"It is not because angels are holier than men or devils that makes them angels, but because they do not expect holiness from one another, but from God alone."
Our word 'angel' comes from the Greek angelos, which itself could be considered as a translation of the Hebrew word mal'akh, meaning 'messenger', etymology suggesting a being responsible for carrying messages between the human world and some other realm or realms of existence, someone who is an intermediary between 'down here' and 'up there'.
Sumerian society is the oldest society that has left us clear evidence of the use of a winged human motif. This evidence is in the form of stone carvings, either in the form of three-D statues or relief carvings that provide the illusion of three-dimensionality. Sumerian culture flourished around 3,000 BC between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq. The religion of these people was complex, embracing a wide variety of spirits and gods, but of particular interest was their belief in 'messengers of the gods', angelic forces who ran errands between gods and humans.
The Sumerians also believed that each person had a 'ghost' of some sort (that we would now probably label as 'guardian angel') with this entity remaining a constant companion for a person throughout their life. Altars that appear to be dedicated to guardian angels have been found in the excavations of ancient Sumerian homes, along with stone engravings and temple wall paintings of human figures with wings. After the polytheistic Semitic tribes had conquered the Sumerians around 1900 BC their mythical cosmology borrowed the notion of angels from the vanquished Sumerians. These Semitic peoples developed the idea of a corpus of angels split into groupings answerable to each of the many Semitic gods, further subdividing these groups into vertical 'ranked' hierarchies, a notion which persisted into Zoroastrianism and monotheistic Judaism and beyond, as we shall see. Sumerian ideas probably set the scene for the development of Egyptian theology as well, although it is difficult to be clear about the detail of such cross-cultural influences.
Sumerian domination of the Middle East came to an end around 2,000 BC, when Sumer was defeated militarily and the overlapping Assyrian and Babylonian cultures took over. Winged figures can also be found among the icons of ancient Assyria and Babylonia.
But how, exactly, did images of angelic beings find their way into the hearts, minds and iconography of the Sumerian people, one asks? Where did the notion of an 'angel' come from before that? We are lucky to have had the extremely durable stone artifacts of this period handed down to us, but (as with the 'dark ages' much much later in Europe) just because a prior culture did not commit itself to the written word, to pictures or to carvings that would last thousands of years, this does not mean that there was no culture. Almost certainly, the motif of a winged human figure goes back much further than Sumeria even, in fact the motif almost certainly goes back into the shamanic mists of time. Recent evidence suggests that this is the case...
The forms of some of the most enduring Egyptian gods can be traced back to the first few dynasties, that is, to around 2,500 BC. In many cases these gods took the shape of some animal, which was regarded as the soul (Ba) of the god. Horus, god of the sky, for instance, was represented as a falcon, whereas Thoth, god of the moon and patron of writing, learning and the sciences, was often represented as a man with the head of an ibis. Isis and Maat were often represented with wings.
art by Soa Lee
The Egyptian Book of the Dead lists 500 gods and goddesses, and it is possible to identify at least 1200 more deities in later ancient Egyptian writings. Some of these deities were undoubtedly closer to our concept of an angel rather than a god, however: for instance there was at one time a cult dedicated to invoking the help of the Hunmanit, who were a group of entities connected with the sun, portrayed as rays of the sun, rather like the Christian representation of the angel choir of the seraphim. The Hunmanit had a responsibility to look after the sun, such that by looking after the sun, they were also indirectly fulfilling a responsibility to look after humanity at the same time. Insofar as they were guardians, and angels, it does not seem unreasonable to characterize them as early versions of the guardian angel.
