Like several of the other creatures discussed this October and last, angels are, in the strict sense, a very culture-specific concept. They’re a key element of the Abrahamic religions — to the point where in Islam, belief in angels is one of the six articles of faith. But as with faeries or vampires or chimeras, when you look more broadly for celestial creatures that serve the gods, you can find semi-parallels in other places.
But let’s start with the most orthodox sense of the word. Angels in an Abrahamic context are intermediaries between human beings and God, in both directions: sometimes they carry out God’s will, and sometimes supplicants pray to them for aid and intercession, much like they pray to saints. In various esoteric traditions, angels are sometimes invoked by magical means. Their direct worship, however, is usually forbidden as idolatry.
One of their most common function is that of messenger. In fact, it’s baked into the name: “angel” derives from the Greek term for “messenger,” and the Hebrew term mal’?kh has the same meaning. The etymology of the Arabic word malak is less certain, but as the phonetic similarity suggests, it may very well come from that same root. The archangel Gabriel is responsible for the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary: a famous instance of an angel bearing God’s message to a human.
But angels aren’t merely depicted as mouthpieces for God. They’re also protectors, credited with watching over and taking care of the faithful. They may appear in visions as warnings of impending danger, or strike at the hearts of evildoers such that they turn aside from their unrighteous course. Many people will talk in a spiritual or metaphorical sense about having a “guardian angel” looking out for them.
This sometimes rises to a more active form of protection. Especially as you get into eschatology, you start to see angels taking on a military aspect — even to the point of being depicted in late Roman military dress. Here they become God’s warriors (Michael in particular), clashing with the forces of Satan at the end of the world. This version of them has proven notably popular in modern urban fantasy and horror, and may ultimately have its roots in Zoroastrianism, where the dualistic battle between good and evil is a constant feature of daily life.
Or the role of angels can become much more distant or abstract. One of the common functions of an angel is merely to sing the praises of God, while the twelfth-century rabbi commonly known as Maimonides argued in his Guide for the Perplexed that angels are, in essence, the forces of nature: rather than there being a distinction between celestial beings and the operation of natural phenomena, those are one and the same.
The differing views on what angels do tie in closely with different understandings on what angels are. Nowadays the word likely summons up an image of a radiant, winged, white-robed man or woman — but that hasn’t always been the case. To begin with, theologians have argued endlessly over whether angels have physical bodies, or are immaterial spirits only, or whether they can go back and forth between these two states. How people perceive angels in visions or dreams is strongly shaped by their expectation of what an angel looks like, and obviously the type of angel who swings a flaming sword to dispatch demons is likely to be a physical and human-shaped creature.
But if you look through the history of angel iconography, they’ve been everything from amorphous clouds of light to fat-cheeked children. The earliest known depiction of an angel with wings comes from the fourth century C.E.; giving them distinct gender attributes is a nineteenth-century phenomenon. The tendency to default to thinking of named angels like Gabriel or Michael as masculine may well go back further, but overall, angels were generally assumed to be creatures without gender.
I’ve mentioned Gabriel and Michael a couple of times now, which leads me to the next development in angelology: the naming of specific angels. Orthodox scriptures identify very few distinct angelic entities — often only two or three — and in some cases theologians argue that these are not names for individuals, but titles for roles any angel may be called to fill. Later elaborations, however, have created endless lists of specific angels, assigning each a precise function.
And over the centuries, scholars have created complex schema for the hierarchy of angels. Jewish scholars have favored organizing them into ten ranks, although the specific naming and sequencing comes in a variety of forms. In Christian theology, the highly influential Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite separated them into three orders, each consisting of three levels, for a total of nine. Islam tends less toward such classifications, but there are theories grouping angels into fourteen ranks. Archangels, seraphim, cherubim, principalities, chayot ha kodesh — the types go on and on, with subtle variations depending on which scholar you consult.
What about entities similar to Abrahamic angels? The Abrahamic faiths themselves point in one interesting direction, which is “humans who have transcended.” Groups such as the Swedenborgian New Church or the Latter Day Saint movement consider angels to have originated as human beings — which makes them close cousins, theologically speaking, to saints. At that point it’s possible to also draw a connection to bodhisattvas or related concepts in Buddhism — not the same thing, certainly, but not wholly dissimilar, either. Such entities may not be the messenger of a god, but as celestial beings who protect and care for humans, they bear something of a resemblance to angels.
Other creatures that might fit into the “celestial but not godlike” sphere can be found down a path that leads more toward faeries and related creatures. The apsaras and gandharvas of Hinduism are heavenly creatures that sometimes serve as the messengers and agents of deities, though the occasional tendency to translate the latter term into English as “elves” shows that they don’t fit neatly into a Western-derived box. The closest parallel outside Abrahamic religions is probably the Zoroastrian Amesha Spenta: seven divine emanations of Ahura Mazda.
And then, of course, there’s the other kind of angel — the kind that fell. For those, tune in next week . . .