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angelo abbandona il suo corpo - Woman Comics/Fantasy/Anime



A History Of Angels In Western Thought


Have you ever had a flying dream? In my experience, and the experience of people I know, such dreams tend to be particularly intense, as though the 'action' of flying in the dream has some special significance. Notwithstanding the Freudian approach that labels flying dreams as always symbolising sex[!], it now seems pretty clear that such dreams can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For whatever reason, it's fair to say that the idea of human beings being able to fly is something that has fascinated people since time immemorial. Consequently, images of human beings with wings can be found across the world in every major culture. This essay explores the connections between the winged human motif and 'angels' in the art and religious thinking of exclusively 'western' (ie Christian/Islamic/Judaic) cultures, with a brief look at a number of 'strands' of thought from ancient Sumeria and beyond, to the present-day.

Our word 'angel' comes from the Greek angelos, which itself could be considered as a translation of the Hebrew word mal'akh, meaning 'messenger', etymology suggesting a being responsible for carrying messages between the human world and some other realm or realms of existence, someone who is an intermediary between 'down here' and 'up there'.


Sumerian society is the oldest society that has left us clear evidence of the use of a winged human motif. This evidence is in the form of stone carvings, either in the form of three-D statues or relief carvings that provide the illusion of three-dimensionality. Sumerian culture flourished around 3,000 BC between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Iraq (see map showing the geographical extent of Sumerian culture). The religion of these people was complex, embracing a wide variety of spirits and gods, but of particular interest was their belief in 'messengers of the gods', angelic forces who ran errands between gods and humans.
The Sumerians also believed that each person had a 'ghost' of some sort (that we would now probably label as 'guardian angel') with this entity remaining a constant companion for a person throughout their life. Altars that appear to be dedicated to guardian angels have been found in the excavations of ancient Sumerian homes, along with stone engravings and temple wall paintings of human figures with wings. After the polytheistic Semitic tribes had conquered the Sumerians around 1900 BC their mythical cosmology borrowed the notion of angels from the vanquished Sumerians. These Semitic peoples developed the idea of a corpus of angels split into groupings answerable to each of the many Semitic gods, further subdividing these groups into vertical 'ranked' heirarchies, a notion which persisted into Zoroastrianism and monotheistic Judaism and beyond, as we shall see. Sumerian ideas probably set the scene for the development of Egyptian theology as well, although it is difficult to be clear about the detail of such cross-cultural influences.

"The civilization of the Jemdet Nasr period of Mesopotamia and the archaic period of Egypt are apparently roughly contemporary, but the interesting point is that in Mesopotamia many of the features of civilization appear to have a background, whereas in Egypt they do not. It is on this basis that many authorities consider that Egypt owes her civilization to the people of the Euphrates. There is no doubt that there is a connection, but whether direct or indirect we do not know".
Walter B. Emergy

"There are certain elements in Egypt's Early Dynastic Period which seem to betray unmistakable Sumerian influence. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing may be one. Another is the so-called 'paneled-facade' type of architecture found in Egyptian tombs from the First to the Third Dynasties (3200 to 2800 B.C.).
The most remarkable evidence of cultural connection is that shown in the architecture of the Early Dynastic tombs of Egypt and Mesopotamian seal-impressions showing almost exactly similar buildings".
Leonard Cottrell in The Quest for Sumer

Sumerian domination of the Middle East came to an end around 2,000 BC, when Sumer was defeated militarily and the overlapping Assyrian and Babylonian cultures took over. Winged figures can also be found among the icons of ancient Assyria and Babylonia.

But how, exactly, did images of angelic beings find their way into the hearts, minds and iconography of the Sumerian people(s), one asks? Where did the notion of an 'angel' come from before that? We are lucky to have had the extremely durable stone artifacts of this period handed down to us, but (as with the 'dark ages' much much later in Europe) just because a prior culture did not commit itself to the written word, to pictures or to carvings that would last thousands of years, this does not mean that there was no culture. Almost certainly, the motif of a winged human figure goes back much further than Sumeria even, in fact the motif almost certainly goes back into the shamanic mists of time. Recent evidence suggests that this is the case...


