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Celestial spirits who serve God in various capacities. This article treats of (1) the angels in the Bible, (2) theology of the angels, (3) devotion to the angels, and (4) iconography of the angels.


The word "angel" ultimately is derived from the Greek γγελος, which is the translation of Hebrew mālāk, messenger. The primary significance of angel,

therefore, is messenger from God, a significance describing function rather than being or nature. A few other Hebrew words sometimes signify angels, and some of these are more indicative of being, e.g.: abbîrîm, the mighty [Ps 77(78).25]; 'ĕlohîm (gods) of Ps 8.6, which is still translated angels, but as such is questionable; b enē 'ĕlohîm of Jb 1.6; 2.1 and b ene ēlîm (sons of god) of Ps 88(89).7; 28(29).1, which surely mean angels in Job and probably in the Psalms, but the designation "sons" is one of association and identity of wills rather than similarity of natures; m ešār etîm [Ps 102(103).21], ministers, which refers to the heavenly spirits or angels; 'ăbādîm (Jb 4.18), servants, which is used in parallel with angels; the Aramaic 'îr, watchers, of Dn 4.10, 14, 20, which is interpreted by the Septuagint (LXX) as angels; ābā' (1 Kgs 22.19; 2 Chr 18.18; Neh 9.6; Ps 148.2), host(s), which indicates the ordered service of the angels; q edōšîm [Ps 88(89).6, 8; Jb 5.1; 15.15; Dn 8.13], holy ones, the angels as "set apart" for the service of God.

Angels in the Old Testament. The angel is an object of divine faith. Knowledge of their existence must come from God. Therefore, the intelligence concerning angels that one may garner from Hebrew Scripture is not a human fabrication or an evolution of religious thought resulting in the projection upon human consciousness of images not truly extramental. The angels are real, possessors of real objective natures, whose appearances and functions are real.

It is true that in the Scriptures, to some degree in the OT, more noticeably in the NT, a development can be discerned in the way man comprehends the angelic world. It is true also that God undoubtedly used the cultural and religious content of man's knowledge as a screen on which to project knowledge of His messengers and their work. Thus, the disturbed course of Israel through eras and empires was influenced by foreign ideas that God willed to use, as catalysts and elements, to communicate His truth of beings superior to man, instruments of His government of His people. To classify Israel's angels merely as the residue of former polytheism, the extravagances of religious élan, or the Jewish expropriations of Persian ideas is to deny Judaeo-Christian belief in them. Polytheism, devout speculation, and Persia were all present, but as catalysts speeding the development of the essential relationship of God's people to Himself and His heavenly court.

Nature of Angels. Hebrew mentality paid little heed to the abstract and did not advert to the spiritual defined as nonmaterial. The Israelite never thought of God as being philosophically supernatural. Hence one does not find in the OT a sophisticated theological definition of the nature of angel or a formally developed angelology. Angels are mentioned frequently, however, and on the whole are understood to be superhuman, heavenly beings whose normal habitat is Yahweh's court (Jb 1.6; 2.1), where they enter into divine counsels (1 Kgs 22.1922) yet always in subordination to God [Tb 12.18; Ps 102(103).2021]. Like Yahweh they are normally invisible, unapproachable, and unaffected by human needs (Tb 12.19). Thus, without philosophical advertence to them, angels are assigned to God's extramundane place and manner of being (Gn 28.12). Though there is no explicit mention of their creation, they belong to God (Ex 23.23; 32.34). In the OT there is no mention of fallen angels or of battles in heaven, although Satan, the adversary of Job, is gradually thought of as an evil force (Jb 1.612; 2.17; Zec 3.12; 1 Chr 21.1).

Appearance of Angels. For the most part, the angels sent by God to intervene in men's lives appeared to them in human form (Gn 18.2; 19.1; Dn 8.15). Because of the editorial layers of Genesis chapters 18 and 19, it is difficult to determine whether there was something in the appearance of the "three men" that revealed them to be angels (19.1). In Gn 18.2 Abraham saw three men, yet Yahweh alone appeared to him in 18.1, and again Yahweh spoke alone in 18.13, 17, 20, etc. Samson's mother, however, asserted that a man of God, who appeared to her, had the "appearance" of an angel of God (Jgs 13.6), as though there was a standard way to recognize an angel in human guise, but Manoe does not know him to be the Angel of the Lord who is later identified as Yahweh Himself (Jgs 13.323). Only one angel is said to be able to fly (Dn 9.21).

Function of Angels. The primary function of angels is to do God's will (Tb 12.18). They serve and praise God and are closer to Him than men [Ps 102(103).2021; Dn 7.10]. Yet God's will has them also intervene in human affairs, by the exercise of power over nature without any apparent material energy (Gn ch. 19), by communicating God's messages (Gn 31.11; Zec ch. 4), by destroying and punishing (2 Kgs 19.35; 2 Sm 24.16), and by helping and saving [1 Kgs 19.58; Ps 33(34).8; 90(91).1112; Dn 6.23].

Angels in the New Testament. With the advent of the Son of God into the world, the prime office of the angel, mediation between God and men, was overshadowed by Our Lord's perfect mediation. Whereas the Old Law came through the ministry of God's angels (Gal 3.19; Heb 2.2), the new dispensation came through His Son, superior to the angels and adored by them (Heb 1.18). The Christian dispensation is not subject to angels but to the Lord Jesus (Heb 2.518). Also, a greater knowledge of angels and their functions in God's government has been revealed to Christians, which has led to the development of the more elaborate doctrine of Christian angelology.

Nature of Angels. Angels are spirits (Heb 1.14). Their spirituality is not simply immateriality but is totally above human experience so that a worthy man's spiritualization at the resurrection will make him the angel's equal, i.e., unmarried, immortal, and the son of God and of the resurrection (Lk 20.36; Mt 22.30; Mk 12.25). Angels see, praise, and worship God in His presence (Mt 18.10; Rv 5.1113; 7.1112; 8.2). They experience joy (Lk 15.10); they desire to bend over and get a better look at the mysteries of salvation (1 Pt 1.12)obvious anthropomorphic expressions applied to angelic activity. They are stronger and more powerful than men (2 Pt 2.11) and instill fear by reflecting God's glory (Acts 10.4). Yet, at some time they were capable of rebelling against God, for some sinned (2 Pt 2.4; Jude 6). The consequence of the evil angels' defection is described in a mysterious battle won by Michael and his angels over satan and his angels (Rv 12.79; cf. Mt 25.41). The NT texts suppose that the evil angels are unalterably opposed to God and incapable of redemption.

The notion of angelic rank and gradation, adopted from Jewish literature, also began to crystallize (Jude 89; Lk 1.19; Eph 1.21; Col 1.16; see section 2, below). As to the number, Christ speaks of 12 legions (Mt 26.53); the author of Hebrews, of many thousands (Heb 12.22); and John, of thousands of thousands of angels (Rv 5.11). The actual multitude of the angels is vast, therefore, but beyond that nothing else is known.

Appearance of Angels. Of themselves, spiritual beings are invisible and intangible to men. Hence when angels communicate with men, they ordinarily assume a human form that is either indicated or presumed in the text, e.g., the angelic appearances to Zachary (Lk 1.11), to Mary (Lk 1.26, 28), to the shepherds (Lk 2.9, 13), to the witnesses at the tomb (Mt 28.27; Mk 16.5; Jn 20.12; Lk 24.4), and to Peter (Acts 12.7). In some of these appearances there is an aura of glory, i.e., light, radiance, and whiteness. The angels mentioned so frequently in the Revelation are described with the imagery of the OT apocalypses, adapted to the author's purposes (Rv 10.1). These descriptions of angelic appearances to men are anthropomorphic accounts of supernatural experiences, and as a result, it is impossible to determine their material objectivity in detail.

Functions of Angels. "Are they not all ministering spirits, sent for service, for the sake of those who shall inherit salvation?" (Heb 1.14). The angels are subject to Christ (Eph 1.2022; 1 Pt 3.22), and their prime role is to minister to Jesus and His kingdom. They announce its preparation and its actual commencement (Lk 1.11, 19, 2637). They obviate obstacles to the King's advent (Mt 1.20; 2.13, 1920); they are the first heralds of the gospel of peace (Lk 2.913); and they minister to and strengthen the King (Mt 4.11; 26.53; Lk 22.43). As harbingers of glory, they roll back the stone from the tomb's mouth (Mt 28.24), wait for those who would seek the living among the dead, and give them the first news of the victory of the light over darkness (Mt 28.57; Mk 16.57; Lk 24.47; Jn 20.1213). For the children of light, the little ones, they are advocates before God (Mt 18.10; Acts 12.11) and bearers of prayers to God (Rv 8.3). Through the good offices of angels, the Prophets of the new and eternal Covenant are delivered from bondage (Acts 5.19; 12.711). The vital force of God's Kingdom, the grace of its King, is spread through angels' instrumentality to new peoples and in new directions (Acts 8.26; 10.3, 22; 27.2324).

They avenge God's honor (Acts 12.23), and on the day of judgment the angels of His power (2 Thes 1.7) will accompany the King in His parousia (Mk 8.38), when they will be part of Christ's and His Father's glory and gather together the elect (Lk 9.26; Mt 25.31). They will gather also the workers of evil and cast them into the fire (Mt 13.41), thus separating the wicked from the just (Mt 13.49). Jesus will acknowledge before the angels those who in their lives have acknowledged Him before men (Lk 12.89), and Christians will enter the heavenly Jerusalem in the company of myriads of angels (Heb 12.22). They are not, however, to be worshiped by the citizens of God's Kingdom (Col 2.18); rather, the saints, who belong to Jesus, will judge the angels (1 Cor 6.3).

The angelic panoply of the Revelation deserves special mention, but it is much too intricate for detailed treatment here. Since almost everything in Apocalyptic literature is symbolic, undoubtedly the angels of many of this book's visions are also symbolic, e.g., the seven angels of the churches (Rv 2.13.14, passim ). At least this much may be said of the angels of Revelation: they are servitors of God's power, glory, and judgment and are constantly active in God's government of apocalyptical and eschatological battle.

See Also: cherubim; seraphim; angels, guardian; michael, archangel; gabriel, archangel; raphael, archangel.

Bibliography: Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. b. orchard et al. (LondonNew York 1957). a. lemonnyer, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl., ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 1:255262. j. bonsirven, ibid. 4:116166. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 8187. k. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 1:533538. j. michl, ibid. 3:863867. w. g. heidt, Angelology of the Old Testament (Washington, D.C. 1949). j. l. mckenzie, "The Divine Sonship of the Angels," Catholic Bible Quarterly 5 (1943) 293300.

[t. l. fallon]


Christian theology drew on Holy Scripture, both the Old and the New Testament, for its angelology, but in the beginning it was also guided by extra-biblical, Judaic ideas as well as by prevailing views on nature-spirits. In this way opinions about the angels that were contemporary and popular gained, at times, wide circulation. Gradually, however, in the course of a long development and refinement, theology time and again pared away these accretions, until finally, through speculative elaboration of the concepts contained in Holy Scripture, there evolved an angelology that, with varying degrees of certitude, has become the doctrine of the Church.

Nature of the angels. In pre-Christian Judaism there already existed the conviction that angels were spiritual beings without bodies (First Book of Enoch 15.6; Philo, De sacrif. Abelis et Caini 5), and that, consequently, they were visible to men only as apparitions and did not appear in material bodies (Tb 12.19). For this reason, angels were always known in Christendom as spiritual beings (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 2.30.67; Pseudo-Dionysius, Hierarchia coelestis 1.3; Eccl. hier 1.2; Gregory the Great, Moralia 2.8;4.8), and were called simply "spirits" (Tertullian, Apologeticum 22.8; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 5.36.3; 7.82.5; Origen, Contra Celsus 4.2425; 6.18; cf. Heb 1.14). They were said not to have a body of flesh (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3.20.4; Eusebius Praeparatio evangelica 4.3.18), which did not mean, however, that they had no body of any kind, i.e., absolute spirituality as opposed to some sort of corporeality. It was said rather that angels had an immaterial body corresponding to their nature (Tertullian, De carne Chris-ti 6.9: "constat angelos substantiae spiritalis, etsi corporis alicuius, sui tamen generis"; see also Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. 28.31; Ambrose, De Abrahamo 2.58; Augustine, Lib. Arb. 3.11.33; Gen. Ad Litt. 3.10). These bodies were considered to be in some way vaporous or firelike (Basil, Spir. 38: μν οσία α[symbol omitted]τ[symbol omitted]ν έριον πνε[symbol omitted]μα, ε τύχοι, π[symbol omitted]ρ υλον; Fulgentius, Trin. 9: the good angels have a corpus aethereum, id est igneum, the bad a corpus aerium ). This was not to say, however, that they were material in any sense known to man's experience (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. 38.9). At that time the view prevailed that everything created was corporeal; the angels, then, could be no exception (cf. Gennadius, Liber ecclesiasticorum dogmatum 12: "creatura omnis corporea est: angeli et omnes caelestes virtutes corporeae, licet non carne subsistant; ex eo autem corporeas esse credimus intellectuales naturas, quod localitate circumscribuntur"). Augustine, to be sure, already knew of the opinion concerning the pure spirituality of angels, but he did not think that it could be accepted inasmuch as occasionally they became visible in visions (Epistolae 95.8). Pseudo-Dionysius was the first to teach the complete spirituality of angels (Hierarchia coelestis 2.23; 4.23; Eccl. hier. 1.2; Div. nom. 7.2) and following him was Gregory the Great (Moralia 2.8; 4.8; 7.50; cf. Dialogues 4.3.29). But this doctrine still encountered long opposition because of the contrary views of many Fathers in the East as well as in the West, where it was opposed by the authority of Augustine. Then, Rupert of Deutz espoused the notion that the bodies of angels were vaporous (De victoria Verbi Dei 1.28, Patrologia Latina 169:124142; In Gen. 1.11; Patrologia Latina 167, 208209), while Bernard of Clairvaux took no stand on the question (De consideratione 5.4.7; cf. In Cant. sermo 5.7). It was first in the period of high scholasticism (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 50.1) and then, subsequently, that a spirituality of angels, no longer burdened by any corporeality, was generally taught.

Holy Scripture and the history of the Church tell of the appearances of angels. This led to the question of how spiritual beings could be seen. It was thought that an angel was perceived in an ethereal body that was proper to it (Augustine, Trin. 3.5; Enchir. 59; Fulgentius, Trin. 9), or that he assumed a material body for the apparition (Augustine, Trin. 3.5; Augustine took this possibility into consideration but avoided making a decision on the question), perhaps a body from air (Gregory the Great, Moralia 28.3: "ad tempus ex aere corpora sumerent", so also Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 51.2), all of which were inadequate hypotheses. In any case, so it was said, an angel never showed himself in a body of flesh (John Chrysostom, C. Anom. 7.6), nor in his true form, but in a special form suited to the apparition (ν μετασχηματισμ: John Damascene, Fide orth. 2.3; Patrologia Graeca : 94, 869).

