Everyone knows what angels look like: a beautiful woman with wings who watches children crossing rickety bridges, a rosy-cheeked naked infant who rings bells at Christmas time, a beatific stone man with a haughty expression and a sword guarding a church portal, or perhaps the souls of the dearly departed frolicking about in white robes on the clouds while playing harps... or so says popular culture. Angels as envisioned by the prophets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - many of these prophets are, after all, identical - are just a bit different. Angels are a strange and terrible force. Many of them wouldn't look out of place in a round-up of science fiction characters, and they certainly aren't cute.
Angels in Christianity
These are the ancestors of the angels now inhabiting sentimental films and fuelling the greeting card industry. The general mould of an angel is a proud, beautiful, androgynous1 being, usually winged and larger-than-life. But the higher orders especially are described as having a much stranger appearance.
Although it isn't entirely clear how they came into being, Christianity's angels are thought to be entities which are entirely separate from God and possess free will. They inhabit a higher plane of existence than Man and generally follow orders, rather than merely being encouraged to do right. However, they're able to think for themselves and even sin, as in the case of the most famous fallen angel, Lucifer2.
The Nine Angelic Orders of Christianity
The classification of these angels has evolved over thousands of years of Judaeo-Christian tradition, with a slight reshuffling of the hierarchy, and the number of orders ranging from six to 12. The pecking order proposed in The Celestial Hierarchy, a 5th-Century text attributed to 'Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite'3 is generally considered canonical. This hierarchy was also employed by Thomas Aquinas and Dante, and will be used here.
The Nine Orders are further divided into three Spheres, each of which has a different task and a greater or lesser proximity to God. They're sometimes further grouped into Choirs, usually in pairs.
The First Sphere
The Seraphim (singular: Seraph), the 'burning ones', are the highest order of angels - and the closest to God. Four of them hover around God's throne and eternally sing his praises. They're said to regulate the energy flowing out into the Universe, creating love, which in turn creates life. They've a total understanding and knowledge of God, and represent eternal love, peace, and contemplation. Their name, which can also be translated as 'ardour' or 'carriers of warmth', implies that they're made of pure energy - usually, knowledge and love. This energy is so bright4 that not even divine beings, such as other angels, can look at them directly. Isaiah's description tells us that they have six wings. Two cover their face (so that even they can't look at God), two cover their feet (perhaps a euphemism for the genitalia), and they use the other two to fly. Seraphim are usually dressed in red.
The Cherubim (singular: Cherub), whose name means 'fullness of knowledge', are the next-highest order of angels. They serve as God's protectors, record-keepers, and even as divine chauffeurs by commanding the Ophanim. They guard Paradise and the Tree of Life, restrict access to celestial wisdom through the Akashic Records (the Book of Life), and are the first line of defence on the way to God's throne. Although they have perfect knowledge of God, they can't match the love of the Seraphim.
Cherubim seem to be the most misunderstood of angels. Modern representations usually show them as putti5, but Ezekiel describes them as having four faces: that of a man, an eagle, an ox and a lion, though that of the ox is the 'true face'. Although their legs are straight, they have the feet of a calf6 and four wings on each of their four sides, with 'the form of human hands under the wings'. This arrangement means they can move in any direction without turning.
They're also often depicted dressed in blue, and with eyes on their wings to symbolise their 'all-seeingness'. Solomon used representations of Cherubim to decorate his temple, and perhaps a more 'life-like' depiction can help settle the question of which way the angel on top of the Christmas tree should face.
The Ophanim (singular: Ophan), the 'wheels', are the strangest angels yet. Guided by their own individual Cherubim, they symbolise the seekers of God's wisdom and are very, very close to Him; they form his throne or chariot. This takes the general shape of a throne and is 'something like a sapphire'. But each individual Ophan is shaped like a great jasper-coloured, eye-covered wheel with a 'high and awesome' rim turning separately inside it - Ezekiel's famous 'wheel in a wheel' - which means that God had the first spinner rims, according to David Plotz's 'Blogging the Bible' project. They're also sometimes represented as flashing balls of wings and eyes.
