Saturday, 14 December 2013

Thus spake the seraph and forthwith...

... appeared a shining throng
of angels praising God on high
If you've been brought up with the Christian nativity tradition, you've probably got some sort of mental image of the angels referenced, via Luke , in carols like While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks and In The Bleak Midwinter. You've seen them represented enough times, on Christmas cards and other festive merchandise, in school nativity plays and so on:
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Throng'd the air
Your typical Christmas card angel is visualised as a beautiful, haloed, androgynous or female winged human in a floaty frock, an image developed by artists from Late Antiquity right through to modern times from the classical pagan prototype of the winged Victory. Alternatively (if the angel in question is a cherub), think Eros as chubby flying baby.

As Daniel Petersen writes in his blog, Ride the Nightmare, the gospel writer probably had far more frightening entities in mind:
It's almost like a well kept secret that angelic beings in the Bible are quite monstrous and terrifying, but in such a way as is meant to convey the holiness of God...
Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:2-4)
This is pretty strange and terrifying as it is, but what's not seen in the English translation is that the word 'seraph' in Hebrew connotes something like 'fiery serpents'. So these angels are actually more like flying flaming dragons! (That's why Satan, a fallen angel, is portrayed as the earthbound [de-winged] Dragon in the Book of Revelation.) 
No wonder the shepherds were 'sore afraid.' And as for those Cherubim...
* Each one has four faces (sometimes called a tetramorph),  only one of which is human (the others providing horns, fangs, fur, and beak to the mix)
* Bodies and wings and wheels full of eyes
* Gleaming bronze hooves for feet
* Burning like coals of fire, shooting forth flames
* Flashing about like lightning

Disappointingly enough, Christmas card manufacturers have tended to avoid nativity scenes featuring shepherds cowering in abject, bowel-loosening terror before a grotesque host of six-winged flaming serpents and brazen-hoofed  tetramorphs. Personally, I'd be happy to settle for the freakish monstrosity above as a more exciting alternative to your insipid bog-standard Christmas card angel, if only it wasn't for the ornithological inconsistency of a a bald eagle's head popping up in a Middle Eastern context.

Even when they're not looking as weird as the shape-shifting alien from The Thing caught in mid-transformation, there's something more than a little odd about angels:
Angels as they appear in the Bible are a very curious bunch. Sometimes they look like people, as the ones who visited Lot did, and were presumably extremely good looking considering the entire town wanted to roger them senseless. Sometimes, they look like winged monstrosities that kiss burning coals, like the ones Isaiah saw. Sometimes, they were wheels in the sky, like Ezekiel saw. There was a reason they stated "fear not" upon their arrival.

They also did bizarre things. Some of them merely imparted information, like the heralds of Jesus. Others, however, either killed people (including babies) or else wrestled people to the ground. In one case, an angel wrestled with Moses and was going to kill him, until Moses's wife threw a foreskin at it.

It's also worth noting that they were apparently extremely terrifying to look at; they almost always preface anything they have to say with the remark "Do not fear", owing to the fact that they most often resemble something out of a work by H.P. Lovecraft.
Rational Wiki

The author of Luke's gospel, unlike the Nahum Teate (who wrote While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks) and Christina Rosetti, (who, as any fule kno, did the words for In The Bleak Midwinter), didn't specify which order(s) of angels announced the holy birth but, given the first angel's* stock warning ('And the angel said unto them, Fear not'), we can safely assume that he was one of the scary-looking ones.

And I mean 'he' - even when they're not named (e.g. Gabriel, Michael, Metatron), Biblical angels seem to be male, from the seraph who laid a live coal on Isaiah's mouth to the human-shaped one who wrestled with Jacob. Our modern image of a female or androgynous being is an anachronistic cross-cultural borrowing from the pagan tradition of the Winged Victory (the  halo is probably also a pagan invention, having featured widely in pre-Christian ancient Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek and Roman religious iconography before making its first appearance in Christian art in 4th century).

To get back to the sort of thing the Bible writers had in mind, we need to lose the image of the modern, beautiful, feminised angel and think back to the muscular, ultra-masculine, hoofed, clawed, or winged hybrid beasts of the ancient Near East:

In their function as guardians of Paradise the cherubim bear an analogy to the winged bulls and lions of Babylonia and Assyria, colossal figures with human faces standing guard at the entrance of temples (and palaces), just as in Egypt the approaches to the sanctuaries are guarded by sphinxes.

