On Angels and Gender from ‘ Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females’ by Serenity Young

Cover of book quote is from for Circo del Herrero imagery “From the perspective of gender, the most important thing about angels is that they are all male. This is obvious from their descriptions in scripture and from artistic depictions up until the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, when angels first began to be portrayed as female. The angel who drives Adam and Eve out of paradise, the one with whom Jacob wrestles, and those that appear to Hagar, Daniel, Abraham, the Virgin Mary, the women at Jesus’s tomb, and Muhammad are all male. Even the angels that appear in the biblical dreams of Jacob and Joseph are male, as are the angels that became visible to the medieval Christian women mystics, discussed in chapter 10. Angels’ maleness even plays a part in Paul’s admonishment that praying women should veil their heads: ‘A woman ought to have a veil on her head because of the angels.’ Seemingly, the angels would either be aroused by women’s hair or offended by it. A possible exception occurs in Zechariah 5:9 when the speaker says of two women: ‘The wind was in their wings; they had wings like the wings of a stork.’

The word ‘angel’ comes from the Greek angelos, which is a translation of the Hebrew mal’akh, meaning ‘messenger.’ They are God’s winged messengers, mostly benevolent spirits who mediate between humans and the divine, and thus they are prominent in religious movements based on revelation, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and Islam. In all of these traditions, angels are incorporeal beings without gender; nonetheless they are understood to be male because human beings tend to gender the world and the male body is widely considered the normative body, making the female body deviant. For example, Matthew describes the angel appearing at Christ’s tomb as male (Matthew 28:3). On the scale of existence, they are as different from God as they are from human beings; they are formless, bodiless, immaterial, and often considered as ‘elementals’ made up of air, water, fire, and earth. This makes them mostly invisible, except when becoming visible is necessary. The Jewish Bible (Tanakh) is replete with their appearances as messengers of God: They are are necessary intermediaries between God and human beings, because humans cannot look up on God directly and live (Exodus 3:6). Despite Solomon’s having  had carvings made of them in the Temple (1 Kings 6:23-35), Judaism did not allow any figurative representations of its religious concepts, following the second of the Ten Commandments: ‘You shall not make for yourself a graven image..of anything in heaven…or that is in the earth beneath’ (Exodus 20:4). Consequently, angels presented an iconographic challenge to early Christian artists, a problem largely solved by presenting them as winged men, examples of which already existed in pre-Christian art, such as the naked Erotes (members of Aphrodite’s/Venus’s retinue). Christian sculptures, paintings, illuminations, and texts presented angels as male in both popular and high art, while liturgies ritually recalled angelic appearances at pivotal moments in Christian history. Interestingly, in Byzantium after the tenth century, angels were thought of a male eunuchs — a notion brought about by the church’s assumed parallelism between the imperial court, with its eunuchs and God’s heavenly court. According to his model, angels serve God in heaven, and as his messengers to humanity they are angels of God’s plan for human redemption.

In Islam angels have an unprecedented role, especially the angel Gabriel (Jibra’il). It is Gabriel who brought Muhammad (c.570-632) the word of God during the twenty-two years of revelations that became the Qur’an. He also accompanied Muhammad on his Night Journey to Paradise, though he could not enter into the presence of God, an important indication not only of Muhammad’s superiority of Gabriel but of all humanity’s as well. Sunni Muslims believe angels have neither self-knowledge nor free will. Therefore, only human beings — not angels — can know God. A further indication of human superiority over the angels is revealed in the fall from heaven of those who refused God’s command to bow to Adam — that is, to God’s creation of human beings. Let by Iblis, the Devil (Shaitan), some say they became jinns, a low spiritual form that usually does evil, although other sources define them as a a class of beings different from both humans and angels, and they are sometimes conflated with fairies (peris) and houris. Jinns are actually pre-Islamic spirits that cane be female or male. Like fairies, they are unpredictable: sometimes benevolent, sometimes malevolent. They love music and are irresistibly drawn to it. Beautiful and sexually alluring, jinns are also possessors of great wealth.

