All about Guardian Spirits (Greek, Roman, Indian & Norse)

The idea of the human double (or doubles) has been a part of folklore and tradition for a long time, especially the conviction that every individual has a good double and an evil double. The good double is vibrant and friendly, while the evil double is dark and terrifying. One is a guardian spirit, while the other is an attractor of harm.

The ancient peoples probably came up with this idea after noticing their reflections in water and the shape of their shadows, and so they assumed both of them were personal spirits.

For ancient Persians in particular, the idea of a good spirit and an evil spirit that followed people throughout their lives must have been easy to accept, since their religious worldview was that of good and evil.

The ancient Greeks assimilated these doubles into the concept of daemons. Even though the human double could exist without the original, it was considered an ill omen for a person to see their daemon since it was considered a symbol of approaching death. As such, for an ancient Greek, it was considered unlucky to see their reflection in water because this was also a sign that they would die. This is where the sad story of Narcissus comes from.

Over time, the Greek daemon became the demon we know today, while the bright reflection evolved into the benevolent Roman genius, and then the Guardian Angel found in Christianity.

In this celestial form, the idea of the double survived the end of the pagan world, but it lived on in people’s folk beliefs as a guardian angel, etheric double, or astral body, fylgja in the Northern realms, Doppelganger in Germany, etc.

How different cultures manifest guardian spirits

The belief that humans are surrounded by helpful spirits that seek to assist and protect them is common and held throughout many cultures.

People worship guardian spirits to request health, personal well-being, or relief from hardship and misfortune. 

Most religions are simple to understand, with clear principles behind them; however, this is not the case when it comes to religions that worship guardian spirits.

Part of the reason is that these religious beliefs are much more personal since every person’s guardian spirit is different. Thus, two people of the same religion can worship their respective guardian spirits in completely different ways.

In most cases, however, the rituals follow a similar pattern, where the believer offers the spirit remembrance and sacrificial offerings while asking for inner harmony but also help in achieving their material needs.

The many different forms of guardian spirits

Some cultures believe a person acquires their guardian spirit at birth or puberty, which then remains by their side throughout their life.

Sometimes it’s the spirit of an ancestor, but other times it’s not. In some cultures, the guardian spirit dies alongside its mortal host, while in others it lives on and finds a new mortal to protect.

In American Indian folklore, the guardian spirit plays a significant role. Typically, it manifests itself to a person as an animal and appears in dreams or as a waking vision. 

Locations, not just individuals, can be protected by these supernatural beings, such as the spirits that guard Asian temples from harm or the dragon that watches over their mountain of gold.

The Roman Genius and Greek Daemon

In modern English, what was once a guardian spirit has become the adjective “genius,” which is used to express a person’s intellectual or artistic talent.

The word “genius” was originally the Latin word for a person’s guardian spirit (the guardian spirit of each woman was called a Juno). The word means “the one who gives birth” or “to beget,” and the genius seems to have been a man’s ability to have children. The primary purpose of the genius was to help the man satisfy his natural appetites. Roman birthday parties were held in honor of the genius.

The Greek equivalent was the personal daemon, which some writers said followed a person throughout his life. It’s possible that the widespread belief in the existence of this personal guardian led to more attention being paid to people’s birthdays in ancient times.

The Romans also believed in the genius loci, a supernatural force that watched over a certain location. It was similar to the Greek nymphs and animistic spirits that lived in rivers, trees, hills, and other parts of nature.

Guardian angels in Abrahamic religions

In the Old Testament, the book of Daniel (chapters 10–12) tells a story about angels who watch over different kingdoms and peoples. The garden of Eden was guarded by cherubim (Genesis 3.24), which were initially Mesopotamian spirits that transmitted messages from the people to the gods. They were also put at the gates of temples and palaces to keep people safe. The Ark of Yahweh was watched over by two cherubim with their wings spread out (Exodus 25.18).

Jesus told his disciples that they shouldn’t look down on children because “for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father” (Matthew 18.10). This was interpreted to mean that every child has a guardian angel, and it led medieval scholars to believe that every Christian also has a guardian angel.

The Shepherd of Hennas, an early Christian manuscript, says that each person is accompanied by an angel of righteousness who makes him do good things and an evil spirit who makes him do bad things.

