Daemons and Suitors


The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

Another of the common traits in religions/spiritual systems is the presence of what I’ll call daemons, disembodied forces that seem to do battle using us as their battleground.  For all practical purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether we call them disembodied spirits or ingrained synaptic circuits; the result is the same.  They carry on monologues or arguments within our minds and take our attention away from what is in front of us.  They can be “good” (angels) or “bad” (devils), but as long as we identify with them and allow them to feed on our attention, we will be unaware of the influence they hold over us.  A good primer on this influence, at least from the “dark” side, is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.  Primers on the influence of “our better angels” also abound (you can find many of them here), but their message is getting harder and harder to hear amid the continuous chatter of the mediasphere.

Penelope and the Suitors, John William Waterhouse, 1912.

Penelope and the Suitors, John William Waterhouse, 1912.

For my money (and of course I’m prejudiced), the earliest account of these (bad) daemons goes back to Homer’s Odyssey.  Surprised?  I think it perfectly describes the suitors who have overrun the house of Odysseus, constantly trying to woo his wife Penelope away from the constancy of her purpose, while also “devouring his substance,” i.e. eating all his food if you’re a materialist, sapping his consciousness if you’re an Idealist.  Of course he is subject to all other manner of “tryers” and tempters during his journey home, but these are real pros, having taken up residence as if they owned the place.  Which is after all what they would like to do.  They can seem rather benign, but, as George Dimock says, “The monstrous quality of the suitors’ crime, one and all, is their impudence in treating a man as though he did not exist.”¹ Despite repeated warnings, the suitors do not believe in his return, or in his existence at all–“they violently devour the house of Odysseus, who, they say, will no more return.” (Od. 2:236-238)

Here is some of what I had to say about them in my book:

Just as the crew represents the senses, the suitors who are harassing Penelope and Telemakhos are representative of our discursive or mechanical mind. They can be best seen as that raucous internal monologue that provides a running commentary to our lives–making judgments, feeling superior, feeling inferior, criticizing, gossiping, nursing grudges, becoming angry and jealous, always looking for an advantage. Ruled by the Ideal, they would be ideas rather than thoughts, they would be love rather than desires. But as tools of the ego, they usurp the role of conscience and have us settle for things that, although attractive, are in fact limitations–more stuff, personal fame, insider status. From one point of view they seem like harmless delusions, but they form a kind of spiritual asteroid belt, orbiting space junk that restricts us from expanding to our full infinity. Often, with Telemakhos traveling and Penelope in her room, we can begin to think that these thoughts are who we really are.

It can be an interesting exercise to identify and name our own suitors.  There are some that seem to be universal, e.g., the Futurist or Historian who want to keep our attention on something terrible–or wonderful–in the past or future, never on what’s happening right now.  Or the Critic: this one is in the present, and has an opinion or micro-judgment on just about everything.  Other drivers, people on the train, walking down the street, in the supermarket.  Usually it’s with an eye to maintaining our sense of superiority (to which of course it would never admit.)

These suitors can actually be rather comical and entertaining, once we’ve identified them.  But the most dangerous are the ones which have wormed their way into positions of trust and power.  These are Antinoos (“against the mind”) and Amphinomos, who wants to have it “both ways.”  Let’s take a closer look at both of them.

Antinoos is obviously the evil twin in this odd couple.  In a precedent-setting case of blaming the victim, he berates Telemakhos publicly and then plots to kill him.  He blames Penelope for bringing her fate on herself by weaving and then unweaving Laertes’ funeral shroud.  He is the main despoiler of xenia, showing hostility even to Odysseus when he appears in the beggar’s disguise.  He is a loudmouth know-it-all, and although he’s initially appealing as a guy who knows how to party, we find ourselves getting embarrassed in his company and finding reasons to avoid it.  We feel a certain relief when he gets his (spoiler alert!):

Then he (=Odysseus) aimed a deadly arrow at Antinoos, who was about to take up a two-handled [10] gold cup to drink his wine and already had it in his hands. He had no thought of death – who amongst all the revelers would think that one man, however brave, would stand alone among so many and kill him? (Od. 22.8-14)

I’ll spare you  the gory details.*

A more, as we say today, nuanced case is that of Amphinomos.  He doesn’t seem like such a bad guy; in fact, he just wants to be your friend.  “…his conversation, moreover, was more agreeable to Penelope than that of any of the other for he was a man of good natural disposition.” (Od. 16:397)  He’s not in favor of killing Telemakhos; he’d rather let the gods decide.  And he acts as the voice of reason on several occasions.  But he has been warned by Odysseus, and in the following heartbreaking passage, chooses to ignore it:

Amphinomos took two loaves out of the bread-basket and brought them to him (=Odysseus), pledging him as he did so in a golden goblet of wine. “Good luck to you,” he said, “father stranger, you are very badly off at present, but I hope you will have better times [olbos] by and by.”

To this Odysseus answered, “Amphinomos, you seem to be a man of good understanding, as indeed you may well be, seeing whose son you are. I have heard your father well spoken of [kleos]; he is Nisus of Dulichium, a man both brave and wealthy. They tell me you are his son, and you appear to be a considerable person; listen, therefore, and take heed to what I am saying. Man is the vainest of all creatures that have their being upon earth. As long as the gods grant him aretê and his knees are steady, he thinks that he shall come to no harm hereafter, and even when the blessed gods bring sorrow upon him, he bears it as he needs must, and makes the best of it; for the father of gods and men gives men their daily minds [noos] day by day. I know all about it, for I was a rich [olbios] man once, and did much wrong in the stubbornness [biâ] of my pride, and in the confidence that my father and my brothers would support me; therefore let a man be pious in all things always, and take the good that the gods may see fit to send him without vainglory. Consider the infamy of what these suitors are doing; see how they are wasting the estate, and doing dishonor to the wife, of one who is certain to return some day, and that, too, not long hence. Nay, he will be here soon; may a daimôn send you home quietly first that you may not meet with him in the day of his coming, for once he is here the suitors and he will not part bloodlessly.”

With these words he made a drink-offering, and when he had drunk he put the gold cup again into the hands of Amphinomos, who walked away serious and bowing his head, for he foreboded evil. But even so he did not escape destruction, for Athena had doomed him fall by the hand of Telemakhos. So he took his seat again at the place from which he had come.  (Od. 18:119-157)

He is given the opportunity to change, but chooses to return to “the place from which he had come.”  This is reminiscent of the rich man who chooses not to sell all he has and follow Jesus.  So it is with our inner Amphinomos.  His days are numbered, but he will stay on, eating and drinking, until he is brought down from behind.

¹G. Dimock, The Unity of the Odyssey, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 297

*I’ve also addressed the issue of the hyper-violence with which the “suitors” are dispatched; basically that to the extent that they have any reality they are parasites and need to be killed for the sake of the whole organism, i.e. the newly reunified state of Ithaka.