What Does Jim Morrison’s Epitaph Really Mean?

The story behind the enigmatic Greek inscription on Morrison’s grave is also a story of fathers, sons, and personal demons

If you die young, you’re at the mercy of the friends and family who bury you. You weren’t thinking about the cemetery at the time you bit the dust. The plot where you’ll be laid out eternally isn’t even faintly visible in your remote imagined future. You’re not focused on that plot. You’re living it up and making a name for yourself in the career that chose you (concert pianist, stand-up comic, chef). Unless you’re truly exceptional, a prodigy of morbid foresight, you haven’t given a thought to the inscription on your tomb.

Case in point: James Douglas Morrison. The Doors frontman may have been a celebrated lyricist, but the notebooks he was filling with poetry didn’t include draft verses for his grave. When he died young, it fell to his survivors to choose the inscription that sums him up. The resulting text isn’t in the language that he spoke or sang, or a language that he had any special connection to. It’s not even in a living language.

The Doors frontman may have been a celebrated lyricist, but the notebooks he was filling with poetry didn’t include draft verses for his grave. When he died young, it fell to his survivors to choose the inscription that sums him up.

On the famous gravestone at Père-Lachaise cemetery in central Paris is a bronze plaque engraved with three lines: full name, dates, (“1943–1971”), then a four-word phrase in ancient Greek, “KATA TON DAIMONA EAUTOU” as it’s normally transliterated. The standard translation, found in Wallace Fowlie’s Rimbaud and Jim Morrison: The Rebel as Poet, as well as many guidebooks to the cemetery, and authoritative biographies such as Stephen Davis’ Jim Morrison: Life Death, Legend, is “True to his own spirit.” At first glance, a reasonably apt epitaph. But even a modestly well-read English reader will recognize, at the heart of the phrase, a problematic word which in English usage is essentially untranslatable: daimon. (“Daimona” is daimon in its accusative case.) Some guidebooks, following the lead of most literary criticism, balk at the prospect of translating the word, and render the epitaph as “True or faithful to his daimon.” Acknowledging the expansive field of meaning, however, opens its own can of (graveyard) worms. Daimon can mean spirit, or tutelary deity, or interior voice, or chance or fate—or it can also mean demon, as in the evil being from Hell. Which meaning — or meanings — did the author of the epitaph have in mind?

Complicating this question is the fact that the person who chose the epitaph was Jim Morrison’s father, Rear Admiral George Stephen Morrison. In one version of the epitaph’s origin, GSM (as I’ll refer to him) composed the phrase himself, having learned some Greek after his retirement from the U.S. Navy. In another, he consulted a professor of Classics who provided him with a quote from the canon of ancient Greek literature. As we’ll see, neither version is accurate. But understanding what really happened leaves us with a curious story: a military father, a disreputable son who died young, and a gravestone that broadly hints at demonic possession.

After leaving the Navy in 1975, four years after his son Jim’s death, GSM settled just outside of San Diego and took up, among other pursuits, the study of Greek. Why Greek? Maybe simply because the Admiral was interested in anything and everything, nautical and otherwise. Later in retirement, he would take up Italian. His daughter Anne remembers him bringing a calculus textbook to his chaise lounge by the pool, for recreational reading. He read all the time, as people say. When he left for a long cruise aboard the Bonnie Dick, the aircraft carrier he commanded during the Vietnam era, he packed Ulysses in his gear bag. You’d think that might explain the Admiral’s interest in ancient Greek; if you’d been through Vietnam with Ulysses at your side, and you finished Ulysses and were interested in languages and wanted to take a language path toward exploring Ulysses further, the obvious place to go would be Homer. You would enroll in an intro course in ancient Greek as the first step toward reading the Odyssey in Greek. If you were lucky enough to live close enough to a university that offered a variety of intro courses, you could accelerate your progress by enrolling in an intro course specifically in Homeric Greek.

