Lyra’s daemon, Pantalaimon, cycles through a few shapes on any given day — a mouse when he’s afraid, a wildcat when bold. In The Golden Compass, the first book of Pullman’s trilogy, we first meet Pan as a moth. Eventually, Pan settles as a pine marten (I know, random).
When kids pass through the threshold to adulthood, their daemons solidify. Daemons say a lot about their companions’ personalities. Most servants, for example, have dog daemons: Loyal and subservient. The sinister Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) has an orange monkey for a daemon.
Pity the person whose daemon is a dolphin or aquatic creature. They have to stay tethered to the sea forever.
Can daemons be separated from humans?
Remember, daemons aren’t pets — they can’t run away. Daemons and humans are locked together, and it’s incredibly painful for both entities if they are pulled apart. Often, the process of intercision (in which humans and daemons are forcibly separated) can cause death.
There are exceptions to this rule. Witches, like Serafina Pekkala (Ruta Gedmintas), have bird demons than can fly very far away from their humans. Now that’s rock and roll.
Daemons originate in Ancient Greek mythology.
The daemons of His Dark Materials are not to be confused with the horned imps of Hell, or with Ted Danson on The Good Place. Pullman’s creatures stem from a fixture in Ancient Greek mythology. Daemons were “protecting mythologies,” spirits that watch over humans and can also communicate with the gods. As Diotima explains to Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, “Everything daemonic is between divine and mortal.”
Daemons exist in that same in-between space.
Do I have a daemon?
According to Philip Pullman, you do. We all do. But we’re in a different, far less magical universe than Lyra — one where polar bears don’t speak and wear armor, and hot air balloons aren’t a common form of transportation. In our universe, daemons are fully integrated with our bodies.
Daemons may prance reveal themselves in dreams, so stay alert. I’ve been searching for mine since age 11.