“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen” — so begins Philip Pullman’s novel The Golden Compass, the first of the His Dark Materials trilogy. With a new adaptation on HBO, His Dark Materials is drawing in new fans, while those who read the books when they were first published in the ‘90s are happily rediscovering them. Daemons are an integral part of the book — but what are they, exactly?
In the world of His Dark Materials, daemons are animal-shaped manifestations of a person’s soul. They can never stray far from their humans, and they can talk to them and to others. Twelve-year-old Lyra’s daemon Pantalaimon is her best friend and her voice of reason. When people are children, their daemons shape-shift between different animal forms. When those children reach adolescence, their daemons take a permanent form in a process called “settling.” Typically, girls and women have male daemons and boys and men have female daemons, though there are some rare exceptions.
In interviews, Philip Pullman has said he was primarily inspired by Renaissance and Rococo paintings of humans with animals, including Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine” and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s “Young Woman With a Macaw.” More generally, he wanted to write about a physical representation of growing up.
"I had been thinking about the central question, which is the innocence and experience business, and the transition which happens in adolescence, for a long time,” Pullman told Intelligent Life magazine (now called 1843) in 2007. “I'd been teaching children of the same age as Lyra, children who were themselves going through this physical, intellectual and emotional change in their lives. The biggest change we ever go through really."
In other interviews, he’s mentioned a connection to Greek philosophy. In a 2002 interview with the Guardian, Pullman explained, “The word and the basic idea, I suppose, came from the Greek idea — Socrates talked about his 'daimon.’ I found it a very fruitful metaphor.”
According to Modern Mythology, Socrates’ “daimon,” or “daimonion” was “an impersonal voice or sign that, according to [Plato’s] text, ‘always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything.’ Many people suggest this is a metaphor, but since Socrates never refers to it explicitly akin to a ghost or supernatural entity as we would think of it, it is quite possible that Socrates was being literal.”
In Plato’s Apology, Socrate says, “I have a divine sign [daimonion] from the god which… began when I was a child. It is a voice, and whenever it speaks it turns me away from something I am about to do, but it never turns me towards anything. This is what has prevented me from taking part in public affairs, and I think it was quite right to prevent me. Be sure, gentlemen of the jury, I should have died long ago otherwise.”
Other readers have compared Pullman’s daemons to Carl Jung’s concept of the anima and animus — the latent masculine side of women and feminine side of men. “Women have a contra sexuality which is masculine in nature and this is called the Animus. Men have a contra sexuality which is feminine in nature and this is called the Anima,” as the Center of Applied Jungian Studies puts it.