Angels: History or Mystery?
In almost every known culture, angelic beings have been recorded.
It’s interesting to note that references to angels have existed as long as recorded human history. (It’s also necessary to mention that any “history of angels” discussed here is a history of humans and angels—who knows what they were doing in the millennia before we showed up!)
Hermes, in the Greek pantheon of gods, served the function of messenger, and was pictured with wings on his heels. In ancient Egypt, the goddess Nepthys was also winged; reliefs depicting her appear in hieroglyphics in tombs. Griffins, winged animals with human heads, appear in a very ancient Etruscan tomb. (See the Biblical book of Ezekiel for other animal/human appearing angels.) Many other cultures featured winged lions and bulls with human heads; winged creatures were known to the Vikings as valkyries , to the Greeks as horae; in Persia they were fereshta, to the Hindu, apsaras.
Yet it’s important to note that wings do not an angel make. In fact, in the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which trace their heritage to the patriarch Abraham), wings did not appear on angels with any regularity until the time of Emperor Constantine, and did not become popular in angel art until the Renaissance. Historically, angels who interacted with humans—such as Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Lot and his wife—came in human form and were only recognized as angels in retrospect. In Christianity, the angels at the annunciation to Mary and the announcement to the shepherds were perceived instantly as superhuman, yet were never described as having wings. The angels that met the women at the tomb with the news of the resurrection of Jesus were simply described as “two men” with extraordinary lighting. It’s only when you get into supernatural visions such as those of the prophet Ezekiel or the apostle John or the Persian prophet Zoroaster that wings appear with any emphasis.
While it’s interesting to find beings with wings carved into ancient caves in many places in the world, what’s even more fascinating is to trace the cosmology—and theology—of angels, and to see the similarities that emerge in different cultures.