Before I begin, I must give my deepest thanks to esotericarchives.com and my local OTO body. Without them, I would not have had access to half of these texts, or I would have spent a great deal of money buying copies only to donate them to my local library.
Angels have been a part of many faiths for centuries: messengers, healers, challengers, initiators, guides for the dead, allies. In the Jailbreaking series, I am re-interpreting the Catholic practices of my ancestors through a polytheist and animist lens. My bias is also anti-empire. I hold the Catholic church and many Christian churches (but not all) as forces of domination, oppression, and sometimes genocide. I don’t believe in Original Sin, nor in the “Christ” saving humanity. To me, Jesus of Nazareth is a folktale about a rabbi who was arguing with other rabbis regarding how to keep Judaism alive under the domination of Rome. He said some really wise things, but he didn’t end our disconnect from the divine. We were never disconnected.
So what are angels? The word angel comes form the greek angelos, meaning messenger. As I will explain, angels are not miracle working forces of good. The name angel is given to spirits who like humans and want to see us do well. Just because a spirit probably likes humans does not mean it likes all humans. But they are all approachable, and expect to be approached. To be blunt, it is possible to approach them from a wide variety of practices and perspectives, including polytheist animism.
This essay will not be a guide on how to contact these spirits. That topic requires preparatory work and will hopefully be the subject of a future book. This is a review of the historical records I could access in order to assess what these spirits are. The historical record is not pretty. Poor peoples’ magic tends to not be recorded as often as the practices of the rich and powerful. What we know about the magic of peasants, serfs, and workers is fractured and much harder to research. I will do my best to include the peoples’ work with these beings, but I want to make it clear that the scant material I have to work with is not due to a lack of care or respect.
The first spirits we might call predecessors to angels began in ancient Mesopotamia.The Sumerian culture had winged protectors called lammassu. It also wasn’t uncommon for deities and spirits in ancient Mesopotamian cultures to have wings. Ninurta from Babylon is a good example. Semitic peoples, some of whom would later become Jewish, had a concept of messenger spirits that had similarities with the lammassu. They carried prayers to and messages from the gods, including HaShem, who would later become the Jewish monotheism.
As Judaism solidified into a particular culture, the written records began to name and describe the messengers of HaShem. The names usually refer to some virtue associated with Creator as the Jewish people understand them. Gabriel, for example, means “Strength of God” or “God is my Strength”. We also start to see talismans using names of the angels from Jewish myth to guard against evil.
Greeks and Romans had pre-Christian concepts that would also go on to affect the relationships we call angels. Greeks believed that certain people were blessed by daimones, spirits that would provide guidance and inspiration to those whose fate required it. The Romans believed every man and woman had a genius or juno respectively. These are likely the predecessors of the personal guardian angel. The Romans also had, later in the empire, a Cult of Virtues. They saw things such as providence and foresight as worthy of religious devotion.
Which brings us to Christianity. Christians began as a splinter sect of Judaism. However, between 0 CE and 300 CE they became their own religion, and one that was aligned with the Roman Empire. Imperial Christianity would go on to become a violent hegemony, often murdering the Jewish people they claimed they still had religious connection to. The Christian adoption of angels followed most things in the tradition. While it originally came from a good and earnest place, the Imperial Christians evolved to the adoption of the parts of Jewish tradition which were convenient to them only to turn around and terrorize the local Jewish population for being “heretics”, mislabeling them as proto-Christians rather than their own separate religion. The entanglement of Jewish and Christian practice is a sticky history I am still wrestling with. I don’t think I will ever be done.
To give a concrete example, there are some angels that enter the Christian mythos before 300 CE. Gabriel, who comes to Mary to let her know she will be the mother of Christ, is solidly New Testament material. In contrast, Raphael is in the Book of Tobit and whether or not that should be included in the Christian canon is a deeply complicated question I am in no way qualified to answer.
Once Christianity becomes the empire’s religion, the oppression of spiritual practices of the poor becomes more apparent in history. We know that the churches of Imperial Christianity wanted priests to have sole control over as much of the spiritual well being of their “flock” as possible. We know that saint veneration was and is considered acceptable to the Catholics and Byzantines. Some angels, most notably Michael (“No one is like God”) and Raphael (“God’s Healing”), are also saints and can therefore be venerated by this method.
