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Flights of Angels

Hark the herald angels sing ... but they have also been a great deal more throughout history than just the key participants in the Christmas story. Enid Gauldie takes a seasonal look at the evolution of the winged messengers in art, myth and literature from Babylonian times to the present day.

There have been angels, or flying spirits of some kind, in the culture and mythology of every civilisation. The angel is the most potent of symbols, standing for strength, purity and the possibility of redemption from earth-bound miseries.

Etruscan art contains superhuman winged beings so beautifully fitted to the artefacts on which they are portrayed that they might seem to spring straight from an artist's creative imagination but are, in fact, an essential part of Etruscan belief. The Assyrians and the Egyptians had winged bulls and horses whose wings represented power and domination. The Persian god, Mithra, was adopted and developed by the Zoroastrians as an angelic mediator between human beings and their creator six centuries before Christ. The Greeks and the Romans, meanwhile, gave the power of flight to their gods and to the mischief-making followers of those gods.

Polytheistic or non-literate cultures very often contain a belief 1n winged minor gods but the concept of the intermediary, wholly good angel was most fully developed in the West. Where there existed a thousand little deities, some kind, some mischievous, but all approachable and bribeable with offerings at the roadside, angels of the kind created to soothe the terrors of the monotheists were less necessary. The Romanian gypsy, half Christian, half pagan prayed:

Sweet little God... if thou lettest me steal a loaf, brandy, a hen, a goose, a pig or a horse, I will give thee a big candle, because thou art my sweet little golden God.

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