Think of Yeats' 'A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun' and you get a pretty good idea of the herd of rough beasts that made up the heavenly host.

Daniel Petersen's blog post on fearsomely grotesque angels was originally written for Halloween, which makes me wonder whether we couldn't improve Christmas by grafting some of the dark, irreverent, transgressive fun of Halloween onto a festival currently overstuffed with bland, earnest kitsch. Reclaim the monstrous and terrible and the whole thing gets a lot more interesting. Why not go with the scary angels?

After all, we've already added an almost equally bizarre - if less frightening usually less frightening - flying supernatural being to the festive season. The white-bearded gift-bearer, Saint Nicholas, like some recording angel, has infallible knowledge of who's been naughty or nice and, after being towed through the air by his retinue of stamping, snorting, flying beasts, descends to earth from on high to perform miracles (of a logistical nature). We encourage our children to fervently believe in this synthetic minor deity, cobbled together from bits of paganism, Christianity, folklore and the cult of Mammon, at least until the inevitable disappointment. One day - if the human race is spared from destruction for long enough - people will probably look back and find the concept of Santa almost as weird as the sacred sky-monsters of the ancient Middle East.

The really odd thing about Santa is his ambivalent nature - as if splicing a Christian Saint together with a Norse God  to create the brand ambassador for the year's most lucrative shopping event didn't generate enough cognitive dissonance, we're also encouraged to believe in, and write to, Santa as children, before inevitably discovering that he doesn't really exist. 

I don't know how you'd prove it, but I have this theory that Santa has probably caused more people to lose their faith than Richard Dawkins and all the other New Atheists put together, on the grounds that way more people have gone through the experience of having to question adult authority as a valid basis for belief by finding out about Santa's non-existence than will ever read The God Delusion. Not only that, but while it's easy to mock 'professional God-hatin' Professor Yaffle impersonator Richard Dawkins', only a humourless, sour-faced Puritan killjoy could possibly object to the round, jolly, red-cheeked man who delivers presents to children. 

In Biblical times, people peopled the skies with monstrous and terrifying beings and (as far as I can tell) literally believed in them and in the Good News they proclaimed. Today's adults invent a nonthreatening, genial old man with a sack of prezzies, who descends from the skies to make tots' acquisitive dreams come true, before going on to spread doubt and unbelief in children old enough realise he's just a weird in-joke made up by adults. Appropriately enough for such an apostle of unbelief, Old NickSaint Nick's popular name is an anagram of that other celestial deceiver who fell so spectacularly from grace...

In renouncing terror and the fear of God and His monstrous minions, mainstream religion seems to have lost something. Not just the direct power to coerce, but a sense of awe and gravitas. The Christmas story may be pure bunkum, but in an age of belief, it was also a thing of terrible beauty, painted with a full emotional palette that used dark shadows, strangeness, and horror to complement the the brilliant highlights of  light, transcendence and joy. Christmas, (and mainstream Christian worship) as celebrated today, seems relentlessly upbeat, reassuring, one-dimensional sanitised, bland and infantalised,** when compared with the imaginative world that spawned those frightening weird, elemental, unsettling beings, whose appearance seized the Shepherds' troubled minds with mighty dread.

*The rest of the heavenly host only appear after the first angel's initial announcement.

** Update - I wondered whether this was a bit harsh, until this evening, when I was dragged along - against my better judgement - to a "Christingle" service hosted by a disturbingly enthusiastic member of the Happy Clappy brigade, armed with a Powerpoint presentation featuring animated clip art of praying hands and the projected words to "Show me the way to shine for Jesus" (sung to the tune of "Is this the way to Amarillo") for the congregation to sing and clap along to. Words fail me...


mr valentine said...

great stuff here man. very nteresting read. isn it strange that all these ancient cultures, seperated by thousands o miles and ages of time report similar being in personality and appearence.

hints more towards being a true stry than imaginative writers.

Andrew King said...

I remember reading an old science fiction short story about a guy called Zeke having a close encounter with a spaceship full of bizarre aliens, the plot twist being that "Zeke" turned out to be the prophet Ezekiel describing his vision of angels in the language of Sci-Fi and UFOology. I can't remember the title or the author and a bit of light googling hasn't tracked it down, yet.

