person of color: hey wouldn’t it be cool if angels were represented as brown or black more often–
edgy whites who went to a week of bible study 15 yrs ago and regurgitate all their Superior Knowledge from textually inaccurate all-caps tumblr posts written by supernatural fans: um…… ACTUALLY :) angels don’t look like HUMANS they look like ELDRITCH NIGHTMARES™ that MELT YOUR BRAIN OUT so stop giving them skin colors :) try a few animal heads instead :) don’t forget the eyeballs :)
But it’s true?? That’s why they’re always saying “do not be afraid”. Some of them have three faces on one head?? It’s in both Old Testament and Revelations.
i mean, this is my favorite of all subjects so why not chat about it a little. sorry in advance for the essay you didn’t ask for, but i’m getting a lot of smartasses on this post telling me the Edgy Whites aren’t wrong. so let’s go:
1) even if it was true (which it’s not, i will get to that) this wouldn’t be an adequate reason for criticizing or derailing poc who are trying to subvert the association of divinity/purity & whiteness. you know the idea of the aryan race came from the myth of divine whiteness? you know how all fantasy elves are pale slender & white, thanks to j.r.r. tolkein’s prevailing white/christian influence? so if you see poc trying to reframe this, let them!
2) it isn’t true. don’t get me wrong, you can envision, interpret, and portray angels however you want, that’s part of the fun of art and writing and fantasy. i know that a certain post influenced how a lot of people on tumblr imagine angels (again, because people like subverting popularized imagery) but if we’re talking about biblical accuracy, then let’s be biblically accurate.
more specifically, if someone is going to condescend to poc (or anyone!) about the “factual” appearances of angels in the bible, then they damn better get it right.
to start with– angels as winged messengers were popularized after the roman catholic church began co-opting greco-roman imagery, and modeled much of their depictions of angels after hermes and eros. so yeah, the image of pale white angels is tiresome and not technically accurate to the bible.
that said, the majority of angels in the bible very likely appeared as wingless humans with occasional supernatural attributes.
biblical angels are understood by theologists & angelologists to exist in a celestial hierarchy, de coelesti hierarchia, which accounts for nine distinct types. they’re organized in tiers, so to speak. within the first sphere are seraphim, cherubim, and ophanim. this first choir resides within the inner sanctum of heaven; they are the lovecraftian ones tumblr is so big on.
the seraphim (isaiah 6:1-8 and revelations 4:8, the burning ones, sometimes interpreted as a mass of serpents, multiple eyes, etc.) the cherubim (isaiah 1:5-11 and ezekiel 1:5-13, multiple wings, multiple faces) and ophanim (ezekial 1:15-21′s iconic Wheels™) are all witnessed by prophets. not in visitations, but in visions of heaven. these are THE scary angels, the angels of the guillermo del toro persuasion.
but, they exist outside of sight from humans, which is why it was exclusively prophets who could describe them. they do not come down to earth to chat with random civilians. they’re too busy with the tasks of the omniscient, and their proximity to god is what makes them so powerful and so otherworldly. (and no, you won’t drop dead just looking at them: only god is said to be that powerful.)
the second choir– the dominions, virtues, and powers– are typically interpreted to remain unseen and work on the spiritual plane, tasked with more menial things than the first choir, keeping the nonphysical realm in working order.
the third choir are the ones who move between heaven and earth to serve humans: the principalities, archangels and angels. these are the ones most regularly described in the bible as messengers, guides, and guardians who take on the form of man in order to serve and aide them. almost every mention of angelic messengers or apparitions in the bible is an angel of the third choir.
(side note: the only angels not accounted for in the celestial hierarchy are the nephilim: the fallen ones who had children by humans, referenced in genesis 6:1–4 and often considered to be demons.)
so if the angels appearing to humans aren’t abominations, why do they scare people so badly?
the phrase “do not be afraid/be not afraid” is said in variations over 100 times in the bible, not exclusively by angels. most often it’s spoken as an assurance of god’s love and protection. yes, a handful of times it’s said by angels. (matthew 1:20, matthew 28:5, luke 1:13, luke 1:30, luke 2:10, to name some prominent instances.) almost every single one of these, the angel in question is doing just that– assuring vulnerable or frightened people that god is protecting them.
most notable of these angels is gabriel, the archangel and messenger who appears to mary to tell her she will conceive jesus. let’s look at the context at play: mary was a young unwed woman who would not have been accustomed to spending time alone with young man outside her family. when gabriel appears to her, a strange man in her home, she has every reason to be frightened. gabriel goes on to tell her that she’s going to be the mother of god, and this is when he reassures her not to be afraid, because it will be done through god’s workings. gabriel ≠ an eldritch horroterror.
the second instance is that of the messenger angel who tells the women of jerusalem not to be afraid, but jesus has been raised from the dead. this angel is described as unearthly, and tbqh he’s dope as hell: “his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” (matthew 28:5) there’s reason to believe this angel is of the same countenance as the one described in a vision in the book of daniel: “then i lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and beheld a certain man clothed in linen (…) his body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude.” (daniel 10:5-7) my fave description of an angel in the bible by far, but… still not an eldritch horrorterror.
in a third instance (luke 2:10), the angelic heralds who inform the sleeping shepherds of jesus’ birth do startle the men, and they do tell them not to fear. but it’s said its the glory of god emanating from them that scares the shepherds, not a monstrous appearance.
the cosmic fear attributed to visits from the divine is called numinous dread, the terror that fills us when we’re approached by something we have no capacity to understand. numinous dread is akin to what makes people quiver at the thought of ghosts, or the size of distant planets, or the expanse of the universe– something incalculable and unknowable to the point of being frightening. this to me is by far the coolest aspect of angels. the fact that the very scope of their existence can tug and distort the fabric of our dimension, to the point that humans are bowled over by the merest whiff of their presence? it’s why angels who appear human but still frighten people is such an underrated concept.
you know the phrase “every angel is terrifying”? the author, rainer maria rilke, wrote endlessly on the nature of the human and divine, especially in his work the duino elegies. in the full quote from the first elegy, he mused on the vastness of angels in comparison to mortals:
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”
this, to me, is the most succinct and lovely illustration of angels, which doesn’t define them either as monsters or humans– he’s fixed on the feeling of awe that’s inherent to the divine, however it manifests.
none of this invalidates creative interpretations of biblical angels! it just means you should not be talking down to anyone about their level of accuracy, especially in regards to race.
in summary: YES, some angels are scary looking in the bible. NO, not every single one looks like edgy white tumblr wants to believe. YES, everybody is allowed to have fun with their interpretations and portrayals, go wild. NO, it’s not even remotely acceptable to condescend to people who want to envision them as people of color because, textually, they manifest as humans in the bible, and everyone in the bible was brown and black.
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