That being said, we have ample evidence that those with access to magical texts continued to practice the most taboo of all forms of magic: spirit conjuration. Rich people, priests, monks, and aristocrats were able to develop two broad streams of this magic. The first is called grimoire magic, and the second is called ceremonial magic. Both streams tend to require ample space, privacy, and expensive equipment.
We start with grimoires, because they are much older than the foundation of ceremonial magic. It is important to note that grimoires are not books. They are lineages. Almost every copy of the text will have differences from the others and marginal scribbles, indicating that people used and edited these systems with experience. The text, then, is a footprint of the grimoire itself, which is an inherited lineage passed via the acts of purchasing or copying the text alongside actual practice.
Starting with the earliest lineage I could find, the Greek Magical Papyri or PGM were founded somewhere between 100 and 400 CE. In this era, Christianity mingled freely with Egyptian, Greek, and Roman practices. The word angel appears here, but they tend to be angels of a deity such as Helios. They are messengers, powers that go between the deity and the sorcerer to do what is asked of them.
Islam also has angels, and all three of these faiths birthed the grimoire tradition alongside the practices of lay people. Due to not being able to afford studying full time and a long history of war and exploitation between the Islamic and Christian world, I don’t have as much information on the Islamic aspect of this history. I know that Islamic contributions to our culture are often hidden or denied in favor of an East vs West foundation myth. Historians and politicians are so invested in creating this false category of “Western” countries that they obscure that without the scholarship of the golden age of Islam, we would have lost much of the writings we consider foundational to “the West”. They obscure how Islamic scholarship affected math, astronomy, and even medical science.
Moving forward, the date of the Hygromantia is hard to pin down. It may have been founded as early as the 600’s and as late as the 1400’s. In it, there are angels and demons for all the hours of the week where it is advisable to practice magic. The angels here are protectors and allies of the magician, very tied to their time and their specific duty or office. The grimoire also ties planets to the days of the week, and the planet of the day affects the kind of magic which may be done.
The Heptameron, most likely founded in the late 1400’s, makes the strongest case for angels being tied to planets. Rather than having a long list of spirits, this lineage focuses on 7 primary spirits of the “planets”: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Like the Hygromanteia, the Heptameron ties planets to days of the week. The Heptameron also has angels of the hours. However, it has the same angel for the hour each day. All other considerations in the working centers the day and thereby the planet of the day. It is also good to note here that we have evidence to suggest that the Heptameron inherits from an Arabic lineage called The Book of the 7 Djinn Kings.
Agrippa’s 4th Book of Occult Philosphy was founded around 1510. Agrippa’s system creates what the modern practitioner would call sigils by putting together elements based on the time and day and what planetary energy one is working with. The spirits are many, but they all are categorized primarily by their planetary association. Being Catholic, Agrippa divides spirits into two categories: good angels and evil demons. This is par for the course, as Catholicism tends to leave little room for moral grey areas.
Hermetic Kabbalah is not the same as Jewish Kabbalah. Jewish Kabbalah begins in Spain around the late 1400’s, but where Jewish Kabbalah hews very close to the Torah and Mishnah, Hermetic Kabbalah tries to syncretize as many things as possible into the system. Hermetic Kabbalah is also born of the polemic tradition of the time, the by-product of antisemitic scholarship. At the heart of both is a concept called the Tree of Life. I can’t speak to Jewish Kabbalah except in broad terms, but in Hermetic Kabbalah each sphere of the tree has an entire flight of angels as well as an archangel associated with its energy.
As in the Hygromanteia, Hermetic Kabbalah matches angels with demons for each sphere. We also see a Neoplatonic matching of planets with each sphere, continuing the pattern from other sources.
The Reformation didn’t change the nature of angels, but did change how some people thought of them. Protestants to this day consider it ill-advised to pray to any entity except their monotheistic God. This affected the laity more than the upper crust, as sorcery, grimoire magic, and hermeticism continued for certain privileged people. We know that cunningfolk and other lower class magic practitioners in the early modern period did use some talismans from these “high magicks” but it’s hard to trace angelic names in that line.
