I remember looking up at my reflection sprawling across the span of my childhood bedroom’s mirrored closet doors and discerning how very alone I was; alone but for the book spread open in my hands. I felt jealous of the book’s main character — Lyra Belacqua, the 11-year-old heroine of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass.” I was 16 at the time, but envied this fictional and fearless preteen. I envied her because she never was alone.
Lyra (almost) always had her dæmon, Pantalaimon, with her — curling around her neck as a white ermine, riding in her pocket as a tiny mouse, prowling beside her as a whiskered wildcat: They took on the world together.
According to the Wikipedia page devoted to the dæmons in the His Dark Materials trilogy — of which The Golden Compass is the first installment — a dæmon is “the external physical manifestation of a person’s ‘inner-self’ that takes the form of an animal.”
I imagined my own dæmon would take on the form of a fat, glossy python or a lithe and twinkle-eyed lynx — a constant companion who would accompany me on every adventure, cuddle with me during every repose and offer sometimes silly but always sagacious advice as to what our next best move might be.
At the time, I hadn’t read Plato’s “Myth of Er,” and so I was utterly oblivious to Pullman’s “dæmon” as an explicit allusion to what Plato calls our daimon — our soul companion.
Actually, I still haven’t read Plato’s Myth of Er. But I was fortunate enough to receive, as a recent birthday gift from my friend John Wyatt, a book that dedicates its opening chapter to encapsulating Plato’s myth “in a nutshell” for its readers: “The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling.” It’s a No. 1 New York Times bestseller written by renowned psychologist, international lecturer and Pulitzer-nominated author James Hillman.
In a nutshell, the Myth of Er goes a little something like this: “The soul of each of us is given a unique daimon before we are born, and it has selected an image or pattern that we live on earth. This soul-companion, the daimon, guides us here; in the process of arrival, however, we forget all that took place and believe we come empty into this world. The daimon remembers what is in your image and belongs to your pattern, and therefore your daimon is the carrier of your destiny,” according to the first chapter of The Soul’s Code.
If you’re thinking that this ancient Greek idea of a daimon — or daemon, as Merriam-Webster spells what it defines as the mythological, “supernatural intermediate between gods and men” — sounds a lot like our modern idea of fate, well, you’re right. Hillman references the words synonymously in his book: “I will be using many of the terms ... character, fate, genius, calling, daimon, soul, destiny — rather interchangeably,” he writes.
So when Pullman invented animal dæmons for his internationally acclaimed fantasy series, he rekindled the flame of a smoldering idea that has burned within humans for thousands of years: that though we so often feel alone, at times we sense something with or within us that calls to us that we are not alone, but have an eternal companion to guide and hearten us on a journey we always were meant to take.
“For centuries we have searched for the right term for this ‘call,’” writes Hillman. “The Romans named it your genius; the Greeks, your daimon; and the Christians your guardian angel.”
Can you recall the first time you heard the call, felt the nudge of your daimon, the hand of your angel — steering, guiding you, yes, this way? I can.
In Mrs. Terry’s second grade class at Sunset School, she assigned us, for the first time, to write a story. I still can see before me the stark whiteness of the paper, its smooth body with the black copymaker lines stamped in to keep our wobbly newfound handwriting straight and true.
Immediately, looking down at that blank page waiting to be filled, I knew I was made for this. The feeling of the pencil clutched between my fingers, ready to press its sharpened tip to paper — not to practice penmanship or spelling or subtraction equations, but to give life to my own imagination.
My first written story was about a pack trip my family took to a lake deep in the Thorofare. I wrote of the orange heat of the campfire, the smoked tastiness of the fresh caught fish, the slick and gritty sweat of our hobbled horses, the rain we wished would stop pattering the blue tarp under which we sat dealing hand after hand of War.
Mrs. Terry said it was good; I remember her sharing it with my parents. Always keen on validation, I beamed at the gold star sticker shining at the top of my paper. But this time, it was something more than a good mark that lit me up. I felt I finally had received the tools and permission to begin my most natural, fateful activity: Writing down stories the way I saw them.
Sadly, my soul does not show itself to me as a devoted sidekick to give physical reassurance that I never am alone; I cannot see my dæmon, my personal Pantalaimon, in the mirror like Lyra can. But Pullman’s story and Plato’s myth touch on something I do not have to see to be able to feel. And I believe feeling that inner presence — that daimon, guardian angel, soul or sense of fate — can knight us with a power that produces fruits in the outer world.
“So that we do not forget, Plato tells the myth and, in the very last passage, says that by preserving the myth we may better preserve ourselves and prosper. In other words, the myth has a redemptive psychological function, and a psychology derived from it can inspire a life founded on it,” writes Hill in The Soul’s Code.
If I believe there is an internal ally guiding me toward my own possibility of greatness, then guide me it will.
After all, who do you think is sitting here with me as I write this?