This isn’t what GSM did. He found an intro course, at San Diego State University, but the course was in the Greek of the New Testament. That’s about as far away as possible, in the spectrum of intro ancient Greek, as you can get from Homer — a distance of six or seven centuries. An entirely different kind of Greek than Homeric Greek or even Classical Greek, and not an efficient path toward reading Homer, or Pindar, or the tragedians, or anything else, really, except the canonical texts of Christian scripture. GSM wasn’t, however, an especially religious man. He didn’t subscribe to a fundamentalist belief that one remove away from the original language of scripture is one very evil remove. According to his family, he didn’t regularly attend church. Yet he ended up in a classroom among seminary students. No one in that classroom was learning Greek as a comp lit approach to fathoming Ulysses.

Whatever GSM’s reasons for choosing to delve into the language of the Gospels — and maybe by then he simply wanted to put some space between himself and his stateroom reading — one consequence would have been the way he was introduced to the fraught word daimon, the word Fowlie translates as “spirit.” Of all the many words in the New Testament whose shadings or outright meanings differ from Classical Greek or Homeric Greek, daimon stands out as an example of extreme difference, possibly of the most extreme difference for any widely used word.

Of all the many words in the New Testament whose shadings or outright meanings differ from Classical Greek or Homeric Greek, daimon stands out as an example of extreme difference.

In authors like Homer and Hesiod and Euripides and Plato, daimon carries a variety of meanings (more on this later). In the New Testament, though, it means only one thing. It and its different forms invariably refer to spirits who are up to no good, demons in the sense of beings that inhabit and possess human hosts: the agents of demonic possession. Basically the same use of the word as in The Exorcist, or the Charmed episode “Exorcise Your Demons,” in which Angela is possessed and then (spoiler alert) ejects the demon in a stream of light from her mouth. That’s a daimon straight out of the New Testament. A similar ejection from the mouth can be seen in many medieval and Renaissance paintings, where the demons often have wings, their skin or hide is red or copper brown, their faces somewhere between reptilian and human. Little evil semi-human otherworldly beings that take up residence in humans and control their human hosts.

In terms of difficulty, the New Testament isn’t Aristotle’s Metaphysics; more like Le Petit Prince for a novice reader of French. I know one seminary student who boasted that after a semester of intro NT Greek, he could easily polish off a chapter of Gospel on his bus commute to class. So for GSM, making his way through the Gospels, it wouldn’t have been long before he encountered his first demonic daimon. The first instance of the word or its variants in the New Testament occurs in the first of the Gospels, at Matthew 4:24, where Jesus is preaching in the synagogues of Galilee, and his renown as a healer attracts throngs of afflicted Syrians, among them “those which were possessed with devils (daimonizomenous).” Interestingly (and I take note of this because it strikes me that GSM would have been interested as well), the verse makes a distinction between the possessed and “those which were lunatick (selēniazomenous).”

More of the possessed come along four chapters later in a passage that GSM, as an educated Navy officer, even if not a churchgoer, already must have known — but reading these familiar passages in the original dead language breathes new life into them. In Gadara, Jesus and his followers are waylaid by two Gadarenes possessed by demons (daimonizomenoi): so begins the famous “Gadarene swine” episode in Matthew 8. The demons menace Jesus, but also recognize Jesus as a threat, an exorcist who can cast them out. Okay, if we’re being cast out, say the demons (daimones), please don’t banish us to Hades, but at least grant us some other host. What about that herd of pigs grazing over there? Jesus laconically agrees: “And he said unto them, Go.” They went. “And behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.” The recently retired Admiral would then have read how the shepherds who witnessed the exorcism race back to town to report on the fate of the possessed (daimonizomenōn).

The word recurs abundantly throughout the other Gospels, including slightly different versions of the drowning of the swine as told by Luke (six variations on the word in just ten verses) and Mark (a lone possessed man, daimonizomenōi; two thousand swine). It’s in the Mark retelling that Jesus asks the demon inhabiting the possessed man to reveal its name, and the demon answers “My name is Legion; for we are many.”

