Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Angelic Mythology

78% of Americans believe in angels (2004 poll). The prevailing rational explanation for this belief is the need to assign causation to the unexplained events in our lives. Just as primitive people cited evil spirits for all manner of mental disorders, disease, or calamity humans needed an external explanation for the good things that happen as well. This is another aspect of the Just World Hypothesis that I have discussed before: when seeking an explanation for bad things happening to good people, there is a tendency to blame the victim and assume that they did something to deserve their misfortune. This reasoning extends to the belief that a good person has "an angel on their shoulder" or some other benevolent entity who is looking out for them.

In the same 2004 poll, the number dips to 70% who believe in the devil: an angel cast out of heaven. It appears that more people believe in the concept of angels when they are beautiful and benevolent creatures. According to cannon, some of them are quite frightening. It has been well established that many people who claim to be religious have not actually read the holy book attributed to their system of faith. Many have a limited grasp if the tenets of their own religion, let alone other faiths.

There are accounts of angelic beings in several cultures around the world. There are angels in Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Celtic and Norse Mythology just to name a few. The concept of an other-worldly protective spirit predates the bible. Many of the hierarchy's overlap. For this post I will focus on the Judeo-Christian Angelic Mythology in which the angels are divided into nine choirs which are further divided into three Triads. The highest order of angels is the Seraphim, followed by the Cherubim, Ophanim, Dominions (or dominations), Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. It is not difficult to see the parallels between angelic mythology and Greek or roman mythology. I wonder if that 78% truly believe that the Archangel Michael has 142 wings and packs a flaming sword.

The common perception of angels is of celestial entities who watch over humans like cosmic protectors. They are typically described as beautiful humans with bird-like wings who are the direct servants of God, often emitting divine light themselves. Some of the images of winged beings originate with early religious iconography. Many Old Testament accounts do not specifically mention wings. The New Testament gives a more detailed description.
The other characterization is of medieval warriors, engaged in a constant battle with the forces of evil for the souls of humanity. They are often depicted wearing roman style armor and wielding swords or spears. The defiance of Lucifer began a war in heaven which apparently caused 1/3 of the angels to revolt. The ensuing battle took place on a grand scale, ending with the angels in question being cast out of heaven. This war was apparently waged with metal weapons because even angels were stuck in the Bronze Age.
There are several different classes of angles. The details vary depending on the source material.
I'll just mention the most interesting ones:

Archangels are considered to be of high rank and are typically messengers of God. Lucifer is said to be of this class, along with Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Azreal, Samael. Catholicism claims that there are seven archangels, the individual names vary between different religions. It is from this rank, that God issues his punishments. (seeAngel of Death. ). They usually have two wings and have (at times) been described as having faces of lightening.Daniel 10:5-6: “I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.”

Cherubim are described by the prophet Ezekiel as having four faces: of a lion, an ox, an eagle and a man. They are said to have the hands of a man and the feet of a calf. Cherubim possess four wings; two extended upward, meeting above holding the throne of God; while the other two cover their bodies. Cherubim are often traced back to the griffin or sphinx as inspiration for their physical form. Cherubim (or Cherubs) are often mistaken for Putti: winged toddlers often depicted playing in art from the 15th to 19th century.
**Note: Lucifer is commonly referred to as an Arch Angel, but scripture names him in the rank of Cheribum (Ezekiel 28:12-14). He is also described as being an angel from the highest order (Seraph).

Ophanim (Thrones) are wheel-shaped beings who, along with the Cherubim, carry the throne of God in some cases they are the throne . Ophanim are described by Ezekiel as being covered in eyes and also literally burning with love for God. Depending on the source, they are covered in wings, have only four or none at all.

Seraphim are fiery beings with six wings. Two covering their faces, two covering their bodies and another two to fly with. They are occasionally depicted as having multiple heads. The name Seraphim means "burning ones". These creatures reportedly hover around God and sing "holy, holy, holy" without end. Their fire is said to symbolize the burning love for the almighty. Michael is also listed in this rank at times.

Let's take a look at the common themes here. Fire. An unpredictable element that prehistoric man completely depended on for warmth, and light. It is a symbol for enlightenment and man's dominance over the forces of nature.Animal-human hybrids. Again we're invoking forces of nature. The animals themselves ave metaphorical meanings assigned to them signifying strength, wisdom, and grace. We have seen similar images with Centaurs or Mermaids. Even the Egyptian god Horus had the head of a falcon.

Many of these symbolic totems are markers of the age in which they were invented. Angels, who are incorporeal beings actually use wings in order to travel. Some have multiple wings - something that is not even practical in a material world. We are to believe that the creator of the universe rides on a chariot with living fiery wheels while being supported by the wings of anthropomorphic bird-men...who are also aflame.

To be fair, the majority of these depictions are said to be from revelation (Ezekiel, John, etc). The different accounts are attributed to man's inability to describe a vision of divinity in human language. That being said, the metamorphosis of the physical forms can easily be traced to pre-Judeo Christian folklore. The evolution of the mythology is not as significant as the sheer number of people who regard them as facts. It should be said that the same individuals easily dismiss the existence of other mythological creatures using little more than critical thinking.

This is the dichotomy of American beliefs. More Americans believe in Angels than in Global Warming. The same culture that believes in an invisable man in the sky who sits on an actual throne - was able to map the human genome and land a rover on Mars.