Many religions speak of angels â€“ beings at the side of God or Gods, messengers, protective spirits. The term angel derives from the Latin angelus, ancient Greek angelos, a translation of the Hebrew word for messengermalâ€™ach.
Through all civilisations, cultures and across all centuries the function of angelic spirits has barely changed â€“ they are employed whenever an intermediary between God and humans is required, and in particular when protection is essential.
Ancient peoples believed in winged creatures conveying the will of the gods to the humans, and early depictions have been found in Mesopotamia from 2250 B.C.. Later, about 1500 B.C, so historians assume, Egypt expanded her power to that region which might have been the reason for the appearance of winged gods or protectors in Egyptian art and religion â€“ the main difference from oriental portrayals is to be found in the sex of the winged beings. Egyptian winged deities are female â€“ like Isis or Selket (as opposed to most angels â€“ male â€“ within mainly patriarchal religions).
The ancient Greeksâ€™ access to Egypt (about 600 B.C.) acquainted them with monumental architecture and depictions of angel-like beings, and they were the first culture to create sculptures of angels or winged gods, like the Nike of Samothrake (should you ever get to the Parisian Louvre, make sure to look her up, and she can not be overlooked indeed, standing high on a flight of stairs â€“ her beauty will blow you away. I have never seen, ever, a sculpture that moved me so much. You just know that this is a goddess of victory, strong and yet fragile, like made from air and very much alive when she is cold marbleâ€¦forgive me).
Early Jewish beliefs were influenced by the ancient Persian Zoroastrians who already believed in angels. Judaism speaks of messengers of God, the malâ€™ach Elohim, and the first biblical figure to refer to individual angels is Daniel. He mentions Michael, who serves as an advocate for Israel and as a warrior.
In Genesis 6 â€˜sons of Godâ€™ are depicted who had relations with mortal women and thus fathered giants and â€˜nephilimâ€™ which is deriving from a Hebrew expression, meaning â€˜fallen onesâ€™, sometimes described to by hybrid offspring of fallen angels and human women or descendants of Cain.
The apocryphal book of Enoch speaks of spiritual beings, but refers particularly to fallen guardians (under Azazelâ€™s command) who turned away from God (and that, Iâ€™m afraid, kind readers, is a topic for another article).
Early Christians were influenced in an extraordinary manner by Jewish mythology, and Christianityâ€™s concept of angels varied â€“ angels were messengers of the Savior, creatures of God, spirits to bring love â€“ before it developed distinctive characteristics:
According to Christian belief, angels are part of a strong hierachic structure, but the ranks actually vary according to the time in which these structures were formed, highly influenced by historical traditions.
Among others, Dionysius designed a classification with three spheres in his De Coelesti Hierarchia, about 500 A.D.:
Within the first sphere, the highest rank of angels are the so-called Seraphim, whom Isaiah described as six-winged (for the six days of creation): â€˜with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flewâ€™ (Isaiah 6:2-7)
They are surrounding the throne of God, singing his praises (in particular mentioned in the visions of Enoch, who also describes them as fierce and awe-inspiring: â€˜the fiery seraphim fixed their gaze on me, I shrank back trembling and fell down stunned by the radiant appearance of their eyes and the bright vision of their facesâ€™. Enoch also claims that there were four Seraphim, one for each of the winds of the world.
Second in rank are the Cherubim, and their origin is disputed, as they are mentioned in various cultures. Assyrian art shows them as winged guardian spirits, with faces of a lion or a human and bodies of eagles or bulls. In Islam they are named the el-karubiyan, â€˜those who are brought near to Godâ€™.
The Old Testamentâ€™s Ezekiel, however, calls them â€˜living beingsâ€™. Early Hebrew writings depict them as protectors, guarding the eastern gate of paradise with a flaming sword to prevent Mankindâ€™s return to Eden (Genesis 3:24). The Cherubim were also placed, as solid gold figures, on either side of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 37:8-9) â€“ well, we know now who the beautiful angels were we admired while watching Indiana Jones searching for the Lost Ark.
Third in line are the Thrones, not to be traced in early Jewish texts (as Judaism only recognizes Seraphim and Cherubim), but found in the New Testament, and highly popular during the Middle Ages. Thrones are mentioned in Colossians as part of Godâ€™s creation in Christ (Col 1:16).
In the second sphere are we find Dominions (or Dominations, from Latin dominatio â€“ to rule, to reign) (fourth in rank) who regulate angelsâ€™ duties. They have two wings, in contrast to the earlier mentioned that have four or six wings â€“ probably the home of Zachariah.
They are followed by Powers (virtutes, from Latin virtus â€“ virtue) who thwart the efforts of demons to overthrow the world. They preside over demons. In Ephesians (6:12) they are described as dangerous, being under the devilâ€™s control, perhaps, â€˜the cosmic powers of this present darknessâ€™.
The third sphere introduces us to those angels who actually interact with humans â€“ the highest rank here hold the Princes or Principalities: a choir of angels that protect religion as such and embody the divine lead.
Since we have learned that the angel Anna was superior to Uriel (as you will find in the following chapter down, he is supposedly an archangel, though not explicitly described as such in the show), just as she was to Castiel, who is, simply, an angel. Therefore I assume that Anna was one of the Princes here, as they are superior to archangels, who are next â€“ the heavenly host. They are the messengers who bear divine decrees.
They are followed by â€“ simply â€“ angels, the furthest from God in the surrounding choirs and thus the ones who can most easily interact with man.
Itâ€™s quite logical to believe that Castiel and his fellows never saw God, as they are, according to Dionysiusâ€™ definition, nowhere near Him.
The role of archangels and angels is quite similar in various religions. The idea of them being messengers can be found in Islam, as in Christian and Hebrew writings.
â€˜Archangels are fierce. Theyâ€™re absolute. Theyâ€™re Heavenâ€™s most terrifying weaponâ€™
Castielâ€™s description of the archangels follows in part the Islamic depiction â€“ their angels, the al-malaâ€™ika (which includes archangels) are not exactly compassionate creatures, but â€“ quite similar to early biblical lore â€“ powerful, mighty and terrifying beings of light, of sometimes colossal size, entrusted with specific tasks.
The Koran speaks of four archangels:
Michael (in Arabic called Mikhail or Mikaaiyl), often described as the archangel of justice, mercy, and being responsible for bringing thunder and rain to Earth.
Gabriel (Jibril/Gibril or Jibraaiyl/Jibrail) was the one who dictated the Koran to Mohammed. Furthermore, he was the one who accompanied the prophet to Heaven on a winged horse, the Buraq. They travelled to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem where Mohammed joined all prophets (from Adam to Jesus) in ritual prayer and was delivered, afterwards, to God by Gabriel. He is the angel who communicates with prophets and delivers divine wisdom.
Raphael (Israfil or Israafiyl) will be the one signalling the coming of Judgment Day by sending out a Blast of Truth and blowing a horn.
And Azrael or Izrail, the angel of death, is in charge of parting the soul from the body. Some legend expects him to sound the last trumpet. He, in particular, is described as being of vast size. It is said, if all the water of the world were to be poured on his head, not a drop would reach the earth.