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.
Many scholars feel that the earliest, long-lasting recorded monotheistic religion was that started by Zoroaster, who lived somewhere between 1500 B.C.E. and 550 B.C.E. (This is a rather large window of time, but there are compelling arguments for placing him at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of this period.) In a vision that contained many elements familiar to Abrahamic traditions, Zoroaster found himself clearly wrestling with a demon, whom he called Angra Mainyu—the Prince of Lies, or Demon of Doubt and Despair, also called Ahaitin (amazingly close to “Satan,” the Accuser). He also became aware of a supreme God of Goodness and Light—Ahura Mazda (“wise lord”)—who would eventually overthrow the demon. It was all there, the holy rivers, the “host of heaven,” the angels of darkness and light. Some scholars feel that before this vision of Zoroaster’s humans perceived the gods to contain both good and evil within themselves; Zoroaster came away from his vision firmly convinced that the heavens were ruled by a great good God, and people were bedeviled by evil demons and assisted by angels of light. He felt that humans must make a choice as to whether they would serve the good or the evil side.
Very recently, in 1931, a fascinating discovery was made in Northern Syria. There, archeologists unearthed the remains of Ugarit, an ancient Arabic city, dating from the 14th century BCE. It was fascinating to find that their language was much like ancient Hebrew, and their religion included the gods El, Baal, and others reported in the Hebrew Scriptures. Also, the function of angels in their religion very much echoed Zoroaster and the Abrahamic traditions, which we will look at closely in the first chapter of this book.
But what exactly are angels, those “beings of light” that Rabbi David Wolpe calls “God’s entourage”? Some traditions, including members of the New Age movement, suggest that angels are beings of energy “vibrating at a much faster frequency” than humans can usually perceive. We encounter them only when they slow themselves down or when we tune in to their frequency through prayer and ritual. Some traditions hold that each person has a personal angel; some feel we can get to know that angel well and have daily chats, while others feel the contact should only be initiated from the angelic side. Some believe you shouldn’t try to “conjure up” angels because you might end up with a demon who is more than pleased to answer the invitation.
Whatever you feel an angel actually is, or is made of, this just opens the door to the beginning of the mystery. For you certainly cannot believe in angels without acknowledging mystery.
A second theory is that in the last few decades, we humans have been overcome by science and technology until we feel there is no mystery left, and yet we know instinctively that this is untrue. The converse of this has also been suggested: that science is revealing so many mysteries that we need to remind ourselves there is a loving presence in the midst of it all. Have you seen the star show at the Rose Center's Hayden Planetarium in New York City? There is no way to digest what we now know about the heavens without being absolutely floored by the enormity and majesty of it all. The same goes for what we're discovering about human biology. The mystery is overwhelming. We need help!
Finally, it is true that we live in a world in which we're bombarded by CNN, watching terrorists rip into buildings, seeing children starving by the tens of thousands, hearing of viruses that cannot be cured. The evil in our world is beyond our control, and we desperately need to know there is a benevolent presence beyond us that is more than a match for the presence of evil and hopelessness we see on our television screens. We need to know that, despite everything, we are loved. And that is what the angels tell us.