Whence Come Angels

8 July 2012

Angels are found in many religions around the world. Their purpose varies from one tradition to another, but these transcendental beings usually act as messenger from God. Whether you believe in them or not, these contemporary images of angels (as seen mostly through the Christian tradition) provoke a variety of emotions. Give some thought for the loneliness of angels! When we see them, are we simply looking in a mirror to our own hopes and dreams or is there even more to it? And whence come angels?


Angels are often used as guards in the graveyards of those who adhere to the many forms of the Christian religion and adorn many monuments. The concept of a guardian angel, which looks after an individual, is prevalent in occidental culture (and appears elsewhere too). Many believe that each person has an angel that looks over them and guards and guides them through life.

Angels are usually considered to be an emanation of God. The Supreme Divine Being sends them to earth to complete tasks which help individuals or communities. In some traditions angels do have free will but they are more often viewed as an extension of the will of the Supreme Being. Whether or not angels do or do not have free will is a source of much argument in Christianity.

Although traditions vary, the appearance of angels is usually assumed to be human in shape, often with wings to indicate their divine origin. It is held that Angels who have offended God will lose their wings and be exiled to earth or even to hell. As we will see later, however, the tradition of wings was not one which occurred in the nascent Christian religion. It was several hundred years after 33 AD that the wings started appearing.

Although the etymology of the original Greek word for angel, from which all variations come, is uncertain, the original meaning is ‘messenger’. As such angels are often used as messengers from God and make many appearances in the Bible as such. Angel in English comes from the German ‘Engel’. It is ‘ange’ in French and derives from the Latin ‘angelus’. The Romans introduced the words to other languages during their period of empire and expansion. The Latin word itself, however, derives from the original Greek.

Hebrew and Arabic cultures also have their fair share of angels and here the term most often used in ‘malakh’. This means ‘to send’ and is where the (not very popular at the moment) boy’s name, Malachi comes from. There is another term, ‘kruv’ which is associated with children and this is where we get the word ‘cherub’.

Angels do have a ranking order, though none of the Talmud, Koran or Bible is specific about the hierarchy. Superior angels are known as archangels. In Christianity the only angel to be properly named an archangel is Michael, though Gabriel is also assumed to be one. Raphael and Uriel are also thought to be Archangels.

So where does the idea of the winged angel come from? Certainly, the Bible says absolutely nothing about angels having wings. The earliest example we have of a picture of an angel is from Saint Priscilla’s catacomb which dates to about 250 AD. The angel has no wings. Nothing from that period, such as extant sarcophagi or lamps which have been discovered, bears any images of angels with wings.

The first instance of angels with wings comes from almost the fifth century AD. They are pictured on the tomb of a Prince and were found near Istanbul in the 1930s. The tomb is thought to date from the time of Theodosius I (379 – 395). This period is where angels with wings are first mentioned in religious texts. Saint John Chrysostom explained what the wings represented. It was not an indicator that they could, in fact, fly, but rather that they had reached the most elevated status that human nature could attain. Hence the wings. From the fourth century onwards images of angels with wings prevailed.

Hinduism also offers its adherents a version of the angel. Deva – a being of light – reside in the astral plain and are thought to be those people who have recently died and are in the state between life and reincarnation. They may not be reincarnated, but move on to a higher plain. These deva are not worshiped, per se, but are considered to be guided to the living. Instead of having a single guardian angel people are thought to have many, even in to the thousands.

In the Baha’i faith angels are people who have overcome all human limitations and have been given spiritual attributes by God. They are free from passion and self interest. Throughout many cultures the idea of the angel may not be identical but it is close enough to see that people are very much alike in their spiritual needs, wherever they live.

Angels abound in the popular media, which is testament to the need of people to believe. One of the most popular films of all time ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, starring James Stewart, featured an angel sent to earth to convince the protagonist that his life had been well lived. A hugely popular TV series starred Michael Langdon as an angel sent to earth to do good deeds and help people out in ‘Highway to Heaven’.

Angels are not on call but many people believe that they are and pray to their ‘guardian angel’. However, this may mean they are on a hiding to nothing as there is no precedent in the Bible for people to call on angels. This is all part of the ‘free will’ debate about angels. People who are easily duped will often purchase books such as ‘100 Ways to Attract Angels’ where there is no theological basis for this whatsoever. There is no mention in the Bible, either, of weeping angels, which is how they are often portrayed in cemeteries.

Bad angels are out there, according to Christianity. About a third of the angels rebelled against God and were cast down from heaven. The big cheese among them is known as Lucifer, Satan - he has many names.

The Bible says a lot about angels but gives no indication about who they are. It is the subject of heated debate whether they were people who lived such good lives that they were elevated to this position or whether they were created before the earth and humanity existed.

As it is held by many Christians that angels cannot be contacted on whim, it is assumed that those who claim to be in contact with angels (and often make a profit out of this) are in fact possessed by either fallen angels or demons.

In Islam, the angels are creations of Allah and were made from pure light itself. As in Christianity, the angels praise the Supreme Being continuously. They follow the commands of Allah and have been known to have wings. Two of the main angels in Islam are Jibreel and Mikaeel. That’s right; Gabriel and Michael make another appearance!

Whatever your own specific belief – or non-belief - about angels, there is no doubt that they have been a source of solace and inspiration to countless people. Whether or not they exist is in many ways irrelevant as the power of belief for so many far outweighs the logic of atheism. While they continue to be a source of profound comfort to so many, can there possibly be in any harm done?

First Image Credit Flickr User Freeflyer09


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