The angelic figure has always been popular, from their ancient roots in religion and mythology to today’s pop culture media. They first started out as incredible other-worldly beings, massive in size and rich in knowledge, and later became human-like beings hard to distinguish from ordinary people as the Bible’s patriarchs and apostles discovered. As centuries passed, artist added wings and halos, along with a chubby baby likeness.
Recently, modern artists have added features to angels that have given rise to a greater curiosity into the true nature of angels and the roles they play. The popularity of superheroes and comic culture, as well as the horror and supernatural genres have transformed angels from plump little cherubs into muscled-mutant-supernatural warriors, suiting a more violent and action-orientated audience.
What were they like before?
For many in the Western world, the word ‘angel’ conjures up the image of a winged humanoid, dressed in white and bestowing blessing and news to the human world. Indeed, this is how many of us recall angels, because our first encounter with them is usually Bible stories, and particularly their role within the nativity story. Their primary function is as the messengers of God to Man. As H. C. Moolenburgh explains: “…we have inherited the word ‘angel’. It comes from a Greek word (angelos) meaning a messenger. The Hebrew word for angel (malach) means exactly the same: a messenger or an envoy.” (1996, p.56).
He goes on to discuss the way that angels are viewed in public consciousness: “Often they are described as ‘noticeably beautiful’ even though their appearance is not especially effeminate.” (1996, p.48). Indeed, the beautiful appearance of angels is among the few things that rarely do change – whether they are good, evil, or indifferent, they often possess striking features. This is particularly interesting because in their original incarnation in the Bible, and particularly the Old Testament, angels are described – if at all – according to their power and awe. Unearthly beauty is a quality rarely mentioned; they are more often fear-inducing creatures than beautiful winged people.
Where did their wings come from?
References to angels are found within the mainstream religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Yet, angels, or divine helpers, were also found within Sumerian, Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian and Greek writings as well, and played a major influence upon the ideas regarding angels within the key religions themselves. For example, it is well known that ancient Sumerian texts pre-dated the Hebrew book of Genesis, including the idea of the existence of angels.
But where did the original idea come from that angels have wings? Hermes, in the Greek pantheon of gods, served the function of messenger, and was pictured with wings on his heels. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Nepthys was also winged; reliefs depicting her appear in hieroglyphics in tombs. Griffins, winged animals with human heads, appear in a very ancient Etruscan tomb, and many other cultures featured winged lions and bulls with human heads; winged creatures were known to the Vikings as valkyries, to the Greeks as horae; in Persia they were fereshta, to the Hindu, apsaras.
However, in Abrahamic traditions, wings were rarely depicted on angels until the time of Emperor Constantine, and did not become popular in angel art until the Renaissance. Historically, angels who interacted with humans, were seen in a “flesh and blood” form.
Shrouded in mystery…
Angels truly are a mystery that summon many questions – firstly, do they even exist at all? And if so, what exactly are they? Some believe they are beings of light, others say they are ‘God’s messengers’ or the souls of the deceased that guide us on our life journey. More controversially, there are those who maintain that there is nothing “godly” about angels, and that they were simply flesh and blood beings from outside earth who perhaps arrived in flying crafts, hence the depiction of wings.
Whatever one thinks, the idea of angels has captured the hearts and imaginations of millions around the world.