The forms of some of the most enduring Egyptian gods can be traced back to the first few dynasties, that is, to around 2,500 BC. In many cases these gods took the shape of some animal, which was regarded as the soul (Ba) of the god. Horus, god of the sky, for instance, was represented as a falcon, whereas Thoth, god of the moon and patron of writing, learning and the sciences, was often represented as a man with the head of an ibis. Isis and Maat were often represented with wings as we can see in the two images above and below.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead lists 500 gods and goddesses, and it is possible to identify at least 1200 more dieties in later ancient Egyptian writings. Some of these dieties were undoubtedly closer to our concept of an angel rather than a god, however: for instance there was at one time a cult dedicated to invoking the help of the Hunmanit, who were a group of entities connected with the sun, portrayed as rays of the sun, rather like the Christian representation of the angel choir of the seraphim. The Hunmanit had a responsibility to look after the sun, such that by looking after the sun, they were also indirectly fulfilling a responsibility to look after humanity at the same time. Insofar as they were guardians, and angels, it does not seem unreasonable to characterise them as early versions of the guardian angel. As with the Sumerians, Egyptian iconography includes 'winged humans' of one sort or another also: for instance Isis, queen of all the Egyptian goddesses, is often represented as a woman with wings. The flowering of Sumerian culture was contemporaneous with the first few dynasties of the great culture of ancient Egypt, around 2,500 BC, and archaeologists incline to the view that there was a traffic not only of artefacts, but also of ideas and iconography between Sumeria and Egypt before the time when Sumerian influence declined (around 2,000 BC). However archaelogists are apparently not in a position to say clearly whether the winged human motif was imported into Egypt from Sumeria, or vice versa, or whether it arose spontaneously and separately in each of the two cultures.

The Indo-European Migration.

Beginning at the end of the fourth millenium BC, there was a movement of people, whose distinct ethnicity we have come to call 'Indo-European', from Europe to Central Asia, and even as far as North India. This movement is still shrouded in a degree of mystery, but it would appear that there were probably a number of migratory 'waves' in an easterly direction up to and including the first millenium BC, reaching a peak around 2000 BC. Among other things this migration helps explain the similarities between the ancient Greek and ancient Sanskrit languages. Modern Tajik is a linguistic relative. But how does this relate to the subject at hand?
Well, when we look at the extent of these Indo-European migrations, across thousands of miles of Asian landscape into the mists of time, it helps to underline the fact that there MUST have been a dissemination of both objects and ideas between Central Asia and Europe that was fairly widespread even in extremely ancient times. A look at a map of the (later) Persian empire also helps underline the extent to which artefacts and culture could travel from India on the one hand to Greece on the other (and vice versa). And just as we find the god Mithras (for instance) popping up in Greece and Central Asia (see next section), so we find his counterpart Mitra in the Rig-Veda, the most ancient of all Hindu 'texts' (that possibly goes back in spoken form to 3,000 BC).


Mithras was a light-bringer god, whose cult flourished between 1500 BC and the time of Christ, in lands as far apart as India and Great Britain, with a basis in what was then known as Persia (see map of the Persian empire around 500 BC). Although in his own cult Mithras does not fully conform to the image of 'angel' that we are particularly interested in here, nevertheless Mithraism was the most prevalent religion in Persia when Zoroaster (qv section below) was alive, and in Zoroastrianism Mithras was considered to be an angel who mediated between heaven and earth, later becoming judge and preserver of the created world. In Vedic cosmology also (where in the Rig Veda, Mitra is mentioned over 200 times), Mitra appears often to be more angel than god. The 'Mithras-cult' images of Mithras that we see here are typical close variations on the same scene, where Mithras fights the sacred bull, with his cloak billowing out behind him in a way that seems meant to suggest wings. Over and over again we find Mithras depicted in this way.

'Mihr', the ancient Persian form of the word 'Mithras', meant not only 'sun' but also 'friend', and this is how Mithras was worshipped, both as a distant sun-god and also as a close personal source of love and support (ideas which are not a million miles away from the concept of a 'guardian angel'...). For more information on Mithras see A Sceptic's Guide To Church History: Mithras. and The Cult Of Mithras.


A few paragraphs above we talked of how, in the fourth, third and second millenia before Christ, a number of migrations of European Indo-European people took place, with people of European ancestry finding their way eastward to Central Asia and as far as India. Zoroaster was a real-life member of this ethnic grouping, living in Persia (in and around present-day Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) around 650 BC, when as a result of what he claimed were angelic communications, he spread a monotheistic religious message that subsequently became the religion of the ...

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