Flaming swords & gossamer wings
Though belief in religion is on the wane, angels have never been more popular. Why’s that? asks Sally Feldman
They are called Michael or Raphael or Gabriel; they’re made of fire or light or nothing at all; some are musical, some carry burning swords. They may have six wings, or two, or none. They can be guardians, protectors, messengers or avengers. Some are fallen, some presage death. There are millions of them – or just a few. No one can quite tell. They are ancient, yet they thrive today. While the recent census showed a cheering decline in those who believe in God, according to an ICM survey from 2010, over 30 per cent of the British population believes in angels.
That’s partly because they occupy such a significant place in all the major religions. The Bible positively teems with them, from the Cherubim, who guarded the Garden of Eden, to Gabriel, who gave Mary the good news. That same Gabriel also features in Islam, as the angel who revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad.
And this, of course, is their busy season. The Passover recalls the delivery of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. Every Egyptian firstborn child was killed by the angel of death – meaning, confusingly, God himself – who passed over the doors of the Hebrews. At Easter, as Christians remember the crucifixion and Christ’s rise from the dead, it was an angel who guarded the sepulchre where his body was buried.
But although the scriptures are full of angels, there’s been little agreement about who they were and what they were meant to do. Now, though, help is at hand. In a new book, From Gabriel to Lucifer, Valery Rees offers an exhaustive account of their role and nature. While she acknowledges that every religion seems to have its share of angel-like creatures, she concentrates on those in the three Abrahamic religions. At the same time, she is careful to chronicle the similarities with classical figures.
Rees traces the contemplation of angels back to early civilisations and particularly the classical world. Biblical notions of angelic creatures have close similarities with Greek, Arabic and Egyptian cosmology. All these early accounts tackle the question of the relationship between spiritual and physical realms, and point to the idea of a Supreme Being whose divine influence emanates down through a series of strata, or messengers – in other words, angels.
The scriptures tend to be somewhat vague, and quite often contradictory. It’s the commentators on the texts – the serried ranks of scholars, priests, rabbis, theologians – who put flesh on their ethereal forms and attempt to decide what they are actually for.
In the first phase, ancient models were adapted to the needs of monotheism. Proclus, the last philosopher of Plato’s Academy, had suggested that everything in the cosmos was arranged according to great chains of emanation from the One, under nine orders of gods, each presiding over a chain of being. Dionysius, a Christian Neoplatonist from Syria, adapted this system to his Christian cosmology. All heavenly beings, Dionysius proposed in his Celestial Hierarchy, are angels, but with different tasks, spiralling out from the most supreme being. First up, closest to God, are the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones; then come the Dominions, Powers and Authorities. But it’s the third group – Principalities, Archangels and Angels – that were thought to have most consort with life on earth. Archangels looked after nations, Principalities oversaw empires and human governance, while the lowest members, ordinary angels, were intermediaries between man and God.
This schema was more or less adopted universally by Christianity but it was far from the end of the bickering. By the Middle Ages, which Rees calls “the age of angelology”, arcane debate about the details of the life of angels began to hot up. Could angels be bad? How many wings did they have? What are their special powers? How many were there? These questions were hotly debated, with theological giants like Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Dante all offering increasingly elaborate interpretations.
This debate was characterised by an obsessive, some might say absurd, emphasis on detail. The medieval scholar Marsilio Ficino, for example, built on the Dionysian concept of nine orders of angels by enumerating them: each order, he said, contains many legions, each of which consists of six thousand, six hundred and sixty-six individual spirits, and there are as many legions in each individual order as there are individual spirits in a legion. This means, Rees rather drily points out, “that this would make for some 399,920,004 daemons or angels in all.”
