They are an integral part of our Christmas tradition, yet angels pre-date Christianity, says Ed West. What is the origin and role of these mythical messengers?

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From topping the tree to featuring in nativity scenes and Christmas carols, angels are an integral part of our Christmas tradition. But these mythical messengers pre-date Christianity, as Ed West explains.

For more on the history behind our festive traditions, read Christmas animals: bestiary of a feast day. From the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem to the reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh, they have an important part to play in our festive tales and traditions.

ANGELS

The Christmas story begins with a cherub-faced angel and ends with three wise men. Every year, we mark this most famous of tales in the carols we sing, the nativity scenes we put out and by the decorations on our trees, yet few are aware of the full role angels play in our history or their pre-biblical origins. Like many of our Christmas traditions, angels are a mixture of Christianity, folklore and marketing. Our modern idea stems largely from the Old Testament, in which angels were essentially messengers from God, that being the literal definition of the Hebrew word malach. However, the concept pre-dates Judaism, with heavenly messengers found in ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian and Persian religions, as well as Greece, although they probably originated in their current form in  Zoroastrianism, the oldest world religion. Zoroastrianism, which barely survives today in Iran, also gave us the idea of the Magi, or “wise men”, although they were more like astrologers or fortune tellers (from it we get the word “magic”). Strangely, Zoroastrianism’s ideas probably flourish most of all today through TV series Game of Thrones, the fire-worshipping faith clearly being the basis for the Red God religion.

Angels. Fresco

The Annunciation, circa 1450, a fresco by Fra Angelico.

Although the Catholic Church teaches that angels are pure spirits without physical bodies, over the years some of the finest minds in Christendom have argued over what exactly they looked like and which were most important. It was generally agreed that there were several orders of angels, the highest ranking  being the six-winged Seraphim (“the burning ones”), who are caretakers to God’s throne and spend the day shouting phrases of appreciation by His side.

Even stranger looking are the Cherubim, who have four faces, of a man, ox, lion and eagle, and four conjoined wings covered with eyes. Cherubim guard the Tree of Life in Eden, from where all living things originate, according to Hebrew tradition.

LUCIFER THE CHERUB

The most famous Cherub of all was Lucifer, according to the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, although it is generally agreed the evil one was some sort of angel who rebelled against God. Strangely, Lucifer is still worshipped today by the Yazidi of northern Iraq, one of seven angels they idolise; they also know him as Melek Taus, the peacock angel, and believe he has since repented and been restored to God’s favour. Alas, this has often been used as an excuse for persecution by Islamists who accuse them of devil-worship, mostly recently ISIS.

Angels. Lucifer

The most famous Cherub of them all” The Archangels triumphing over Lucifer, a panel by Marco D’Oggiono.

Another group, often confused with Cherubim, are the Putti, the usually blond babies who appear in Renaissance art. Meanwhile, the lowest order of angels is the Malakhim, the regular angel infantry among whom one finds “guardian angels”. Honorius of Autun in the 12th century believed that every soul was assigned a guardian angel the moment it got a body; a few decades later, Duns Scotus argued that every angel must accept whatever task it has been given by God, rather like solicitors or taxis. According to Islamic tradition, each individual has two guardian angels, one in front and one behind, while another two entities, the recorders, stand on each side remembering their actions. Christians sometimes believed that a guardian angel was matched by a personal demon giving conflicting advice, a motif that has appeared from medieval mystery plays to Faust to Tintin.

Church tradition about the hierarchy of angels originates with an obscure sixth-century writer called Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, author of De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy). By this stage angels were already depicted with wings, which seems an obvious borrowing from ancient Greek mythology.

During the 12th century, when universities first emerged and thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great laid the foundations for the modern world, the greatest minds of the age debated the celestial hierarchy. Medieval angelology could be quite arcane, 15th-century philosopher Marsilio Ficino suggesting, for example, that there were 399,920,004 angels in total (how he got to that figure is a mystery).

HEAVENLY HIRARCHY

At the top of the heavenly hierarchy are the seven archangels, that number significant in almost all religions, although only Gabriel, Michael and, to a certain extent, Raphael are really mentioned in scripture and celebrated collectively on 29 September, Michaelmas. Of the other archangels – Uriel, Raguel, Ramiel and Sariel – almost nothing is known.

Gabriel first appears in the Book of Daniel, where he is described as “the man in linen”; later, in Ezekiel, the angel is sent to destroy Jerusalem but luckily God changes His mind. Gabriel also appeared to the Virgin Mary, which is why most of us still use an angel as a tree-topper, a tradition that began in the mid 19th century after the Illustrated London News showed Victoria and Albert with one.

Angels. Christmas tree

Christmas at Windsor Castle in The Illustrated London News, 1848.