It makes for an exciting story, but I think these creatures have more to do with dreams, strange things that happened to a friend of a friend and the immensely fertile human imagination, than with eyewitness reports of ancient astronauts.

With billions of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy alone, who knows, there might be spacefaring civilisations out there.

But its a big leap to conclude that they've come calling on the basis of myths and anecdotes, however powerful, intruiging and engaging.

And it's not so strange that similar myths emerged in more than one Middle Eastern culture. These cultures were geographically proximate and interacted through trade, as well as occasional warfare, invasion and conquest.

Exiting though it would be to conclude that widespread tales of angels and similar celestial beings recorded encounters with aliens, I'm afraid that there's probably a far more prosaic explanation - the transmission of myths and archetypes between cultures.

The Bible shares the story of a world-wide flood and an ark with the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, but that probably means that one culture borrowed aspects of a myth from another culture, rather than both stories being independent records of a real event.

mr valentine said...

Not only does the epic of Gilgamesh report a flood story in the ancient past, but so do hundreds of other cultures in the world. Hundreds of cultures that don have simiar trading routes, for instance american indian flood stories.

While it may be a likey scenario that myths and legends do get acquired through trade and travel, this does not exclude the very real possibilty that these stories originated from actual events.

Im sure u believe i cld be from one of either two camps: ancient astronauts or Christian and im of bth.

You spoke of galaxies and the possibility of extraterrestrial life, why jump at the mysterious void of outer space when there are ancient, vetted accounts of alien beings, the angels? What if the reason humanity cannot find alien life is because it doesn exist physically? and the only aliens are spiritual, because isn flesh in itself primitive?

Andrew King said...

‘While it may be a likely scenario that myths and legends do get acquired through trade and travel, this does not exclude the very real possibility that these stories originated from actual events.’

Quite true. Not only did flood legends seem to have been passed from culture to culture, but they may well have been inspired by real events. The Middle Eastern flood legend first crops up in Mesopotamia, an agricultural society that grew up around rivers and must have experienced many real floods, some of them catastrophic.

These may have been amplified by oral traditions and legends inspired by more dramatic floods. The Black Sea deluge hypothesis is disputed, but there must have been many humans who experienced the flooding of large areas of land as post-glacial sea levels rose (I don’t know much about sea levels in the ancient Near East, the but the flooding of the plain that used to connect Britain to mainland Europe circa 6,500BC is a well-evidenced local example of what must have been happening to low-lying areas around the world).
So as far as I’m concerned, flood legends get a qualified thumbs up – they probably had some basis in fact, even though the deluge clearly wasn’t the world-wide event portrayed in the legends (although to early people, such events might have seemed world-wide, in the sense that they may have affected most of their known world).

Moving away from the Middle East, it’s not very surprising that many other cultures had flood legends, as the same sort of factors applied – the post-glacial sea level rise was a world-wide event and agriculture tends to arise where you’ve got rivers and flood plains. Given the importance of water to animal and human life, lots of groups of people have lived in river plains (hunter gatherers and pastoralists as well as agriculturalists). River systems were also important transport links, at a time when the most high-tech vehicles were dug-out canoes, rafts and coracles. But it’s a big jump from floods to angels.

‘why jump at the mysterious void of outer space when there are ancient, vetted accounts of alien beings, the angels?’
Because we’re at the stage of knowing that there must be billions of worlds out there, but having only one indisputable example of life (let alone intelligent life) and we just don’t know what else might exist in far-off corners of the mysterious void (or whether we self-aware creatures are a freak, lone accident on a wildly atypical planet).

As for the accounts of alien beings / angels, well, there are certainly many of these, but I’d use the word ‘anecdotal’ rather than ‘vetted’. We have physical evidence of ancient floods and sea level rises. There may be a reality behind angel stories, but the only thing I’m positive about is that most human beings have vivid dreams and vivid imaginations, like to make up stories, have used psychoactive substances for millennia and are subject to many known types of cognitive illusions.
Moving from absence of evidence to evidence of absence, lots of people have seen lots of strange things – UFOs, aliens, angels, etc. - up until very recently. If some of these things existed, I’d be expecting to see a lot of very odd, otherwise inexplicable, camera phone footage, now that that millions of people have cameras on them at all times. As per XKCD, I’m not.