As with the Sumerians, Egyptian iconography includes 'winged humans' of one sort or another also: for instance Isis, queen of all the Egyptian goddesses, is often represented as a woman with wings. The flowering of Sumerian culture was contemporaneous with the first few dynasties of the great culture of ancient Egypt, around 2,500 BC, and archaeologists incline to the view that there was a traffic not only of artifacts, but also of ideas and iconography between Sumeria and Egypt before the time when Sumerian influence declined (around 2,000 BC). However archaeologists are apparently not in a position to say clearly whether the winged human motif was imported into Egypt from Sumeria, or vice versa, or whether it arose spontaneously and separately in each of the two cultures.
The Indo-European Migration.
Beginning at the end of the fourth millennium BC, there was a movement of people, whose distinct ethnicity we have come to call 'Indo-European', from Europe to Central Asia, and even as far as North India. This movement is still shrouded in a degree of mystery, but it would appear that there were probably a number of migratory 'waves' in an easterly direction up to and including the first millennium BC, reaching a peak around 2000 BC. Among other things this migration helps explain the similarities between the ancient Greek and ancient Sanskrit languages. Modern Tajik is a linguistic relative. But how does this relate to the subject at hand?
Well, when we look at the extent of these Indo-European migrations, across thousands of miles of Asian landscape into the mists of time, it helps to underline the fact that there MUST have been a dissemination of both objects and ideas between Central Asia and Europe that was fairly widespread even in extremely ancient times. A look at a map of the (later) Persian empire also helps underline the extent to which artifacts and culture could travel from India on the one hand to Greece on the other (and vice versa). And just as we find the god Mithras (for instance) popping up in Greece and Central Asia we find his counterpart Mitra in the Rig-Veda, the most ancient of all Hindu 'texts' (that possibly goes back in spoken form to 3,000 BC).
Mithras was a light-bringer god, whose cult flourished between 1500 BC and the time of Christ, in lands as far apart as India and Great Britain, with a basis in what was then known as Persia. Although in his own cult Mithras does not fully conform to the image of 'angel' that we are particularly interested in here, nevertheless Mithraism was the most prevalent religion in Persia when Zoroaster (qv section below) was alive, and in Zoroastrianism Mithras was considered to be an angel who mediated between heaven and earth, later becoming judge and preserver of the created world. In Vedic cosmology also (where in the Rig Veda, Mitra is mentioned over 200 times), Mitra appears often to be more angel than god. The 'Mithras-cult' images of Mithras are close variations on the same scene, where Mithras fights the sacred bull, with his cloak billowing out behind him in a way that seems meant to suggest wings. Over and over again we find Mithras depicted in this way.
A few paragraphs above we talked of how, in the fourth, third and second millenia before Christ, a number of migrations of European Indo-European people took place, with people of European ancestry finding their way eastward to Central Asia and as far as India. Zoroaster was a real-life member of this ethnic grouping, living in Persia (in and around present-day Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) around 650 BC, when as a result of what he claimed were angelic communications, he spread a monotheistic religious message that subsequently became the religion of the Persian empire (prior to these beliefs being superseded by Islam) and which also influenced both Muslim and Judaic thought (and then Christianity via Judaism).
Zoroastrianism identifies six main archangels: the Archangel of Good Thought, the Archangel of Right, the Archangel of Dominion, the Archangel of Piety, the Archangel of Prosperity and the Archangel of Immorality, along with at least 40 lesser angels called Adorable Ones. Some of these angels/archangels were considered to be male, some were considered to be female, and each one was associated with some particular attribute or quality. On a lower level again the third rank of angels in Zoroastrian cosmology were the Guardian Angels, each one assigned as guide, conscience, protector and helpmate throughout the life of one single human being.
All of the various hierarchies of angels were considered to be divine gifts, all of them aspects or manifestations of the one 'Lord of Light'. Zoroastrians also believed that corresponding to the Lord of Light there was also a Lord of Darkness, with complementary demons and evil spirits, and it was felt that in the battle between light and darkness the forces of light would eventually win. To demonstrate the lengths to which one must go in an attempt to put together any sort of 'complete' history of angels, one need only look at some of the terminology: for instance the demons of Zoroastrianism, that are referred to as daevas, exist in opposition to 'angelic' forces that are referred to as ahuras. In the ancient Hinduism of the Vedas, however, we find demons referred to as asuras, existing in opposition to 'divine' forces known as devas.
