It is time for another blog post from everyone’s favourite spouter of near incomprehensible things! This time we go low by exploiting pop culture for the sake of clicks – while my ulterior motive is to talk about mythical creatures and etymology, I will cunningly grab your attention by commencing this blog post with talking about Stranger Things.
Yay! Stranger Things! Netflix! Pop culture! Shouting random things!
Have you watched Stranger Things? Since you’re reading this on my blog, you have connection to the internet, so chances are that you have. Just in case though, or if you need a refresher, the show starts with our intrepid heroes playing a game of old-school Dungeons & Dragons. In the game, they face a horrible foe: Demogorgon, the Prince of Demons.
This handsome fellow. Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33643500
D&D is full of creatures like the Demogorgon, potential enemies for the players to defeat. I think this is the only one with dual monkey heads, though – D&D has come a long way since the 80’s in learning what is scary and what is perhaps a little nonsensical. In this case, the name also looks a bit nonsensical, at least to me; demos in Greek means people, but the Gorgons were terrible creatures whose gaze turned men to stone (by now, the name Medusa should ring a bell). So how did this fiend Demogorgon come to be incorporated as a fearsome demon in D&D? Simply a case of words put together arbitrarily that sounded fearsome, or is there some deeper legend to it? Strangely enough, the answer is a bit of both.
As with just about every type of creature in D&D, the creators turned to folklore and myths for inspiration. The same is the case with Demogorgon, who is mentioned in several texts throughout European literature. One example I have come across is in Milton’s Paradise Lost from 1667:
“… and by them stood Orcus and Ades, and the dread name Of Demogorgon…”
But it is found in the works of many other writers as well, making it seem like an established character of the Classical pantheons along with the gods, the muses, and other such beings often invoked in literature. If we continue to trace the origin of Demogorgon, however, we stumble upon a curious fact. Unlike these other beings, whose origins are prehistorical, it is possible to pinpoint the very birth of Demogorgon.
We have to go back almost two thousand years. It is not a new thing to have academic scholars write dissertations about writers and poets; this took place in Roman times as well, and thanks to a bunch of monks in various monasteries making copies by hand, a number of these commentaries survive until this day. Of course, the monks focused on commentaries dealing with their own favourites, and in medieval times, one of the most highly regarded poets was a Roman named Statius.
This handsome fellow.
By Erasmo di Valvasone (1523 – 1593) - La Tebaide di Publio Papinio Stazi
In one poem, called Thebaid, Statius mentions the supreme being of the three worlds (presumably Earth, Air, and Aether, the regions inhabited by Men, Daemons, and Gods, respectively). Several hundred years later, another fellow named Lactantius wrote a commentary on Thebaid. As said above, medieval scholars loved themselves some Statius and naturally had a hankering for commentaries on his work, so Lactantius’ commentary was copied by the monks for preservation and dissemination. It is in some of these copies of the manuscript that we encounter the name Demogorgon, also written as Demogorgona in some versions.
This part of the commentary, where the name Demogorgon makes its entrance, is where Lactantius discusses the passage I referred to above – Statius mentions the supreme being of the three worlds, and Lactantius explains that this supreme being is the Demogorgon, whose name it is not permitted to know (notice the echo of this in Milton above, who refers to Demogorgon as “the dread name”). This is the first time ever that the name Demogorgon appears anywhere. But where did it come from before that? The answer is nowhere.
What Lactantius actually wrote was, most likely, Demiourgon, a grammatical form of Demiourgos. Demiourgos is Greek and means something akin to “craftsman”, i.e. the creator god who crafted the three worlds (and is thus supreme to all of them). This explanation is supported by other versions of the manuscript.
So there you have it. A long time ago, some monk, probably with lacking knowledge of Greek and possibly poor eyesight or working with a manuscript that was hard to read, transcribed a manuscript incorrectly and wrote Demogorgon instead of Demiourgon. What can we learn from this, other than the importance of proofreading? Give it enough time, in this case about a millennium, and you can make a Netflix show out of anything, even if it is just a spelling error.