Angels as moral beings. The doctrine that God had created the angels was, in general, firmly held from the beginning [Justin, Dialogues 88.5; 141.1; Athenagoras, Leg. 24.3; Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 2.2.3; Clement of Alexandria, Prot. 63.2; Augustine, Civ. 9.23; 12.26(25)], and, in fact, through the power of the preexisting Christ (Tatian, Orat. 7.12; Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 2.2.4; 3.8.3; Origen, Princ. 1.7.1; Athanasius, C. Ar. 1.62; cf. Col 1.16). The angels, moreover, came into being before any other creature [Basil, Hex. 1.5; Augustine, Conf. 12.13 (according to these explanations the concept of heaven in Gn 1.1 would include the creation of the angels); Civ. 11.9, 32; Gregory the Great, Moralia 28.34] as beings gifted with reason and given freedom for forming personal, moral decisions (Justin, Dialogues 102.4; Tatian, Orat. 7.3; Athenagoras, Leg. 24.4; Irenaeus, Ad-versus haereses 4.37.1, 6; Augustine, Civ. 22.1; Gregory the Great, Moralia 6.20).

The angels, therefore, could also sin (Augustine, Enchir. 15). Origen was of the opinion that all the heavenly spirits had sinned, and, according to the gravity of the offense, they had then become demons, souls of men, or angels (Princ. 1.8.1). Other sources supposed that only a part of the angels had sinned. For the most part, in the beginning, their sin was considered in conjunction with a Judaic opinion (Book of Jubilees 4.22; 5.1, 6, 10; First Book of Enoch 67 and frequently; Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch 56.1213; Philo, De gigantibus 6; Flavius Josephus, Ant. to be one of sexual union with human women [Justin, 2 Apol. 4(5).3; Athenagoras, Leg. 24.5; Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 4.36.4; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 3.59.2; 5.10.2; Tertullian, De cultu fem. 1.2.14; 1.4.1; Cyprian, De hab. virg. 14; Ambrose, De virginibus 1.5253; De Noe et Arca 4; cf. Jude 6; 2 Pt 2.4]. This opinion was based on a specific interpretation of the "Sons of God" in Gn 6.2, 4, but there were also other interpretations assigned to the passage (Origen, Contra Celsus 5.55; Augustine, Civ. 15.2223; John Chrysostom, Homily 22 in Gen. 2). The sin of the angels was then connected with abuse of the service that God had intrusted to them (Origen, Homily 4 in Ezech. 1; In Jo. 13.59.412), and especially with pride (Athenagoras, Leg. 24.4; John Chrysostom, Homily 22 in Gen. 2; Augustine, Gen. ad litt. 11.15; Enchir. 28; Gregory the Great, Moralia 4.8; 27.65). According to those who held for a sexual transgression, the sin of the angels occurred in the course of human history, namely, before the flood; according to those who presumed a sin of a different kind, it had already occurred at the beginning of the world (Augustine, Civ. 15.23). This view then prevailed generally. The sin of Satan and the sin of the bad angels had to be considered different things as long as the sin of the angels was presumed to be sexual, because the devil existed, as the seducer, in Paradise (Gn 3.15, 1314) long before the fall of the angels. Already from the second century, however, the two offenses were linked in such a way that the other angels were thought to have been taken up in the sin of the one angel who through pride became Satan (Tatian, Orat. 7.5; Augustine, Enchir. 28; Gregory the Great, Moralia 4.15). It also continued to be the view of later times (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 63.8; Suárez, De angelis 5.12.13).

According to an early opinion, the rest of the angels, who had not sinned the previous time, did not yet experience the full beatitude of heaven, but they had first to undergo a period of trial like humans on earth (cf. Ignatius, Smyrn. 6.1; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 7.5.2). They were not without guilt (Ambrose, Expos. Ps 118.8.29; De Spir. Sancto 3.134; Jerome, In Micheam 2 at 6.12, concerning the angels of the Churches in Rv ch. 2 and 3, who are praised and reprimanded) and required the forgiveness of God (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. 2.10). Gradually, however, another opinion prevailed according to which the angels were absolutely spotless and happy beings (Methodius, Symp. 3.6; Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. 38.9; Augustine, Civ. 10.26; Enchir. 57; Pseudo-Dionysius, Hierarchia coelestis 7.2; Eccl. hier. 6.3, 6; Gregory the Great, Moralia 18.71; 27.65); they were sanctified by the Holy Spirit from their creation (Basil, Hom. in Ps. 32.4; John Damascene, Fide Orth. 2.3, Patrologia Graeca 94:869); they had never been involved in sin (Gregory the Great, Moralia 18.71), and they live in blessed communion with God [Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. 28.31; Augustine, Civ. 7.30; 11.13; Doct. christ. 1.31(30); Pseudo-Dionysius, Hierarchia coelestis 4.2].

Service of the angels. According to the general view, the angels serve God (Clement of Rome, 1 Clem. 34.56; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 7.3.4; Origen, Contra Celsus 8.13, 25; Athanasius, C. Ar. 1.55, 62; Augustine, Civ. 10.26), who works in creation through them (Tertullian, De anima 37.1; Origen, Contra Celsus 8.47; Augustine, Civ. 7.30; 10.12). The angels, however, also serve men, especially Christians [Hermas, Vis. 4.2.4; Sim. 5.4.4; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 5.91.3; Origen, Contra Celsus 1.60; Athanasius, C.Ar. 1.61; Augustine, Civ. 7.30; Doctr. christ. 1.33(30); cf. Heb 1.14]. It was believed that God even appointed a guardian angel for every man (Clement of Alexandria, Str. 6.157.5; Origen, Orat. 11.5; Contra Celsus 5.57; Princ. 1.8.1; Ambrose. Explan. Ps. 38.32; Jerome, In Matth. 3 at 18.10; John Chrysostom, Hom. 59 in Mt. 4; cf. Mt 18.10; Acts 12.15) or, according to another explanation, at least for the baptized (Origen, Contra Celsus 6.41; Princ. 2.10.7; Basil, Adv. Eun. 3.1; John Chrysostom, Hom. 59 in Mt. 4). While Pseudo-Dionysius and Gregory the Great, theologians very influential in angelology, never mention a personal guardian angel, in the Middle Ages the view prevailed that every man had such a spirit at his side (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologia 1a, 113.25). An echo of a prior Judaic view (Qumran, Manual of Discipline 3.1819) was the opinion that every man had at his side an angel of justice and an angel of wickedness (Hermas, Mand. 6.2.110; Origen, Princ. 3.2.4; Cassian, Conl. 7.13; 8.17 13.12).

According to an early Christian view, nations also have their angels (Irenaeus, Adversus haereses 3.12.9; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 6.157.5; Origen, Contra Celssus 5.2932; Princ. 1.5.2; 3.3.3; John Chrysostom, Hom. 59 in Mt 4; Jerome, In Dan. at 10.13; Augustine, In ps. 88 sermo 1.3; Pseudo-Dionysius, Hierarchia coelestis 9.24; Gregory the Great, Moralia 17.17; cf. Dn 10.13, 2021; 12.1), cities likewise (Clement of Alexandria, Str. 6.157.5; Origen, Hom. 12 in Luc., Rauer 87; Jerome, In Ierem. 6.7 at Jer 30.12) and the Christian communities (Hermas, Sim. 5.3; Tertullian, De pudicitia 14.28; Origen, Orat. 11.3; 31.67; Princ. 1.8.1; Ambrose, In Luc. 2.50; cf. Rv 1.20; ch. 23).

Various duties in creation were attributed to the angels (Justin, 2 Apol. 4(5).2; Athenagoras, Leg. 10.34; 24.3; Origen, Contra Celsus 8.3132, 36; Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. 28.31; Augustine, Civ. 7.30; Gen. ad litt. 8.24: "sublimibus angelis subdita est omnis natura corporea, omnis inrationalis vita, omnis voluntas vel infirma vel prava, ut hoc de subditis vel cum subditis agant, quod naturae ordo poscit in omnibus iubente illo, cui subiecta sunt omnia"; ibid. 8.45, 47). They were said to move the stars (Clement of Alexandria, Str. 5.37.2), and to be placed over the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire (Origen, Hom. 10 in Jer. 6; cf. Rv 7.12; 14.18; 16.5), over plants (Origen, Hom. 10 in Jer. 6) and animals (Hermas, Vis. 4.2.4; Origen, Hom. 10 in Jer. 6; Hom. 14 in Num. 2). But this concept of nature-angels also met with rejection because it was thought unworthy in the Christian view of their contemplation of God (Jerome, In Hab. at 1.14). In refined form, however, it still perdured in the Middle Ages and even in Thomas Aquinas, according to whose doctrine all things corporeal were governed by angels (Summa theologiae 1a, 110.13).

What is more, it was thought that the procreation of living creatures could not be explained except by the participation of angels (Origen, Contra Celssus 8.57; Hom. 14 in Num. 2); even human beings were said to originate with their help [Tertullian, De anima 37.1; Clement of Alexandria, Excerpta ex Theo. 53.3; Origen, In Jo. 13.50 (49).326327, 329, 335]. They were, indeed, not considered for this reason to be creators of life (Augustine, Civ. 12.2526(2425); Trin. 3.8.13], but to be helpers in a manner that men were not capable of discerning (Augustine, Gen. ad litt. 9.16).

Angels punish men (Hermas, Sim. 6.2.57; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 7.12.5; Cyprian, Ad Demetrianum 22; Ambrose, De Abraham 2; Gregory the Great, Hom. in evang. 38.5; Moralia 19.46); these angels were thought by some to be evil spirits (Jerome, In Is. 6 at 13.3), by others good spirits (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.28.12; Ambrose, Epist. 34.10; Augustine, Civ. 9.5).

Angels take part in the Divine Service with Christians (Origen, Orat. 31.56; Ambrose, In Luc. 1.12; Const. App. 8.4.5; Gregory the Great, Dialogues 4.58) and celebrate with the Church on earth the feasts of Christendom (Gregory of Nazianzus, Orat. 38.17; John Chrysostom, Sermo de resurrectione 3). The angels also bring the prayers of men before God (Clement of Alexandria, Str. 7.39.3; Origen, Orat. 11.1, 5; Contra Celssus 5.4; 8.36; Ambrose, In Luc. 8.61; Augustine, In psalm. 78.1) and watch over men from heaven (Clement of Alexandria, Str. 7.20.4; Tertullian, De spectaculis 27.3; Basil, Hom. de ieiunio 2.2).

Finally, it was expected that at men's death angels would come and lead the souls of the deceased into the next world (Tertullian, De anima 53.6; Origen, Hom. 5 in Num. 3; John Chrysostom, Laz. 2.2; Gregory the Great, Hom. in evang. 35.8; Moralia 8.30; Dial. 2.35; 4.7, 19; in the Roman rite, the "Ordo commendationis animae" and the Offertory of the Mass for the dead; cf. Lk 16.22).

Groupings of angels. From Judaic tradition (Tb 12.15; First Book of Enoch 20.27; 61.10; Testament of Levi 3.28) and from the New Testament (Rom 8.38; 1 Cor 15.24; Eph 1.21; Col 1.16) the view was taken that there were various orders of angels. The princes of the angels, who are usually called ρχάγγελοι, archangels, command a leading role [Epistula Apostolorum 13(24); Irenaeus Adversus haereses 5.25.5; Clement of Alexandria, Str. 6.41.2; Pseudo-Dionysius, Hierarchia coelestis 9.2]. As was already true in Judaism, so also at this time their numbers fluctuated. Four such angels are mentioned (Orac. Sib. 2.215), six (Hermas, Vis. 3.1.67), or seven (Clement of Alexandria, Str. 6.143.1). Under the influence of the Book of Tobit (12.15) and Revelation (ch. 8 and 9; cf. 1.4), the number was finally fixed at seven, and they have been revered, especially in the religion of the common people, throughout the entire Middle Ages in the East and West and even down into modern times. It was, however, only the three archangels mentioned in Holy Scripture, michael, gabriel, and raphael, who received attention in theology and who were also gradually honored in the liturgy (Gregory the Great, Hom. in evang. 34.9; Lateran Synod of 745, J. D. Mansi Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio [ Paris 18891927] 12:380A).

Since the 4th century the choirs of angels have been reckoned at nine both in the East (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. mystag. 5.6; Chrysostom, Hom. 4 in Gen. 5) and in the West (Ambrose, De apologia prophetae David 5.20). This number prevailed because the five groups named in the Pauline Epistles (δυνάμεις, virtutes, virtues; ξουσίαι potestates, powers; ρχα, principatus, principalities; κυριότητες, dominationes, dominations; θρόνοι, throni, thrones) were looked upon as good heavenly spirits, and they were placed together with the angels and archangels [their numbers were estimated at a gradually increasing figure (Const. Ap. 8.12.27: a million archangels)] along with the cherubim and seraphim. This series, somewhat schematic and not fully in accord with the Bible, was speculatively developed under Neoplatonic influence by Pseudo-Dionysius into a hierarchical structure of three triads (HIerarchia coelestis 6.2; 79; Eccl. hier. 1.2). Thus elaborated, this doctrine of nine choirs of angels was commonly held in the West from the time of Gregory the Great (Hom. in evang. 34.7; Moralia 32.48; Epist. 5.54). It received widespread attention chiefly from John Scotus Erigena's Latin translation of the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius in the 9th century (see, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a, 108.56; a vision and description of the nine choirs by Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias 1.6; and a poetical description by Dante, Paradiso 28.88129).

Names of angels. Most frequently mentioned are the names that occur in Holy Scripture: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael (Origen, Contra Celsus 1.25; Gregory the Great, Hom. in evang. 34.9). People were especially fond of linking the names of Michael and Gabriel (Tertullian, De carne Christi 14.3; Origen, Contra Celssus 8.15). In Syria the sign XMTusually rendered Christ, Michael, Gabriel (see Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum [Stuttgart 1941] 5:182)was frequently found on tombs, doorframes, and rings. Another name for one of the princes of the angels that is encountered with relative frequency is Uriel. It comes from the Judaic angelology [Orac. Sib. 2.215; Epist. Apost. 13(24); Ambrose, De fide 3.20]. Over and above the names found in the Bible, popular belief, and particularly superstition, attributed still further names to the princes of angels and other angels. These were names borrowed from the Jews, or even invented arbitrarily or out of ridicule. The Church, however, condemned these tendencies in the Lateran Synod of 745 (J. D. Mansi Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplis-sima collectio [ Paris 18891927] 12:379380) and in further decrees of the 8th and 9th centuries. When similar attempts were made in the 15th century and again later, the Church once more took steps against them (see Real-lexikon für Antike und Christentum [Stuttgart 1941] 5:188).

Teaching of the Church. The Church has defined as dogma that besides the visible world God also created a kingdom of invisible spirits, called angels, and that He created them before the creation of the world (Lateran Council IV, 1215, ch. 1, H. Denzinger Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 800; repeated at Vatican Council I, 1870, ibid. 3002; cf., earlier, the Nicene Creed of 325, ibid. 125: Πιστεύομεν ες να θεόν πάντων ρατ[symbol omitted]ν τε καì οράτων ποιητήν). In conformity with Holy Scripture and with the whole Christian tradition, these angels must be regarded as personal beings and not as mere powers or the like. Pius XII rejected a contrary opinion as being opposed to Catholic doctrine (encyclical Humani generis, Aug. 12, 1950; 3891). Only those three names for angels that occur in the Bible may be used.

