angel: One of an order of spiritual beings superior to man in power and intelligence, who, according to the Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other theologies, are the attendants and messengers of the Deity
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
At the age of eight, I was press-ganged into playing the angel Gabriel in my school’s Nativity play. With cardboard wings, a bed-sheet smock, and a wobbly wire halo, I fluted my way through “Fear not: for behold, I bring you tidings of great joy …” and so on. The language of the King James Edition did not commit easily to my eight-year-old memory, or trip lightly off my eight-year-old tongue, and I developed a deep and life-long antipathy to participation in the performing arts as a result. (I would, however, have killed to glow in the dark like Bloch’s marvellously effulgent specimen, above.)
Another bit of damage done to my brain by the Nativity-play experience was that I spent a few decades convinced that it was the angel Gabriel who delivered the Annunciation to the Shepherds. Because that’s what it said on the script I received from my primary-school teacher, and she was a Person Who Is Never Wrong. But, as you’ll see above, Luke doesn’t actually specify the name of the angel who delivered the good tidings, and Luke is the only one of the Four Evangelists who tells the story of the shepherds.
Perhaps my teacher just got her Annunciations mixed up. The angel Gabriel turns up only twice in the New Testament, both times in the first chapter of Luke—once delivering the Annunciation to Zacharias (of the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist); and once delivering the Annunciation to Mary (of the forthcoming birth of Jesus).
So when preparing the by-now traditional Christmas “Words” post, I started wondering about how many angels are actually named in the Bible, and how many remain anonymous, like the one who delivered the Good News to the shepherds. This led me off at a tangent which I hope you’ll indulge—there will be some etymology at the end, I promise.
It turns out that, depending on your disposition, there are either two, or three, or four, or five angels specifically named in the Bible. Gabriel is one, appearing twice in the Book of Daniel and twice in the Gospel of Luke. He seems to fulfil a role as a messenger. Then there’s the warrior angel, Michael—he’s quoted a couple of times in Daniel and referred to in the Epistle of Jude, but has perhaps his most notable mention in the Book of Revelation:
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.
(We’ll come back to “the dragon” in a moment.)
So Gabriel and Michael are the two biggies. Then there’s the Book of Tobit, which is considered canonical by Catholic and Orthodox Christians but consigned to the Apocrypha by Protestants. It narrates Tobias’ journey between Nineveh and Ecbatana, in which he is aided by an angel called Raphael, who performs various acts of healing along the way.
For more named angels we have to resort to the Fallen Angels—those who were cast out after the war in heaven mentioned above. And the big kahuna of the Fallen is, of course, Satan. He is named on multiple occasions in the Bible, and is identified as the “dragon” against whom Michael fought, in a passage immediately following my quote above:
And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
There’s also an assumption that he’s the same entity who turns up under a different name in Isaiah:
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!
But Lucifer is a Latin translation of the original Hebrew Helel ben Shakhar, “shining one”, a name applied to the planet Venus when it appeared as the morning star. And the passage in Isaiah in which the name Lucifer appears is actually a prophetic vision concerning the downfall of an unnamed king of Babylon, so it seems that the name was intended as a metaphorical reference to this king—Venus being the brightest object in the morning sky for a while, before it sinks closer to the rising sun and eventually disappears from view. So the association of the name Lucifer with Satan seems to have been out of a confusion of identities arising from that “fallen from heaven” phrase.
And finally there’s this one, again from Revelation:
And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.
So Abaddon/Apollyon seems to be another Fallen Angel, but turns out to be a rather dubious one. If we go back to the original Hebrew texts again, Abaddon tends to turn up as the name of a place, which the King James Edition translates as “Hell”. Other translations, however, preserve the original name—see, for instance the many translations of Job 26:6 here. So Abaddon may really refer to the “bottomless pit” itself, rather than to the angel thereof.
And those are all the named angels in the Bible: two definites, one debatable, one Fallen, and one that’s both Fallen and of doubtful validity. Which I found slightly surprising, given that my copy of Gustav Davidson’s Dictionary of Angels contains 330 pages of names and biographies, from A’albiel to Zuriel. But these are all gleaned from various non-Biblical sources—the Pseudepigrapha, later mediæval writings, and grimoires, among others. Among my favourites are:
Wall: an angel formerly of the order of powers, but now a grand duke in Hell. When invoked he manifests in the form of a dromedary
Yaasriel: an angel in Jewish legend who is in charge of the “70 holy pencils.”
(Lest these examples, which I’ve cherry-picked for their amusement value, make you think A Dictionary of Angels is a work of comic imagination, I assure you it’s a fascinating work of considerable scholarship.)
But now (and finally, I hear you sigh), on to the etymology bit.
Gabriel derives from Hebrew gavriʾel, “God is my strength”, and has lent his name to a couple of English words. A Gabriel-bell was once rung at the parish church to remind people of their morning and evening prayers; and the yelping cries of migrating wild geese as they pass overhead has led to a sort-of-charming-but-also-a-bit-disconcerting nickname—they’ve been called Gabriel’s Hounds.
Michael is Hebrew mi kaʼel “who is like God”, and Michaelmas is a feast day in the Church calendar—celebrated on 29 September in the Western tradition. It’s more formally known as the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. The feast in turn gave its name to Saint Michael’s pear, which ripens around the time of Michaelmas, and the Michaelmas daisy, which flowers at the same time.
Raphael derives from rafa el, “healing of God”, which fits with his activities as a healer in the Book of Tobit. His contribution to English comes via the Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, commonly known in English as Raphael. Art that adopts his distinctive style is called Raphaelesque. And the nineteenth-century artistic movement that rejected Raphael’s “mechanistic” approach in favour of earlier styles was initiated by a rebellious group who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Satan is Hebrew tsatan, “adversary”, and has spawned a cluster of fairly self-explanatory words like Satanic, Satanist and Satanism. One to be avoided is a Satanophany, a “visible manifestation of Satan”. His other Biblical name, Lucifer, means “light bringer”—the Latin equivalent of the Greek phosphoros, which I’ve written about previously. It’s a name that sits puzzlingly on the Prince of Darkness, so it’s usually interpreted as being Satan’s name when he was still an angel in good standing, before he was cast out of heaven. It has spawned a little cluster of adjectives, now disused: Luciferine, Luciferian and Luciferous, all of which were synonyms for Satanic. A lucifer match, often called just a lucifer, was a nineteenth century invention that had nothing to do with Satan, but was merely a “light bringer”; likewise for the naturally glowing biological molecules produced by bioluminescent organisms, luciferins, and the enzyme that activates them, luciferase. Nothing devilish about them.
Abaddon comes from Hebrew ʾabaddon, “destruction”, and Greek Apollyon, “destroyer”, is simply borrowed from the Hebrew. Neither word has gained much traction in English, beyond the abortive seventeenth-century coining of Apollyonist as an unsuccessful synonym for Satanist. (It sounds like some sort of public-relations ploy by Satanists, but it actually originates with Phineas Fletcher, a Church of England rector, who applied the word in all seriousness to the Jesuits.)
I’ll stop there. When I set out to research this post, I imagined I was going to regale you with tales of the seraphim, cherubim and archangels, but that’s probably a post for another day.
If you’re disposed to celebrate Christmas, I trust your only encounter with a fallen angel will be one that’s become dislodged from the top of the Christmas tree. Have a good one.