Whenever I discussed these passages with friends who identified as Doors fans, they advised me to spend a night at the Alta Cienega. The Alta Cienega, a shabby motel at the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica in West Hollywood, is where Jim Morrison lived from 1968–1970 while recording Waiting for the Sun and The Soft Parade and Morrison Hotel. Fans hold séances in Room 32, Morrison’s favorite. Anyone can book a night there. If I was interested in the spirit world, and visitation, and demons and ghosts, and inhabited spaces, I’d be remiss, so I was advised, if I didn’t at least give the fabled room a run for its money. Hole up for a week and hope for some chilling sensation of being visited.

As GSM pushed onward through the Gospels, his son’s grave at Père-Lachaise was falling into disrepair, the plot having become a hub for vandalism, partying, well-intended desecration, thefts, and mischief. The Office of Cemeteries for the City of Paris couldn’t actually exhume James Douglas Morrison, because the plot had been leased in perpetuity, but they leaned hard on the Morrison survivors to clean up the mess.

In the late 1980s, the Morrisons began work to make the gravesite more fan-resistant and to replace the original and now defaced headstone. They also seized the opportunity to add an epitaph, as the first stone gave away only name and dates. GSM took the lead in planning the new inscription. He knew that he wanted it to be in Greek.

In December of 1990 he sought the assistance of E. N. Genovese, Professor of Classics and Humanities in the Department of Classical and Oriental Languages and Literatures at San Diego State University.

Genovese explains his role in the inscription as stemming from pure chance: GSM stopped by the Department one afternoon, seeking guidance, and it just so happened that the right door was open. Genovese distinctly remembers GSM passing through the doorway of his office. Here, though, the facts become somewhat murky. In the account that follows, I’ll rely mainly on letters between Genovese and GSM (access to which was generously provided by Jim Morrison’s sister, Anne Chewning, and her daughter, Tristin Dillon), while also incorporating Genovese’s recollections to the extent that they agree with the evidence in the letters.

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GSM had a rough idea of what he wanted the epitaph to say: something along the lines of his son remaining faithful to his spirit, a true believer in himself, constant and truthful and honest in his pursuit of an innermost ambition. GSM himself had been constant to his study of Greek for long enough that he could take a stab at composing a draft. He put the draft in a letter to Genovese, apparently shortly after his visit to the office. In the letter, the proposed epitaph leads off with the word alēthēs, which has meant more or less the same thing — unconcealed, truthful, genuine, real — from its early appearances in a slightly different form in Homer, all the way through Modern Greek. It occurs often in the Gospels, always translated in the King James Version as “true” or “truthful.” “Though I bear record of myself, yet my record is true (alēthēs)” in John 8:14 is an example (and possibly the verse that Elvis Costello, educated in Catholic schools, had in mind when titling his 1977 album that went platinum).

Evidently GSM wanted this word meaning “truthful” to lead toward some word meaning “spirit.” His sketch of an epitaph may have also included the word pistos, “faithful,” pairing it with alēthēs to yield “truthful and faithful” — pistos is another word very common in the New Testament. The exact phrasing of GSM’s draft is impossible to know, however, because the letter in which he proposes it to Genovese thwarts Doors historians with a blank space exactly where the drafted epitaph should be. GSM left the space blank so that he could fill in later, by hand, the Greek words. Only a photocopy of the letter without the blank filled in remains. But the handwritten phrase can be reconstructed from a letter that Genovese wrote back less than a week later. Genovese’s letter mirrors the words alēthēs and (with some certainty) pistos from GSM’s draft, as Genovese gently points out that they don’t quite work syntactically with the remainder of the phrase and, especially, with the word that GSM chose to convey the idea of “spirit,” as in “true and faithful to his spirit.”

