It is unknown if the idea of angels arose in different cultures independently, if the idea traveled from culture to culture, or which cultural ideas seeded the beliefs of others. For thousands of years, merchants and mercenaries, wise men and priests, prophets and pagans, and those uprooted by famine or war have wandered and intermingled. Thus it is that you can find the concept of angels in the mythologies of nearly every known ancient culture.
Angels have been recorded in history by many different cultures throughout the world. Some scholars say that the earliest religious representation of the angels dates back to the city of Ur, in the Euphrates Valley, c. 4000–2500 b.c.e. A stele, which is a stone slab, showed a winged figure descended from one of the seven heavens to pour the water of life from an overflowing jar into the cup held by the king. Other records show that in Mesopotamia, there were giant winged creatures, part human, part animal, known as griffins. And in Egypt, Nepthys, the twin sister of the goddess Isis, is shown in paintings and reliefs enfolding the dead in her beautiful wings. Her image is found carved on the inner right-hand door of Shrine III in the tomb of Tutankhamen, c. fourteenth century b.c.e. Her angelic representation encompasses the dead pharaoh and protects him from all harm.
The ancient Egyptians believed that each person born into the world had a supernatural double, called her ka, who was born alongside the person and stayed as a part of her life ever after. The ka was, in one sense, what we now call a guardian angel.
Without doubt, based upon archeological evidence and other prehistoric information, there were angels long before Christianity appeared on the religious stage. Angels are most ancient, predating even early Judaism. Images of angels appear all over Asia Minor, in different cultures in the ancient civilized world, and westward into Greece and Italy. Iris, “the rainbow of Zeus,” and Hermes, messenger of the gods and guide of souls, both wear wings and serve angelic functions, carrying messages and bringing aid to humans. The famous Greek sculpture Winged Victory (Nike) served as a model for the Renaissance angels that proliferated into the Middle Ages, firmly establishing the concept of angels in that period.
Angels are also found in the Asian cultures represented by Buddhism and Taoism. Without question, the idea of angels appears everywhere in Asia Minor; from there it extended into the Mediterranean basin of Greece and Italy, where it would be transformed.
Angels in the Old Testament
Several angels appear in stories throughout the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament). In the earlier books the angels are described as heavenly beings created by God. As religious beliefs transformed throughout the ages so did the view of the angels. There were angels who brought news of death and destruction and others who killed thousands. There were also stories in the Bible about ministering angels who provided protection, comfort, and delivered words of wisdom from God.
It is said that there were angels who stood with flaming swords at the gates of the Garden of Eden. These guardians wanted to prevent Adam and Eve from returning to eat the fruit from the Tree of Immortal Life after they were expelled from the garden.
As you read the following stories from the Old Testament, allow your own truth to unfold as you learn more about the angels and their roles in history.
Abraham and Sarah
In Genesis 21:14–20, A young woman, Hagar, finds herself pregnant by an important man, Abraham, who has a powerful wife, Sarah. Sarah was not pleased, and when the poor girl Hagar could take no more abuse, she ran away. During her flight, she found a spring on the road to Shur and stopped there to rest and refresh herself. Here she had her first of two encounters with angelic presences, who told her to return home and that she would bear a son named Ishmael. After her son was born, they were cast into the desert. Dying of thirst, Hagar prayed as she had been taught to do. As she did, she heard the voice she had heard earlier: “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is,” said the voice of the angel of God, and Hagar took heart hearing this call from heaven. “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. And God was with the lad.”
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, had a difficult experience with an angel. Jacob had a shaded history of bad choices: he cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, he tricked his uncle Laban out of all his wealth and possessions, he married twice, and he had illegitimate children. Later in his life Jacob returned home wanting peace and forgiveness with his brother, but he was afraid his brother would kill him. One night, an angel came and Jacob wrestled with the angel all night long. In the end, Jacob prevailed. He then demanded a boon (blessing) from the angel, who gave it without ever identifying itself. But Jacob figured out that his struggle had been with a supernatural being, and since he had won, he concluded that all would be well with his brother. Jacob remained deeply involved with angelic presences all through his life, and when he reached the end of it, reviewing his experiences with the holy ones, he in wonder exclaimed, “God … has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil.”
