The Guardian Spirit And The Idea Of “Genii”

Most of us are familiar with the idea of the “patron saint” in Christianity.  The doctrine is even found in some branches of Islam.  It is a  comforting thing to believe that there is someone out there watching over us, and protecting us in an hour of need.  I never used to give this idea much serious thought until recent years.  But the idea predates Christianity; it was absorbed into Christianity from beliefs that came before it.  The idea of the “guardian spirit” was a commonly-accepted one in the late classical world, as this passage from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus reveals:

For the theologians maintain that there are associated with all men at their birth, but without interference with the established course of destiny, certain divinities of that sort, as directors of their conduct; but they have been seen by only a very few, whom their manifold merits have raised to eminence.  And this oracles and writers of distinction have shown; among the latter is also the comic poet Menander, in whom we read these two senarii [verses]:

A daemon is assigned to every man

At birth, to be the leader of his life.

Likewise from the immortal poems of Homer we are given to understand that it was not the gods of heaven that spoke with brave men, and stood by them or aided them as they fought, but that guardian spirits attended them; and through reliance upon their special support, it is said, that Pythagoras, Socrates, and Numa Pompilius became famous; also the earlier Scipio, and (as some believe) Marius and Octavianus, who first had the title of Augustus conferred on him, and Hermes Trismegistus, Apollonius of Tyana, and Plotinus, who ventured to discourse on this mystic theme, and to present a profound discussion of the question by what elements these spirits are linked with men’s souls, and taking them to their bosoms, as it were, protect them (as long as possible) and give them higher instruction, if they perceive that they are pure and kept from the pollution of sin through association with an immaculate body. [XXI.14; trans. by J.C. Rolfe]

Notice that Ammianus draws a distinction between the “guardian spirit” and the soul of the individual.  The two are not the same thing.  In the Roman religion there was something called the genius:  an attendant spirit that each man possessed, and that accompanied him throughout his life.  St. Augustine specifically equated it with the Christian concept of the soul:

It is he, then, with whom is the dominion of all sowings. What is Genius? He is the god who is set over, and has the power of begetting, all things. Who else than the world do they believe to have this power, to which it has been said:

Almighty Jove, progenitor and mother?

And when in another place he says that Genius is the rational soul of every one, and therefore exists separately in each individual, but that the corresponding soul of the world is God, he just comes back to this same thing — namely, that the soul of the world itself is to be held to be, as it were, the universal genius. This, therefore, is what he calls Jupiter. For if every genius is a god, and the soul of every man a genius, it follows that the soul of every man is a god. But if very absurdity compels even these theologists themselves to shrink from this, it remains that they call that genius god by special and pre-eminent distinction, whom they call the soul of the world, and therefore Jupiter. [City of God VII.13; trans. by Cath. Encyclop.]

It is important to remember that the word genius is a Latin word, not an English one; its plural form is genii.  We should not be confused by the fact that an English word has an identical spelling.  The Latin genius has nothing whatsoever to do with superior intelligence or anything of that sort.  It is a religious and spiritual term.  But what is the connection between a guardian spirit and an individual man’s genius?  As the passage from Ammianus above suggests, it appears that the guardian spirit nurtures and protects each man’s individual soul, guiding it along the right path in life, and helping it to reach a higher state of perfection.  This makes sense in the context in which the passage appears.  Ammianus is describing the elevation of the emperor Julian to the throne upon the sudden death of his cousin Constantius.  The historian hints that the incident is the fulfillment of the intentions of Julian’s guiding spirit.

I suppose the next question would be this:  how do we find our guardian spirit, or know what it will be?  Or can it even be found?  I am not sure about the answer to this question.  I can only rely on my own intuition and what I have read on these subjects (which is often ambiguous and contradictory).  But I suspect that a guardian spirit cannot be sought out; it seeks you, and reveals itself to you, rather than the other way around.  This to me has the ring of truth.  In my life, I have been through enough hazards, scrapes, and dangers to feel comfortable with the idea of a guardian spirit watching over me.  Whether this is “literally true” I neither know nor care to know.  It matters only that the paradigm helps me make sense of some past experiences.