The Ophanim may or may not be the same as the Thrones described in the New Testament. Thrones are angels who can reflect God's wisdom perfectly and are humble enough to make fair judgments. They symbolise God's authority and justice, and are the angels that come closest to achieving divine spiritual perfection.
The Second Sphere
These mid-range angels see to the day-to-day business of running the Universe.
The Dominions (also known as Hashmallim) are heavenly generals, or perhaps managers. Their main job stems from knowing how to delegate. They've great authority and good leadership skills, controlling all of the lesser angels and making sure the heavenly and natural laws are obeyed in the battle against the forces of darkness and chaos. They rarely manifest so that humans can see them, but are generally accepted to be beautiful humanoids with feathered wings - much like our idea of a 'normal' angel. However, they usually carry glowing orbs on their heads or the pommels of their swords to symbolise their authority.
The Virtues make up the tradesmen and craftsmen of the heavenly orders. They control the movements of the heavenly bodies and natural forces such as rain and wind, and are responsible for making miracles, whether they be physical miracles or just the encouragement and illumination of minds. Like the Seraphim, they're beings of light, love and energy, and rarely manifest.
The Powers are warrior angels whose job it is to patrol between Heaven and Earth to keep the forces of Evil at bay, and to guide souls to their proper destination. They aren't just well-muscled brutes, though. Powers are the keepers of history and experts on philosophy, theology and ideology. They allegedly use that knowledge to make sure power and might are distributed fairly among mankind. Powers were created after the fall of Lucifer to be completely loyal to God, and are generally considered to look quite war-like.
The Third Sphere
The lowest order of angels is usually the only one to interact directly with humans, functioning as messengers and soldiers.
The Principalities are the first of what we would recognise as 'guardian angels'. They're responsible for protecting separate groups of people, whether nations, cities or religious groups - perhaps there's even an angel of punk. Principalities usually don't interfere directly, but guide and inspire leaders. However, they can apparently manifest in a variety of forms7. Most of the fallen angels seem to have been Powers or Principalities.
The Archangels are the non-coms of the angel world. They aren't very high up in the grand scheme of things, but much more likely to instil fear and respect in those who feel their wrath. Besides being at the forefront of the battle between Heaven and Hell, they carry God's messages to humanity. They also carry big flaming swords.
Classically, there are seven head Archangels. Michael (also Prince of the Seraphim and commander-in-chief of the heavenly hosts) and Gabriel (who told Mary she was pregnant) are named in the New Testament. The name Rafael (or Raphael) comes from the Book of Tobias8. Uriel is mentioned in the Book of Enoch9. The other three are generally accepted by Roman Catholics to be Sealtiel, Jhudiel and Barachiel10. The Eastern Orthodox church names them as Selaphiel, Jegudiel and Barachiel, although the Book of Enoch names them as Raguel, Zerachiel and Remiel11. Pseudo-Dionysius calls them Chamuel, Jophiel and Zadkiel. And they were known to early Christians as Simiel, Orifiel and Zachariel.
The precise tasks of these seven angels have been debated even more than their names. They may guard different countries or celestial bodies, and are believed to correspond to the seven spirits of God described in the Book of Revelations.
The Malakhim are just plain old ordinary angels, and the ones most often represented in art and literature. They come in many different shapes and forms, but are generally concerned with the lives of individuals, be it as guardians or messengers. Although they're divine beings, angels can make mistakes.
Angels in Judaism
The accepted order is that established by Maimonides, a 12th-Century Egyptian rabbi, in his Mishneh Torah, a book of religious law. They can appear in many forms: as animals, men, pillars of fire or light, and even, as in the case of Moses, a burning bush. Some are created for a specific task and then disappear; some exist forever. But none can disobey G-d13. However, if ordered or made that way, they can commit acts of evil or even be evil, meaning the fall of the angel Samael (Satan) was preordained by G-d.
Angels are sometimes shown with one leg to demonstrate this lack of freedom. Prayers are never directed at angels, only carried by them, even though specific prayers may later be answered with the help of angels, such as Raphael's power to heal.
Generally, the literal belief in angels, even among orthodox Jews, is lower than among Christians; angels have a mostly metaphorical significance. For example, it is said that committing a bad deed will create a bad angel to speak out against you, while a good deed creates a good angel which vouches for you.