This same Jacob is the one famous for “Jacob’s ladder.” He saw in a vision the multitude of angels ascending and descending a ladder that reached up to heaven. The Bible does not report whether or not the angels on the ladder in Jacob’s vision had wings, but one would presume not, since they were climbing up and down the ladder.
Abraham and Isaac
One of the most famous biblical stories of angels has to do with Abraham and his son Isaac. One day, Abraham heard the voice of God spoken through an angel calling out to him. Genesis 22:11 states, “And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham’ and he said, ‘Here am I.’” The voice instructed him to sacrifice his son Isaac. It ordered him to take the boy to the top of a remote mountain and slit his throat in the manner of the usual sacrificial lamb, and to let his blood run out as an offering to prove to God that he would surrender to his will. Without question, Abraham took his son to the top of a mountain, laid him across an altar, and when he was ready to sacrifice his beloved son an angel appeared. The angel’s voice stopped him and commanded, “Lay not thy hand upon the lad.” Abraham obeyed, no doubt thankfully, and at that moment he spotted a sheep with its woolly fleece entangled in the thorns of a bush. He caught it and sacrificed it, offering it up to God in place of his son.
The only angel mentioned by name in the history books of the Old Testament is the Angel of Death. This angel was an agent of destruction, presumably acting under direct orders from God. At the time of David, the Angel of Death destroyed 90,000 people and on another occasion, in the Assyrian army camp, it killed 185,000 soldiers.
For forty years the Israelites were in bondage in Egypt, and the all-powerful Pharaoh refused to free them from their slavery. Moses, desperate for his people to achieve their freedom, declared, “But when we cried out to the Lord, He heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt” (Numbers 20:16). After having delivered the people of Israel from Egypt and overseen their emancipation from the Pharaoh, the angel did not forsake them. The angel divided the waters of the Red Sea so they could pass through without getting wet. Then when the powerful army of Egypt was in hot pursuit, the “angel of God who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them. So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus the one did not come near the other all night” (Exodus 14:19–20)
Angels in the New Testament
The view and roles of the angels change dramatically in the New Testament. Gone are the Angels of Death and Vengeance, and also gone are the heroic deeds of angels. No longer do angels bring death and destruction, nor do they go about killing the firstborn of unbelievers. They are also no longer depicted as bland creatures without personalities. In the New Testament, the images of the angels are portrayed as being more personalized. From being purely abstract extensions of God, angels became friends to human beings, powers that could be called upon in times of stress or need.
See for yourself and draw your own conclusion as you now read and reflect upon the stories from the New Testament.
One of the most important angelic visitations in the view of the early Christians is the Annunciation, the speaking of those famous words: Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. The angel came to Mary and said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His Father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:30–33). When Mary’s pregnancy became obvious, Joseph, her husband, was embarrassed by this situation. But an angel appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid … for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20–21). After the birth of the Savior, the angel continued to look after the family and appeared twice to Joseph, giving him instructions on where to go so he could keep his family safe.
Angels after the Crucifixion of Christ
The Gospel of Matthew does mention that two angels, without wings but with “a countenance like lightning” and “garments white as snow,” were found sitting inside the cave in which Christ had been laid in burial. Mary Magdalene and Mary went to the tomb to care for the dead body, but when they arrived there was no body to be seen anywhere; It had disappeared. One of the angels informed them that the reason there wasn’t a corpse was because Christ had “risen up from the dead.” Not knowing what to think about this extraordinary occurrence, the women rushed to get the men to take a look for themselves, and they too, found the tomb empty. This story is told in many different versions by different Gospel writers, but the basic elements are the same.
In Vision of Paul, in New Testament Apocrypha, Paul is guided by an angel on a complicated and confusing journey through the territory of heaven and hell. The narrative shifts back and forth between beauty and horror. He has visions of utter bliss and visions of terrible punishments. Finally, the angel leads Paul to the door of the third heaven. Paul says, “And I looked at it and saw that it was a golden gate and that there were two golden tables above the pillars full of letters. (These letters are the names of the righteous, already inscribed in heaven while they still live on earth.) And again the angel turned to me and said: “Blessed are you if you enter in by these gates.” After entering the gates of paradise, Paul encounters the ancient prophet Enoch, who issues a warning to Paul not to reveal what he has seen in the third heaven. Then, the angel descends, with Paul, to the second heaven and thence to the earthly paradise, where the souls of those deemed righteous await the resurrection.