Now I know there are readers who will smile at what they believe to be superstitious relics that have no bearing on their modern lives.  I suppose there are many who will see all of this as a comfortable delusion.  Maybe they are right; but for my part I find it useful to explore the different ways that man has expressed his innermost thoughts on Fate, destiny, and the soul, even if some of those ideas run counter to accepted modern “orthodoxy.”  Sometimes great wisdom is hidden in unexpected places.  Beyond this, man needs creative ways of wrapping his mind around abstract concepts; metaphysics and religion sometimes need to be tethered to comprehensible reality.

Which paradigm we choose to describe the world is entirely up to us; and there is nothing wrong with believing two different things at the same time.  Reality has many facets, many sides, and many faces.


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7 thoughts on “The Guardian Spirit And The Idea Of “Genii”

  1. “In my life, I have been through enough hazards, scrapes, and dangers to feel comfortable with the idea of a guardian spirit watching over me. Whether this is “literally true” I neither know nor care to know. It matters only that the paradigm helps me make sense of some past experiences.”

    Same here, though probably not comparable the ones you have in mind.

    I had a Marine friend who served in Iraq near the Syrian border and an IED went off in front of him and several others. I didn’t get the full story from him, but in short it killed everyone except him, including those farther away from the bomb. Another time, he was manning the .50 cal on a Humvee, and immediately after he got off it to switch with another, it went around a corner and got blown up by an RPG or IED.

    He’s religious and thus credits his survival to the guiding hand of Providence.

    There is also the legend of “The Guardian” for sailors – a mythical spirit that keeps those in the water alive until help arrives.

    There is also “Third Man syndrome.”

    Ernest Shackleton said he felt a guiding hand on him as he and his companion were walking across South Georgia on the final leg of the trip. Perhaps it may explain how he and his friend completed the trek, while Reinhold Messner and his crew failed in their attempt decades later to recreate the journey, albeit Messner himself said he has experienced this too on other adventures.

    As Fred Reed has observed many times, we don’t have to understand something in order to acknowledge its presence. And even if it is mere coincidence or just a feeling we experience, the attitude we have toward these experiences is perhaps the more important aspect, because that is something we control and can know for certain.

    Perhaps the belief in guardians is an acknowledgement that much of what happens in life is beyond our control and putting a face or concept on it makes it accessible for us to process that reality.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great comment. Some great points there. I like your last paragraph:

    “Perhaps the belief in guardians is an acknowledgement that much of what happens in life is beyond our control and putting a face or concept on it makes it accessible for us to process that reality.”


  3. Throughout my hoboing time I often encountered myself miraculously came out unscraped from uncomfortable situations and have often been delivered exactly what I needed (not what I wanted) at the time when that need was made greater. Funnily enough, after I met my ladybird, this did not change but in fact gave the impression of intensifying as she too realized that many of these happenings defied our current “logical” explanations…


  4. You mention that instead of seeking out the advice of a guardian spirit, it sort of arrives to you, or it comes unbidden, given that you are receptive to it. That that has a ring of truth to it.
    Do you suppose this contradicts the New Testament dictum, “Ask and it shall be given, knock and the door shall be opened unto you,” or instead that it is a real-world conundrum, like a chicken-and-egg problem: did I look for an answer and find one, or did I find an answer to a question I didn’t realize I was asking, but was receptive to?

    And do you think dreams could be a medium for such an intermediary spirit? Jordan Peterson talks of dreams as being the subconscious’ way of making sense of real world inputs, trying to solve the problems presented to the conscious mind without a logical means of communication. Perhaps this is the work of a providential hand.

    One reason I ask is because. I have recently been making inroads to a complete career change after some prompting from a dream.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I do think dreams can serve this function. Absolutely, and you find this discussed much in mystic literature, such as Plotinus and Ibn Arabi. And yes, I think some things become clear on their own, with time.


  5. I think the guardian spirit probably corresponds more closely to the guardian angel, a concept Jesus seems to mention in Matthew 18.10: ‘Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.’

    Liked by 1 person

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