The Genius

By March 13, 2014

The following is a short excerpt from my dissertation.  It’s part of a bigger section on the Smith family religiosity.  It therefore refers to issues discussed earlier, which may make this a little confusing.  This section doesn’t address a ritual, but it’s important context for a post I’ll put up soon that does have to do with ritual.  Extra points for those who can guess what that post will be about.

The Chosen Son.  Associates of the Smiths in Vermont and New York said the Smiths spoke of Joseph Jr. as the chosen son.  Smith had a number of traits that would have set him apart in folk culture.  The Green Mountain Boys said that the Smiths said that Joseph Jr. was “born with a veil,” which meant born with the caul: being born with the caul set children apart in European folk culture, often meaning that the child was a seer.[1]  The Green Mountain Boys seemed to link that claim to Joseph Sr.’s desire to find a stone for his son by which he would “see all over the world,” suggesting the caul and seeing with a stone were linked; Smith himself would claim the ability to “see” with a stone.  Joseph Jr. was named after his father even though he was the third son; the Smiths tended to name third sons and daughters after their parents.[2]  Seventh sons were particularly important in folk culture but third and fifth sons and daughters were also important.[3]  Another trait that set children apart in European folk culture was being born near Christmas: Smith was born on December 23.  European folk culture referred to such as “Christmas children” and they were said to have seeric abilities.[4]  Thus Smith definitely had two important folk traits that could make a child a seer (the third child and being born near Christmas) and may have had a third (born with the caul).  If any one of these traits could have made a child a seer, having all three of them would have made a child very special.

In addition, a number of neighbors recalled Smith parents saying that he was the “genus” of the family; one neighbor remembered Smith’s mother saying that Smith “was born with a genius.”[5]  Genii (plural of genius) were guardian spirits—angels essentially—and were frequently referenced in grimoires.  The “genius” was the Latin term for the Greek daemon, whom Hesiod said were guardian spirits.  Plato cited Hesiod’s references to daemons approvingly and said not only were the daemons the messengers of the gods but that righteous humans could become daemons in the next life.[6]  In the Republic, Socrates recounted the near death experience of a soldier (see Chapter Four) who said that the souls of the dead, after they had either been purged of their wickedness or enjoyed paradise, chose “a daemon or guardian spirit” before they entered another cycle.  The better one chose, the better off one would be in the next cycle.[7]  In the Timaeus, Timaeus said the “divinity assigned this to each of us as a daemon; and that it resides in the very summit of the body, elevating us from earth to an alliance with the heavens….  As such a one always cultivates that which is divine, and has a daemon most excellently adorned residing in his essence, he must be happy in the most eminent degree.”[8]  In the Apology, Socrates said he had daimonion, or “divine something,” that began to speak “when I was a child.”[9]   Socrates explained later that “my familiar prophetic power, my spiritual manifestation, frequently opposed me, even in small matters, when I was about to do something wrong.”[10]

Iamblichus likewise said that souls selected daemons before they were born and that the daemon “stands as a model for us even before the soul descend into generation.”  The daemon “personally regulates the particulars of the life of the soul; and all our reasonings we pursue thanks to the first principles which it communicates to us, and we perform such actions as it puts into our minds.”[11]  Christians would claim that daemons were in fact demons, or evil spirits working for Satan, but Christians spoke of guardian angels in ways similar to the way that the Hellenes spoke of daemons.[12]  Gregory Thaumaturgus (213-270) referred to “that being who, by some momentous decision, had me allotted to him from my boyhood to rule, and rear, and train—I mean that holy angel of God who fed me from my youth.”[13]

The 1651 English translation of Agrippa used the word “demon” instead of daemon and said that all souls had three of them: holy, nativity, and profession.  “The holy demon,” explained Agrippa, “is one, according to the doctrine of the Egyptians, assigned to the rational soul, not from the stars or planets, but from a supernatural cause, from God himself, the president of the demons.”  Calling God “the president of the demons” sounds jarring, but this makes sense when demon is understood as daemon, or a kind of angelic being.  The demon of the nativity, explained Agrippa, was called the Genius and descended from the cosmos.  “Whosoever therefore have received a fortunate Genius, are made thereby virtuous in their works, efficacious, strong, and prosperous.  Wherefore they are called by the philosophers fortunate, or luckily born.”  “The demon of profession is given by the stars,” Agrippa continued, and it would change as a person’s profession changed.  “When therefore a profession agrees with our nature, there is present with us a demon of our profession like unto us, and suitable to our Genius, and our life is made more peaceable, happy and prosperous; but when we undertake a profession unlike, or contrary to our Genius, our life is made laborious, and troubled with disagreeable patrons.”[14]