Mohammedans believe that two angels watch over each man during the day and two more at night. They keep him safe from danger and keep track of everything he does in preparation for judgment day. At sunset and sunrise, there is a change of guard, leaving a small window where a person can fall into the temptations of the devil.

Norse Fylgja

In Norse mythology, every person is accompanied by a spirit called fylgja, meaning “follower.” This spirit was a mirror image of the person it followed, and became attached to it at birth, and would only die if the person died. For most of a person’s life, the fylgja would be invisible. The Norse people thought that if their fylgja became visible, then death was imminent.

Roman Lares

The Lares served as tutelary deities, and their names were obtained from the locations they guarded. By far the most common, if not the oldest, manifestation is in the family (familia), where the single Lar Familiaris (Family Lar) was honored every day at mealtimes and with garlands on the hearth once a month.

This Lar protected the home and its wealth, no matter how small, and was called upon during important family events. Sometimes, the Lar Familiaris also gave the home’s owner prophetic signs. In time, the Lar began to symbolize the house itself.

In the oldest complete Latin prayer that has been found, the Arval Brothers, an ancient Roman circle of priests, call on the Lares, Mars, and some “seed gods” while sitting on the boundary between different farms.

Where two fields met, the Lar of each boundary line was honored by the farmer and his slaves. This was called compita, which was also the name of the place where the boundaries met. The compital shrine was a small spire with holes for each Lar that was thought to reside there. This is where the Lares Compitales were found.

Because property borders were frequently demarcated by a path or a road, the Lares Compitales were usually worshipped at rural crossroads and busy urban crossings.

Small hamlets that contained only a few homes and shacks would worship only these Lares Compitales, since the chief Roman gods were remote and far away.  

At a normal intersection of two roads, two Lares were worshipped together. This became the norm, so that no matter how many roads met, only two Lares were thought to be there. Even the Lar Familiaris was usually depicted twice, despite the fact that a family would worship only a single Lar.

The same Lares is depicted twice

The Lares Semitales were revered for their guardianship of paths (semitae), whereas the Viales were revered for their protection of roads (viae).

Early on, the poor worshipped the Lares, and they evolved into the most important gods of the lower classes of society, which included slaves and freedmen. These people were frequently foreign-born, and the Lares were a major influence in their absorption into Roman culture. Slaves and freedmen paid special attention to Compitalia because it was one of the few state cults that let everyone participate, no matter their wealth or social background.

The Lares were a defining feature of Roman religion, and their worship was especially powerful in the Italian peninsula, the Roman heartland. The worship of the lares continued well into the 4th century, but it slowly died away after Christianity rooted itself as the main religion of the Empire and outlawed any other religious cult.

Native American Indian Guardian Spirits

Among some Indian tribes, there seems to be little contact, in the sense of direct worship, between the believers and their gods. 

The gods generally only appear in myths that explain Nature and in some humorous tales, and the Indians seem happy to leave it at that.

If they want to talk to the spiritual realm, Native Americans pray to animal gods or Nature spirits, which can be thought of as concentrations of spirit power that have taken on the shape of animals.

So, when an Indian prays, he or she is not praying to the buffalo god or the eagle god, but to the buffalo or eagle power. This is a type of supernatural power that comes to people through animals or natural events, like thunder or wind power.

Most of the time, these animal or natural forces act as guardian spirits. Tribal spirits are set by tradition and old stories, but each person can get in touch with a specific spirit or power by themselves. Some people learned more about the spirits of their tribe and got closer to the supernatural, and these people became shamans or medicine men.


References:

  • Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bibleby Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst
  • Dictionnaire infernalby Collin de Plancy
  • Demon dictionaryby Kimberly Daniels
  • The History Of Witchcraft And Demonologyby Montague Summers
  • Malleus maleficarum by Heinrich Kraemer
  • The encyclopedia of demons and demonology by Rosemary Guiley
  • Dictionary of gods and goddesses, devils and demons by  Manfred Lurker
  • Devils, demons, death, and damnation by Ernst Lehner
  • Man, Myth & Magic The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Mythologyby Richard Cavendish
  • Demons and elementalsby John Gatehouse
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