That word, beyond any shadow of a doubt, could not possibly have been daimon or any form of daimon. By now, GSM had fifteen years of New Testament Greek under his belt. Anyone even casually versed in the Greek Gospels would not choose, wouldn’t remotely consider choosing, daimon to mean inner light, or guiding spirit, or deepest self; to such a reader, it would mean a possessing force of evil. Given that the letter that Genovese wrote back uses the English term “spirit” to translate the word GSM chose, GSM’s choice almost certainly was pneuma. When you learn the Greek New Testament, that’s one of the first words you learn; it’s ubiquitous in the Gospels. In the King James Version it’s nearly always translated as “spirit.”

GSM’s draft didn’t quite work, but Genovese felt confident that he could replace it with a quote. He believed, he says, that from the corpus of surviving Greek texts he could cull a phrase that captured the essence of GSM’s rough sketch. He estimated that it wouldn’t take long. He would dip into the authoritative Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek lexicon, the Big Liddell as the unabridged version is affectionately known. The Big Liddell would guide him to a quote fitting for the Lizard King.

But it didn’t.

When Genovese cracked open the Big Liddell, he already had a pretty good idea of where in the corpus he might cull a quote. He went straight to the entry for the word daimon. If you’re a pre-New Testament-oriented classicist in search of a Classical Greek equivalent for “inner guiding spirit,” daimon is a reasonable candidate. Daimon in early Greek has a variety of shadings, complex enough that any quick summary will inevitably oversimplify; in some authors the word is virtually a synonym for impersonal or unembodied chance, while in others it refers to actual deities, as for example in Plato’s Phaedo, where a daimon is a guardian deity assigned to each person at birth, and who, when they die, escorts their soul to the beyond where souls gather to be judged before then being transported further into the beyond for a long stay in Hades. (There are other shades of meaning, but this gives an idea of the range.)

Genovese was in fact thinking of Plato, he recounted later when explaining his approach to GSM’s request. He thought he might find a fitting quote from the Apology that referenced a particular kind of Platonic daimon, the “divine and spiritual” (theion kai daimonion) inner voice that came to Socrates at crucial junctures in his life: the Socratic daimon. Inconveniently, though, the Big Liddell failed to point toward any pithy, epitaph-ready quotes in Plato that included Socrates or his daimon and that also incorporated GSM’s sentiment of being true or faithful.

That’s when Genovese became, for all intents and purposes, the author of the epitaph.

In his letter back to GSM, Genovese frames his counterproposal — kata ton daimona heautou — as a reworking of GSM’s draft, but in fact, the phrase he offered GSM was all his own. He’d retained only one word of GSM’s suggestion, the pronoun (h)eautou (“his”). He’d removed the adjectives meaning “true” and “faithful” and shaped the phrase so that it foregrounded to the utmost its one noun, Genovese’s contribution, daimon. GSM’s phrase sounded like it might have been a quote from the New Testament. Genovese’s revision had an entirely different ring. The gist of the proposed epitaph had shifted back in time one whole era, from A.D. to B.C.

Genovese says that he mailed the phrase to GSM with a sense that GSM might well dismiss it: “Almost tongue in cheek I gave it to him.” Presumably he understood how daimon would have struck the ears of someone whose Greek came from Holy Scripture. He may also have had second thoughts about the Socratic overtones, given that the inner voice that spoke to Socrates only did so to warn him off some risky contemplated path of action: not exactly applicable to GSM’s son over the course of his short life.

Genovese mailed the phrase to Morrison’s father with a sense that he might well dismiss it. Presumably he understood how “daimon” would have struck the ears of someone whose Greek came from Holy Scripture.

And yet, within a year after GSM received the phrase from Genovese, the phrase, word for word as it had come from Genovese, had been written into bronze and installed — on December 19, 1990, 28 years ago today — at Jim Morrison’s gravesite in Paris.

