Daemons are, in Shmoop's humble opinion, the coolest part of Philip Pullman's Golden Compass fantasy world. The word "daemon" is an old one with several different meanings. In Christian writings the word is sometimes used to refer to a demon, or evil spirit. In Greek mythology, a daemon was a supernatural creature somewhere between god and man.
In The Golden Compass, daemons are more or less your soul worn on your sleeve. They appear as talking animal friends that accompany you wherever you go. As Philip Pullman once said, characters are "able to talk to their daemons, much like talking to yourself […] Like having a conversation with your conscience or your memory" (source).
Everyone has a daemon, but children's daemons can shape-shift to be any animal. When a child goes through puberty, his or her daemon settles into one permanent shape. This seems to symbolize how, as we get older, our personality solidifies and settles. We gain a more distinct identity than we had as a kid.
Daemons can tell us a lot about a character's personality in The Golden Compass – especially after the daemon settles on a shape. We learn that certain groups of people have similar daemons. For example, all witches' daemons are birds, which makes sense because witches fly and love their freedom. Servants' daemons, we learn in Chapter 1, take the form of dogs, which we suppose points to a sort of friendly loyalty toward their bosses.
Because she's a child, Lyra's daemon Pan takes on tons of animal forms: ermine, moth, mouse, even sea bird. This makes sense because Lyra is still discovering who she is. What do form do you think Pan will end up settling on?
Want to know more about what characters' daemon's say about them? Head over to "Tools of Characterization."
Daemons are also very much a part of the book's discussion of innocence, experience, and original sin. When daemons stop changing their shape, it means that children have grown up:
"Why do daemons have to settle?" Lyra said. "I want Pantalaimon to be able to change forever. So does he."
[Seaman:] "Ah, they always have settled, and they always will. That's part of growing up. There'll come a time when you'll be tired of his changing about, and you'll want a settled kind of form for him."
"I never will!"
"Oh, you will. You'll want to grow up like all the other girls. Anyway, there's compensations for a settled form." (10.25-22)
The Magisterium makes the assumption that once their daemons stop changing, children become sinful. They conclude that by severing children from their daemons, they can save them from becoming sinful. The book, though, portrays the severing of daemon and child as a horrific act, as in the case of Tony Makarios in Chapter 12. (Psst. For much more on the idea of original sin, zip over to "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory: Dust.")