A History of Angels
by Jorge Luis Borges (1926)
The angels are two days and two nights older than we: the Lord created them on the fourth day, and from their high balcony between the recently invented sun and the first moon they scanned the infant earth, barely more than a few wheat fields and some orchards beside the waters. These primitive angels were stars. For the Hebrews, the concepts of angel and star merged effortlessly: I will select, from among many, the passage of the Book of Job (38:7) in which the Lord spoke out of the whirlwind and recalled the beginning of the world, “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Quite apparently, these sons of God and singing stars are the same as the angels. Isaiah, too (14:12), calls the fallen angel “the morning star”, a phrase Quevedo did not forget when he called him “lucero inobediente, ángel amotinado” [defiant star, rebel angel]. This equivalency between stars and angels (those populators of nighttime solitudes) strikes me as beautiful; it is among the distinctions of the Hebrews that they vitalized the astral bodies with souls, exalting their brilliance into life.
From the beginning to the end, the Old Testament throngs with angels. There are ambiguous angels who come along the straight paths of the plain and whose superhuman nature cannot immediately be divined; there are angels brawny as farmhands, like the one who fought with Jacob a whole night until the breaking of the day; there are regimental angels, like the captain of the Lord’s host who appeared to Joshua; there are angels who threaten cities and others who are like expert guides through solitude; the angels in God’s engine of war number two thousand times a thousand. The best-equipped angelary, or arsenal of angels, is the Revelation of St. John: there are the strong angels, who cast out the dragon; those who stand at the four corners of the earth so that it does not blow away; those who gather up the clusters of the vine of the earth and cast them into the great winepress of the wrath of God; those who are implements of wrath; those who are bound in the great river Euphrates and let loose like tempests; those who are a mixture of eagle and man.
Islam, too, knows of angels. The Muslims of Cairo live blotted out by angels, the real world virtually deluged by the angelic, for according to Edward William Lane, each follower of the Prophet is assigned two guardian angels, or five, or sixty, or one hundred and sixty.
The Celestial Hierarchy, erroneously attributed to the Greek convert Dionysius and composed around the fifth century of our era, is a highly documented ranking of angelic order that distinguishes, for example, between the cherubim and the seraphim, allocating to the first the full, perfect, and overflowing vision of God and to the second an eternal ascension toward Him in a gesture both ecstatic and trembling, like a sudden blaze rushing upward. Twelve hundred years later, Alexander Pope, archetype of the learned poet, would recall this distinction when he penned his famous line: “As the rapt seraph, that adores and burns…”
Theologians, admirable in their intellectualism, did not shrink from angels and tried to penetrate this world of wings and mirages with their reasoning minds. This was no uncomplicated matter, for angels had to be defined as beings superior to man but necessarily inferior to divinity. The German speculative theologian Rothe records numerous examples of the push and pull of this dialectic. His list of angelic attributes include intellectual force; free will; immateriality (capable, however, of accidentally uniting itself with matter); aspatiality (neither taking up any space nor being enclosed by it); lasting duration, with a beginning but without end; invisibility, and even immutability, an attribute that harbors them in the eternal. As for the faculties they exercise, they are granted the utmost suppleness, the power of conversing amongst themselves instantaneously without words or signs, and that of working wonders, but not miracles. They cannot create from nothing or raise the dead. The angelic zone that lies halfway between God and man is, it would seem, highly regulated.
The Kabbalists also made use of angels. Dr. Erich Bischoff, in his German book entitled The Elements of the Kabbalah, published in Berlin in 1920, enumerates the ten sefiroth, or eternal emanations of divinity, and makes each correspond to one of the regions of the sky, one of the names of God, one of the Ten Commandments, one part of the human body, and one class of angels. Stehelin, in his Rabbinical Literature, links the first ten letters of the aleph-beth, or alphabet of the Hebrews, to these ten lofty worlds. Thus the letter aleph corresponds to the brain, the First Commandment, the sky of fire, the divine name “I Am That I Am,” and the seraphim known as the Sacred Beasts. Those who accuse the Kabbalists of imprecision are clearly mistaken. They were, instead, fanatics of reason, and they delineated a world of deification by installments that was nevertheless as rigorous and causal as the one we feel now…
Such a swarm of angels cannot have avoided meddling in literature. The examples are inexhaustible. In the sonnet by Juan de Jáuregui to Ignatius Loyola, the angel retains his biblical strength, his combative seriousness:
Ved sobre el mar, porque su golfo encienda
El ángel fuerte, de pureza armado.
[Look to the sea, for its gulf is set aflame/by the strong angel, armed with purity]
For Luis de Góngora, the angel is a valuable decorative trinket, good for gratifying ladies and children:
Â¿Cuándo será aquel día que por yerro
oh, Serafin, desates, bien nacido,
Con manos de Cristal nudos de Hierro?
[When will the day be that in error/oh, Seraph, you unloose, well-born/Knots of Iron with your Crystalline hands?]
In a sonnet by Lope de Vega, I ran across the agreeable and very twentieth-century metaphor:
Cuelgan racimos de ángeles
[Clusters of angels dangle]
And these angels, with a whiff of the countryside about them, are from Juan Ramón Jiménez:
Vagos ángeles malvas
apagaban las verdes estrellas
[Vague angels, mauve as mallows,/were putting out the green stars]
Here we arrive at the near miracle that is the true motive for this writing: what we might call the survival of the angel. The human imagination has pictured a horde of monsters (tritons, hippogriffs, chimeras, sea serpents, unicorns, devils, dragons, werewolves, cyclopes, fauns, basilisks, demigods, leviathans, and a legion of others) and all have disappeared, except angels. Today, what line of poetry would dare allude to the phoenix or make itself the promenade of a centaur? None; but no poetry, however modern, is unhappy to be a nest of angels and to shine brightly with them. I always imagine them at nightfall, in the dusk of a slum or a vacant lot, in that long, quiet moment when things are gradually left alone, with their backs to the sunset, and when colors are like memories or premonitions of other colors. We must not be too prodigal with our angels; they are the last divinities we harbor, and they might fly away.