From Renaissance paintings to modern-day Cupids, angels (and their inverse, demons) have always fascinated the imagination. It might be because they’re often human-looking, but more than human at the same time. Maybe it’s because they represent some form of movement between heaven and earth. Or even—as in the case of the Cherubim with a flaming sword that drove Adam and Eve out of Eden—because they can function as guardians of the mystique, hiding something once beautiful and familiar and now lost and elusive. I myself am just fascinated by the concept of a winged, more-than-human figure that moves between different worlds, that doesn’t necessarily just represent death or cannibalism but hints at transcendence.
In religious works, we usually find angels working as the hand of God. Michael, the archangel, leads a battalion to fight evil, and Gabriel tells Mary about the Birth of Christ. In the Bible angels don’t always have human faces the way popular culture envisions them. The prophet Ezekiel sees four terrifying angels, flashing with supernatural fire, each driving a wheel. All four wheels together carry a precious, metallic object similar to an altar. If we think about it, this “vehicle” isn’t too unlike modern-day automobiles—it even moves only in straight lines! In fact, some scholars have made the case that Ezekiel was seeing visions of the future and trying to put it to words using the language and culture of his time. At the very least he was speculating on the future, creating hypothetical happenings using contemporary knowledge, which isn’t too far from what we speculative writers and readers like to do today. In any case, angels haven’t always been presented the way we see them today. And at the same time, we can expand has been technically termed “angel” to include certain figures like Hermes, the Greek God of transitions and boundaries, also known as Mercury, from which we get the Jungian concept of “Mercutio.” Hermes/Mercury wears a winged cap and he moves between gods and humans, interceding for them or delivering souls to the afterlife. In both cases, there’s a common thread: these figures move between the spiritual and the physical realms, and so they are winged and associated with the wind.
We also have angels who are simply more-than human, with the same quirks and shadows. This is where we get demons or fallen angels. In Christianity, Satan disobeys God (which has been interpreted as “human agency” alongside outright disobedience) and he embodies all the things we don’t like, like pride, deceit, and so forth. This concept – that angels are like us, but distant at the same time – is more common in modern-day speculative fiction and films. In the Flat Earth series by Tanith Lee, the angel Azhrarn frequently tricks mortals, but he also teaches them their own foibles and weaknesses. For instance, he helps the Queen Zorayas re-conquer the thirteen kingdoms lost by her father, but dies from a trick ending instigated by Azhrarn due to her extreme pride. (Anyone looking for beautiful descriptions and an excellent exploration of mythic structures should check out this series!) Dr. Who also has a fascinating take on The Weeping Angels, who are an ancient alien race that feed off of time energy and subject to quantum-lock. They normally move quickly and silently beyond human recognition, but once they’re perceived, they become locked the stone of a single time-space. For this reason, these angels are extremely lonely despite having great power.
The Samaria Series by Sharon Shinn is one of my favourite series that also addresses angels. In some fiction, angels must either possess inordinate power or be so marvellous they’re completely alienating. However, Sharon Shinn’s angels are more relatable. In the first book, Archangel, Gabriel has to replace the power-hungry Raphael in the position of archangel, and marry a mortal woman who can serve Jovah alongside him. Gabriel and his wife Rachel struggle in their marriage because they hate each other from the start, but learn to cooperate with one another. We’re taken through their respective insecurities, and Shinn does a nuanced job of renegotiating the relationship between angels and humans, between what’s supernatural and familiar. It’s interesting to think that angels can be more similar to us than expected, and maybe we’re closer to the supernatural than we know.
– Contributed by Maybelle Leung