In his The Vanity of Arts and Sciences, where Agrippa repudiated his Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Agrippa complained of wicked practitioners who “carry about them familiar spirits, as we read of Socrates.”[15]  Here, the translator conflated the daemon with the English folk notion of the familiar.  [I discuss the idea of familiar spirits earlier in the chapter.  They were an English folk supernatural being.]  Reginald Scot also referred to Socrates’s “familiar divell” and the third edition spoke of how to “consult with the Familiars or Genii.[16]  Referring to Socrates’s daemon as a familiar indicates that by the seventeenth century, the classical notion of the genius and the folk notion of the familiar were conflated.[17]  John Dee spoke of angels in a manner similar to the genius.  One angel told Dee, “Unto men, according unto their deserts, and the first excellency of their Soul, God had appointed a good Governour or Angel, from amongst the order of those that are Blessed.… Therefore according to his excellency we [angels] are appointed as Ministers from that order, whereunto his Excellency accordeth.”  Dee also referred to one Aphlafben as “my good Angel.”[18]

Yet orthodox churchmen were generally uncomfortable with angelic conversations.  As mentioned in Chapter One, people who claimed to speaking to angels with unknown names were generally suspect and often legislated against.  Meric Casaubon, though condemning such actions, admitted “that ancient Platonic Phylosophers of the latter times, understood [the nature of spirits] much more then most Christians,” but said that good Christians would not enquire into such matters.  Good Christians, said Casaubon, would not “hazard so glorious a hope, by prying through unreasonable, unprofitable curiosity, into the nature of these vassal Spirits, which God hath forbidden.”[19]  New England divine Cotton Mather likewise asserted that good Christian would not enquire about the nature of angels.[20]

Despite such warnings, both the fascination with antiquity and the desire for greater knowledge of the heavens prompted scholars to continue to write on subjects like the daemon/genius/familiar.  The encyclopedia had extensive entries under both the words genius and daemon, which included a discussion of Socrates’s daemon.  The encyclopedia entry felt stuck between its praise of Socrates and an unacceptable belief.   Socrates was too dignified to engage in trickery and too modest to be influenced by “blind enthusiasm.”  However, the authors wrote “we would rather esteem Socrates an enthusiast in this instance, than degrade him to the base character of an imposter, or suppose that a spiritual being actually revealed himself to the philosopher, and condescended to become his constant attendant and counselor.”[21]  Though the encyclopedia was uncomfortable with the notion of a “constant attendant and counselor,” Ebenezer Sibly’s A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences (1790) embraced the idea.  Sibly began his discussion of the genius, saying he would give “a certain description of good and holy spirits, whose province is to watch over the affairs of men, and to guard them from the invisible assaults of the devil.”  Sibly then described the genius in the way Platonists had: “According to the disposition of the mind or soul, a good or evil Genius … accompanies invisibly every person born into the world.  Their office is principally that of forewarning the person they attend of any imminent impending danger, sometimes by inward instinct, or by outward appearances; and sometimes by dreams in the night.”  Finally Sibly referred to “the seven good angels or Genii,” making his conflation of angels of genii explicit.[22]  Thus by the eighteenth century, genii, angels, and familiar spirits were conflated in the grimoires.[23]

Thus classical concepts influenced Anglo-American notions of supernatural entities.  That the Smiths may have said that Joseph Jr. was “born with a genius” is an indication that such concepts trickled down to common people.  The claim also added to Smith’s family’s sense of his choseness.  With a father who felt resentful toward Protestant hostility toward folk supernaturalism, and who hoped to find fulfillment through accessing the power of God outside of the established rites of the Protestant churches, Joseph Jr.’s calling and gifts were a central aspect of the Smith family’s religiosity.

[1] Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 43; Michael Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe (Lanham, Maryland: Rowen and Littlefield, 2007), 146; Eva Pocs, Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern World, trans. by Szilvia Redey and Michael Webb (Budapest: Central University Press, 1999), 33-34, 109, 125, 129; Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” 109.

[2] Ashurst-McGee, “Pathway to Prophethood,” 113-14.

[3] Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit, 43.