The Ten Angelic Orders of Judaism
Maimonides ranked the angels not by their importance but their comprehension of G-d, in descending order.
The Chayyot or Hayyoth, literally 'living beings', are the four-faced, four-winged angels seen by Ezekiel at the Kebar River. But they correspond to the Christian Seraphim rather than the Cherubim. Chayyot belong to the Merkabah, or godly chariot. And Hayliel YHWH, their leader, is capable of swallowing the world in one gulp.
They're sometimes represented as 'holy beasts' made of light and fire that pull the divine chariot, singing G-d's praises, although their flaming breath is a threat to other angels.
The Ophanim aren't identical to the Thrones in the Jewish angelarchy, and occupy the second rank. Also part of the Merkabah, they literally form the four wheels, moving because the spirit of the Cherubim is in them. They feature as mystical symbols in Kabbalism. 'Ophanim' is also the name given to a set of sacred physical postures and exercises, based on the Hebrew alphabet, which are meant to unify body and spirit, much like yoga.
The Erelim (singular: Arel or Er'el), the 'valiant ones', are equivalent to the Thrones (but not the Ophanim) of Christianity. They aren't wheel-shaped; they're perhaps even more bizarre. According to early Jewish mysticism, they're very large, to make room for their 70,000 heads, each with 70,000 mouths, each of which has 70,000 tongues, each of which is blessed with 70,000 sayings14. They watch the grass grow - literally guarding the vegetation and reporting to G-d on its status. The Erelim are also linked to death and destruction as a kind of 'Jewish Valkyrie', retrieving the souls of the dead and witnessing death and destruction.
The Chashmalim (singular: Chashmal) are roughly equivalent to the Christian Dominion. They have their own realm, which is placed in the care of Metatron, the godly scribe. Their leader, Chasmal, is known as the 'fire-speaking angel' and stands near to the throne of G-d.
The Seraphim have much the same role in Judaism as they do in Christianity, and share the same physical appearance, as recorded in Isaiah's vision. However, because the word used to describe them could also be transcribed as 'snake' - ancient Hebrew contained no written vowels - they've sometimes been represented as snake-shaped guardians, rather than six-winged beings of light.
The Malakhim (singular: Malakh) are the messengers of G-d. Sightings are common. They appear to the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) and numerous others, including Moses, Joshua and Balaam. Individual guardian angels also come from the order of the Malakhim.
Some angels have more specific tasks. Lailah ('night') oversees conception, uniting the sperm with the egg, and watches over the baby until its birth, teaching it the Torah, which it forgets when it is born, although it retains the knowledge in its subconscious.
The Elohim (singular: Eloah) are simply general 'godly beings'. The word has been used to describe G-d Himself (using the plural form, but with a singular pronoun). However, it can also refer to multiple, polytheistic gods. As angels, they're usually seen as 'extensions' of G-d, rather than beings in their own right.
Etymologically, the word 'Eloah' is related to 'Allah', the name of God in Islam. The name has also been adopted by other spiritual movements. In anthroposophy15, the Elohim, a group of spiritual, star-dwelling beings led by Jesus Christ, are the ancestors of the human race.
Raëlism16 shares a similar view, believing that the Elohim are a series of humanoid extraterrestrials whose advanced technology let them appear god-like, creating and watching over life on Earth.
The B'nai-Elohim, then, are the 'sons of godly beings', in contrast to the 'daughters of men', with whom they inter-married, according to the Book of Genesis. According to Jude and the Book of Enoch, they're angels who've come to Earth. But other sources define them as the direct descendants of Seth, and thus the 'pure' line of Adam untainted by Cain, or just generally as the descendants of strong rulers. As angels, they're generally believed to belong to the order of the Thrones.
The Cherubim are a disputed order. Some state that they're a metaphor for divine love, while others see them as real, divine beings led by Kerubiel. Part of the confusion stems from Solomon's use of cherubs as decorations in his great temple and, more specifically, on the Ark of the Covenant; as they are seen by some to be idols. However, as rabbi Geoff Dennis of the University of North Texas explains, this use of icons isn't prohibited because G-d himself specified their use, making this an exception rather than a breaking of the rules. It's been proposed that their form - zoomorphic, four-faced, winged beings - was influenced by Sumerian shedu, winged bulls or lions with the heads of kings which were placed in pairs at doorways as protective deities.