John Dee (1527-1609ish) was the court astrologer for Queen Elizabeth I and the founder of the Enochian lineage of magic. Enochian (named for the Book of Enoch) focuses almost exclusively on angels. This is mostly because Dee characterized his system as angelic and less because he had a specific idea of where angels ended and other forms of spirits began. That is, most of these systems categorize demons alongside angels, whereas Dee’s guides want him to stay so far away from the uncooperative spirits that they simply wind up in an uncategorized bin under one name.
There are 2 classifications of angels in this lineage: The element tables and the Heptarchy. The Heptarchy is a planetary division of angels, 5 per planet, for a total of 35 spirits. So this is fairly in line with what we have seen so far. However, the Heptarchy is less central than the element tables, 4 grids of 12×13 glued together with additional rows to form a meta-table of 25×27. Every square in the grid contains a letter from an alphabet given to Dee by his guides.
So Enochian as a lineage is distinct both because it does not concern itself with talking to demons at all and because the elemental spirits are given more weight than the celestials.
In the early 1600’s we see the first manuscript of the Book of Abramelin. This lineage is heavily focused on initiation and the ability to talk to ones personal guardian. In the translation I read, at the end of the initiation the magician is given audience and power over many demons through the power of one’s personal guardian angel. This lineage would go on to deeply inform multiple ceremonial magicians and the lineages they founded, including Aleister Crowley.
Mathers (1854-1918) popularized an older book known as the Ars Paulina. He is more famous for the books of demon summoning that he inherited, but that is not the focus of this history. He is, regardless of how people feel about him, the founder of a magical lineage based on his ability to translate about 5 different languages into English. Here, the angels are still celestial beings. The Ars Paulina has two flights of angels. The first is the angels of the hours of the day and night, 24 total. The second flight is for the zodiac, 360 angels in all, one for each degree of the circle of the zodiac, divided by tropical sign.
This history would not be complete without some attention paid to the New Age movement. The two major authors regarding angels are Sylvia Browne and Doreen Virtue. I am less inclined to pay attention to these authors because Browne was proven to be a charlatan who goosed grieving families out of tens of thousands of dollars. Virtue, in contrast, has recanted her work with angels and declared that the spirits she spoke with were demons. Out of respect for Virtue, I will take her at her word. There is promise, however, in a few authors who have taken up where Virtue left off. In a few decades we may well have good material from this lineage.
Based on all of this, it is not a bold claim to say that angels are not deities. With one exception, the Roman Cult of Virtues, none of the spirits listed here are treated in this manner. So animism becomes the perspective by which we can relate to and identify these beings. In animism everything has an animating spirit, so it is not unwise to anchor a spirit in what it animates. What are the anchors for angels?
I conclude that there are 5 flights of angels based on the evidence here and my own experience: Far Stars, Solar System, Winds, Virtues, and Personal Guardians. Time and season seem to be critical when thinking about these beings. Animism lends itself more to measuring time by the natural cycles than the calendar or clock, and this resonates well with the various seasonal groupings of angels.
This means we can also contrast how an anti-imperial polytheist animist might have a different view than a Christian. Michael, who appears in the Book of Revelation as early as 96 CE, seems to be a virtue first and foremost. In the records I was able to access, he is sometimes the angel of the sun and sometimes not, exchanging places with Uriel (“God’s Light”) or Raphael. The solar association for Christians is secondary to his name. The question is not “Is the archangel of the sun called Michael?” but “Is Michael the archangel of the sun?”. His identity is first and foremost in his name, which is a virtue.
As animist polytheists, we can also attribute different virtues to different planets. We also do not have to take on such a restriction unless the spirits we talk to tell us directly. We don’t need to name one Angel of the Sun, rather we can say there are angels of the sun and each of us will have the ability to become familiar with one or more of them. There’s room for a breadth of experience.
In short, there is room for angels in polytheistic animism. There is historical precedent to reclaim that world to describe classes of friendly spirits, most of whom are sky-dwellers. We can leave behind the names of specific biblical angels in favor of letting them introduce themselves to us with new names and sigils. We can re-imbue the astrology we inherited with this life and vigor, this conversation between human and sky. We can let them come to us in whatever shape they feel is best, whether it is the winged people of the New Age movement or the delicious many-eyed, many-headed monsters of the grimores. I leave you with this chant:
We are a kiss between earth and heaven.
We are a song between sky and ground.
Sing for your life, and for the world we’re making.
Nothing is lost which can’t be found.