Winged Wednesdays: The Trouble with Angels

And here we are again with another Winged Wednesdays post, where I share a few interesting tidbits about angels. This week, I’m going to talk about some of the problems that angels stirred up, especially in Chritianity.

While many people think that angels are primarily Christian, angels are found in four of the world’s religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Zoroastrianism (the ancient, pre-Islamic religion of Persia).  However, they can be traced back to the Sumerian myths. In 3000 BC, the Sumerians believed in heavenly winged messengers through which the gods communicated with men, called the  Aukkal (Source: http://www.artpromote.com/sumerianwinged.shtml).

The Angel Freeing the Apostles, 1834. From Ancestry Images

Angels – a Problem?

We’ve all heard of fallen angels, from the story of Lucifer, to the Grigori. Apparently, even those stories can be traced back to the Sumerians. They spoke of  creatures called the Annunaki, whose name means “those who came from the sky to the earth”. The Annunaki are associated with the Watchers or the Nephilim in the Old Testament of the Bible.

Well, with the ancient Sumerians being among the first to believe in winged messengers, it’s not surprising that others did too. In fact, most of the writings we have about actual angels comes from apocryphal texts that never made it into the Bible. Ever wonder why?

Apparently, it was the pagans and peasants who originally worshipped angels, and this threatened the early Christian Church.  During the Rabbinic period (roughly 100 BC to 200 AD), angels had stories told about them stories that paralleled the pagan myths, for instance,  Michael overthrew mountains, and Ataphiel kept heaven from falling down by balancing it on three fingers, not unlike Atlas.  (Source: http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2059/whats-the-deal-with-angels)

With the angels being so popular among the pagans, the early Christian church believed that act of worshiping and praying to angels threatened the worship of Christ.  According to The Straight Dope, “in Colossians 2:18, Paul himself warned that groveling to angels is wicked.” and “Early Church theologians in the third and fourth centuries, like Eusebius and Theodoret, condemned the worship of angels. A Church council at Laodicea (343 BC) condemned angel-worship as idolatrous.”

So, yes, angels were a problem. Or was this just another version of the Christians shooting arrows at them all over again from another  Tower of Babel?

Getting Organized

Fortunately, the Christian Church’s trouble with angels straightened itself out a few decades later, when St Ambrose suggested it was all right for Christians to “pray to the angels, who are given to us as guardians.” Considering how adaptive the Church has been over the millennia, are you surprised? By the 4th or 5th century we started to organize the angels into hierarchies, when Pseudo-Denys,  wrote the De Coelesti Hierarchia.

By 787AD, the Second Council of Nicaea, the Church, began to allow the limited worship of angelic beings. And by the Middle ages, the Church got really organized, fully adopting the angels to the point of naming and sorting them into hierarchies, called choirs. It was from there that our modern-day idea of angels comes from.

I LOVE comments, so please, tell me, did you know that angels are found in four religions, or did they always seem Christian to you? Did it ever occur to you that they almost got thrown out of the Bible and out of religion itself?

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5 thoughts on “Winged Wednesdays: The Trouble with Angels

  1. Anna M says:

    I’m curious whether you think any other religions also have references to angel-like beings? I’ve often wondered, for example, if the Fae or Tuatha De Danaan of Celtic myth might also be somehow related to angels somehow. There are certainly many common elements…

    From Wikipedia: A poem in the Lebor Gabála Érenn says of their arrival:

    It is God who suffered them, though He restrained them
    they landed with horror, with lofty deed,
    in their cloud of mighty combat of spectres,
    upon a mountain of Conmaicne of Connacht.
    Without distinction to descerning Ireland,
    Without ships, a ruthless course
    the truth was not known beneath the sky of stars,
    whether they were of heaven or of earth.

    So aside from the very obvious references to angels in mainstream, do you think that angel-like beings can be found universally across every culture and belief system?

    • lvoisin says:

      Excellent question Anna M! I have been wondering about this indeed, and I truly need to brush up on all my mythology. In the case of this post, I believe it was Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that actually call them angels by name. Recently, I’ve been looking into the goddess Nike and the winged hindu god Garuda, and I see that winged beings (whether they are called deities or angels) prevail in many cultures. There’s a list of winged humanoids here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_avian_humanoids

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