The Church has further declared as dogma that God created the devil and the demons good by nature, and that they became bad through a fault of their own (Lateran Council IV, ch. 1; H. Denzinger Enchiridion symbolorum [Freiburg 1963] 800). The Church, however, has never declared authoritatively the way in which the angels sinned to become the devil and demons.

Moreover, in evaluating the accounts taken from the Bible and from Christian tradition, two extremes are to be avoided: on the one hand, not everything that is therein contained can be taken as fact because much of it belongs simply to the philosophy of life in antiquity and must be discarded; so, too, the existence and efficacy of angels cannot be denied out of hand simply because it is possible today, because of more accurate knowledge, to explain by natural causes what was once attributed to the angels. In the interpretation of biblical passages, the literary type must be taken into consideration, that is, whether it intends simply the communication of a fact, e.g., that angels are helpers of the Christians (Heb 1.14); or a narrative that popular imagination has embellished (e.g., the Book of Tobit); or symbolic visions whose true message must first be discovered through the veil of symbolic experiences that are presented in images proper to the period (e.g., in Revelation). In expressions drawn from tradition, however, one must take into consideration that in the course of time theology has purified the obscurity and error contained in traditional views about angels. In this way theology has now come to a point of distinguishing exactly among angels, stars, and the powers of nature, and specifies that the nature of angels is completely spiritual and no longer merely a very fine material, firelike and vaporous. Up to now it has not yet been defined as dogma that every man has a guardian angel. This opinion does, however, have a basis in Holy Scripture and has been maintained in the Church since ancient times, despite the uncertainty of the question in the first 1,000 years. The Church has never declared itself on whether the angels are divided into orders, nor has it said what kinds of orders there might be. Still, it can be drawn from the New Testament that angels exist and are effective in various ways, as can be detected there within certain limits. Many questions, however, that are raised in Scripture and tradition relating to the angels, cannot be answered or, at least, cannot be answered convincingly, because the necessarily certain knowledge is not possible.

Modern attitudes toward the belief in angels. In the modern mind, angels are considered to be tenuous creatures who, with the passage of time, are more and more being relegated to the sphere of legend, fairy tale, and child's fancy. Then, of course, there was rationalism, which thought that all belief in the existence of angels should be repudiated. Inasmuch as they are considered to be products of the imagination, their existence is widely denied. The believing Christian, however, will even today maintain that there are angels because the Bible and the Church teach it. What is more, he is convinced that the assertions of the Bible must be understood and evaluated in terms of the basic principles laid down in the previous section. Some reservations are also required in regard to many of the expressed views of the Fathers or other theologians. The old opinion that events in the world were caused by spiritual beings has been replaced in favor of a mechanical explanation arising from insight into the play of cause and effect. Therefore, the Christian can no longer postulate angelic activity where he knows that impersonal forces are at work. Furthermore, he will reject each and every embellishment of the concept of angels. He also believes that the angels, inasmuch as they are pure spirits, can never appear in a real body; that as spiritual beings they act on earth as causes in a manner that is unknown to men but verified in Scripture and in the experience of the Christian life of grace. Such spiritual beings can evoke in the phantasms of men a vision structured in accordance with the concepts of the times (a similar explanation was already attempted in the Middle Ages and was rejected by Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a 51.2 by an appeal to Scripture, but clearly from an outdated exegesis). Finally, one must be aware that the profane sciences can never prove either the existence or the activity of angels. One knows that angels exist, as St. Augustine once said, through faith ["esse angelos novimus ex fide" (In psalm. 103 serm. 1.15)].

See Also: angelology; angels, guardian; angels of the churches; cherubim; demon (in the bible); demon (theology of); original sin; seraphim.

Bibliography: See tracts on the angels in the manuals of dogma. j. turmel, "Histoire de l'angélologie des temps apostoliques à la fin du Ve siècle," Revue d'histoire et de littérature religieuses 3 (1898) 289308, 407434, 533552, "L'Angélologie depuis le faux Denys l'Aréopagite," ibid. 4 (1899) 217238; 289309, 414434, 537562; Histoire des dogmes, 6 v. (Paris 193136) 4:45119. w. lueken, Michael: Eine Darstellung und Vergleichung der jüdischen und der morgenländisch-christlichen Tradition vom Erzengel Michael (Göttingen 1898). g. bareille et al., Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 1:11921271. p. perdrizet, "L'Archange Ouriel," Seminarium Kondakovianum 2 (Prague 1928) 241276. j. duhr, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, 1:580598, 622625. e. peterson, Das Buch von den Engeln: Stel-lung und Bedeutung der hl. Engel im Kultus (2d ed. Munich 1955). o. hophan, Die Engel (Luzern 1956). j. daniÉlou, The Angels and Their Mission, tr. d. heimann (Westminster, Md. 1957). a. winklhofer, Die Welt der Engel (Ettal 1958). r. haubst, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 3:867872. c. d. g. mueller, Die Engellehre der koptischen Kirche (Wiesbaden 1959). p. glorieux, ed., Autour de la spiritualité des anges: Dossier scripturaire et patristique (Tournai 1959). b. neunheuser, "Die Engel im Zeugnis der Liturgie," Archiv für Liturgiewissenschalft (1959) 427. j. michl, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950) ] 5:115258.

[j. michl]


In the strict sense, cult of (devotion to) angels denotes a religious practice flowing from the virtue of religion (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 82.2) and constituting an external manifestation of honor and reverence to angels in recognition of their excellence and of one's own reasonable dependence on them. It is an act of secondary veneration (dulia). In general, any religious act of venerating angels can be termed angelic devotion; however, where such an act possesses the required internal (intellect and will) and external (reverence and subjection) elements, it will coincide with angelic cult as defined above. When associated with divine faith, cult of the angels belongs to the supernatural order and has its place in the spiritual life.

Sacred scripture. The Christian concept of angelic cult is verified only in practices of genuine, divinely revealed, religion and has no equivalent in pagan cults associated with "angels." Assyrians, Persians, and Egyptians paid honor to protective deities, in Accadian kāribu, but there is no identity between these pagan deities and the Hebrew k erûbîm.

The OT offers some manifestations of angelic cult, e.g., by Balaam (Nm 22.2135), Tobit (Tb 12.16), and Daniel (Dn 10.9), but such practices did not constitute the principal object of prophetic teaching; nor did people, though conscious of angels, consider their existence relevant. In the NT, the Gospels mention angels but do not specifically recommend or reject devotion to them; St. Paul implicitly teaches veneration of angels (1 Cor 11.10; Gal 4.14), but such cult is to be given in a manner that does not derogate from Christ, the one and unique mediator; he shows displeasure at false or exaggerated cult to angels. In Rv 22.89 St. John is rebuked and corrected for offering excessive veneration to an angel but not for venerating him.

Patristic era. Fathers of the East and West showed their approval of angelic cult and testified to its early existence. They warned against idolatrous cult of angels (see Aristides, Apol. 14; Patrologia Graeca 96:1121), condemned latreutic acts of worship toward angels (see Origen, Contr Celsus 8.13, 57; Patrologia Graeca 11:1533, 1601), defended angelic cult as distinct from adoration reserved to God alone, latria (see Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 7.15; Patrologia Graeca 21:553). There was a period when reserve and restriction had to be urged especially because of false cults and charges of "atheism" against Christians for not worshiping pagan deities [Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 6, Patrologia Graeca 6:336; Athenagoras, Leg. 10, Ante-Nicene Fathers (New York 1903) 2:133]. St. Augustine deserves credit for the excellent formula of honor and love as proper cultic dispositions for venerating angels, distinct from the worship given to God: "[W]e honor them out of charity not out of servitude" (Vera relig. 55.110; Patrologia Latina 34:170). The acceptance of the angelology of Pseudo-Dionysius (5th6th century), taught especially in his Hierarchia coelestis (Patrologia Graeca 3:119370), is largely responsible for angelic cult becoming firmly and universally established in the Church.

The earliest known devotion to angels was principally centered on the Archangel michael, the only individual angel honored in liturgical feasts in the Church before the 9th century. In the East, Michaeline devotion was evidenced by the 4th century in the churches and sanctuaries in and near Constantinople. It then spread to Italy and to the rest of Europe.

In the West, the feast of St. Michael and the angels was celebrated as early as the 5th century in the church of the same name outside Rome (see leonine sacramentary, 7th century; Masses and prayers in honor of St. Michael are also mentioned). Devotion at two presently active Michaeline sanctuaries began with separate apparitions of St. Michael in the early centuries: one at Monte Gargano (c. 490), near Foggia, Italy, and the other at Mont-Saint-Michel (708), Manche, France.

Beginning with St. Benedict (543) in the West, there was a steadily growing tradition of angelic cult of faith, love, and devotion from the time of Pope Gregory the Great to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153). The latter was the principal and most eloquent exponent of cult of the guardian angels; with him angelic cult assumed that form which has continued unchanged in the Church.

Scholasticism. Theologians of the school were less occupied with devotion to angels and more with a study of their nature, intelligence, and will. Even so, angelic cult was not dormant. The scholastic period was noted for prayers to the guardian angels (13th century), growth of associations and confraternities formed to honor the angels (1516th centuries), development and popularization of angelic devotionin which religious orders (Dominican, Franciscan, Jesuit) and individuals [Pierre Caton (d. 1626), Johannes Tauler, Ludolph of Saxony] played prominent roles. Of particular note, also, were a popular treatise on angels by Fra Francesco Eiximenis (d. 1409) and a collection of the practical counsels of mystics on angels by Denis the Carthusian (d. 1471). By 1630 the cult of angels was widespread.

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Devotion to the angels has been perpetuated in various ways in the last two centuries but in particular through: (1) associations and societies, such as the Archconfraternity of St. Michael Archangel (formally erected by Leo XIII, 1878), and the episcopally approved association of Philangeli ("Friends of Angels," founded in England, 1950, by Mary Angela Jeeveshqs., 1212 E. Euclid, Arlington Heights, IL); (2) patronages under the titles of holy and guardian angels in general, and of SS. Michael, gabriel, and raphael in particular; (3) publications, such as the two currently (1965) published L'Ange gardien (Clerics of St. Viator, 28 rue du Bon-Pasteur, Lyons, France) and Les Annales du Mont-Saint-Michel (Mont-Saint-Michel, Manche, France); and (4) a variety of liturgical and nonliturgical rites or practicesMasses and Divine Offices in honor of guardian angels and the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael; prayers in the Mass, e.g., Preface, Supplices te rogamus, Per intercessionem, Domine Jesu Christe; the prayer in the Communion of the Sick, Exaudi nos; in the burial service of adults, In paradisum; in the blessing of homes, Exaudi nos; the Litany of All Saints and novenas [see The Raccolta (New York 1957) 440455 and The Roman Martyrology ].

Magisterium of the Church. Whatever had contributed to the original establishment and development of angelic cult, however it was associated with the beliefs of the faithful and even subjected to Jewish-Gnostic influence, it is evident that the Church, through its official magisterium, unified and clarified belief in the angels and guided this cult (see J. Michl, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum [Stuttgart 1941] 5:199200). The positive teaching of the Church treats of veneration due to angels, the benefits of angelic intervention, and the man-angel relationships in the communion of the saints (blessed). It encourages the faithful to love, respect, and invoke the angels (see Nicaea II, H. Denzinger Enchiridion symbol-orum [Freiburg 1963] 600; Benedict XIV, ibid. 2532; The Raccolta ); on the other hand, the Church guards its subjects against false and dangerous practices, e.g., by rejecting all names of individual angels except Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael [see the Council of Rome under Pope St. Zachary (745); c.35 of the Council of Laodicea (4th century); the Synod of Aachen (789); the Council of Trent, ibid. 182125].

Orthodox churches. The devotion to angels among the Orthodox is found particularly in their Liturgy (Mass and Divine Office) and their observance of special feasts; it is directed especially to Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

Bibliography: j. michl and t. klauser, Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, ed. t. klauser [Stuttgart 1941 (1950) ] 5:53322. a. vacant et al., Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (Paris 190350) 1.2:11891271. k. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiburg 195765) 1:533538. r. haubst, ibid. 3:867872. j. duhr, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932) 1:580625. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclerq, and h. i. marrou (Paris 190753) 1.2:214459, bibliog. 215961. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York 1963) 8187. c. j. von hefele, Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux (Paris 190738) v. 1, 4, 5. a. a. bialas, The Patronage of Saint Michael the Archangel (Chicago, Ill. 1954). j. daniÉlou, The Angels and Their Mission , tr. d. heimann (Westminster, Md. 1957). j. daniÉlou, Theology of Jewish Christianity, ed. and tr. j. a. baker (Chicago, Ill. 1964) 147187. l. m. o. duchesne, Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution, tr. m. l. mcclure (5th ed. repr. New York 1949). w. g. heidt, Angelology of the Old Testament (Washington, D.C. 1949). p. p. parente, The Angels (St. Meinrad, Ind. 1958), also pub. as Beyond Space (New York 1961). j. w. moran, "St. Paul's Doctrine on Angels," American Ecclesiastical Review 132 (1955) 374384. m. a. jeeves, "The Friends of Angels," Life of the Spirit 8 (195354) 159163.

[a. a. bialas]


The concept of angels originated in the Orient, but the figural type of the Christian angel was derived from the winged Greek goddess of Victory, or Nike. During and after the Italian Renaissance, pagan putti, cupids, or amors served as models for new types of Christian angels. (Illustrations on following pages.)

Gender, garments, and wings. According to Scripture, angels are masculine, youthfulness and virility being their general attributes. It was only in the late Gothic period that artists began to depict angels of an ideal beauty; this development led to the invention of the purely feminine angel in the Renaissance. The infant angel, also created in the late Gothic period, was used widely during the Italian Renaissance. In early Christian times angels were represented in long white tunics and palliums, which symbolized both the divine light emanating from angels and the purity of angels. At times they were represented in togas with the chlamys of the Roman senator to give them an air of dignity. During the Byzantine period the influence of imperial ceremony increased; often they were represented in the guise of imperial court guards, i.e., in loro and military chlamys and holding standards. In the West, the early Christian type was used continuously ously during the Middle Ages, often with additions such as a diadem, a scepter, a codex or roll, or taenia, all symbolic of divine power. From the 13th century the influence of the liturgy and mystery plays became stronger, and their garments imitated various liturgical costumes according to their liturgical functions. At the beginning of the early Christian period angels were represented as wingless youths; it was only in the 4th century that they were depicted with wings. The earliest Christian example of a winged human figure is found in S. Pudenziana in Rome as the symbol of St. Matthew. In St. Mary Major in Rome winged angels are represented hovering in the air.

Functions. As the original Greek word indicates, the most important function of angels is to bring messages from God to men. In scenes from the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin, angels come to assist or to serve them. Angels appear also in scenes of the martyrdom of saints to give them strength and to deliver them a palm branch or a crown as a symbol of their martyrdom. They are shown, like ancient muses, inspiring an Evangelist or a Church Father, such as St. Jerome, engaged in writing. As the liturgical system developed and became more complex in the late Middle Ages, angels were regarded as participants in the heavenly liturgy, and many liturgical functions were attributed to them, such as those performed by deacons, acolytes, etc.