‘What if the reason humanity cannot find alien life is because it doesn’t exist physically? and the only aliens are spiritual, because isn’t flesh in itself primitive?’

Maybe advanced alien life does exist in some form we can’t readily imagine. But as, by definition, I can’t readily imagine such possibilities, I can’t really usefully comment on them. Not knowing what’s possible and what might be out there is the exiting bit!

mr valentine said...

Hey i appreciate the correspondance! You have a great deal of facts and information and i appreciate that in an opinion! However we may be missing the forest for the trees, as a society. You mentioned the expansive imagination of the human when conjuring and recording history, this seems to almost be the opposite of imagination because each society reports basically identical creatures.

How many societies worship the snake? or the sun? How many societies divide the universe into three dimensions for heaven hell and earth? Would it be prudent of a future society to disregard all improbable information from this the modern era?

The division seems to be in seeing the vastness of space as a frontier for oppurtunty for other flesh based beings- i believe this is a logical fallacy. Considering the 'fine tuned' nature of planet earth and beings on it made of flesh, should we then not extrapolate that an enviorment suited for energy thriving and creation wld not begat creatures after this concept?

following this line of reason would it be out of the question to assume this energy would never need a body, but be able to appear as a physical being? What is consciousness but intepreted eletrial energy? Is it likey even, that consciousness arose first without form?

what would an energetic as opposed to a materialistic creature look like? what would the abilities of this creature be? Are their any worldy examples that fit into this pattern of thinking? yes, the angels.

Im sure u are aware of the islamic/middle eastern concept of demons/jinn. the koran writes that the Jinn are made of 'smokeless flame' and are beings that are created from some sort of irradescence. Are the angels, demons, spirits of old merely just basic explanations of the metaphysical certainty of a bodiless consciousness? I look forward to your opinion on this!

Andrew King said...

‘You mentioned the expansive imagination of the human when conjuring and recording history, this seems to almost be the opposite of imagination because each society reports basically identical creatures.

How many societies worship the snake? or the sun? How many societies divide the universe into three dimensions for heaven hell and earth?’

There are similarities between different cultures, but there are differences, too. For example, the weird ancient Egyptian bestiary of walking falcon, jackal, or crocodile-headed deities (including a bipedal pregnant hippo), is very different from the catwalk of incredibly good-looking, if moody, humans inhabiting the Greco-Roman pantheon. Many cultures had a sky god and an earth goddess – except those pesky Egyptians, who had a sky goddess and an earth god. Some people worshipped snakes, whereas for post-Genesis Judeo-Christians the snake is a cursed personification of evil (‘And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life’).

At least some of the similarities must have resulted from common experiences, but not all of these are hard to explain – the sun, for example was revered for bringing light and life to people in many different cultures, widely separated in time and space. There’s no need for any special explanation here – whether you choose to see the sun as a deity or not, it actually does bring light and life so it’s not surprising that many cultures independently developed sun worship.

‘The division seems to be in seeing the vastness of space as a frontier for oppurtunty for other flesh based beings- i believe this is a logical fallacy. Considering the 'fine tuned' nature of planet earth and beings on it made of flesh, should we then not extrapolate that an enviorment suited for energy thriving and creation wld not begat creatures after this concept?’

‘frontier of opportunity’ is probably overstating the case. I’m not claiming that most of space is well suited for life as we know it – the vast majority of space is hard vacuum and most other places look inimical to forms of life as we know it – the surface of stars, airless rocks, frozen or red-hot worlds. But even if nearly all of the universe is unsuited to life, there seem to be so many planets out there that a few of them, by sheer random chance, should be suitable for a form of life that is more or less as we know it (ecactly how 'fine tuned' our world is and exactly how like the Earth a planet would have to be to support life as we know it are questions it's very hard to answer with a sample size of one known life-bearing planet).

Life may be rare and advanced life vanishingly rare, but even vanishingly rare things tend to happen more than once if you have sufficiently huge numbers. It’s incredibly unlikely that you, personally, will become a lottery millionaire in the next few weeks, but in a population of millions of people, it’s practically certain that somebody will.

Are there radically different forms of life, suited to radically different forms of environment? Maybe, but these sort of questions are way above my pay grade (as an unpaid amateur blogger, I don’t actually have an on-line pay grade, but you know what I mean).