Thus our present-day Western concept of a 'devil' derives from the Zoroastrian concept of a daeva (or demon). The word devil derives both from the word daeva (that can be traced right across to India) and the Greek word daibolos, meaning 'slanderer' or 'accuser', which is clearly an attempt to embody the Jewish concept of Satan.
The early Semitic peoples of the Middle East believed in a wide variety of what we would now call nature spirits. Seemingly their views were informed firstly by animistic beliefs of a general kind common to widely disparate cultures across the world (where intelligences are attributed to inanimate objects and natural phenomena) but secondly they were informed by Zoroastrianis. Included among the legions of spirits were the spirits of wind and of fire, and these were held to be especially significant. These 'spirits' appear to have been the basis for what later came to be known as the cherubim and seraphim (associated with wind and fire respectively: -note: did you know that originally the seraphim were believed to have six wings [three pairs] and not just two..?).
Solomon was reputed to have been familiar with the language of birds...When these polytheistic ancestors of present-day Judaism transformed themselves into something much closer to the monotheistic Judaism of today, (probably in the centuries before during and after Moses, around 1300 BC) a number of aspects of the ancestral religion(s) were inherited. Beliefs pertaining to angels were but one of many aspects of the precursor religion(s) that remained. Furthermore, the influence of Zoroastrainism continued throughout the millenium before Christ, with more and more angels (that were more and more 'the messengers of God') finding their way into Jewish writings.
The word daemon, in the original Greek sense, meant a guardian divinity or inspiring spirit. A number of their gods could fly, such as Hermes [the Roman Mercury] who had wings on his feet and was considered to be the messenger of the gods. The English word hermenuetics derives from the name of this Greek god, which in it's traditional meaning of 'interpreting holy texts' undoubtedly included shades of 'making sense of the words of the gods', so retaining the idea of facilitating a dialogue between above and below.
In Greek mythology the idea of human flight crops up a number of times (for instance with the myth of Icarus, who not only learned to fly but whose ambition took him much too near the sun when he flew...). Greek thought was very inventive on just about every level but there is little doubt that Greece too owed an immense debt to the cultures of Babylon and Egypt (in particular) that preceded it.
One aspect of iconography that may be of special interest to an angelologist looking at the culture of ancient Greece is the image of the halo that Christian artists and sunday-school attendees have come to know and love. In Greek art the sun-god Helios was often depicted with a halo, that is, a radiant circle or disk surrounding the head in an attempt to represent spiritual character through the symbolism of light. In Romam times self-applauding emporers were sometimes also depicted with halos. (Because of its 'pagan' origin, however, this convention was avoided in early Christian art). Throughout the Middle Ages, however (by which time presumably the origins of the motif had been forgotten) angels were frequently depicted with circles of golden light surrounding their heads. Interestingly enough the halo is also found in Indian Buddhist art, appearing from the 3rd century AD onwards when it is believed that the motif was brought to the East by Greek invaders.
Most Christian cosmology can be traced first and foremost to Judaism. However in certain respects Christian thinkers have developed their own ideas about angels. For instance, in 1259 AD Thomas Aquinas gave a series of lectures on angels at the University of Paris, and the views that were expounded then continued to be referred to in Christian thought for several centuries. A number of angels are referred to in the first books of the Old Testament (ie the books of the Judaic Torah) but angels are of course also referred to in the Christian New Testament as well, for instance in the Revelation of John, where divine truths are reputed to have been revealed to John of Patmos by an angel, or when the angel Gabriel informs Mary of her forthcoming pregnancy. Another example is when the messiahship of Jesus is reputed to have been proclaimed by angels at his birth.