Angelic choir. The concept of a celestial hierarchy is derived from the order of Oriental monarchism. It was the Hierarchia coelestis by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite that inspired the artistic representation of the heavenly hierarchy. Three orders are recognized, each order consisting of three choirs: seraphim, cherubim, and thrones (first order); dominations, virtues, and powers (second order); principalities, archangels, and angels (third order). Often the Virgin Mary is brought into the center of this hierarchy. Seraphim and cherubim are to be distinguished from other messenger angels in that they alone guard the thrones of the Holy of Holies, sometimes hiding them with their wings from human eyes. The seraph is characterized by six wings covered with eyes, whereas the cherub has only four wings. The former is represented in the red color of fire, the latter, in the blue color of sky. The origin of the type is Oriental, and the biblical statement of the vision of Isaiah (Is 6.21) provided the basis for the iconography. In scenes of the stigma-tization of St. Francis, the crucifix appears in the guise of a Seraph.

Archangels. Among archangels, seven (and at times nine) are given names as well as various functions based on relevant biblical testimony. Three of them, michael, gabriel, and Raphael, have been most popularly venerated. Among them Michael is the most popular as the militant angel and as the guard of the faithful Princeps militiae angelorum. In Byzantine art he is represented in the purple chlamys or in the loro of the imperial court. In the West he is represented in a long tunic or in the coat of mail and helmet of a medieval knight. He appears in scenes of the Last Judgment combating the dragon of the apocalypse (Rv 12.7) or battling the hordes of Satan. This iconography is not to be confused with that of St. George. Michael is represented also weighing the souls of the dead. In the iconography of the heavenly hierarchy, he is shown as the guard of the celestial domain, hurling the rebellious angels, or demons, into the abyss. Gabriel is familiar to us as the bringer of glad tidings from God to men, as in the Annunciation to the Virgin and the annunciation to Zachariah. Raphael is represented most frequently in association with the story of Tobit.

Bibliography: g. stuhlfauth, Die Engel in der altchristlichen Kunst (Fribourg 1897). c. e. clement, Angels in Art (London 1901). k. künstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst (Freiburg 192628) 1:239264. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclerq, and h. i. marrou (Paris 1907) 1:20802161. r. p. rÉgamey, Anges (Paris 1946). l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien (Paris 195559) 2.1:3055. k. a. wirth, Reallexikon zur deutschen Kunstgeschichte, ed. o. schmitt (Stuttgart 1937) 5:342602.

[s. tsuji]


views updated


ANGELS . An introductory overview of the term "angel" in a historical and religious context necessitates a preliminary discussion of the limits and context of this word, which has become deeply entrenched in Western culture. If it is correct that the word "angel" applies to ranks of spiritual or heavenly beings which serve as intermediaries between the earthly and divine worlds, it would be appropriate to restrict the scope of an investigation to cultural situations that are most generally associated with monotheistic theological ideasJudaism, Christianity, Islamor else to religions with strongly monotheistic leanings, albeit with a mythological framework and large number of gods in a secondary role, such as Zoroastrianism. Religious movements such as Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Mandaeism, which have common cultural links with both the monotheistic Judeo-Christian spirituality, and the diverse world of Greek, Hellenistic, and late antiquity culture, should also be examined. Soteriological and eschatological ideas expressed in Neoplatonic and hermetic circles should also be considered in any discussion, as should influences produced from links with alchemy, astrology, divination, and magic. Of the latter group, in which angelology centered on a belief in the need for salvation in this world or the next, a whole range of exorcistic, prophylactic, and therapeutic attitudes arose which in some cases led to misunderstanding of the original function of angels and its being reduced to superstitious observance.

From here proceeds a geographical summary which ranges from the classical world to the eastern Mediterranean, its environs, the Middle East, and India. Even Central Asia, when some Manichaeistic angelological ideas are taken into account, is also relevant to the summary. The attempt by Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy to interpret Vedic and Hindu gods in terms of opposition between "Angels" and "Titans" seems misleading, and is the product of outstanding scholarship which has applied the Western category of "angel" to the Hindu mythological heritage, identifying angels with gods (deva ) as opposed to asura (demons, titans), with interesting if somewhat speculative and intellectually over-elaborate results. The etymological parallels between the Greek word aggelos and the Sanskrit agiras, are rather different, however, since the word denotes a group of priest-singers who occupy an intermediary position in the Vedic cult, as their name shows, but are not to be identified with angels in the metaphysical or theological sense with which we are concerned.

Classical World

The Greek aggelos and the Latin angelus form a lexical and conceptual basis which has passed into the vocabulary of the majority of European languages. The "god-angels" of funerary inscriptions should be seen as divine epithets, personifications of the divine which humankind can gain access to and perceive: for example, angels of the underworld, representing the qualities of gods such as Hermes, Hekate, Pluto, and Persephone; or the angels of Neoplatonic thinking, which are invoked by magicians as divine emanations and representations. These appear to humans as "visible gods" with specific characteristics (creative angels, generative angels, savior angels), which humankind can propitiate with sympathetic magic, even if their presence is not always benign when they are invoked. Both Porphyry and Iamblichus discuss the problem of how someone unskilled can conjure up malignant, demoniac spirits. The link with Hermes shows their position as intermediaries between the world of the living and the dead. Etymologically speaking, they are "messengers" or heralds involved with communications between different worlds and in particular with a psychopompic role in beliefs concerning the afterlife. One example is the angelus bonus in the mysteries of Sabazios, who wears the crown of immortality and introduces the dead person into the assembly of the Blest. Their intermediary role involves accompanying the soul at the moment it comes into existence, when the soul descends and crosses the planetary spheres, taking in a varying degree of heavenly influences which will determine the character of the person as yet unborn. Thus they are the soul's guardian angels throughout its earthly life and its custodians (phulakes ) until it returns to heaven, when the angels are responsible for its purification, breaking the links of the soul with the world of matter at the moment of its death.

The close connection between angels and souls in beliefs concerning immortality demonstrates a commonality between these two ideas, since the best souls become angels: hence the explanation, in terms of conduct, that a person who has been trained in spiritual perfection becomes in essence similar to the angels. This explains the addition of the word "angel" to the name of the deceased in funeral inscriptions, setting down the good fortune of immortality which may be the fate of the deceased. In hermetic Gnostic belief, the final outcome involved the ascent to heaven of the soul of the mystic after death, and transformation into one of the most important angels of the Ogdoad and of the fixed stars, which stand before God and contemplate him, rejoicing in the arrival of the soul and singing hymns of praise to the Father.


Angels are a fundamental part of Iranian thinking and its perception of the divine in terms of ideas and conceptsmorality, thought and lifeas personified not in mythological stories but in intermediate figures assisting the supreme god Ahura Mazdā with the order and maintenance of the cosmos. The religious history of Zoroastrian Iran has shown interesting ideas concerning angels since the earliest part of the Avesta, containing songs (Gāthā ) attributed to Zoroaster himself, in which Ahura Mazdā is accompanied by an entourage of spiritual beings called the Amesha Spentas (the Beneficent Immortals) who are similar to angels. They are subordinate to a supreme god and lack a distinct mythology, in contrast to the gods celebrated in the Avestic hymns (Yasht ). The actual names of these angelic beingsGood Thinking (Vohu Manah), Right Mindedness (Ārmaiti), Harmony (Asha), Power (Xshathra), Wholeness (Haurvatat) and Immortality (Ameretat)illustrate that they represent abstract metaphysical concepts, vaguely personified only by their names. They may intercede in the sacrificial exchange between heaven and earth, to grant the person performing it the favor of the divine world, spiritual energy, and powers such as strength, youth, wealth, vigor, physical well-being and immortality. Within the psychology of Zoroastrian ritual the Amesha Spentas thus symbolize the many different states of the person making the sacrifice. They fulfill important role in angelic mediation, and facilitate a person's communion with the divine via a particular kind of consciousness and visionary experience.

This important intermediary function would remain a constant within Zoroastrianism, and can be found in the Pahlavi texts of the Sassanid period, which refer to a mysticism based upon angelic internalization being achieved in the inmost consciousness. For example, it is advised to join with Good Thinking, in its purely spiritual form, to make it welcome, and hence enjoy spiritual benefits. The angelic strain existing within Zoroastrian from its philosophical beginnings may be clearly seen from the angelizing process to which its mythology was subject, something which continued in the Sassanid period with the recommendation of various philosophers to "make a home for the gods within the body." In this instance the gods (yazdān ) rather than mythological deities appear as spiritual personifications, similar to angelic spiritual beings and subject to the supreme god, which are realized in the heart of the faithful by means of ethical and moral virtue and sacrifice. Further interesting angelic qualities may be seen in elements such as fire, a medium par excellence, since indeed it is actually called "messenger" (dūta ). Fire plays an essential part in worship and is treated with special reverenceto the extent that it is styled the "son" of Ahura Mazdāand is a living symbol. The heat and light energy which rises upwards conveys offerings on high, in the same way as the Vedic god of fire, Agni, also does. It is not a matter of chance that some scholars link Agni with an.giras, which is etymologically related to the Greek aggelos.

A further kind of angel may be traced in the Fravashi, guardian spirits of society and the individual, from particularly mythological treatises which depict them as angels of the heavenly host and dressed in helmets with armor and iron weapons. They group in battalions, advancing with standards unfurled, coming to the aid of those who call upon them against demons, and descend from heaven like birds with fine wings.


In Mesopotamia there were a number of angelological ideas which would be transmitted to monotheistic religions, especially their role as intermediaries and personal guardians of human beings. The "messenger" idea, indicated by the term sukkal, refers to a whole group of figuressuch as Nuska and Kakkawhich are connected with the most important gods and acted as messengers and intermediaries of the heavenly court. Marduk had Nabu as his sukkal, while Anu and Inanna had Papsukkal and Mummu. This role should be seen as a reflection of the Mesopotamian court culture, which would have an enormous influence upon the religious and political ideas of the Near East and the world of Hellenistic and late antiquity. The role of protective spirits is fulfilled by the shedu and lamassu, guardian spirits depicted on house doorposts, who accompany human beings when they leave the dwelling. The karibu (an Akkadian term meaning "one who prays") are spirits of intercession and blessing, represented with hands outstretched in prayer, in both human and animal form (body of a bull or lion, wings of an eagle). The representation in animal form of these spirits and karibu (from which the name "cherubim" is derived), depicted with two or three pairs of wings, influenced the angelic iconography of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


In Judaism, the similarity between the Mesopotamian karibu and the Hebrew kerub is for the most part only linguistic, since the biblical kerub is not a deity, has no mythology of its own, and is merely a minister of the one, omnipotent God. In the Old Testament malʾāk, from the root lʾk "to send," may refer to someone who carries news or messages and who looks after the interests of the sender, acting as a spy, an observer, or a negotiator. This role as messenger is clearly shown in the Vulgate with a distinction between nuntius (human messenger) and angelus (divine messenger).

In connection with Jhwh, the malʾak Jhwh is the angel of Yahweh with particular duties and the divine representative who conveys God's words or deeds on earth. He intervenes directly in the life of humankind, and is a personal heavenly being at the center of particular events who proclaims salvation (Jgs. 13), rescues from danger and distress (Gn. 19, Exod. 14:19) watches over man on his travels (Ps. 91:11), conveys an instruction to a prophet (Zec. 1:9), and even causes devastation and destruction, as for example when the people are punished for the sins of David (1 Chr. 21:15).

The history of post-exile Judaism contains interesting cultural adaptations from Persian angelology. Similarly there arose a demonology which seems to have been influenced by Iranian and Semitic currents of thought, such as the name of the demon Asmodeus in The Book of Tobit, derived from the name of the Zoroastrian god of anger, Aeshmadaeva. In apocalyptic writing (The Book of Enoch ), an elaborate belief system is set out regarding fallen angels who have become inferior to humans as a punishment for relations with women and for having revealed to humankind the secrets of the world. This hidden knowledge is revealed to Enoch by an angel that accompanies him and interprets his visions (angelus interpres ); the same thing also happens to Levi (Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs ). Angels are positively described in the writings of Qumran, according to a level of participation and communion with them by individual sect members: warrior angels stand alongside the Essene community in the eschatological war, fulfilling an important role as intermediaries revealing heavenly secrets, on the basis of the level of purity required for carrying out priestly worship. Common knowledge about angels in late antiquity aroused the fear of rabbis that it might overshadow the unity and supremacy of the Lord God, since in a number of passages in the Talmud it is advised to call upon God in case of misfortune and not the angels Mikaʾel or Gavriʾel.

In the Jewish mysticism of the Qabbalah, angelology is developed starting from the episode of the struggle between Jacob and the angel (Gn. 32: 27); in addition to other speculation on the first chapter of Genesis, there is commentary on the first chapter of Ezekiel (maʾaseh merkavah, or work of the chariot), the basis for the ideas regarding the vision of God's chariot, the throne of His Glory (Kabod ), in which God is conveyed by Cherubim (Chayyoth ), winged creatures in the form of humans, bulls, lions, and eagles. In Hekhaloth literature, which is based on Old Testament Apocrypha and the Book of Enoch, angels are guardians of the gates of the heavenly palace, beings who sing the praises of God and admit anyone who is worthy, accompanying him into the presence of God; they could also, however, punish humans by inflicting madness and death upon anyone who did not invoke them properly and who had not reached a sufficient degree of purity to attain the vision of the merkavah. Only minimal study of the Torah allowed one to reach the level of rectitude and purity necessary to distinguish true angels from unclean spirits.

In Medieval mysticism and amongst the Hasidim we find the angel Metatron. This figure was connected with the angels known as the "Princes of the Face," who may gaze upon the face of God. Metatron had an important role in esoteric Jewish doctrinewhich subsequently passed into popular religious beliefas an angel who defends Israel in the heavenly judgment of Yom Kippur, and carries the prayers of the faithful before the throne of God. According to popular Jewish legend, angels presided over certain natural phenomena:

Yurkemi is the prince of hail,

Ridyah, of rain;

Rahav, of the sea;

and Laylah, of birth and death.


Christianity accepted and redeveloped aspects of Old Testament angelology according to its new requirements. Angels intervene in the central events involving the coming of the Messiah: Gabriel is the angel of the Annunciation, while an angelic star, a celestial symbol of power, acts as a heavenly sign guiding the Wise Men who have come to Palestine from the East in search of the Redeemer. Paul's letter to the Colossians (1:16, 2:10) lists the angelic hierarchy: Thrones, Dominations, Principalities, and Powers. It also sets down a central tenet of Christianity, which would determine later theological disputes (Col. 2:18): namely, that care should be taken to avoid idolatry and the worship of angels.

The Council of Laodicea in 336 (Canon 35) proscribed the invocation and adoration of angels. Patristic efforts concentrated on limiting the mythological and poetic developments of Judaic and Gnostic angelology and emphasized the role of angels as intermediaries in the action of salvation and their role as servants. The very iconography which avoided depicting them with wings in early centuriesthese would appear at the end of the fourth centurywas driven by the need to avoid confusing them with winged pagan gods, such as statues of Nike (Victory).

In the sixth-century work of Dionysius the Areopagite, Neoplatonic and Christian ideas are put together to create an angelic hierarchy of three sets of three, grouped according to their closeness to God: Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; Dominations, Powers, and Virtues; and Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. These became well-known designations during the Middle Ages.


