Angels are supernatural beings recognized and described in many of the world’s religions and myths. In the Abrahamic and Zoroastrian religions, angels are depicted as benevolent celestial beings that act as intermediaries between God or heaven and humanity. In addition, angels may act as guardians, guides, or otherwise perform the tasks given them by God. They typically are depicted with the shape of an androgynous human being, often with the wings of a bird affixed to their upper backs and surrounded with light.
In Neoplatonism, a belief system rooted in the teachings of Plato and developed in the third century B.C.E Roman culture, angels were recognized and described as metaphysical beings. Plato’s student Aristotle spoke of the Prime Mover as the original force that began the working of the universe and suggested there might be a set of Secondary Movers. The Neoplatonists believed angels to be Secondary Movers.
In Zoroastrianism, every person has one guardian angel called fravashi. The fravashi, or personal spirit of an individual, whether dead, living, or not yet born, sends out the urvan, or soul, of the individual into the world to fight the battle of good versus evil. The urvan returns to the fravashi four days after death of the physical body. Its experiences are collected to be used by the next generation in the battle between good and evil.
Judaism divides angels into hierarchies and ranks. Angels are described as messengers of god, envoys or general agents of God. They perform many different functions including warrior, healer of impurities, messenger, interpreter, and teacher. The angelic role as teacher is particularly important in apocalyptic literature when great visions are given to Jewish prophets, such as Daniel, Ezra, and Zechariah. The teaching angel conveys the full might of heavenly authority while also comforting and interpreting for the human who receives the vision. In the Kabbalah, angels are described as forces that transmit information between man and God. They are analogized as being like atoms, wavelengths, and channels. They are anthropomorphized because of the human’s interpretation of them, but are thought to actually be a singular force, emotion, or feeling controlled by God.
The Christian religion’s concept of angels is based upon the Judaic traditions. Angels are considered agents of God. In medieval Christian traditions, angels were divided into choirs.
Saint Thomas of Aquinas, a Dominican friar who became an immensely influential philosopher and theologian, wrote extensively about angels. He divided them into three hierarchies, spheres, or triads and subdivided these into three orders or choirs.
Saint Thomas’s first hierarchy included the orders Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones. The Seraphim were described as the burning ones and were the caretakers of God’s throne. The Cherubim were described as having four faces, that of man, ox, eagle, and lion. The Cherubim had four conjoined wings covered with eyes. Their purpose was to guard the path to the tree of life inside the Garden of Eden. Saint Thomas wrote that Satan was a fallen Cherubim angel. The Thrones were considered living symbols of God’s justice.
The second hierarchy included the orders Dominions or Lordships, Virtues or Strongholds, and Powers or Authorities. Dominion angels were said to look like divinely beautiful humans with feathery wings like ordinary angels. They could be differentiated from other types of angels by the existence of orbs of light surrounding the pommels of their swords or scepters. Their responsibility was to oversee and guide the duties of lower level angels. Virtues were the angels through which signs and miracles could be made on Earth. Powers were thought to supervise the movement of the heavenly bodies to assure order in the cosmos. They were said to be the keepers of history and bearers of conscience. They were considered the source of the power of rulers on Earth. They could also be warriors for God.
The third hierarchy included the orders Principalities or Rulers, Archangels, and Angels. Principalities provided guidance to rulers and institutions such as churches. They were thought to have presided over bands of angels who ministered to man. Archangels were considered messengers or envoys. They included Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, and others. Angels were the celestial beings most connected to the lives of human beings and the affairs of mankind, the form of angel that would most likely be encountered by human beings.
The Mormon belief describes angels as messengers who appear on Earth to bring messages from God or minister to the masses. They teach that angels are humans who are either deceased or have yet to be born.
In the Islam faith, angels are given specific tasks by God to perform on Earth. These tasks may include testing the faith of people and bringing messages from Allah. In the Baha’i faith, angels are considered people who have consumed the fire of God.
Guardian angels look after specific individuals. Spirit angels represent divine protection. The form of an angel may be the individual person’s way of experiencing and seeing the light of God.