In many of the world's religions, angels are spiritual beings who act as intermediaries between God and humans. Messengers of God, angels may serve any of a number of purposes. Their role may be to teach, command, or inform individuals of their destiny. Angels may also act to protect or help people.
The word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, meaning "messenger." In Western religions, the word specifically describes a kind, or benevolent, being. However, in most other religions, the line separating "good" angels from "bad" angels is not always clear. An angel may act benevolently in one situation but with evil intent in another.
destiny future or fete of an individual or
Over the centuries, people have described the function of angels in various ways. The role of angels is developed in greatest detail in religions based on revelation—the disclosure or communication of
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
divine truth or divine will to human beings. These religions include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Zoroastrianism, a faith founded by the ancient Persian prophet Zoroaster.
In religions based on revelation, God and humans are distant from each other. Angels help bridge the gap. Angels praise God, carry out God's will, and reveal divine word. They may also help people attain salvation or receive special favors. Furthermore, acting for God, angels may influence human affairs through such deeds as rewarding faithful believers, punishing people who do evil, and helping people in need.
Angels tend to play a lesser role in religions with many gods. The gods themselves may carry out angelic functions, often taking human forms. In religions based on the belief that all the cosmos is sacred and that the divine and the human share one essence, angels are less important. They are not needed to bridge a gap between the gods and humankind. However, even in these religions angel-like spiritual beings may help people relate to the divine.
The Nature of Angels. The world's religions have had different views about the nature of angels. Some regard angels as divine beings who deserve to be worshiped rather than just as messengers of God. Disagreement also exists about the bodies of angels. Some think that angels have actual physical bodies. Others insist that angels only appear to have such bodies. Still others believe that angels are purely spiritual beings but that they can assume material bodies.
Zoroastrianism and Judaism. The view of angels in Judaism was influenced by Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrian mythology describes a cosmic clash between Ahura Mazda and Ahriman—forces of good and evil with their armies of angels and devils. Like Ahura Mazda, the Old Testament god Yahweh has an army of angels. These warrior angels battle against evil forces led by Satan, who resembles Ahriman.
Following the Zoroastrian view, Judaism divides the universe into three parts: earth, heaven, and hell. Earth is the home of humans. Heaven is reserved for God and his angels. Hell is the dark world of Satan and his followers. Angels fulfill a similar role in the two religions, linking heaven with the world of humans and revealing God's plans and laws. Their function is to serve God and carry out his will. They reward goodness and punish wickedness and injustice. They also help people understand God's will, and they take the souls of righteous individuals to heaven.
* cosmos the universe, especially as an orderly harmonious system
Christianity. The Christian concept of a three-part universe came from Judaic and Zoroastrian ideas, as did Christian ideas of angels and their functions. In the Christian view, angels are God's messengers. Angels proclaimed the birth of Christ and continue to play an active role in the daily lives of Christians. They bring strength to those who are weak and comfort to those who suffer and carry the prayers of faithful Christians to God. According to legend, guardian angels watch over children.
Islam. The Islamic idea of angels is similar to Judaic and Christian views. God is in heaven, and the angels serve him and carry out his will. However, while Judaism and Christianity generally divide spiritual beings into those who are with or against God, Islam divides such beings into angels, demons, and djinni, or genies. The djinni may be either good or harmful. According to Islamic folklore, they were created out of fire, can be visible or invisible, and can assume various human or animal shapes.
Angels in different orders, or levels, were a part of the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. Later in the A . D . 400S, the Greek philosopher Dionysius the Areopagite described a hierarchy of angels. Based on his writings, angels are traditionally ranked in nine orders. The highest order of angels is the seraphim, followed by the cherubim, thrones, dominions (or dominations), virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels.
According to this system, the first circle of angels—the seraphim, cherubim, and thrones—devote their time to contemplating God. The second circle—the dominions, virtues, and powers—govern the universe. The third circle—principalities, archangels, and angels—carry out the orders of the superior angels.
At first, artists struggled with the problem of how to represent angels. Written descriptions were not very helpful. They tended to be vague or bizarre or did not draw a clear distinction between angels and human beings.
Artists tried various approaches before arriving at the image of a young male figure. Later they added two feathery wings to the figure. The wings suggested that angels were spiritual beings elevated above humans and associated with heaven. Besides wings, angels were sometimes shown with halos, long hair, and flowing white robes.
The idea of representing spirits as winged figures dates back many thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians portrayed the sun god Horus as a winged disk. Other winged beings can be found in ancient Greek and Roman art.
Fallen angels were angels who had once been close to God but "fell" to a lower position. They tried to interfere with the relationship between human beings and God by encouraging individuals to sin. Fallen angels were also believed to cause such disasters as famine, disease, war, and earthquakes.
In Christian belief, the leader of the fallen angels was Satan. He led a rebellion against God, for which he and the other fallen angels were cast into hell.
hierarchy organization of a group into higher and lower levels
Over time, artists came to depict the different orders of angels in distinct ways. For instance, seraphim sometimes were shown with six wings and holding shields. Around the seraphim, flames burned to symbolize their devotion to God. Artists often portrayed the dominions bearing swords and spears, symbolizing God's power.