It was absolutely crucial for the new early church to draw a firm line of distinction between Christ and angels, who were considered to be the lesser intermediaries between God and his people. No doubt angels had their work to do delivering messages from God, but it had to be Christ who was the closest communicator to God.
Then the angel puts Paul in a golden boat and the narrative continues: “And about three thousand angels were singing a hymn before me until I reached the City of Christ.” When he reaches the City of Christ he says, “I saw in the midst of this city a great altar, very high, and there was David standing near the altar, whose countenance shone as the sun, and he held in his hands a psaltery and harp, and he sang psalms, saying Alleluia. And all in the city replied Alleluia till the very foundations of the city were shaken…. Turning round I saw golden thrones placed in each gate, and on them men having golden diadems and gems: and I looked carefully and saw inside between the twelve men thrones in glorious rank … so that no one is able to recount their praise…. Those thrones belong to those who had goodness and understanding of heart and made themselves fools for the sake of the Lord God.” It ends with Paul seeing 200 angels preceding Mary and singing hymns, and Mary informs him that he has been granted the unusual favor of coming to this place before he dies.
The story of the Ascension of Isaiah (in New Testament Apocrypha) is far less complex. The prophet is taken out of his body and led by an angel to the first heaven above the sky: “And I saw a throne in the midst, and on the right and on the left of it were angels singing praises.” He asks whom they praise and is told by the angels, “It is for the praise of him who is in the seventh heaven, for him who rests in eternity among his saints, and for his Beloved, whence I have been sent unto you.”
Angels were a difficult matter for the early church, especially concerning whether they had bodies or were incorporeal or pure spirit. While Scripture clearly states that angels appear as men, it also states plainly that angels are spiritus (Hebrews 1:14).
The “heaven above the sky” is the first heaven of seven, and the angel then takes Isaiah to the second heaven, where once more he sees a throne and angels to the right and to the left. Awed by the situation, the holy prophet prostrates himself to worship the angel on the throne, but is told not to do that; angels are not to be worshiped.
Ascending further, each of the succeeding heavens is filled with more glory than the one before, and the sixth heaven is of such glorious brightness that it makes the previous five dark by comparison. Isaiah wants to remain in this place of wonder, but the angel explains that Isaiah’s time on earth isn’t finished, but Jesus himself allows Isaiah to enter the seventh heaven. The vision ends with Christ escorting Isaiah down through all the heavens to earth to witness the Annunciation and the Incarnation.
The Church’s View on Angels
Constantine the Great (306–337), who was the emperor of Byzantium, converted to Christianity after having a powerful vision of a cross in the sky. It was profound enough to cause him to convert to Christianity even though it was still a minority religion at this time. This conversion convinced many others to follow. During this time period he also declared that angels have wings.
No doubt Constantine had a lot to do with the renewed interest in angels. At that time most people were used to stories of fairies and it was a small stretch from a winged fairy to an angel with wings.
What concerned the church fathers was that the common people were worshiping angels, and they believed that only God and His Son could be worshiped. This dilemma was settled by St. Paul when he attacked and denied the worship angels, with his usual “I know what’s best here” attitude. Nevertheless, the First Council of Nicea in 325 decided that belief in angels was to be church dogma. Apparently, this decision unleashed a rampant renewal of the angel worship that St. Paul had so detested. It was proclaimed idolatry in 343, less than twenty years after Nicea, by another council.
Finally, in 787, to end the controversy, the second Council of Nicea, called the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, was held. It declared a limited dogma of the archangels, which included their names, their specific functions, and also formally legitimated the depiction of angels in art.
The Jewish Tradition
While all the debate about angels was going on in the predominantly Christian world in Europe, a Jewish population lived side by side with their Christian neighbors, yet remained totally isolated from them. It’s hard to see just how any metaphysical or theological ideas might have been exchanged between the two communities, one clearly superior in number and political clout. Thus separated, and trying to maintain their own identity as a people through their language and traditional culture, medieval Jews lived in a religious vacuum.