The Ishim are man-like beings led by Zephaniel. Their intellect is similar to Man's, so, like the Malakhim, they're often used to communicate with people, appearing to prophets in person, or in visions and dreams.
Angels in Islam
Islam is one of the younger world religions. As such, its traditions regarding angels draw widely on Judaism and Gnosticism. Islamic angels are made of light and are thus able to assume any form, although descriptions of angels in the shape of men with two, three or four wings are common. Perhaps the most important difference to the Judaeo-Christian angels is that in Islam angels aren't believed to possess free will and are unable to do evil, though they are sentient. As such, Iblis, the primary devil, isn't a fallen angel, but a different type of entity altogether: a djinn made of fire.
There's no recognised hierarchy among the angels of Islam. It's believed that such a hierarchy exists, but it isn't considered important to anyone but God and the angels to know the details, and no attempts at such a classification have been made. However, the four Archangels are generally considered the highest ranking and closest to God.
The Four Archangels
Mikaa'eel (Michael) is a merciful angel who controls the weather and other natural forces, and rewards the virtuous.
Israfil (Rafael or Sarafiel) is responsible for blowing the trumpet on Judgment Day, to signal the end of the world and its subsequent resurrection. The first trumpet blast will destroy everything, and the second will bring humanity back to life.
Izra'il (Azrael) is the Angel of Death. He can be benevolent or terrible, taking the shape of a horrible beast to painfully rip out the soul of a sinner, or as a gentle friend to ease the soul out of the body of a good person.
Other Angels in Islam
Besides the four Archangels, there are lower-ranking, named angels with distinct, separate tasks, as well as a great number of general angels.
Malik is the King of Jahannam (Hell). Unlike Lucifer, he isn't a fallen angel, and he isn't evil. He's merely doing his job, assisted by 19 other angels, who hover over the flames, guarding the Seven Gates of Hell.
Ridwan, or Rizwan, is Malik's counterpart, in charge of Jannah (Paradise). He's believed to have spoken to Mohammed at his birth.
Munkar and Nakir interrogate the souls of the dead in their graves to determine their final destination. Ruman makes each soul write down an account of its life, aided by the Kiraman Katibin, two angels who sit on the shoulders of mortals and record their good (right shoulder) and bad (left shoulder) deeds. This is believed to be the source of the 'shoulder angel' and 'shoulder devil' often found in comics and cartoons. Sunni Muslims greet these angels as part of their ritual prayers.
Where Have all the Angels Gone?
So why is it that today we seem to remember - or see, in fictional, metaphorical or apparently true encounters - only the lower orders of angels, the Malakhim and Archangels, those of the humanoid-with-wings variety? At best, the higher angels can hope to lend their names or appearances to the heroes or monsters of role-playing games or television series, a far cry from the fan-fiction press they were getting through thousands of years of storytelling. Their seemingly more harmless lesser brethren are used in their thousands to sell everything from bookmarks and champagne to car insurance, a fate shared by their equally trivialised demonic counterparts.
Today, the 'Power of an Angel' sounds more like the title of a bedtime story than something to be feared and respected. The word 'Cherub' conjures up images of sweet, pouting children rather than a powerful four-headed monster that's trained to kill. Are people just more willing to believe in sufficiently advanced technology than in magic? Are they so selfish that they're perfectly happy to believe in their own personal guardian angel, but not in angels that protect the deity-in-chief of their religion? Is there simply no more use for angels now that devils are no longer seen as a threat, and superheroes take care of everything else? Has the 'adorable' stereotype simply become so pervasive that nobody can see an angel with anything approaching fear? Are the metaphorical values for which they stood being lost, or are those values now better symbolised by something else? Whatever the case, angels are fast joining the ranks of those characters of myth and folklore now seen as something silly that people once believed in.
Perhaps we just don't want our children to be scared of the angels under the bed.