Clement of Alexandria, one of the early church fathers of Christianity, appears to have been influenced by Hellenistic cosmology when he stated that angels functioned as the movers of the stars and controlled the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. (A notion taken up later by alchemists in the Middle Ages). In Christianity 'fallen' angels have traditionally been referred to as 'demons', and in the European Middle Ages and the Reformation period, various hierarchies of demons were developed, such as that associated with the seven deadly sins: Lucifer (pride), Mammon (avarice), Asmodeus (lechery), Satan (anger), Beelzebub (gluttony), Leviathan (envy), and Belphegor (sloth). In the New Testament we find angels grouped into seven ranks: angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, and thrones. And in addition to these were also added the Old Testament cherubim and seraphim, which, with the seven other ranks, comprised the nine choirs of angels referred to in later Christian mystical theology. Christian cosmology also took on board the notion of a personal, or guardian, angel, an idea, as we have seen, that could have been imported from any number of possible sources (from Zoroastrianism to Judaism to ancient Greece or Egypt). The concept of a guardian angel is one that has proved remarkably 'durable': it is not uncommon to this day for a Catholic to say a prayer to their 'holy guardian angel':a practice that the church hierarchy has not discouraged.
Muhammed was alive around 630 AD, and the religion that he founded spread rapidly across many parts of the Middle East and Central Asia, often to the exclusion of other, older religions, where such practices as the use of the human form in the imagery of these other religions was not always tolerated. Furthermore, there is no Islamic iconography that includes angels, since to create reproducible angel images would have been considered blasphemous. Islam has it's own implicit cosmology nonetheless, and much of this is borrowed either from the cosmology of 'the Judaism of the prophets' (that is, borrowed from the beliefs of the Semitic peoples of the Middle East after 450 BC) or it is borrowed from Zoroastrianism, a belief system that predates Islam and which Islam replaced in many places.
Consequently angels are also prominent in Islam. The archangel Gabriel is reputedly responsible for communicating to Muhammed the whole basis of what subsequently became the Muslim faith. The Islamic hierarchy of demons is headed by Iblis (the devil), who also is called Shaytan (Satan). Lesser benign angels, malevolent demons and 'genies' (or 'djinn') are also frequently referred to in the Koran. For instance one of the five cardinal beliefs of Muslims is the idea of the Day of Judgment, where individuals are questioned about their faith by the two angels Munkar and Nakir after death. Other well-known examples are Jibril (Gabriel), the angel of revelation; Mikal (Michael), the angel of nature, who gives man both food and knowledge; Izrail, angel of death; and Israfil, the angel who sounds the trumpet on the day of the Last Judgment.
Whilst the absence of concrete iconography in Islam makes it more difficult to track the importation of imagery from earlier religions, we can nonetheless find echoes throughout Islamic literature: a good example perhaps being the Conference of Birds by Attar-e Neyshaburi, who was a famous 12th C Muslim mystical poet and thinker, which is an extended metaphor for the journey of the soul towards divinity, each bird in the story representing the soul of an individual. This echoes very ancient Central Asian beliefs that go right back to the shamanism of the neolithic era.
art by Selina Fenech
The Shamanic Connection
Even today, after all of the political and cultural upheavals of the last two centuries, pockets of shamanic belief and practise have survived across Asia, from Tibet in the east, to Lapland in the west, to Siberia in the north. In Central Asia shamanism appears to have disappeared in most places for at least a millenium. (One exception, where shamanism survived the process of Islamisation, is Kazakstan, an area somewhat on the fringes of the Islamic world, both culturally and geographically).
It seems likely, shamanism did exist in most parts of Central Asia originally, then evangelical Islam may have been the reason for it's demise. There is a degree of conjecture here, of course, a situation compounded by the fact that the archaeology of Central Asia has really only gained a global audience in the last 30 years, with many new findings from digs in the 'stans' of Central Asia (Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, etc) only recently coming to light, along with new work in such places as Anatolia and Kurdistan further west. All of this work is helping archaeologists push backwards with a clearer gaze into the past, particularly into a pre-Sumerian Neolithic past. One small aspect of these ancient cultures that has come to light, which is relevant here however, is an apparent shared interest in birds as an important aspect of the belief systems of these peoples.