Satan is said to have been one of God’s favorite angels (in Islam he is a jinn called Iblis, as mentioned above), until he rose up in rebellion and was thrown out of heaven, along with his followers, into the infernal regions (Qur’an, Sura 7:10-12). This story points to even earlier concepts of angels as ambivalent beings, equally capable of good or evil; thus angels could be associated with malefic magic in Judaism and Islam. Jewish ideas about angels were elaborated upon during the Babylonian exile (sixth century BCE) under the influence of the many winged figures of the ancient Near East, as well as the Zoroastrian notion of a good god, Ahura Mazda, battling it out with a bad god, Angra Mainyu. Both these gods are accompanied by an army of spirits,and this military aspect added to the belief that angels were male. After the Babylonian exile, Judaism was increasingly concerned with angelic hierarchies, ranks, numbers, and names — the last being particularly important in magic. There was also a growing devotion to individual guardian angels assigned to each person, which was absorbed into Christianity and Islam. Christians and Muslims inherited the Jewish conception of angels, and Shi’a Muslims followed the Christians’ visual images of them…as well as drawing on some Asian examples.

The Greek goddess Nike and her Roman counterpart, Victory, though female, provided a model with their impressive wingspans as well as their positive associations as divine messengers of success….Speaking more broadly, Gunnar Berefelt explains ‘the classical idea of wings as a symbol of speed, as the attribute of a being occupying an intermediate position between mortals and gods and as a symbol of spirituality lies at the root of the investment of Christian angels with wings.’ The Jewish Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an imply that angels have wings and can fly and that, like Nike, they are ‘bearers of good tidings.’…Singly and in groups, however, Nikes or Victories continued to appear in Christian art as late as the sixth century…winged goddess commonly appeared on sarcophagi, and winged Erotes on their sarcophagi as escorts of the soul, indicating the central Christian tenet of victory over death, or the achievement of eternal life…Angels and Victories often appeared in pairs, but they were clearly distinguished by costumes and gender: both wore tunics but male angels had mantles draped over their flat chests, while mantle-less Victories displayed prominent breasts. Occasionally, halos were added to define the figures as angels.

The feminization of angels and the introduction of child angels (putti, later conflated with cherubs) began in early Italian Renaissance art (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries). Neither female angels nor child angels have any basis in Christian literature or thought; they are an innovation introduced by artists of the period, based on the classical female forms of the goddess Victory and the childlike forms of the Erotes. While masculine angels remained dominant, female angels began to preform some of their functions, appearing on tombs and flanking the Cross, while putti appeared in nativity scenes and scenes from Christi’s childhood, as well as in scenes showing them crowning Mary as Queen of Heaven. Berefelt makes the point that not only with this ‘a departure from traditional conceptions but also a change of attitude towards the important position formerly held by the angel in Christian mythology.’ Belief in angels was waning,and the appearance of child and female angels was an indication of angel’s declining status: if women and children could be angels, then angels were less significant. Be that as it may, when one recalls that the Renaissance was inspired by the discovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts and iconography, the appearance of female angels can be seen as a return to the female Victories on which angels were originally based, as well as a recurrence of ancient and enduring beliefs about female, not male, guides for the dead and restorers of life… Female angels also invoked other aerial women of the battle field, such as goddesses of war, the Valkyries, and so on…

Female angels began to appear in large numbers during the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, and as the Victorian era arose, the world angel began got be used most often in connection with women, as in ‘the angel of the house,” a widely popular conception in England and the Untied States at the time. The Victorian social myth of woman was the presiding angel of the hearth is one indication of how quickly female angels were domesticated in both winged and wingless forms. By requiring a daily prayer session involving the entire household (family and staff), the wife/mother fulfilled the traditional angelic role of mediating between the members of her household and God.”

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