And it wasn’t just Christianity that was gripped by angel fever. Rabbi David ibn abi Zimra worried away at the relationship between angels and demons, while the early medieval Muslim philosopher Nasir-I-Khusraw believed that angels were actually human souls who couldn’t quite make it to heaven because their physical desires were too powerful. On the question of what angels actually looked like there was similarly no consensus. The Qur’an refers to the angels as “messengers flying on wings, two, and three, and four,” but this is contradicted by the two most influential Old Testament eye-witnesses: Ezekiel, who saw four angels emerging from a cloud of fire, reported that they looked like men, only with four wings. Isaiah, on the other hand, is quite definite that each of the Seraphim guarding the Lord on his throne had six.
Controversy also raged over whether angels could be bad. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides said definitely not: they were all good. But almost everyone recognises at least one bad angel – Satan himself. Originally the high-ranking Lucifer, he was banished from heaven for getting ideas – like free will – well above his paygrade. “Better to reign in Hell,” Milton’s baleful Satan maintains from the fiery depths, “than to serve in Heaven.”
Whatever the distinctions between these differently imagined beings, some clear themes emerge. There is the question of hierarchy; angels are the bureaucrats in the Lord’s civil service, his Sir Humphrey and his Baldrick, message boy and bagman. This is hardly surprising, since the people coming up with these notions lived in societies organised exactly like this: monarchs, tsars and emperors, worshipped by courtiers, protected by their militia, and communicating with their people through layers of barons, lords and squires.
And our contemporary version of angels reflects our own society, according to the American novelist Simon Rich. In his comic novel What in God’s Name, heaven is presented as a huge multi-national corporation, presided over by an irascible, weary CEO – God. The hero, Craig, is an angel who works in the Miracles Department, a bit of a techno-geek.
Recent angels on film similarly reflect our anxieties about Religion Inc, and ambivalence about the notion of through-going goodness. In Kevin Smith’s comedy Dogma two fallen angels have been exiled to Wisconsin – which is funny enough in itself. Their all-too-human squabbles and ineptitude in their bid to re-enter heaven are contrasted with a magnificent-winged angel, played sonorously by Alan Rickman. John Travolta also sports a terrific pair of wings in the film Michael, though here he is a kind of anti-angel: a smoking, drinking, foul-mouthed, dissolute angel visiting earth – well, a small town in Iowa – to perform a few heavenly missions.
But behind the satire and the disappointment still lurks an urge to believe. Despite his slovenly manners, Michael is a kind of wise guardian whose role on earth is to mend broken hearts. And in perhaps the most memorable angel movie, the angels in Wim Wender’s 1987 film Wings of Desire, compassionately listen to the thoughts of the human inhabitants of a beautiful monochromatic Berlin and comfort those in distress. This is the common theme in all the contemporary films: the angel as comforter and guardian, like the one who appears to George Bailey in the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life and persuades him that his life is worth living.
This notion of a guardian angel is persistent, perhaps even growing. Today, not only do millions of people believe that they have their own special protectors – they also seek help in accessing them. The angel business is thriving. Angel books, angel oracle cards, angel meditations and angel therapies are de rigueur among the spiritual set.
This accounts for the flourishing business of one Doreen Virtue, the American eating-disorder therapist who has re-branded herself an Angel Guru. Doreen is “a spiritual doctor of psychology and a fourth-generation metaphysician who works with the angelic, elemental, and ascended-master realms.” And with her string of books, CDs, workshops and angel cards, she has made a fortune showing people how to hear messages from the angels, who, she explains, “are with us as a gift from our Creator, and their aim is to establish peace on Earth, one person at a time. Working wing-in-hand with the angels, I believe that this goal is possible.”
And there is a growing community of angel therapists in the UK, too. The latest, Kyle Gray, promotes himself as an “angel whisperer”, and has just published a book of that name about his life with the angels. And in case you doubt his credentials, there are glowing testimonials from other spiritualist believers including one, David Hamilton, who has a PhD. So it must all be true.
