From the beginning of time the subject of angels has inspired mankind. An angel is usually understood to be a supernatural being or spirit, usually humanoid in form, found in various religions and mythologies all over the world. They are intermediaries between God and mankind and it is chiefly as divine messengers (the word ‘angel’ actually comes from the Greek for ‘messenger’) that angels appear in the religious stories of Christians, Muslims, Jews and a number of other faiths. Another of the tasks of angels is said to be the care of human beings, each of whom is supposed to have a ‘guardian angel’ to help to protect them from evil. For some reason music always seems to be intrinsically associated with angels – poets and others have imagined them as a vast choir in the heavens. Whilst angels are supposed to be invisible to human beings, except on special occasions, artists and writers have imagined them as having human form and they are often represented with wings. There are said to be nine different types of angels: they are seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels and, lastly, angels. The malicious nephilim, meanwhile, are the half-breed offspring of angels and humans. Angels have inspired artists, musicians and writers over the ages to create poems, songs, paintings and fantasy novels. Angels, both good and bad, appear in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the TV series Supernatural and Daniella Trussoni’s bestselling novel Angelology. What has caused so many to surrender to the lure of angels and follow them into the most haunting reaches of the imagination?
Belief in angels among people in general seems to be persistent – often regardless of whether the subject is themselves religious or not. The latest polls suggest that as many as three-quarters of Americans believe that angels exist (a far greater percentage than those who believe in astrology, ESP, ghosts, witchcraft, clairvoyance, Bigfoot and almost any other known supernatural phenomenon). A far smaller (though still significant) number say they have had some sort of an experience of an angel, whether visual (the ‘light at the end of a tunnel’ commonly seen by those who have had near-death experiences is often said to be caused by the presence of a ‘radiant being’ or angel); auditory, to convey a warning; a sense of being touched, pushed, or lifted, typically to avert a dangerous situation; or by smell, usually a pleasant fragrance such as vanilla. Of course, angelic ‘visitations’ are nothing new – they have been recorded virtually since the dawn of human history. The New Testament includes many interactions and conversations between angels and humans. As recently as the 20th century, visionaries and mystics have reported interactions with, and indeed dictations from, angels. For instance, the bed-ridden Italian writer and mystic Maria Valtorta wrote The Book of Azariah based on ‘dictations’ that she directly attributed to her guardian angel Azariah.
As to the origins of angels, explanations are both varied and numerous across the globe. Early Christians inherited Jewish understandings of angels, which in turn may have been inherited partly from the Egyptians. The Bible uses the term Elohim to refer to beings traditionally interpreted as angels or, literally translated, ‘messengers from God’. According to Kabalah, there are four worlds and our world is the last world: the world of action (Assiyah). Angels exist in the worlds above as a ‘task’ of God and, after an angel has completed its task, it ceases to exist. In this sense, famous angels and their tasks included the following: Michael, angel of justice and general of the heavenly host; Raphael, God’s healing force; Samael, the angel of death; Metatron, God’s heavenly scribe; and Lucifer Morning Star, God’s first living creation, most beautiful, betrayer of the hosts of heaven. The ancient Persian religious tradition of Zoroastrianism, which viewed the world as a battleground between forces of good and forces of evil, between light and darkness, conceived angels as the antithesis of demons. The Bahá’í Faith, meanwhile, describes angels as people who have consumed, with the fire of the love of God, all human traits and limitations, and have clothed themselves with angelic attributes and thereby become endowed with the attributes of the spiritual.
An even more intriguing theory is contained in the teachings of Theosophy, where angels or devas are regarded as living either in the atmospheres of the planets of the solar system (Planetary Angels) or inside the Sun (Solar Angels). Presumably other planetary systems and stars have their own angels and they help to guide the operation of the processes of nature such as the process of evolution and the growth of plants; their appearance is reputedly like coloured flames about the size of a human being. It is believed by Theosophists that devas can be observed when the third eye is activated. Some (but not most) devas originally incarnated as human beings. It is believed by Theosophists that nature spirits, elementals (gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders), and fairies can be also be observed when the third eye is activated. It is maintained by Theosophists that these less evolutionarily developed beings have never been previously incarnated as humans; they are regarded as being on a separate line of spiritual evolution called the ‘deva evolution’; eventually, as their souls advance as they reincarnate, it is believed they will incarnate as devas. It is asserted by Theosophists that all such beings possess bodies that are composed of etheric matter, a type of matter finer and more pure that is composed of smaller particles than ordinary physical plane matter.
It is in the worlds of fiction, however, that we find some of the most original and compelling depictions of angels. In Angelology, Daniella Trussoni imagines them as ageless beings who have adapted to the real world and live in secret communities, pursuing their own inscrutable agendas over the centuries of their existence. In His Dark Materials angels play a central role on both sides of a ‘war in heaven’ that spills over into countless other worlds and dimensions. Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series is a near-perfect fusion of faith and science fiction, featuring as it does a futuristic planet whose settlers may or may not have been carried there in the hands of God, rescued from the war that tore apart their home world, and who continues to communicate with them via the caste of ‘angels’ that live among them. The award-winning novel Skellig tells of a boy who stumbles into the old, ramshackle garage of his new home and finds something magical: a strange being – part owl, part angel – who needs his help if it is to survive. Angel Road is a mesmeric anthology of linked short stories about angels by Steven Savile. Savile depicts them as an essential part of human history, appearing in various time periods and in many forms. He does as well as any author at capturing the essence of these inspiring yet inscrutable beings, whom we show no sign of losing interest in at the dawning of a new millenium.