Fallen Angels

When did angels become cute? This is one of the ranking mysteries of religious studies. In ages past, way back before monotheism, most people in western Asia believed in a plethora of deities, sub-deities, and heroic characters. A cosmic continuum of animal-to-human-to-superhuman-to-divine seems to have characterized their universe. They had little reason to suspect that anyone or anything more powerful than a human might be “cute!”

The first angels mentioned in the Bible, cherubim, are today often associated with Hallmark and Valentines: cute little nude boys with wings playing with their bows and arrows. In the world of the Bible, however, cherubim were not so tame. I tell my students to think of sphinxes when they read “cherubim” — scary hybrids of human and lion or ox and eagle. These creatures were intended to be guardians of the very throne of God; they had to be scary.

Your garden-variety angel was indistinguishable from a human being. They had no wings, halos, or — (gasp!) — harps. The reaction to angels by the people of the Bible was essentially that of a visit of a stranger, a stranger who sometimes said weird stuff about what the big guy wanted you to do.

But somewhere along the line, angels had an extreme makeover. They became winged, effeminate people who could save your life or that of your puppy. They became guardians of human interests and loves. In so doing they lost the awe and majesty of being the Frankensteins of the supernatural world. Is this what a fallen angel really is?

A cheap copy of this popular image hung in my room as a child.

A cheap copy of this popular image hung in my room as a child.

5 responses to “Fallen Angels

  1. I blame the media.

    I’ve thought of angels (at least the guardian, if not garden) variety as comparable to the household gods of Mesopotamia, entities that might look after the riff raff while the “big” gods were dealing with matters of state and the beautiful people.

    Could the Hallmarkification of angels been a response to growing wealth and power adn confidence of the Church? As the church establishment becomes the patron of the arts the beautiful churches need beautiful heavenly entities. At the same time, the growing power of the church makes god a bit remote, so Mary gets all maternal, and angels get their makeover.

    I could see believing in powerful, militant, super-hero angels as part of an immanet apocalyptic belief system when a deity needs his army close at hand. But as the immediate hopes for the final battle between good and evil fades into routinization, the angels get demilitarized.

    Of course, I haven’t had my Sunday morning coffee yet, or my Sunday afternoon cider, so I’m not claiming infallibility here…

  2. Steve Wiggins

    One of the worthwhile books that Gorgias Press put out while I was there was Sang Youl Cho’s Lesser Deities in the Ugaritic Texts and the Hebrew Bible. It is a good treatment of angels/messengers in the Ugaritic material. Order it from a library, however, as it is too pricey to purchase.

  3. I’ve read a good review of it somewhere. We actually have an Ugariticologist (?) here in Lethbridge. Perhaps he has been foolish with his money… (I know I have!)

  4. I don’t know. How old is the Book of Tobit, after all? Raphael is not terribly fierce in that one.

  5. Steve Wiggins

    I concur with apocryphal experts who date Tobit in the third-second centuries BCE. Raphael is helpful, as other angels can be, but certainly not cute! He is likely a later development of Resheph, the pre-Israelite god associated with plague and healing.

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