According to Islam, anyone who denies the existence of angels denies the word of God and the Prophet and is regarded as an unbeliever. Allah created angels with two, three, or four pairs of wings, the number varying according to the speed with which they carried out divine commands. Angels support God's throne, they are beside him, they praise and adore him, and they will sound the trumpet at the end of the world; they are infinite in number. Some are noted for carrying out particular tasks, such as Munkar and Nakir, who are responsible for judgment after death; Malik is the guardian of hell; Ridwan the guardian of paradise. Among the more important angels, Gabriel occupies the leading place in terms of angelic power, Michael is a messenger and intermediary, Israfil is the angel of the end of the world, and Azrail is the angel of death, not mentioned by name in the Qurʾān. The angels Harut and Marut, on the other hand, reflect Zoroastrian angelological ideas and are regarded as fallen angels who reveal to humankind the secrets of magic; they are punished for falling in love with mortal women.

The angel Gabriel occupies an important position in Islam for the audible revelation of the divine words. These spoken words are the only ones to have divine sanction, and are thus superior to anything visual. Angels can be distinguished from the simple spirits (jinn ) of popular religion; "faithful spirit" (rū ) does mean angel in various passages of the Qurʾān. According to tradition, Muammad was visited by the angel Gabriel, who revealed to him his role as Messenger, enjoining him to preach while he was resting in the cave where he had gone for a spiritual retreat. While Muammad was sleeping, the angel Gabriel approached him with a silk cloth covered in writing, which he repeatedly commanded him to read; within this he bound Muammad so tightly that he was almost suffocated. Muammad woke up, left the cave and saw Gabriel as a man with wings. Gabriel also features in a version of the story of Muammad's ecstatic ascent to heaven (Miʿrāj ) as the angel who guides him up the stairway which brings him into the presence of Allah.

In the realm of eschatology still, two angels called Munkar and Nakir question the dead person immediately after his death and if he does not answer correctly, they will torture his body in the grave. There is another tradition concerning the childhood of Muammad, in which angels also play a part in inaugurating the spiritual career of the future Prophet in circumstances rather similar to certain bloody shamanistic practices. As a four-year-old child, Muammad was seized and thrown to the ground by two angels, who opened his chest, drew a drop of blood from his heart, and washed his insides with melted snow that they carried in a golden cup.

There are elaborate angelologies to be found in Islamic philosophical and religious writings. In Avicenna, from a first intelligence emerge a large variety of intermediate spiritual beings called the ten cherubic intelligences (Angeli intellectuales ) or celestial Souls (Angeli caelestes ). In the philosophy of Sohrawardi there is a complex and well-developed angelology which contains elements of Neoplatonic and Zoroastrian influence: from a Light of Glory emerges an emanation of beings of light, led by the archangel Bahman, equivalent to the Avestic Vohu Manah. All sensible and material reality is created and controlled by a particular type of archangel. These archangels occupy a mundus imaginalis between the physical and spiritual worlds and can be perceived by the sage by means of imagination.

In the more extreme forms of Shīʿī Islam, such as Ismāʿīlīs, there are enduring Gnostic Hellenistic and Zoroastrian ideas; the divine can be made manifest in the world via angels who can take on a concrete physical form in members of the Ismāʿīlīte hierarchy. According to the beliefs of the Yezidi, incorrectly called "devil-worshippers," God created the world but the task of looking after it was entrusted to seven divine angels; among these the peacock angel (Malak Taʾus ) is the symbol of immortality and the sun, the supreme angel, and active essence of God, who has declined in power but who weeps and cries tears of sorrow, which put out the fires of hell.

Gnosticism and Manichaeism

In classical gnosis we find a variety of angelological ideas, including angels who create the world and rule it badly by fighting each other (Simon Magus), with a role not unlike the Demiurge. In this case the angels are usurpers of power (in the philosophy of Carpocrates, Menander, Saturninus and Basilides), against whom the act of salvation is directed, and therefore ignorant powers that have forgotten their subordinate place in the hierarchy of spiritual beings and are thus in the grip of envy and greed; these beings include the Jewish god who was responsible for creation. The Gnostic elect must therefore despise and free themselves from these powers that control the world, and train their souls to avoid the snares of these ruling powers that block their progress to the celestial planes. In its most positive interpretation, the soul of the elect could directly correspond with the angel that was his transcendental real self, the eternal prototype of which the soul was an earthly reflection, image (eikon ), and part (meros ). The angel could also be a heavenly messenger who reveals mysteries and awakens knowledge in humankind. Objects for personal use such as "Gnostic jewels" reveal aspects of a Hellenistic, Hermetic syncretism, which blend Christian and pagan elements: along with a Iaô (Yahweh) and Abrasax they call upon generic Faustian "powers" (dynameis ). In other cases the jewels have the image of a manifold deity Hermes-Phosphoros-Michael, with inscriptions on the body referring to Yahweh, the archangels, and magic spells; these objects were used as seals so that the soul would pass over the cosmic planes and eventually reach the spiritual realm. Other images depict Olympian gods with the name of an angel inscribed alongside: Hermes (with his caduceus wand) and Michael; Iuppiter (armed with lightning and with the eagle) and Satoviel; and Diana (with bow, arrows and a crown) and Gabriel.

In a Gnostic religion such as Mandaeism, the priest is the earthly representative of messengers and angels (uthrê, literally "riches") who live in the world of light. These spiritual beings surround the supreme god and grant benefits on humankind, such as baptism, a gift of the divine beings of light to Adam and an important ritual which allows the soul to ascend to heaven. One important type of Mandaean exorcistic text inscribed on cups sets out magic spells used to neutralize demons and liliths; not just gods but also angels are invoked who can bless, set free, ward off, and destroy.

In Manichaeism too, there are also important angelological ideas: the angel of Mani is his spiritual twin (syzygos ) who talks to him and provides him with instruction on the Gnostic mysteries. The syzygos thus reveals to him things that have been hidden, raises him up, and takes him to unknown and indescribable places. Protected from childhood in the baptismal community by guardian angels and divine powers, Mani grows up and eventually meets his "Twin" (Narjamig in Iranian texts, in Arabic al-Tawm in the Fihrist of an-Nadim) who enlightens him and encourages him in his missionary vocation. The Twin protects him spiritually against the snares of Greed (Az) and Evil (Ahrmen).

Angelic apparitions can be found in the myth of Manichaean cosmogony: during the first emanation, after the Mother of Life has produced Primordial Man, an angel emitting light called Nahashbat appears before him with a crown in his hand. There are also angelic presences that provide rewards, fine garments, the diadem, and the crown of light to the soul after death, when the soul of the Elect is escorted by gods and angels, who protect it against demons, until it meets its light image. In the universal eschatology of judgment day, Jesus will chair the court, surrounded by the Elect who have become angels. Concerning this angelic court, we have the evidence of Augustine of Hippo (354430) who speaks of ranks of angels (cohortes angelorum ), which make up the divine entourage in the paradise that is the Kingdom of Light. In his work, the Book of Giants, Mani retells the story of the fall of the angels (from the first book of Enoch), combining it with other narrative material. The Egregoroi, for example, who are attracted to women and marry them, become demons imprisoned in the world from which the race of giants originated, and are defeated by the archangels Raphael, Michael, Gabriel, and Istrael, as well as by Uriel and Fanuel.

Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary Ideas

In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, there continued to be reservations about the role of angels. In the seventh century, Pope Gregory I specified that the name angel should refer to their role and not their nature (nomen est officii non naturae ). Based upon a passage of Ezekiel (28:13) concerning jewels, Gregory theorized a set of links between precious stones and angels according to their essence and spiritual clarity (Sardonyx, Topaz, and Jasper; Crisolite, Onyx, and Beryl; and Sapphire, Ruby, and Emerald).

During the Middle Ages, the work of Thomas Aquinas (12251274) and Bonaventure marked the high point of the success of Dionysius the Areopagite in scholastic philosophy. After the Lateran Council of 746, the cult was restricted to the three archangels, thus establishing the preeminence of Michael (soldier angel and protector), Raphael (guardian angel and healer), and Gabriel (the angel of the Annunciation); as a result of the addition of the epithet "Saint," these angels became humanized and Michael in particular was the subject of a popular cult and devotion with the establishment of shrines that spread his veneration throughout Europe. Michael's protective warlike qualities were appreciated by "barbarian" nationsamong them the Celts, Germans, Slavs, and Baltic peopleswho gradually converted to the Christian faith. The cult of Saint Michael resulted in a pilgrimage route known as the "way of angels," which linked Normandy's Mont Saint-Michel with San Michele della Chiusa in Piedmont, Italy and San Michele del Gargano in Puglia, Italy.

The heretical and dualist ideological ideas of religious movements such as the Bogomils and Cathars reworked the story of the fallen angel, Satan. According to the Cathars, the devil created the human body by imprisoning an angel of light; this soul has an angelic nature which longs to return to heaven, but is condemned to be continually reborn in bodily form until it discovers the truth. Every angel/soul therefore has an individual spirit (Spiritus sanctus ); the Virgin Mary herself was regarded as an angel in order to justify, from a docetic perspective, the immaterial nature of the body of the Savior. In the Encratite anthropology of the Bogomils, imitating the angel-eunuchs who live in heaven was a way of attaining, via asceticism, the detachment and sublimation of sexuality required to strive against materialism and reproductive instincts.

In medieval Grail epics, angels appear in a variety of situations as beings who impart stories of the Grail to hermits in visions. The Grail itself was originally a precious stone, an emerald, which fell to earth from the crown of Lucifer during the battle between the good and bad angels. In this battle, caused by Lucifer's rebellion, a number of so-called neutral angels did not take part and they became the guardian angels of the Grail. Four angels support the throne on which Joseph of Arimathea is seated, and this quartet carries two candles, the crimson silk, and lance to be placed above the Grail which is used to catch the drops of the blood of Christ.

The Renaissance, with its rediscovery of Neoplatonic theurgy and magic, witnessed a reformulation of various angelological and demonological ideas. These had been inherited from such ancient philosophers as Iamblichus, Proclus, and Psellus, and spread until the time of the philosopher Giordano Bruno (15481600). After him there was a gradual censorship by the Counter-Reformation of the phantasia of Renaissance pagan imagination. In the works of Marsilio Ficino (14331499) the idea of philosophy is seen as a mystery initiation, consisting of meditations and visions intended to raise the mind to the plane of angels, demons and planets. Pico della Mirandola asserted that elements of Christian angelology are also present, tinged with Platonism and qabbalism. In the natural philosophy of Paracelsus, magic allows control of the world of heavenly, astral, and earthly intelligence as well as the elemental demons connected with the four elements. For Henricus Cornelius Agrippa, the basic angelological hierarchy was divided into four categories of angel:

of Fire (Seraphim, Virtues, Powers);

of Air (Dominations, Principalities);

of Water (Thrones, Archangels);

and of Earth (Cherubim).

A system of angel and demon intelligence was linked to the seven planets and to graphic signs and pentacles used in performing magical ceremonies. Angels were also connected to signs of the zodiac, the four winds, and the four cardinal points of the compass. There were angels that describe the functions and powers of God (Vision, Strength, Virtue, Glory), while three good demons protect humankind by acting as guardian angels.

In the modern age there have been individuals and secret societies with universalist, utopian systems, such as the Rosicrucians, who were interested in the ideas of theosophy and alchemy. Illustrations in alchemical writings from the fifteenth century (Opera Chemica ) attributed to Raimondo Lullo represent the biblical episode of Tobit and Raphael, the healing angel, and hint that the alchemical Great Work of the philosopher should always take place under the guidance of heavenly powers so as not to stray into darkness. In the work of Jakob Boehme (15751624), angels intervene in the alchemical work of the Magus and their revelation determines the success of the work. An account by Johann Georg Gichtel depicts the battle of Saint Michael with the Dragon, symbolizing the struggle between the forces of Love and Anger and between Light and Darkness. In Elizabethan England there was a kind of angelic spiritualism, particularly illustrated by the magus John Dee. Dee may have inspired both the character of Prospero, the master of the sprite Ariel in Shakespeare's The Tempest, as well as the title character in Gustav Meyrink's 1927 novel The Angel of the West Window. Dee claimed to have been visited by the angel Uriel, who brought him a gift of a magic crystal to enable the magus to communicate with him via a supposed language of angels.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries spiritualism and evocation of angels was widespread: in the writings of the Lutheran theologian Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772) the universe has a spiritual structure and the human microcosm is the image of the divine macrocosm; angels allowed communion with the divine which could be known via visionary experiences. This theosophy influenced not only philosophers but also artists and writers like William Blake (17571827), who put forward ideas concerning angels in both his engravings and his poetic works. Swedenborg was identified with an angel in Blake's Marriage of Hell and Heaven, while the "Four Zoas" in Blake's poetry are angelic and devil images of the four elements. Angelic influence in romantic and spiritualist imagination was marked in Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist art. Twentieth-century occult movements, like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, practiced a version of angelic spiritualism and provided visionary and poetic inspiration. One of its most famous members was William Butler Yeats (18651939); another famous member of an esoteric brotherhood, the magician Aleister Crowley (18751947), carried out ritual "magick" ceremonies by calling upon an angelic being named Aiwass. In other cases the subject of angels was the source of philosophical ruminations from the great artistic and cultural figures of the twentieth century, including Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Paul Klee, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Angels have also become subject matter for mass-media interpretations, perhaps most notably by German filmmaker Wim Wender's 1987 classic Wings of Desire. Also bearing mention are the spiritualist and irrational New Age movements and kinds of recollective possession and contacts with spirit guides via mediumistic channeling experiments.

See Also

Demons; Fravashis; Satan.


Anges et Démons: Actes du Colloque de Liège et de Louvain-la-Neuve, 25-26 Novembre 1987, edited by Julien Ries & Henri Limet, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, 1989. See pages 383398.

Bussagli, Marco. Storia degli Angeli: Racconto di Immagini e di Idee. Milan, 1991.

Cacciari, Massimo. L'angelo necessario, 2d ed. Milan, 1998. Translated as The Necessary Angels (New York, 1994).

Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. "Angels and Titans." Journal of American Oriental Society 55 (1935): 373419.

Corbin, Henri. Le paradoxe du monothéisme. Paris, 1981.

Couliano, Ioan. Eros et magie à la renaissance: 1484. Paris, 1984.

Couliano, Ioan. Les gnoses dualistes d'occident. Paris, 1989.

Cumont, Franz. "Les anges du paganisme." Revue de l'histoire des religions 36 (1915): 159182.

Génies, Anges et Démons Egypt-Babylon-Israël-Islam-Peuples Altaïque-Inde-Birmanic-Asie du sud-Est-Tibet-Chine. Paris, 1971.

Leclercq, Henri. "Anges." In Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, edited by Fernand Cabrol and Henri Leclercq, Vol. 1/2, cols. 20802161. Paris, 1907.

Maier, S.A. "Angel." In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, pp. 8190. New York, 1995.

Montgomery, A. James. Aramaic Incantation Texts from Nippur. Philadelphia, 1913.

Pettinato, Giovanni. Angeli e Demoni a Babilonia: Magia e Mito nelle Antiche Civiltà Mesopotamiche. Milan, Italy, 2001.

Piras, Andrea. "Messaggeri e inviati nello zoroastrismo." Avallon 42 (1997): 1733.