Later, Gabriel appeared to an Arabian trader called Mohammed and revealed the Koran, but the archangel has a perhaps even more important job than informing major historical figures about God’s whims. In Jewish mythology, Gabriel watches the Tree of Souls in the Garden of Eden; the tree produces new human souls, which then fall into the Treasury of Souls, at which point Gabriel reaches in and takes one. After this Lailah, the angel of conception and the only prominent angel with female features, looks after the embryo until birth. Hanina ben Pappa, a third-century Jewish scholar, suggested that each time a woman conceives, Lailah (literally “night”) takes a bit of semen and places it before God, saying, “Sovereign of the universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?” Well, someone has to do it.

Although theologians often regard angels as being disembodied, in human form they provided a rich inspiration for art, such as The Dream of Joachim by Giotto and The Annunciation by Fra Angelico, as well as Michaelangelo’s 1495 marble angel. Angels commonly appeared androgynous, partly because in the Eastern Roman empire, which hugely influenced western art as well as religion, they were often depicted as eunuchs, of which the Byzantine court had many.

WHO IS LIKE GOD

The exception is Michael (in Hebrew, “who is like God”), who is depicted as a warrior, a spear in his right hand and palm branch in his left. This martial association dates back to the Old Testament, when Michael was seen as protecting the Jews from their enemies, and was taken up by Orthodox Christians and western crusaders. Later, he became patron to policemen and fire fighters, and anyone who risks their life for the greater good.

Angels. Michael

Archangel Michael in stained glass at Eaton Bishop church, Herefordshire.

Catholics believe that St Michael has four main roles, chief of which is a sort of spiritual military leader as the head of the Army of God against the forces of darkness, although, like with Islam’s “greater jihad”, this is about the struggle within ourselves. Michael is also the angel of death, so just as Gabriel is there when our lives begin, he is there at the end, descending at the hour of passing and giving each of us the chance to redeem ourselves. He then weighs each soul, which is why he is often shown holding scales (clearly influenced by Ancient Egypt, where the souls of the dead were weighed by the god Anubis). The 13th-century philosopher St Bonaventure stated that the Archangel Michael was prince of the Seraphim, while his contemporary Aquinas said he was in charge of the guardian angels. At any rate, an extremely busy angel.

MICHAEL OF THE MOUNTAINS

The exact position of the archangels in the heavenly order has always been a subject of debate, some Protestant groups believing Michael to be the same as Christ and others sceptical of angels altogether. In the 18th century it was such a hot topic that in 1758 a bishop called Robert Clayton was prosecuted for his belief that Gabriel was the Holy Spirit.

One curious tradition, dating back to the conversion of the barbarian tribes after Rome fell, is that reverence to Michael became associated with mountains and hills. The pagan Germans dedicated hills to gods and so missionaries co-opted the tradition but transferred it to Michael, which is why there are so many St Michael’s churches on hills, including Bristol, Highgate and Cornwall, where the angel is supposed to have appeared to fishermen (and King Arthur). Elsewhere, there is the San Migel Aralarkoa in Navarre, the beautiful Mont-Saint-Michel monastery in Normandy and Sacra di San Michele in Piedmont, a 10th-century abbey that inspired Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose.

Angels. Seraphim

A six-winged Seraphim in Anagni Cathedral, Italy.

Perhaps an even more famous example is Skellig Michael, off the west of Ireland, an important holy place during the great period of Irish monasticism. Celtic monks loved austere, inhospitable locations and the island hilltop was absurdly uncomfortable and dangerous, only approachable on calm days; despite this, the Vikings still managed to raid the place. It is one of the holiest sites in Ireland, although it is perhaps now best known as the location for the final scene in Star Wars: Episode VII.

Today, about a third of Britons, and twice that number of Americans, believe in angels and they are very much a part of Catholic teaching. As recently as 2014, in a homily for the Feast of Holy Guardian Angels, Pope Francis urged that angels not be considered “a little imaginative” but rather the “truth”.

And they still make an appearance. During the 1967 Six Day War, an Israeli soldier recalled how, lying wounded on the ground and seeing Syrian troops bearing down on him, a golden figure appeared in the sky, informing him that he had been chosen for an awesome mission to rebuild the Temple on Jerusalem. When he woke up in hospital he relayed his experience to some UN inspectors, who informed him in astonished tones that a few days previously some Syrian soldiers had told them about a mysterious gold figure who had appeared as they approached an injured Israeli, forcing them to flee.

The now elderly soldier is still alive but has not as yet rebuilt the Temple – although, since doing so would probably trigger a world war, perhaps this is a good thing. Millennia after the first complex religions developed in the Middle East, these heavenly messengers exert a powerful hold on the imagination.