Their great book and the term Kabbalah (also Kabala, Kabbala, Cabala, Cabalah) is derived from the Hebrew root kbl, which means “to receive.” It refers to matters that are occult (meaning “hidden”) or mystical knowledge so secret that it is rarely written down. It is transmitted from master to neophyte, or student, orally, in order to protect the secrets from being revealed to those not prepared to receive them or unworthy to do so.
All of the books of the Kabbalah constitute a system of guidance to the path to God, on which the believer is taken through a series of heavenly halls guided by angels. It is replete with long descriptions of how to make the journey safely up through a tree of angels, and it gives the secret passwords to bypass demons encountered along the path.
When the Jews were exiled from Babylon, Zoroastrianism was the primary religion, and with it came the concept of good angels on one side and bad angels, or demons, opposite, in an eternal tug of war. This notion of bad, or fallen angels, quite possibly influenced the Jewish tradition and later worked its way into Christianity.
In the Kabbalah are ten sefirot, or angels, considered to be the fundamental channels of divine energy. Their names are Foundation, Splendor, Eternity, Beauty, Power, Grace, Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding, and Crown. They are arranged in the shape of a tree and called the Tree of Life. The top of this tree is occupied by the singular angel Metatron, and beyond all of this is the mystical contemplation of God. It is so distant and removed that it makes it incomprehensible to ever know God directly, but only experience Him through His angels. As you can see, the angels play an important role in the teachings of the Kabbalah. They once again act as intermediaries between heaven and earth and oversee what occurs on earth.
Even the world’s oldest religious practice, shamanism, practiced by Native Americans, incorporates interaction with winged beings. These often come in the form of eagles or ravens or spirits and are not usually associated with the later angelic iconography.
Among Native Americans, great birds Raven and Eagle were believed to help humans, to heal or bring fire, or to carry messages from God. In this tradition, too, friendly spirits, or familiars, walk among the people and guard them from harm. These winged creatures are considered to be of great help to the tribal shaman in his work.
Angels in Art
Angels have been portrayed in art and literature throughout history. However, depictions of them in stone are the first forms of known angel art. In early recorded history one can find images of angels in many cultures around the world.
In Christian art from the twelfth century onward, angels almost always wear halos, though halos are not mentioned in Scripture as being part of standard angel gear. Artists painted halos to float over the heads of Jesus, angels, and saints, presumably to indicate that these were supernatural beings, different from humans.
As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages and the great Gothic cathedrals began to rise during the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, the Gothic form dominated art and architecture. Sculpture and stained glass windows were part of the Gothic design, and these magnificent cathedrals that seem to rise up into the very heavens were graced with beautiful depictions of the entire Christian story and included a plenitude of angels and angelic hosts. For example, the angels surrounding the main portal of the cathedral at Chartres, France, are there to express the sense of perfection of God’s creation as well as the sense humans had developed of angels being their protectors and guides or guardians.
Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci
Rembrandt was continually inspired to paint angels, many of which appear in his larger canvases; there are also glimpses of angels in his multitude of sketches. His brilliant use of bold light illuminates the figures in his paintings, especially in his piece The Sacrifice of Isaac, where an angel is stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son. He passionately illustrates the angels’ existence, and he dramatically depicts the angels’ role in protecting and guiding humanity even in desperate times.
Do angels really have wings?
This has been a debate throughout history. The image of the winged angel has been burned into our consciousness by centuries of beautiful and compelling art, much of it painted or sculpted by great masters, who represented angels with wings most magnificent. However, even though Scripture speaks of angels flying, there is no specific mention of wings per se.
One of the great Renaissance painters of all time was Leonardo da Vinci. When you view his famous works of art, you would imagine he had very clear visions of the angels’ beauty and grace. You can clearly see this when you witness his painting of a young angel holding Jesus’s robe in the Baptism of Christ and also when he shows the close relationship Tobias had with Archangel Michael in Tobias and the Angel. He also made copious notes regarding wings and flight in his notebooks, accompanied by many drawings speculating on how flight was accomplished by the nonsupernatural winged beings.
Russian and Greek Orthodox Icons
Not only Christian Europe, but also the Russian and Greek orthodox forms of Christianity contributed to great artistic renditions of angels (and saints). These brilliantly executed paintings, mostly on wood instead of canvas, are called icons. Their jewel-like mystical quality is riveting to the beholder’s eye, and they are intended to be visual meditations for the purpose of direct contact with the image portrayed.