The Intellectual Heritage of Assyria and Babylonia in East and West. A Searchable Database of the Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia to Later Civilizations : entry "Angels." Available from

Andrea Piras (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis


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The word "angel" ("angelos" in Greek, "malak" in Hebrew) means a person sent or a messenger. It is a name not of nature but of office, and is applied also to humans in the world who are ambassadors or representatives. In another sense, the word denotes a spiritual being employed in occasional offices; and lastly, men in office as priests or bishops. The "angel of the congregation" among the Jews was the chief of the synagogue. This later usage is also found in Revelation 1 and 2, where the"angel of the church" is regularly addressed. Today, the term is now limited to its principal meaning, and pertains only to the inhabitants of heaven.

Biblical Angels

Mark, the apostle of the Gentiles, speaks of the angels as "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation," in strict keeping with the import of the term itself. In Mark 1:2, it is applied to John the Baptist: "Be-hold I send my messenger (i.e., angel) before my face," and the word is the same ("malak") in the corresponding prophecy of Malachi. In Hebrews 12: 22, 24, we read: "Ye have come to an innumerable company of angels, to the spirits of the just," and this idea of their great number is sustained by the words of the Lord, where, for example, he declares that "twelve legions" of them were ready upon his demand. In the Revelation of St. John, a vast idea of their overwhelming number is indicated. Their song of praise is described as "the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings."

The angels form the armies of heaven, and military terms are commonly quoted. It is mentioned in the Bible that the angel host or army will fight God's cosmic battle. For example, an angel destroyed Sennacherib's army encamped around Jerusalem. They appeared to the shepards to announce the birth of Jesus, and Jesus will lead the armies of God in the final conflict at the end of time (Revelation 19:14). The idea of angelic armies would come to the forefront during World War I in the myth of the Angels of Mons.

As to the nature of angels, it is essentially the same as that of humans, for not only are understanding and will attributed to them, but they have been mistaken for humans when they appear, and seem capable of disobedience (Hebrews 2:7, 16). The latter possibility is exhibited in its greatest extent by Jude, who speaks of the "angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation," and upon this passage would later lay the foundation of the differences and definitions concerning angels and demons. The former term limited its meaning only to the obedient ministers of the will of the Almighty, and the influence of evil angels is concentrated only on the devil or Satan. These ideas were common to the whole Eastern world, and were probably derived by the Jewish people from the Assyrians. The Pharisees charged Jesus with casting out devils "by Beelzebub the prince of the devils." The idea that evil spirits acted in multitudes under one person appears in Mark 5:9, where, when he is asked his name, the evil spirit answers: "My name is 'Legion' for we are many."

In the Bible two orders are mentioned in scripture, "angels" and "archangels;" but the latter only occurs twice, namely, in Jude, where Michael is called "an archangel," and in I Thessalonians 4:16, where it is written: "the Lord shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God."

Gabriel and Michael are the only angels mentioned by name. The archangel Michael appeared to Daniel and will lead his angelic army against the people of God (Revelation 12:7). The mention of Michael by name occurs five times in scripture, and always in the character of a chief militant. In Daniel, he is the champion of the Jewish church against Persia; in the Revelation, he overcame the dragon; and in Jude he is mentioned in a personal conflict with the devil about the body of Moses. He is called by Gabriel, "Michael, your prince," meaning the prince of the Jewish church. Gabriel first appeared as an angel to give Daniel an interpretation of a dream (Daniel 8:16-27) but earned his lasting fame as the one to announce both the birth of John the Baptist to Zachariah and the coming birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:11-38).

Developing Notions about Angels

In the intertestimental period (the centuries just prior to the Christian era) as the Jewish notion of angelic orders developed, Michael and Gabriel were named as two of the seven archangels. The alleged prophecy of Enoch states, "Michael, one of the holy angels who, presiding over human virtue, commands the nations." The same volume notes that Raphael, "presides over the spirits of men." And other angels who will become integral to Western angelic and magical lore appear: Uriel, who reigns "over clamor and terror"; and Gabriel, who reigns "over Paradise, and over the cherubims."

As the Roman Catholic mass evolved, Michael, now a saint, was invoked as a "most glorious and warlike prince," "the receiver of souls," and "the vanquisher of evil spirits." His symbol is a banner hanging on a cross; he is armed and represents victory, with a dart in one hand and a cross on his forehead. It may be noted that God himself is called the angel of the Covenant, because he embodied in his own person the whole power and representation of the angelic kingdom, as the messenger, not of separate and temporary commands, but of the whole word in its fullness.

Dionysius, or St. Denis, the supposed Areopagite (sixth century C.E.), describes three hierarchies of angels in nine choirs: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Angels, and Archangels. These were created by assembling various biblical passages (such as Exodus 25:18-20; Isaiah 6:2-3; Ephesians 3:10) and the book of Enoch. Vartan (or Vertabied), the thirteenth-century Armenian poet and historian, described them under the same terms, but expressly stated: "these orders differ from one another in situation and degree of glory, just as there are different ranks among men, though they are all of one nature."

This description, and all others resembling it (the twelve heavenly worlds of Plato, and the heaven of the Chinese, for example), can be understood as landmarks serving to denote the heights human intelligence has reached at various times in the attempt to represent the eternal and infinite in precise terms. Seventeenth-century mystic Jakob Boehme recognized the "whole deep between the stars," as the heaven of one of the three hierarchies, and placed the other two above it; "in the midst of all which," he says, "is the Son of God; no part of either is farther or nearer to him, yet are the three kingdoms circular about him." The visions of Emanuel Swedenborg date a century later, and describe his intimacy with the angelic world. The angels described to him in great detail a level of spiritual existence qualitatively different from the visible world of sensation.

Angelic Realms in Jewish Thought

Jewish teachers have developed an elaborate doctrine of a heavenly hierarchy. Some, such as Bechai and Joshua, teach that "every day ministering angels are created out of the river Dinor, or fiery stream, and they sing an anthem and cease to exist; as it is written, they are new every morning." This idea appears to be a misunderstanding of biblical intentto be "renewed" or "created" in the scriptural sense is to be regenerated. Thus, to be renewed every morning is to be kept in a regenerate state; the fiery stream is the baptism by fire or divine love.

In later doctrine, the angelic hierarchies were understood in correspondence to the ten divine names. Both Christian and astrological elements eventually could be discerned in the presentation that reached its height in the teachings of the Kabala.

The following represents the angelic hierarchies answering to the ten divine names:

1. Jehovah, attributed to God the Father, being the pure and simple essence of the divinity, flowing through Hajoth Hakados to the angel Metratton and to the ministering spirit, Reschith Hajalalim, who guides the primum mobile, and bestows the gift of being on all. These names are to be understood as pure essences, or as spheres of angels and blessed spirits, by whose agency the divine providence extends.

2. Jah, attributed to the person of the Messiah or Logos, whose power and influence descends through the angel Masleh into the sphere of the Zodiac. This is the spirit or word that actuated the chaos and ultimately produced the four elements and all creatures, by the agency of a spirit named Raziel, who was the ruler of Adam.

3. Ehjeh, attributed to the Holy Spirit, whose divine light is received by the angel Sabbathi, and communicated from him through the sphere of Saturn. It denotes the beginning of the supernatural generation, and hence of all living souls.

The ancient Jews considered the three superior names to be those above, to be attributed to the divine essence as personal or proper names, while the seven noted below denote the measures (middoth ) or attributes that are visible in the works of God. But modern Jews, in opposition to the tripersonalists, consider the whole as attributes. The higher three denote the heavens, and the succeeding ones the seven planets or worlds, to each of which a presiding angel is assigned.

4. El, strength, power, and light, through which flows grace, goodness, mercy, piety, and munificence to the angel Zadkiel, and passing through the sphere of Jupiter, fashions the images of all bodies, bestowing clemency, benevolence and justice on all.

5. Elohi, the upholder of the sword and left hand of God. Its influence penetrates the angel Geburah (or Gamaliel) and descends through the sphere of Mars. It imparts fortitude in times of war and affliction.

6. Tsebaoth, the title of God as Lord of hosts. The angel is Raphael, through whom its mighty power passes into the sphere of the sun, giving motion, heat, and brightness to it.

7. Elion, the title of God as the highest. The angel is Michael. The sphere to which he imparts its influence is Mercury, giving benignity, motion, and intelligence, with elegance and consonance of speech.

8. Adonai, master or lord, governing the angel Haniel, and the sphere of Venus.

9. Shaddai. The virtue of this name is conveyed by Cherubim to the angel Gabriel and influences the sphere of the moon. It causes increase and decrease, and rules the jinn and protecting spirits.

10. Elohim, the source of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, received by the angel Jesodoth, and imparted to the sphere of the Earth.

The division of angels into nine orders or three hierarchies, as derived from Dionysius Areopagus, was made in the Middle Ages, which gave the prevalent division much of its symbolism. With it was held the doctrine of their separate creation; the tradition of the rebellious hierarchy, headed by Lucifer, was rendered familiar to society by the epic poetry of John Milton. The medieval development of angelology was passed on to occultists and a description of the angelic orders became integral to magic and in the practices of magical rituals.

Angels and Giants

Another leading belief, not so much interwoven with the popular theology, was that of angels' intercourse with women, producing the race of giants. The idea derived from Genesis 4:2, in the adoption of which the Christian fathers followed the opinion of ancient Jewish interpreters, Philo-Judaeus, and Josephus. A particular account of the circumstances is given in the book of Enoch, which makes the angelsUriel, Gabriel, and Michaelthe chief instruments in the subjugation of the adulterers and their formidable offspring. The classic writers have perpetuated similar beliefs of the "hero" race, all of them born either from the love of the gods for women, or of the preference shown for a goddess by some mortal man.

The Persian, Jewish, and Muslim accounts of angels all evince a common origin, and they alike admit a difference of sex. In the latter, the name of Azazil is given to the hierarchy nearest the throne of God, to which the Mohammedan Satan (Eblis or Haris) is supposed to have belonged; also Azreal, the angel of death, and Asrafil (probably the same as Israfil), the angel of the resurrection. The examiners, Moukir and Nakir, are subordinate angels who are armed with whips of iron and fire, and interrogate recently deceased souls as to their lives.

The parallel belief in the Talmud is an account of seven angels who beset the paths of death. The Koran also assigns two angels to every manone to record his good and the other his evil actions. They are so merciful that if an evil action has been done, it is not recorded until the man has slept, and if at that time he repents, they place on the record that God has pardoned him. The Siamese, besides holding the difference of sex, imagine angels have offspring; but their beliefs concerning the government of the world and the guardianship of the human race are similar to those of other nations.

The Christian fathers, for the most part, believed angels possessed bodies of heavenly substance (Tertullian calls it "angelified flesh"), and, if not, they could assume a corporeal presence at their pleasure. In fact, all the actions recorded of angels in Scripture imply human bodies and attributes.

Some Theosophists regard angels as related to fairy life, part of the "Devic" kingdom (from the Sanskrit term "deva," or "divine being"). Reports of encounters with visitors from flying saucers often suggest a secular form of angel life.

Contemporary Interest in Angels

The existence of angels, especially guardian angels, has been a common theme of popular Western lore. It has been the subject of numerous Christian texts and been championed in metaphysical lore by the likes of Flower A. Newhouse, founder of Christward Ministry in Escondido, California. In the late 1980s a significant revival of interest in angels occurred and a number of new books and reprints of old books began to appear. While many of these repeated traditional themes, the majority flowed out of the New Age movement and concerned present contact and channeling of messages from angelic beingsa source more acceptable and familiar to many with a Christian background than communication with spirits of the deceased.

One interesting variation on the current interest in angels are the writings of artist Leilah Wendell, who has written a series of books concerning her communications with Azrael, the angel of death, and who created a popular museum built around artistic representations of death in New Orleans.


Clayton, Rev. George. Angelology; Agency & Ministry of Holy Angels. New York, 1851.

Davidson, Gustav. A Dictionary of Angels: Including the Fallen Angels. New York: Free Press, 1967.

Duke, H. H. The Holy Angels: Their Nature & Employments. London, 1875.

Hodson, Geoffrey. The Kingdom of Faerie. London, 1927.

Miller, C. Leslie. All About Angels: The Other Side of the Spirit World. Glendale: G/L Regal Books, 1973.

Newhouse, Flower A. Natives of Eternity. Vista, Calif.: The Author, 1950.

O'Kennedy, Rev. R. Book of the Holy Angels. London, 1887.

Swedenborg, Emanuel. Earths in Planets & in Starry Heavens: Inhabitants, Spirits & Angels. London, 1758.

Wendell, Leilah. The Book of Azrael. New York: Westgate Press, 1988.


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angels From the Greek ‘angelos’, meaning messenger, angels are seen as intermediaries between heaven and earth. This notion of angel as messenger is found particularly in the monotheistic religions (for in polytheistic religions, gods and goddesses often arrive in person to deliver messages), and was initially developed in the first major monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism. In Judaism, stories of angels occur throughout the Hebrew scriptures, and speculation about the nature of angels is found in the Talmud. Christianity inherited its ideas about angels from Judaism, and significantly developed them, especially in the Middle Ages. In Islam, angels appear in the Koran, and are important figures to Mohammed, as when Djibril (Gabriel) contacted the Prophet and dictated the Koran to him, and conducted him to heaven on the Night Journey. In some Islamic areas of the world, angels — many with unusual names — are important in popular Islamic practices, many of which may be rooted in the pre-Islamic religion of those areas. In recent years, angels have come to be very important in the (primarily North American) New Age religious movement.

There has been considerable debate as to whether angels can be said to have bodies. In the Christian tradition, Jesus' statement in Luke 20:36, that human beings, after our resurrection, will be ‘like the angels’ is important but not necessarily clarifying. Given that there have been differences of opinion in the Christian tradition about whether our resurrection will be bodily, this passage in Luke can be seen to attribute embodiment to angels — or not to. Origen (c.185–c.254) suggested that angels have a subtle or ethereal body, and this opinion continued to be held into the Middle Ages by philosophers such as the twelfth-century Duns Scotus. However, this view was challenged by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, who argued that intellect is above sense, and therefore some creatures must be incorporeal and comprehensible by the intellect only. Angels are such incorporeal creatures and are purely spiritual, as suggested, for example, in Psalm 104:4, which affirms that God ‘makes his angels spirits’. Aquinas saw angels not as belonging to a single species, but each as having its own separate substance and species.

Aquinas also argued that angels are incorruptible, and indeed the general opinion within the church, in the Middle Ages, was that angels are perfect and therefore in no danger of sinning, unlike human beings who are, of course, sinful by nature. Indeed, even Lucifer, like all the angels, was created in a state of grace. Aquinas suggested that Lucifer impiously exercised the free will with which all angels are endowed, and hence fell from grace. (This accords with the traditional story in Christianity, of Lucifer, jealous of God, leading a rebellion of angels against the heavenly order, and thereby being thrown out of heaven; he continued to wage war against God in his creation, Earth — as, for example, in the Garden of Eden.) Origen argued that angels were created with free will, and some eventually migrated away from God, some taking on human form, and those who migrated the furthest becoming demons. Another story of fallen angels is found in the apocalyptic Book of Enoch, in which a group of angels lusted after human women, and thus fell when they left their heavenly abode to have sexual intercourse with those women.

