Demogorgon Part I - Demonology Profile

Demogorgon, although often ascribed to Greek mythology, is actually attributed to a fourth-century scholar, imagined as the name of a pagan god or demon, associated with the underworld and envisaged as a powerful primordial being, whose very name had been taboo.


The origins of the name Demogorgon are uncertain, partly because the name itself was perhaps of imaginary coinage. Various theories suggest that the name is derived from the Greek words δαίμων daimon ('spirit' given the Christian connotations of 'demon' in the early Middle Ages)—or, less likely δῆμος demos ('people')— and Γοργών Gorgon ('grim') or γοργός gorgos ('terrible'). Another, less accepted theory claims that it is derived from a variation of 'demiurge', although the two scholarly editions of the earliest mention of the term (Jahnke 1898 and Sweeney 1997) see Demogorgon as a corruption of demiurge.[1]

Derivation and history

Demogorgon is first mentioned in the commentary on Statius's Thebaid[2] often attributed in manuscripts to Lactantius Placidus. The commentary, which was composed ca. 350-400 AD, is the most common medieval commentary on the poem and is transmitted in most early editions up to 1600.[3] The commentary has been misattributed to the Christian author Lucius Caelius Firmianus Lactantius, even though the commentator appears to have been Mithraic.[4]

The name Demogorgon is introduced in a discussion of Thebaid 4.516, which mentions 'the supreme being of the threefold world' (triplicis mundi summum); in a mystical passage that seems to show Jewish influence, as it mentions Moses and Isaiah); the author says of Statius, Dicit deum Demogorgona summum ('He is speaking of the Demogorgon, the supreme god', or perhaps 'He is speaking of a god, the supreme Demogorgon'). Prior to Lactantius, there is no mention of the supposed "Demogorgon" anywhere by any writer, pagan or Christian.

In the Early Middle Ages, Demogorgon is mentioned in the tenth-century Adnotationes super Lucanum, a series of short notes to Lucan's Pharsalia that are included in the Commenta Bernensia, the "Berne Scholia on Lucan".[5] By the late Middle Ages, the reality of a primordial "Demogorgon" was so well fixed in the European imagination that "Demogorgon's son Pan" became a bizarre variant reading for "Hermes' son Pan" in one manuscript tradition of Boccaccio's Genealogia Deorum gentilium ("Genealogies of the Gods":1.3-4 and 2.1), misreading a line in Ovid's Metamorphoses.[citation needed]

After Boccaccio Demogorgon is mentioned as a "primal" god in quite a few Renaissance texts, and impressively glossed "Demon-Gorgon," i.e., "Terror-Demon" or "God of the Earth." The French historian and mythographer Jean Seznec, for instance, now spots in Demogorgon an allusion to the Demiurge ("Craftsman" or "Maker") of Plato's Timaeus. For a remarkable early text actually identifying Ovid's Demiurge (1/1, here) as "sovereign Demogorgon," see the paraphrase of Metamorphoses I in Abraham France, The third part of the Countesse of Pembrokes Yuychurch (London, 1592), sig. A2v."[6]

In literature

Demogorgon was taken up by Christian writers as a demon of Hell:

"Orcus and Ades, and the dreaded name
Of Demogorgon."
— John Milton, Paradise Lost II. 966.

Note, however, Milton does not refer to the inhabitants of Hell itself, but of an unformed region where Chaos rules with Night. In Milton's epic poem Satan passes through this region while traveling from Hell to Earth.

Demogorgon's name was earlier invoked by Faustus in Scene III of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1590) when the eponymous Doctor summons Mephistopheles with a Latin incantation.

The 16th century Dutch demonologist Johann Weyer described him as the master of fate in hell's hierarchy.[7]

According to Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Demogorgon has a splendid temple palace in the Himalaya mountains where every five years the fates and genii are all summoned to appear before him and give an account of their actions. They travel through the air in various strange conveyances, and it is no easy matter to distinguish between their convention and a Witches' Sabbath. When elements of Ariosto's poem supplied Philippe Quinault's libretto for Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Roland, performed at Versailles, 8 January 1685, Demogorgon was king of the fairies and master of ceremonies. Demorgogon is also mentioned in the Book II of the epic poema El Bernardo written in Mexico by Bernardo de Balbuenain the 17th. century and published in Spain 1624. The passage tells how the fairy Alcina visits Demorgogon in his infernal palace.

Aquí Demogorgon está sentado
en su banco fatal, cuyo decreto
de las supremas causas es guardado
por inviolable y celestial preceto.
Las parcas y su estambre delicado
a cuyo huso el mundo está sujeto,
la fea muerte y el vivir lúcido
y el negro lago del oscuro olvido
(Libro II, estrofa 19)

Edmund Spenser mentioned him briefly in The Faerie Queene:

A bold bad man, that dar'd to call by name
Great Gorgon, Prince of darknesse and dead night,
At which Cocytus quakes, and Styx is put to flight. (Canto I, stanza 37)

He is also the protagonist of an opera Il Demogorgone, ovvero il filosofo confuso ("Demogorgon, or the Confused Philosopher" by Vincenzo Righini (1786) with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, which was originally written for Mozart.[8]

In Moby-Dick, Starbuck describes the white whale as Ahab's demogorgon.

Demogorgon is also a character in Percy Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. In this lyrical drama, Demogorgon is the offspring of Jupiter and Thetis who eventually dethrones Jupiter. It is never mentioned whether Demogorgon is male or female and it is instead portrayed as a dark, shapeless spirit. The theory of Demogorgon's name originating from Greek demos and gorgos is possibly at work in this text as an allusion to a politically active and revolutionary populace. Shelley's allusions to the French Revolution further support this.

In the poem "Demogorgon" by Álvaro de Campos, the writer is afraid of becoming mad by learning the true nature and unveiling the mystery of life.


* Lactantius Placidus, ad Theb. 4.516, ed. Jahnke (1898) (Google books)
* Lactantius Placidus, ad Theb. 4.516, ed. Sweeney (1997) (Google books)
* P.van de Woestijne, "Les scholies à la Thébaïde de Stace: remarques et suggestions," L'Antiquité Classique n.s. 19 (1950), pp 149–63], dates the scholiast of Statius to ca 350 - 400 CE.
* Dr Daniel Kinney, "Ovid Illustrated: The Renaissance Reception of Ovid in Image and Text"
* Varda's Demogorgon page
* Ogden, Daniel (2002). Magic, witchcraft, and ghosts in the Greek and Roman World, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515123-2