[4] Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit, 43; Pocs, Between the Living and the Dead, 125.

[5] Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton, 1867), in Early Mormon Documents, 3:93; Anna Ruther Eaton, The Origin of Mormonism (New York: Woman’s Executive Committee of Home missions, 1881), in Early Mormon Documents, 3:146; “Origen of Mormonism.  A Contemporary of the Prophet Relates Some interesting Facts,” San Francisco Chronicle, 14 May 1893, in Early Mormon Documents, 3:212.

[6] Plato, Cratylus 398 a-c; Plato, Symposium, 202e-203a.

[7] Plato, Republic, 617d-e.

[8] Plato Timaeus, 90. Citing Thomas Taylor’s translation of the Timaeus. Plato, The Cratylus, Phaedo, Parmenides and Timaeus of Plato, trans. Thomas Taylor (London, 1793), 550-51. When I cite Taylors translation, I add the standard numbering system for Plato’s works, in this case Plato, Timaeus, 90a-d.

[9] Plato, Apology, 31d; Pierre Destrée, “The Daimonion and the Philosophical Mission: Should the Divine Sign Remain Unique to Socrates?” Apeiron 38, no. 2, (2005): 63.

[10] Plato, Apology, 40a.

[11] Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, 9.6.

[12] Valerie Flint, “The Demonisaiton of Magic and Sorcery in Late Antiquity: Christian Redefinitions of Pagan Religions,” in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome, ed. Begnt Ankerloo and Stuart Clark (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 279-348.

[13] Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, 4.

[14] Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, 527-28.

[15] Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, 695.  After writing his Three Books of Occult, Philosophy, Agrippa wrote The Vanity of Arts and Sciences, which denounced all such learning.  It was later published with Three Books of Occult Philosophy.  Donald Tyson, “The Life of Agrippa,” in Agrippa, Three Books of Occult Philosophy, xxix.

[16] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, ed. Brinsley Nicholson (1584, reprint; London, 1886), 419, 483.

[17] Meric Casaubon also wrote of Socrates’s “Familiar Spirit,” in his preface to John Dee’s spiritual diary.  Casaubon, though he published Dee’s diary to warn against such spirit invocation, asserted both that Socrates’s familiar “is attested by so many, so grave Authors … that I know not how it can be questioned by any man,” and asserted further that “For my part I ever had a Reverend opinion of Socrates, and do believe (if there be no impiety in it, as I hope not) that he was, as among Heathens some respect, a fore-runner of Christ.” Meric Casaubon, “Preface,” in Dee, True and Faithful Relation, [ix-x.]

[18] Dee, True and Faithful Relation, 22, 43.

[19] Casaubon, “Preface,” [xxxix-xl.]

[20] Hebert Leventhal, In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 250.

[21] “Daemon” and “Genius” in Encyclopaedia; or, a Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1798), 5:646-47; 7:623.

[22] Ebenezer Sibly, A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences, 2 vols. (London, 1790), 2:1092-94.

[23] Sibly used “familiar spirit” as a generic term for spirits.  Sibly, New and Complete Illustration, 2:1100, 1102, 1106, 1113, 1123-24.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. […] my last post talked about the concept of the “genius”: guardian beings like angels.  Here I talk […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » The Genius Ritual — March 14, 2014 @ 12:06 pm

  2. Thus classical concepts influenced Anglo-American notions of supernatural entities.

    Cool, Steve. Just getting caught up on blog reading, and this is interesting context. Now to the ritual…

    Comment by Ryan T. — March 20, 2014 @ 6:59 am


Recent Comments

Ben P on History and Presence, Chapter: “I'm late to this, but really enjoyed it. Thanks, Tona.”

J Stuart on History and Presence, Chapter: “Excellent work. Thanks, Tona!”

Keith on Restriction-ism Unveiled!: “Heather S (#14) and Kevinf (#15), you're welcome!”

Ryan T. on History and Presence, Chapter: “A nice précis and good comparative work, Tona. Thx.”

Jeff T on History and Presence, Chapter: “Really nice, Tona. This chapter makes me wonder what scholars (who want to use presence) ought to do with spiritualism, magic, technology, and the occult.…”

Juvenile Instructor » History and Presence, Chapter 5: The Dead in the Company of the Living on History and Presence, Chapter: “[…] Our Tuesdays with Orsi series continues today with a look at the fifth chapter. The series is a systematic engagement with Robert Orsi’s important and…”