Despite his views on the ‘spirit’ nature of angels, Aquinas agreed that angels can, visiting the earthly realm, assume bodies, as in the case of the angels who visited Abraham in Genesis 18. There are numerous examples, in the scriptures of the main monotheistic religions, in fiction, in film, and in the writings of the twentieth-century New Age movement, of angels assuming bodily form when they come to earth. There are many such embodied angels in the Hebrew scriptures and New Testament, two of the most well-known examples being the angel who wrestles with Jacob (Genesis 32), and the angel Gabriel, who visited Mary to announce the birth of Jesus — the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38). A number of popular films in the twentieth century played on the idea of angels taking human bodily form when they come to earth. The most famous, perhaps, is the aptly named Clarence Oddbody, the kind but rather bumbling angel (odd in his angelic body because, as he is a second-class angel, he has no wings yet) who comes to earth to help George Bailey, in Frank Capra's film, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), giving him the gift of reliving events as if he had never been born. Oddbody plays the familiar role of guardian angel. The notion that each person has a guardian angel to guide them is found in numerous religious traditions, but has been developed especially in Christianity; Aquinas, for example, suggested that each person has a guardian close to hand throughout life. The theme of the guardian angel taking human bodily form is also found in The Bishop's Wife (1947), in which Cary Grant plays a suave and soothing angel, Dudley, sent to the aid of an absent-minded Episcopalian bishop, his family, and his friends. Wim Wenders' 1988 film, Wings of Desire, explores the idea of an angel, Ganz — one of many watching life in Berlin from a distance — who wishes not merely to assume bodily form, but to experience earthly life as humans do, after falling in love with a circus performer. Wenders takes the trope of the fall of angels onto earth, and gives it an unusual twist by suggesting that redemption occurs with a descent into physicality. Embodied angels on earth play an important part in many New Age recovery stories and narratives of near-death experiences: much New Age literature, such as the Angel Times, a magazine begun in 1994 in the USA, explores these themes.

The gender of angels has been debated. Angels have most often been considered androgynous, or to be neither distinctly female or male, or to combine both genders. Jesus' statement in the Gospel of Matthew may be evidence for this sort of view within the Christian tradition: ‘At the resurrection men and women do not marry; they are like angels in heaven’ (Matthew 22: 30). Thus angels are generally portrayed in paintings and sculpture as of indistinct gender, or in a pre-pubescent human form. Angels are therefore by default often thought of as male, although the archangel Gabriel — one of the two highest ranking angels in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — is commonly thought to be female, and depicted as such, at least within Christianity.

Wings are perhaps the most distinctive symbol of the angel ‘body’ and represent swiftness, power, and spirit. However, the notion of angels as winged creatures is not scriptural, but, rather, was developed in the Middle Ages. Depictions of winged angels first occurred in the fourth century. Indeed, in the early (pre-fourth-century) Church, figures such as wanderers with a staff and young men clothed in simple tunics may represent angels, as in the wall paintings of the Priscilla catacomb in Rome. The depiction of angels as ‘putti’ — small children's heads with wings — became popular in the Renaissance. At the same time, artists came to paint more angels as female. Angels are almost always shown as young, for they are changeless, so time does not exist for them. They enjoy perpetual youth.

Jane Shaw


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The word angel "appears" frequently in the Qur˒an, having entered the Arabic language (in pre-Islamic times) as a loan from Aramaic or Hebrew, possibly via Ethiopic, and so indicating Christian as well as Jewish cultural influences. In any case the word has always been accepted as an exact equivalent of the Greek angelos, angel or messenger, used in pre-Christian times to define the functions of certain "messengers of the gods" such as Hermes or Iris (the rainbow). The remarkable homogeneity of "Abrahamic" Jewish/Christian/Islamic angelology cannot convincingly be traced to a "Mosaic" source but derives very obviously from Zoroastrian influences on Judaism during the Babylonian Exile.

Despite the unanimity of the Qur˒an, hadith, and sunna on the doctrine of belief in angels, a certain ambiguity arises when these beings are considered in both theology and metaphysics. How precisely does angelic nature situate itself between earth and heaven, between human and divine? It may be said that monotheism simply cannot do without a means of immanence, lest the gulf of God's transcendence end by severing all possible relations between the two levels of reality. Put simply, the angels provide a third term, a metaphorical bridge or ladder between earth and heaven. Thus the Prophet spoke of each raindrop having its angel, and of the angels as messengers bearing God's revelation to humans, and human prayers to God. The task of angelic theology consists in justifying this metaphysical "need" without detracting from God's ominipotence and unity.

The standard Islamic angelology is based on both Qur˒anic and extra-Qur˒anic tradition; for instance "the Spirit" (alruh) is mentioned in the Qur˒an, but is identified by tradition with Metatron, the Jewish angel "nearest to the Throne." The angel of death is mentioned (Q. 32:11) but not named; tradition knows him as ˓Izra˒il. Jibril (Jibra il) (Gabriel) is named three times, Mika˒il (Mikal) (Michael) once. Israfil, who will blow the trumpet at Resurrection, appears neither in the Qur˒an nor hadith, but became very popular—and symbolically necessary to form a quaternity of great archangels, under the Spirit and above the countless ranks of the heavenly host. Munkar and Nakir, the angels who weigh or question the souls of the dead in their graves, are likewise absent from canonical sources but much discussed by established authorities and universally accepted by believers. The following might represent a traditional Islamic angelography:

From the soles of his feet to this head, Israfil, angel of the Day of Judgment, has hairs and tongues over which are stretched veils. He glorifies Allah with each tongue in a thousand languages, and Allah creates from his breath a million angels who glorify Him. Israfil looks each day and each night toward Hell, approaches without being seen, and weeps; he grows thin as a bowstring and weeps bitter tears. His trumpet or horn has the form of a beast's horn and contains dwellings like the cells of a bee's honeycomb; in these the souls of the dead repose.

Mika˒il was created by God five thousand years after Israfil. He has hairs of saffron from his head to his feet, and his wings are of green topaz. On each hair he has a million faces and in each face a million eyes and tongues. Each tongue speaks a million languages and from each eye falls seventy thousand tears. These become the Kerubim who lean down over the rain and the flowers, the trees and fruit.

Jibra˒il was created five hundred years after Mika˒il. He has sixteen hundred wings and hair of saffron. The sun is between his eyes and each hair has the brightness of the moon and stars. Each day he enters the Ocean of Light 360 times. When he comes forth, a million drops fall from each wing to become angels who glorify God. When he appeared to the Prophet to reveal the Qur˒an, his wings stretched from the East to the West. His feet were yellow, his wings green, and he wore a necklace of rubies or coral. His brow was light, his face luminous; his teeth were of a radiant brightness. Between his two eyes were written the words: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God."

The angel of death, ˓Izra˒il, is veiled before the creatures of God with a million veils. His immensity is vaster than the heavens, and the East and West are between his hands like a dish on which all things have been set, or like a man who has been put between his hands that he might eat him, and he eats of him what he wishes; and thus the angel of death turns the world this way and that, just as men turn their money in their hands. He sits on a throne in the sixth heaven. He has four faces, one before him, one on his head, one behind him, and one beneath his feet. He has four wings, and his body is covered with innumerable eyes. When one of these eyes closes, a creature dies.

In part from Greek philosophy, especially neo-Platonism, Islamic tradition elaborated a cosmic angelology based on the celestial Spheres—as for instance in the many versions of the Prophet's mir˓aj or Night Ascension into the Heavens, where he learns the ritual of prayer from the angels in their ranks. He is at first carried by the Buraq, a strange hybrid of mule, angel, woman, peacock, and then accompanied by Jibra˒il. Even this greatest angel, however, cannot accompany Muhammad to "the Lote Tree of the Farthest Limit" (that is, the beatific vision of theophany). This symbolizes the theological premise that angels, although more perfectly spiritual than humans, are in fact ontologically less central. God orders the angels to bow and worship Adam (in a legend probably adapted from the heretical Christian "Adam and Eve Books") even though Adam is created of clay and the angels of light. The angel Iblis refuses to acknowledge the divine in the human, and thus falls from grace and becomes Satan. (The sufi al-Hallaj therefore praised Iblis as the only true monotheist!) As an angel Iblis should be "made of" light, but in some versions he is described as a great jinni and therefore of a fiery nature. The jinni constitute a different class of supernatural beings, also attested in the Qur˒an; some of them were converted to true faith by Solomon or Muhammad himself.

˓Abd al-Karim al-Jili (a Sufi influenced by Ibn ˓Arabi) describes the angelic Spheres thus: The first heaven is that of the Moon. The Holy Spirit is here, "so that this heaven might have the same relation to earth as spirit to body." Adam dwells here in silvery-white light. The second heaven is that of Mercury (identified with the Egyptian Hermes and the prophets Idris and Enoch). Here the angels of the arts and crafts reside bathed in a gray luminousness. The third heaven, that of Venus, is created from the imagination and is the locale of the World of Similitudes, the subtle forms of all earthly things, the source of dreams and visions. The prophet Joseph lives here in yellow light. The heaven of the Sun is created from the light of the heart; Israfil presides over a host of prophets in a golden glow. The heaven of Mars, of the death-angel ˓Izra˒il, is blood-red with the light of judgment. That of Jupiter is blue with the light of spiritual power (himma) and is lorded over by Mika˒il. Here reside the angels of mercy and blessing, shaped as animals, birds, and men; others appear, in Jili's words, "as substances and accidents which bring health to the sick, or as solids and liquids that supply created beings with food and drink. Some are made half of fire and half of ice. Here resides Moses, drunk on the wine of the revelation of lordship." The seventh heaven (first to be created from the substance of the First Intelligence) is that of Saturn, and consists of Black Light, symbolic of fana˒, annihilation in the divine Oneness.

The grandeur of this cosmic vision is given a metaphysical dimension by the Persian philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna) who, speaking of the angels, says, "The soul must grasp the beauty of the object that it loves; the image of that beauty increases the ardor of love; this ardor makes the soul look upward. Thus imagination of beauty causes ardor of love, love causes desire, and desire causes motion" on the level both of the Spheres (which are drawn in love toward their Archangel-Intellects) and of human souls (who are drawn in love toward their guardians or personal angels).

On the fringes of Islamic orthodoxy such mystical angelology shaded into occultism. Elaborate concordances of angelic correspondences, names, powers, symbols, and the like evolved out of the late classical synthesis (e.g., those described in the Egyptian Magical Papyri). Amulets were constructed, evocations and seances performed. Like their medieval and Renaissance counterparts in Europe, Islamic hermeticists sought and practiced the "angelic conversation." At its highest level of sophistication this magical angelology aims at no benefit other than existential participation in the divine or angelic consciousness. "By philosophy man realizes the virtual characteristics of his race. He attains the form of humanity and progresses on the hierarchy of beings until in crossing the straight way (or 'bridge') and the correct path, he becomes an Angel" (Brethren of Purity [Risalat al-jami˓ah]).

An artistic representation of Muhammad's ascent to heaven appears in the volume one color plates.

See alsoMi˓raj ; Religious Beliefs .


Corbin, Henry. Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. Translated by Ralph Manheim. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Hallaj, Mansur. The Tawasin. Translated by A. A. at-Tarjumana. Berkeley, Calif.: Diwan Press, 1974.

Rumi, Maulana Jalaluddin. The Mathnawi. Translated by Reynold A. Nicholson. London: Luzac & Co., 1978.

Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Angels. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980.

Peter Lamborn Wilson


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Alternate Names

Cherubim, Seraphim, Malaaikah

Appears In

The Holy Bible, the Qur'an



Character Overview

In many of the world's religions, angels are spiritual beings who act as intermediaries, or mediators, between God and humans. As messengers of God, angels may serve any number of purposes. Their role may be to teach, command, or inform individuals of their destiny, or future path in life. Angels may also act to protect or help people.

The word “angel” comes from the Greek word angelos, meaning “messenger.” In Western religions, the word specifically describes a benevolent, or kind and helpful, being. However, in most other religions, the line separating “good” angels from “bad” angels is not always clear. An angel may act benevolently in one situation but with evil intent in another.

The Nature of Angels The world's religions hold different views about the nature of angels. Some regard angels as divine beings who deserve to be worshiped rather than just treated as messengers of God. Disagreement also exists about the bodies of angels. Some think that angels have physical bodies. Others insist that angels only appear to have such bodies. Still others believe that angels are purely spiritual beings who have the ability to assume material (touchable) bodies.

Zoroastrianism and Judaism The view of angels in Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism, a faith founded by the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster. Zoroastrian mythology describes a fight between Ahura Mazda (pronounced ah-HOO-ruh MAHZ-duh) and Ahriman (pronounced AH-ri-muhn), which are forces of good and evil with armies of angels and devils. Like Ahura Mazda, the Old Testament god Yahweh (pronounced YAH-way) has an army of angels. These warrior angels battle against evil forces led by Satan , who resembles Ahriman.

Following the Zoroastrian view, Judaism divides the universe into three parts: earth, heaven , and hell. Earth is the home of humans. Heaven is reserved for God and his angels. Hell is the dark world of Satan and his followers. Angels fulfill a similar role in the two religions, linking heaven with the world of humans and revealing God's plans and laws to humans. Their function is to serve God and carry out his will. They reward goodness and punish wickedness and injustice. They also help people understand God's will and take the souls of righteous individuals to heaven.

Christianity The Christian concept of a three-part universe came from Judaic and Zoroastrian ideas, as did Christian ideas of angels and their functions. In the Christian view, angels are God's messengers. Angels proclaimed the birth of Christ and continue to play an active role in the daily lives of Christians. They bring strength to those who are weak and comfort to those who suffer and carry the prayers of faithful Christians to God. According to legend, guardian angels watch over children.

Islam The Islamic idea of angels is similar to Judaic and Christian views. God is in heaven, and the angels serve him and carry out his will; however, while Judaism and Christianity generally divide spiritual beings into those who are with or against God, Islam divides such beings into angels, demons, and djinni (pronounced JIN-ee), spiritual beings or génies. The djinni may be either good or harmful. According to Islamic folklore, they were created out of fire , can be visible or invisible, and can assume various human or animal shapes.

Hierarchies of Angels Angels in different orders, or levels, were a part of the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia, a region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers located in present-day Iraq. Later, in the fifth century CE, an anonymous Christian theologian known as Pseudo-Dionysius (pronounced SOO-doh dye-o-NIH-shus) the Areopagite (pronounced ar-ee-OP-uh-jyte) described a hierarchy, or ranked order of importance, for angels. Based on his writings, angels are traditionally ranked in nine orders. The highest order of angels is the seraphim, followed by the cherubim, thrones, dominions (or dominations), virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels.

According to Pseudo-Dionysius's hierarchy, the first circle of angels (the seraphim, cherubim, and thrones) devote their time to thinking about God. The second circle (the dominions, virtues, and powers) rule the universe. The third circle (principalities, archangels, and angels) carry out the orders of the superior angels.

Fallen Angels

Fallen angels were angels who had once been close to God but “fell” to a lower position. They tried to interfere with the relationship between human beings and God by encouraging individuals to sin. Fallen angels were also believed to cause such disasters as famine, disease, war, and earthquakes.