There is a room called the 'vulture shrine' in the town of Çatal Hüyük, a fascinating site still being excavated at Anatolia, Turkey.Çatal Hüyük culture dates back to 6,500 BC and yet these people were (perhaps) surprisingly sophisticated. The vulture image appears to represent for them a god-form, responsible for removing the head (ie the soul?) of the deceased. They may have practised 'sky-burials' (where corpses are left to the birds to eat) or the imagery may have been entirely metaphorical, or both. There is some evidence to suggest that over time as this culture developed the bird image evolved into that of a 'vulture-goddess'. But most importantly one of the murals from Çatal Hüyük apparently shows a human being dressed in a vulture skin.
The ritual coats of present-day Siberian shamans are cut to look like birds: they are cut to a point and tasseled in a way that is suggestive of feathers, and this is quite deliberate. And although in all the forms of shamanism across Asia there is little interest in the production of concrete images of winged humans, the notion of the shaman being able to fly is nonetheless universal. When durable stone 'angel' motifs do start to appear in Sumeria around 3,000 BC, the wings of these winged beings seem to signify an ability to travel to places that ordinary people can't reach, along with an ability to 'mediate' between the human world and some other 'higher' state or states. Both of these qualities are (also) universally considered to be the main attributes of a shaman. Undoubtedly this also helps explain why shamen across the world generally tend to have a strong connection with birds. The shaman can 'fly' in trance, traveling to the realm of the spirits where he can then either do battle against malign entities, or try and persuade, flatter, cajole or otherwise entreat the spirits to act for the benefit of one or more human beings.
With all of this in mind, intuition tells us that the iconography of angels 'surely must' be rooted in the ancient shamanic cultures of Central Asia, predating even the culture of the Sumerians in the fourth millennium BC. It is so easy and so tempting to think that 'surely' the image of a shaman, resembling a bird, traveling in trance to the realm of the gods and back again, 'must' have given rise to the original 'angel motif'. But intuition in archaeology can give rise to all manner of wacky theories. We should always be careful of making assumptions when the evidence in support of our pet theories is tenuous.
In the last few decades archaeological research has come to light which, when added to the evidence from Çatal Hüyük, begins to lend very strong weight to the idea of a 'shamanic connection'. In the 1950's the archaeologist/anthropologists Rose Solecki and her husband Ralph began excavating a cave site near the Greater Zab river in Kurdistan. This cave had been used for burials by the Zawi Chami people (as this small area is called) around 8870 BC (plus or minus 300 years, according to carbon-dating) which is perhaps 4,000 years before the beginnings of the Sumerian culture referred to here. What did they discover that was so significant? They found a number of goat skulls placed next to the wing bones of large predatory birds, including the bearded vulture, the griffon vulture, the white-tailed sea eagle and the great bustard. The Soleckis had to ask themselves what the purpose of such a 'ritual burial' was, and why it was that only certain species of birds had been selected.
Kurdish scholar Mehrdad Izady agrees that the predatory bird remains of the Shanidar cave can be seen as evidence of a shamanistic culture whose memory influenced the development of the very notion of an angel. Within living memory Kurdistan has been home to three indigenous angel cults, the most famous being the Yezidis of Iraqi Kurdistan. Their belief system centers on supreme angelic being named Melek Taus, the `peacock angel'. Melek Taus is often depicted in the form of a strange bird icon known as a sanjaq, although the oldest known sanjaqs are apparently not peacocks at all, having bulbous avian bodies and hooked beaks. Izady has suggested that the sanjaq idols may actually be representations predatory birds similar to those (apparently) venerated by a shamanic Zawi Chami people.
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