In Angel Whisperer Kyle tells us that he’s been seeing angels since he was four – he’s now a seasoned 27. “It is my purpose,” he announces, “to help angels spread their light and to pass on their message. This message is simple: believe in them and love yourself.” They are here, he tells us, to encourage and support us and to help us realise our own power. This may sound very much like new-fangled new age mumbo jumbo, but in fact it draws on the venerable traditions of old-fangled mumbo jumbo. Just like the mediaeval commentators, Kyle is into the detail and has a clear idea what angels are and are not. They are different from spirits, for example, because people become spirits when they die but angels are divine. He’s aware of the traditional Dionysian spheres, but is only concerned with the lowest order: guardian angels.
“The angels of light are a congregation of angels,” he tells us with impressive confidence, “who help us light up the dark situations in our life.” They’re all around us, apparently, like the ones in Wings of Desire, but at the same time everyone has their own personal one. Kyle’s is called Kamael and looks like Barack Obama. But occasionally he’ll let on that there are also special angels for special tasks: Raphael is the healing angel; Gabriel the angel of mothers; Uriel the angel of light.
And most powerful of all is the Archangel Michael. “He is 12 feet tall, has long locks of blond and silvery hair and wears armour of platinum, crystal and gold. His eyes are blue but have a burning fire in them. Often he carries a sword that is made of fire too, but this is like nothing you have seen before, as the flames are almost translucent.”
If this sounds familiar it’s hardly surprising. In common with many angel therapists, Kyle derives his visions from artists who depicted the ancient texts. Kyle’s Michael bears an uncanny resemblance to numerous paintings – including masterpieces by Tintoretto, Raphael and Rubens. Unlike the ancients, though, new age angel-lovers believe that women can be angels, too. Kyle even suggests that Ariel is female. Which wouldn’t have particularly pleased the rabbis.
Another difference is that while contemporary therapists tend to stress the goodness and innocence of angels, the ancient religions all agree that their overriding quality is pure reason. For unlike man, who is torn between reason and desire, between heavenly and earthly impulses, there is general consensus that the angels have no earthly characteristics at all. That is why they are ranked higher than humans. They are pure intellect. And it’s worth noting how often the words “reason” and “intelligence” are echoed throughout all the attempts to define them.
Thomas Aquinas, for example, argued that “the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures. Now intelligence cannot be the action of a body, or of any corporeal faculty; for every body is limited to ‘here’ and ‘now’. Hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature.”
Maimonides, too, describes angels as non-corporeal intelligences, while Ficino thought that it was possible to aspire to the status of angel – provided you discarded all bodily senses and feelings to give yourself up to pure mind: reason. This view was echoed by Khusraw, who believed that each person has a rational soul which is a potential angel. You become an angel by allowing this soul to prevail over your tempers and sensual appetites.
And even during the Enlightenment, when theologists raged against those “Sadducees and Free Thinkers” who questioned the existence of God, it was generally agreed that the angels were heralds of reason. Milton’s contemporaries in the Royal Society would use them in thought experiments. John Locke, in his Essay on Human Understanding, repeatedly refers to angels as part of a spiritual world to be contemplated through the practice of natural philosophy: the search for “bare speculative truth: and whatsoever can afford the mind of man any such, falls under this branch, whether it be God himself, angels, spirits, bodies; or any of their affections.” His views are echoed by the 19th-century theologian Henry Latham. In his Service of Angels treatise he suggests that a profitable way to envisage heaven is “as a continuance of the exercise of our mental and moral faculties.”
So presumably the angels all sit on the board of a celestial Rationalist Association, conducting eternal discussions of pure, unadulterated reason. They probably subscribe to this very magazine through some kind of divine upload. Though, by now, they must surely have concluded that they don’t actually exist.
From Gabriel to Lucifer: A Cultural History of Angels by Valery Rees is published by I.B. Tauris. What in God’s Name by Simon Rich is published by Serpent’s Tail. The Angel Whisperer: Incredible Stories of Hope and Love from the Angels by Kyle Gray is published by Hay House