In Christian belief, the leader of the fallen angels is Lucifer, also known as Satan. He led a rebellion against God, for which he and the other fallen angels were cast into hell.

Angels in Context

Over the centuries, people have described the function of angels in various ways. The role of angels is developed in greatest detail in religions based on revelation, the communication of divine truth or divine will to human beings. These religions include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Zoroastrianism.

In religions based on revelation, like Christianity, God and humans are distant from each other. Angels serve the purpose of bridging the gap between them. Angels praise God, carry out God's will, and reveal divine word. They may also help people attain salvation or receive special favors. Furthermore, acting for God, angels may influence human affairs through such deeds as rewarding faithful believers, punishing people who do evil, and helping people in need.

Angels tend to play a lesser role in polytheistic religions, or religions that feature many gods, such as the ancient Greek pantheon. The gods themselves may carry out angelic functions, often taking human forms. In religions based on the belief that all things are sacred and that the divine and the human share one essence, angels are less important. They are not needed to bridge a gap between the gods and humankind. However, even in these religions, angel-like spiritual beings may help people relate to the divine.

Key Themes and Symbols

At first, artists struggled with the problem of how to represent angels. Written descriptions were not very helpful. Artists tried various approaches before arriving at the image of a young male figure. Later they added two feathery wings to the figure's upper back. The wings suggested that angels were spiritual beings elevated above humans and associated with heaven. Besides wings, angels were sometimes portrayed with halos, long hair, and flowing white robes.

Over time, artists came to depict the different orders of angels in distinct ways. For instance, seraphim sometimes were shown with six wings and holding shields. Around the seraphim, flames burned to symbolize their devotion to God. Artists often portrayed the dominions bearing swords and spears as symbols of God's power.

Angels in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Since a large percentage of European art during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicted scenes from the Bible, angels appeared in many paintings of the period. Some of the most famous depictions of angels are found in Fra Angelico's Annunciation (c. 1440) and Sistine Madonna by Raphael (c. 1512). Angels often appeared as decorative sculptures on church exteriors as well.

The contemporary arts contain many depictions of angels. C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet (1938) was the first in a trilogy of books that took numerous Christian figures, including Eve, Satan, and angels, and re-imagined them in a science fiction setting. Films that portray angels include the Frank Capra classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Angels in the Outfield (1951 and 1994), and the 1998 film City of Angels, which starred Nicolas Cage as an angel named Seth.

Several television shows have also featured angels as main characters. Examples include Highway to Heaven (1984-1989) starring Michael Landon and Touched by an Angel (1994-2003).

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

According to a 2006 poll by the Associated Press, more than half of Americans surveyed said they believe in angels. How do you think this affects the portrayal of angels in popular media such as films, art, and television?

SEE ALSO Ahriman; Ahura Mazda; Persian Mythology; Semitic Mythology


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At the end of the millennium, nearly three of four Americans reported that they believed in angels. While our earliest recorded references to angels date to the Gnostic culture of the first centuries c.e., angels cannot be understood apart from the development of monotheism begun with Zoroastrianism.

Writing in Persia (now Iran) between 1000 and 630 b.c.e., Zoroaster challenged the polytheistic religious traditions of his day, promoting instead an idea of one supreme God and an evil spirit who opposed God. This reorganized a Gnostic belief in a spiritual conflict between good and evil beings. In the centuries following his teachings, the commitment to monotheism grew as the Persian Empire spread into Egypt and Europe, although people continued to worship the Aryan nature gods in popular practices. Eventually, rather than being eliminated, the gods were incorporated into the new monotheism as angels, a demotion that preserved the idea of one supreme God while also accommodating popular practices.

The ancient polytheistic traditions therefore provided important precedents to contemporary angels. The word itself comes from the Greek angelos, meaning messenger, making a reference to the Greek god Hermes, who was the divine messenger between humans and the gods. The concept of a "guardian angel" also echoes Greek and Roman beliefs, as it was accepted that every man had his Genius and every woman her Juno. The hierarchy of angels and the assignments of specific tasks to certain divine beings are also borrowed from earlier traditions.

The Hebrews, already a monotheistic culture during the Hellenistic period, came into contact with the ideas of Zoroastrianism after the Babylonian exile. By tradition Yahweh, a remote God, could be reached only through intermediaries; the angels of Zoroastrianism may have seemed to fulfill the same function. Angels emerged later in apocalyptic Jewish writings, notably with the legends that came to be recorded in the Books of Enoch in about 200 c.e..

While Judaism distanced itself from popular angel traditions, Christianity, in its formative stage at the time, incorporated them. Even then, however, some viewed angels as a threat to orthodox faith: The Apostle Paul, for instance, warned against "angel worship" and stressed that Christ, not the angels, was the sole mediator between God and humans.

Despite the controversies, angels remained in popular consciousness, gaining prominence and legitimacy in the medieval period. Parallel writings on the divine nature and importance of angels emerged with the rise of the Jewish mystic tradition Kabbalah, in the writings of the Muslim cosmographer al-Qazwini, in Dante's epic The Divine Comedy, and in the philosophical writings of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas asserted the noncorporeality of angels, arguing that they, like God, are "pure intelligence" and so are not subject to the bodily drives of hunger or lust, claims echoed in Islam. Ironically, it was during this Gothic period that angels came to be depicted in art as corporeal, human, and sensual.

Angels fell out of favor in religious thought and art as emphasis shifted away from the supernatural during the Age of Enlightenment. Demoted once again, angels, now feminized and infantilized, became central to the sentimental art of Victorian England in the nineteenth century.

This sentimentality combines with more traditionally religious ideas in the representations of angels found in contemporary material goods, books, film, and television. Yet while the visual media reference earlier writings and artwork, through visual codes they also present an idea not commonly accepted within any religious tradition: the conflation of angels with spirits of the deceased. Today, both ghosts and angels are represented similarly (a halo of backlight, an ethereal smile, a white robe), and both serve similar narrative functions, as the deceased must return to earth to perform good deeds to earn his or her rank as an angel (see, e.g., the Topper films [1937, 1939, 1941, 1979] It's a Wonderful Life [1946], The Bishop's Wife [1947, remade as The Preacher's Wife, 1996], Heaven Can Wait [1978], and Ghost [1990]).

In the last decade of the millennium, more than three hundred web sites were devoted to angels; an average of eighteen million Americans a week watched the televised series Touched by an Angel; and more than five million books on angels had been sold, most of which were authored by persons without religious training and in many cases outside formal religious institutions altogether. Thus contemporary angels, like their predecessors of earlier periods, seem to be flourishing, particularly outside the formal institutions of religion.

See alsoDivinity; Gnosticism; God; Heaven; Kabbalah.


Bloom, Harold. Omens of Millennium. 1996.

Clark, Lynn Schofield. From Angels to Aliens. Forthcoming.

Knapp, Gottfried. Angels, Archangels and All the Company of Heaven. 1995.

MacGregor, Geddes. Angels: Ministers of Grace. 1988.

Murata, Sachiko. "The Angels." In Islamic Spirituality, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. 1987.

Lynn Schofield Clark


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An order of angelic spirits usually ranked after the seraphim. Although the Hebrew word k erûbîm (plural of k erûb ) may be connected with the Akkadian verb karābu, "to bless, to praise," there is no evidence that the Israelites ever considered cherubim as intercessors or praisers of Yahweh. Nor were cherubim thought to be angels, i.e., God's messengers. Cherubim were closely linked with God's glory. As representations in gilded wood and in relief carvings (1 Kgs 6.2329; 2 Chr 3.7, 1013), in gold and woven into cloth trappings of the tent of meeting and the veil of the Holy of Holies (Ex 25.1820; 26.1, 31; 2 Chr 3.14), they were prominent figures where God's glory was believed to dwell [see glory (in the bible)]. They were humanlike in aspect but double-winged and were apparently reminders and guardians of Yahweh's glory.

Yahweh enthroned upon cherubim became a common concept in Israelite cultic lore [1 Sm 4.4; 2 Sm 6.2; 2 Kgs 19.15; 1 Chr 13.6; Is 37.16; Ps 79(80.2); 98(99.1)]. Once they were assigned "to guard the way to the tree of life" in God's garden (Gn 3.24). Perhaps a guarding function was normal for them, but there is no other explicit evidence. In 2 Sm 22.11 and [Ps 17(18.11)] a cherub was Yahweh's flying steed that He mounted to come swiftly to the psalmist's rescue and may have been symbolical of God's ubiquity and agility.

Ezekiel described God's chariot as supported and moved by "figures resembling four living creatures" (Ez

1.428) and in 10.20 recognized them as cherubim. He saw them as human in form but four-winged and four faced. Their wings were outstretched and supported the firmament above which God was enthroned in splendor. When they moved, their wings clapped like thunder, and they sounded like an army shouting a battle cry. They symbolized, then, God's power and mobility.

The part human and part animal mythical creatures of the ancient Middle East may have been the source of the much-modified Israelite conception of cherubim. In Phoenician culture a krb had the function of ushering worshipers to the deity and representations of krb guarding an enthroned king have been found. In the more ancient Akkadian culture a kāribu was an adviser to the gods and an advocate for devotees. In Israelite religion they had no direct role concerning the faithful, nor were they God's advisers. Their attendance on God's glory, their terrifying superhuman mobility, and in general the development of angelology in the postexilic period led to their identification with God's heavenly courtiers.

In the New Testament they are alluded to as celestial attendants in chapters four to six of the Revelation, where the author used imagery derived from Ezekiel. Catholic tradition describes them as angels who have an intimate knowledge of God and continually praise Him. This seems to be a theological development stemming from the four living beings of the Book of revelation.

Bibliography: m. haran, "The Ark and the Cherubim: Their Symbolic Significance in Biblical Ritual," Israel Exploration Journal 9:1 (1959) 3038; 9:2 (1959) 8998. w. b. barrick, "The Straight-legged Cherubim of Ezekiel's Inaugural Vision (Ezekiel 1:7a)," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 44 (1982) 543550. r. gilboa, "Cherubim: An Inquiry Into An Enigma," Biblische Notizen 82(1996) 5975. f. strickert, "Philo on the cherubim," The Studia Philonica Annual (Atlanta 1996) 4057. s. l. cook, "Creation Archetypes and Mythogems in Ezekiel: Significance and Theological Ramifications," Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers v. 38 (Atlanta 1999) 123146.

[t. l. fallon/eds.]


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Angel (Gk., angelos, ‘messenger’). An intermediary between heaven and earth. In the early religious imagination of the Jews, the connection between heaven and earth was thought to be literal, as in the attempt to build a tower of Babel (Genesis 11. 1–9). For that reason, Jacob had a vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder between heaven and earth (Genesis 28. 12). It was only later (perhaps under Persian influence) that they developed their own means of propulsion with wings. There are various references to angels (Heb., malakhim, ‘messengers’) in the Bible. Later reflection named many (e.g. Gabriel, Michael, Metatron, Raphael, Raziel, Uriel): they carry prayers to God, they teach Torah to each embryo in the womb, and they accompany Jewish fathers as they walk home on the evening of Sabbath.

Jewish angelology was taken over by early Christianity. Catholic teaching includes few pronouncements on angels, but enjoins a cult similar to that of the saints. In Christianity, the notion of fallen angels is developed further. These refuse to return or acknowledge the sovereignty and love of God: they are not destroyed but have a limited scope of subversive activity.

In Islam, angels (Arab., malāʾika, pl., of malak) are ‘messengers with wings’ (Qurʾān 35. 1, the sūra of angels). They were created before humans, and protested to Allāh at his plan to create human beings (2. 30–3), though they agreed to bow down to Adam (2. 34), except for Iblīs (see DEVIL).

The angel of revelation is Jibrīl (Gabriel), who ‘brings down (the revelation) to your heart, by Allah's permission' (2. 97), and he is mentioned together with Mikāʾīl (2. 98). The angel of death (32. 11) is not named, but tradition calls him ʿIzrāʾil, while the angel who will announce the Day of Judgement is Isrāfīl. Two angels, Munkar and Nakīr, question people, on their first night in the grave, about Muḥammad: if they answer that he is rasūl Allāh, the messenger of God, they are left in peace until Yaum al-Qiyama, the day of Resurrection. For others, there ensues the ‘punishment in the tomb’.


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Judeo-Christian and Islamic



Alternate Names


Appears In

The Bible, the Torah


Attendants to God

Character Overview

Cherubim (or cherub in the singular form) are winged creatures that appear as attendants to God in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Their main duties are to praise God and to support his throne, though their roles vary from culture to culture.

Cherubim were probably introduced into ancient Hebrew culture by the Canaanites. The Hebrews expanded the role of the cherubim somewhat. For example, in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, cherubim guard the entrance to the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve are driven out of Paradise. Cherubim also protect the Ark of the Covenant (which contained the original tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed), and God is described as riding on the back of a cherub. In general, cherubim represent the power and glory of the Hebrew god, Yahweh.

In Christian mythology, the cherubim are the second highest of the nine orders of angels , second only to the seraphim. The cherubim excel in wisdom and continually praise God. In Islamic mythology, the cherubim (or karibiyun) play much the same role, dwelling in heaven and constandy praising Allah, the Islamic god.

Scholars disagree about the origin of the word cherubim. It may have come from karabu, an ancient Near Eastern word meaning “to pray” or ”to bless,” or perhaps from mu-karribim, the guardians of the shrine of an ancient moon goddess.

Cherubim in Context

Whatever the origin of the name, the cherub itself can be traced to mythologies of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. In these cultures, cherubim were usually pictured as creatures with parts of four animals: the head of a bull, the wings of an eagle, the feet of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The four animals represented the four seasons, the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), and the four ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water). These original cherubim guarded the entrances to temples and palaces. In modern times, cherubim are thought of as the representation of pure, innocent love—God's love particularly. But biblical depictions of cherubim are not so gentle. They guard the gates of Eden with a flaming sword to keep Adam and Eve from returning.

Key Themes and Symbols

Cherubim are often portrayed as human figures having four wings, and they are usually painted blue, which signifies knowledge. Sometimes they feature the faces of other animals. In Jewish folklore of the Middle Ages, the cherubim were described as handsome young men. In Christian art, however, cherubim usually appear as children, most often as chubby, winged babies.

Cherubim in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Cherubim appear in many ancient illuminated manuscripts, as well as in many Renaissance paintings and sculptures. However, the images of cherubim are often confused with those of putti, which are winged infants that do not represent angels but instead symbolize love and innocence. These appeared often in Renaissance and later works, and have become the typical image of cherubim. In modern times, the word “cherub” is often used to describe an innocent-looking child, especially one with chubby or rosy cheeks. This type of representation was particularly popular in the decorative arts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Plump, rosy-cheeked cherubs appeared on china, lampshades, pillowcases, upholstery, and other household items.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

CHERUB is a series of novels written by Robert Muchamore about a group of teenage secret agents working for the British government. Like mythical cherubim, they serve as “guardian angels” for the citizens of the world, taking on terrorists and other evil forces. Their young age and seeming innocence allows them to work undetected by criminal organizations. The first volume of the series, CHERUB: The Recruit, was first published in the United Kingdom in 2004.

SEE ALSO Angels; Ark of the Covenant; Semitic Mythology