Almost immediately after the installation, Anne, Jim’s sister, raised concerns about “daimon” and the impression it would make on casual visitors to the grave. Anne remembers thinking that Jim always considered himself a kind of shaman, so the connotations of evil spirits and demonic possession weren’t entirely inappropriate. On the other hand, as a loving survivor, would you really want to put those connotations front and center? To settle the matter, Anne and the other survivors turned to GSM, the family authority on Greek and, if not now the actual author of the epitaph, the survivor who’d set the wheels in motion.

At that point GSM cracked open his Big Liddell and wrote a letter to Bill Graham — the Fillmore Bill Graham, whose connection to the family was that he’d promoted The Doors. The letter spelled out Anne’s concerns and how they might be addressed through a press release that GSM hoped Graham would distribute to clarify how the epitaph should be understood. “I fear my daughter [Anne] was quite right when she raised the question of an unfortunate interpretation of the Greek text,” he tells Graham — but, he says, that unfortunate interpretation would also be incorrect. The word daimon, he explains, has several meanings. GSM goes on to summarize its meaning in Homer (“divine power”) and in Hesiod (“souls of men of the Golden Age”). These summings-up are in quotes in the letter itself because they’re taken verbatim from GSM’s Big Liddell, as GSM himself acknowledges: he’s appealing to his Big Liddell to bring forth authoritative definitions. Anyone worried about “evil connotations” of the word — as was Anne — would need only go back and read their Homer and Hesiod.

But almost surely, GSM himself hadn’t read his Homer and Hesiod, not in Greek, because he concludes his defense of daimon by saying that “in any case, the word relates to a man’s deepest self or soul.” That’s not its sense in Hesiod or Homer, or in other early authors. The Hesiod citation in the letter underscores this point. In Hesiod, the “souls of men” aren’t souls in the sense of a person’s deepest self. They’re the afterlife spirits of Hesiod’s first generation of mortals, the golden generation, who wander the Earth cloaked in stage fog (ēera essamenoi) as guardians of later generations. They guide from without, not from within.

All this makes clear that for GSM as reader, it was the New Testament alone that had provided his only unmediated experience of daimon in the alphabet of the epitaph. His reading of the word outside the NT came secondhand, via the Big Liddell and whatever translations he consulted.

What then was the Admiral thinking when he signed off on Genovese’s phrase and its problematic New Testament connotations? For his part, Fowlie, in his account, construes the placing of the epitaph as an announcement of reconciliation after 20 years of silence from the parents. Not a warm and fuzzy reconciliation, it would seem. GSM obviously did recognize the ambiguity in the word that Fowlie and the guidebooks translate as “spirit,” and perhaps the father’s goal, to some extent, was to write that ambiguity into his son’s legacy. Public ambiguity is one thing; privately, though, GSM’s background in New Testament Greek must have given daimon a specific personal significance, an unsavory meaning that, for a military officer whose son had rebelled, must have seemed not unfitting. After nearly fifteen years of reading daimon in its New Testament sense as “demon that possesses,” GSM may well have decided that it was exactly the right word to describe the spirit to which his son was true.

After nearly fifteen years of reading “daimon” in its New Testament sense as “demon that possesses,” GSM may well have decided that it was exactly the right word to describe the spirit to which his son was true.

If I were authoring a guidebook to the gravesite in Père-Lachaise, and wanted to be true to the spirit of the epitaph, and its backstory, I’d at least consider including an illustration of the famous New Testament “drowning of the swine” episode or some other scene of exorcism or possession from Scripture.

In early 1992, two years after the installation, GSM mailed a letter of thanks and a photo of the new plaque to Genovese. That was the last communication between the father and the near-stranger who’d engineered an epitaph for his son. Genovese, as of this writing, is alive and well and living in retirement in suburban San Diego. GSM died in 2008 (after a fall while in the hospital, a very uncommon outcome, incidentally, for falling in a hospital). As for an epitaph, GSM himself opted out, choosing instead that his ashes be scattered at sea. If you live long enough, sometimes you get to choose.

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