Hereditary, Ari Aster’s terrifying feature debut, is a very scary movie starring Toni Collette, who is sad and builds miniatures like Lena Dunham’s mom in Tiny Furniture; her creepy, dead-animal collecting daughter; and her son, who is a bad driver. It is also about a demon named Paimon, a messy body-hopper who lives for decapitation drama.
Or so I’ve read. I haven’t seen it yet because I am not ready to sit through what has been described as a “singularly torturous” film and run the risk of puking all over myself. I would like to know more about Paimon, though. What’s his deal? How do you get in touch with him? Why does he seem so fixated on separating members of Toni Collette’s family from their heads?
To answer these questions, and more, the Cut spoke to witches and demonology experts. Here’s what we learned.
Who is Paimon, and where does he come from?
“There’s a whole series of books in the Western magical tradition called the grimoires,” Sarah Lyons, a writer, activist, and witch told the Cut.
“Basically, they’re these magical books that go back to the Middle Ages and beyond, and one subset of those are the Solomonic grimoires. Those are grimoires that are supposed to come from King Solomon and his temple. So, when we talk about Paimon, that’s a Solomonic demon, because he comes from The Lesser Key of Solomon.”
What is The Lesser Key of Solomon?
“The way I like to describe it to people, is it’s basically a Pokedex of demons,” Lyons explains. The first section of the text, the Ars Goetia, contains the descriptions of the evocations for each of the 72 demons.
“Paimon is supposed to be this kingly looking figure riding a camel, with a crown on his head, and he has two demons that often accompany him.”
What does Paimon do?
Per The Lesser Key of Solomon, Paimon “can teach all Arts and Sciences, and other secret things.” He can also “giveth Dignity, and confirmeth the same,” “bindeth or maketh any man subject to the Magician if he so desire it,” and “giveth good Familiars as such as can teach all arts.” Sounds cool!
How do you summon him?
“One of the things that you’re supposed to do specifically with The Key of Solomon is that you have a magical circle drawn around you, and you have a triangle set up just outside of that, and you’re wearing the sigil of the demon you’re trying to summon, and you’ll put that sigil into the triangle as well, and the demon is supposed to appear within that triangle,” says Lyons. “If you do it really, really right — I have not gotten to this level of badass — supposedly you’re supposed to see a physical form appear in front of you. You should physically see a demon at some point. I cannot comment on that, but that’s allegedly what happens.”
The movie got this more or less right, she adds: In one scene, for instance, Toni Collette walks into her mom’s room and observes a triangle on the floor: “That would’ve been what she was using to summon the demons into.”
But summoning a demon is no small feat.
“Depending on which version of the ceremonial magic around the demons that you go by, there are varying levels to which you have to engage to actually summon a demon force. Some of them say you can just summon the demon, but some of them say you have to basically jailbreak the demon out of Hell first,” says Dakota Hendrix, witch and co-owner of Catland Books, a metaphysical boutique and event space in Brooklyn.
And summoning Paimon in particular might be an especially difficult process, according Dr. Alexander Cummins, a historian and diviner. You may even have to do some demon-managing, as Paimon is listed as one of the Four Kings of Hell in earlier grimoires, who some say must be appealed to in the correct order to ensure they obey the magic practitioner. “This type of conjuration of spirits can involve a potentially complex navigation of the bureaucracies of hell, compelling lesser spirits to do one’s bidding by resort to the names of their superiors,” he explains.
If you summon him, will he possess people?
Mmm … maybe?
“Demonic possession is a very old idea,” says Lyons. “It’s not exactly what you’re working with when you’re working with grimoiric spirits — you’re more trying to tempt these demons into doing something for you, like offering them a bribe, or offering them something to get them to do something. So, the risk of possession is there, but I don’t think it’s what, in that cosmology, those particular demons want to do.”
There are ways to protect yourself, though, Hendrix explains. “There’s a very big difference between conjuring and summoning, and possession. To prevent [possession] what you would have to do with conjuring and summoning is so — what a lot of people have seen variances of in media before — is a magic circle. You have one that you stand in, and one that you conjure the demon in, and then they’re trapped in that magic circle, and then you’re able to compel them to do what it is that you want them to do.”
They point out, however, that “of all the demons of the Goetia, the only one it says you have to have an offering for is Paimon. And the offering that they gave Paimon [in Hereditary] was a physical body.”
Whether that offering necessarily has to be a body depends on the culture that it comes from, Hendrix adds.
“Some people say child sacrifice was part of it, some people say sacrificing an animal was part of it, and some people say that it was offerings of libations and riches. This is an extreme horror-movie version, but it actually fits well with the mythology.”
What about decapitation? Is that a common side effect of summoning?
According to Hendrix, no. “If you’re looking at all the traditions of what is known as, or labeled, ‘evil magic’ that I’ve ever heard of — and this is something that I’ve been doing for my entire life — I have never once heard of decapitation as part of any of these practices,” they say, somewhat reassuringly.
Is this a common type of magic?
Not really. Ceremonial magic, like the kind Joan and her friends seemed to be doing, is a very different type of magic than witchcraft, Hendrix told the Cut. “The average witch doesn’t work with demons or wouldn’t probably go near them.”
“Ceremonial magic as a whole is often called high magic, which is in contrast to low magic. The average witchcraft that people think of, which is like combining a couple of ingredients and making a love potion or something, that’s very much low magic. High magic is known for being really overwrought and extensive and exhaustive.”
“It’s pretty involved,” Lyons agrees. “It’s one of those arts that was created by rich white dudes in Europe, who had literally all the time in the world to draw a pentagram on their bedroom floor and chant for three days straight, which we don’t all have time to do nowadays. But that’s more or less how you’re meant to go about doing it.”
“The occult revival in general is embracing grimoires,” she notes. “I have yet to see the witches of Instagram pick up the grimoires and start using them. Because it’s hard, it’s really complicated stuff that’s written in very old-timey language and it takes a lot of study and a lot of time to get it right.”
How did the movie do representing Paimon?
Here, there is some disagreement. Lyons wasn’t a huge fan of Aster’s choice to cast Paimon.
“The thing that I thought was odd about the movie is that I thought it was an odd choice of demon. It feels very randomly chosen. I haven’t worked specifically with Paimon, but from what I’ve heard from other people who have, he’s not exactly asking you to cut people’s heads off.”
Hendrix, on the hand, thought the filmmakers did their homework.“I think it was really faithful to a lot of the Goetic research. Even down to the fact that the necklace that the grandmother wears and the necklace that she gave to Annie is the Goetic seal for Paimon.”
“There’s also a lot of overwhelming sound in the movie. The sound design is so overwhelming and causes so much dread and is so abrasive, and that also is linked to Paimon, because Paimon is said to arrive accompanied by loud, crashing music and cymbals, and they arrive with a loud booming voice, which is so unnaturally loud that they cannot be understood until they are compelled to speak quietly enough for human ears.”
What’s more, Hendrix says they thought the demon was a great choice given how the movie plays with themes of gender ambiguity, with Paimon transferring between Charlie and her brother, Peter.
“Out of the 72 in the Goetia, [Paimon] is the only gender-ambiguous demon,” Hendrix explains. “It says that he/she/they always appears riding a camel, wearing a glorious crown or headdress, and is described in various texts as either a man with a feminine or effeminate face, a woman’s face, or as a woman altogether.”
So, should I be afraid of Paimon?
“There’s no such thing as good or evil magic,” Hendrix told the Cut. “It’s really about what you are doing with it.”