A biologist specialising in extremophiles, or genetics, or biogenesis, a physicist, a chemist, a biomimeticist, somebody working on AI, or self-reproducing machines, or some such field might have something more substantial than speculation to offer. As for me, all I can say is that the universe is bigger and stranger than humans can imagine, so who knows?

Andrew King said...

'would it be out of the question to assume this energy would never need a body, but be able to appear as a physical being? What is consciousness but intepreted eletrial energy? Is it likey even, that consciousness arose first without form?'

Yes, nerve signals use electrical impulses and, to that extent, consciousness is ‘interpreted electrical energy’. But, as I understand it, those electrical signals depend on physical biochemistry (the electrical potential of the physical structures, etc). The electrical energy involved doesn’t just float around without reference to the material structures and chemistry that’s going on. So, as far as I know, our form of consciousness needs a body and our form of body needs neurons firing tiny bursts of electrical energy to be conscious.

A human body and brain without any electrical impulses would be inert and I’m struggling to visualise the converse situation of organised electrical impulses firing away without anything physical generating them – it’s like trying to visualise a battery storing and discharging electric current, only without the battery.

So, out of the question as far as I know. Of course, just because I, as an unqualified lay person, can’t imagine a thing doesn’t mean it’s necessarily impossible – for most of the history of the human race nobody suspected the existence of radio waves, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, etc, etc. – but I wouldn’t be inclined to believe in consciousness without a body without hearing a plausible account of how such a thing might be possible from, say, a very competent physicist.

I'll probably go on believing that jinns and angels are most easily explained as subjective phenomena, at least until a lot of people start posting Chelyabinsk meteor-style YouTube videos of an angelic encounter.

mr valentine said...


Have you ever heard of the plasma universe theory? It is basically an explanation of the universe using plasma, or electricity, as its driving creative factor, as opposed to gravity.

Gravity, as it turns out, is the weakest of the four forces of nature, thus why center a cosmic creation around this the weakest force?

electromagnetism is a much stronger candidate for creation, this cld be the 'battery' u are refering to.

The plausibility of consciousness as an emergant factor of electricity is undeniable, i believe. There is a research professor, Susan Pockett i think her name is, that proposed the idea of consciousness as not being neccessarily 'in' the brain, but arising from, or radiating from, due to the electrical response of firing synapses. Very interesting stuff! Thanks for chatting with me!

Andrew King said...

'Have you ever heard of the plasma universe theory? It is basically an explanation of the universe using plasma, or electricity, as its driving creative factor, as opposed to gravity.'

No I hadn’t, but I googled it. There’s not much I can say about the plasma physics aspect, as I’m not remotely qualified to comment. But there again, not many people are:

'Keep in mind that plasma physics is a highly advanced topic, so you’ll need a 4 year degree in general physics, then at least a year of graduate courses in electrodynamics. Jackson’s textbook is standard, but mastering Griffiths first is highly recommended.

Then you’ll get to the plasma physics classes.'

That's according to Bryan Killett, a physics Phd currently working at JPL, who studys 'geodesy, oceanography, some hydrology and cryosphere stuff, and most shiny objects I see.'

In an e-mail exchange with a proponent of plasma cosmology, Bryan takes a look at some of the theory's claims and concludes that plasma cosmology 'introduces lots of new assumptions, and can’t account for nearly as many phenomena as mainstream cosmology'.

It's a complicated and involved topic, but where plasma cosmology touches on astronomical observations that I (sort of) understand, its explanations don't seem that convincing to me (you can read the whole conversation here).

Although Susan Pockett controversially locates consciousness in the brain's electromagntic field, rather than the neurons themselves, she's no more claiming that the electromagnetic field can be generated independently of, or without, a physical brain than an electrical engineer would claim to be able to generate electromagnetic induction without a physical device like a transformer. The intro to the relevant Wikipedia article sums it up:

'electromagnetic field theories (or "EM field theories") of consciousness propose that consciousness results when a brain produces an electromagnetic field with features that meet certain criteria; Susan Pockett and Johnjoe McFadden have proposed EM field theories' [my emphasis].

mr. valentine said...

Right! very good info and im glad that youtook the time to research this information!

my point here is simple, that the circumstances for the existence of spiritual beings are all around us, yet not connected or identified as such.

The plasma universe theory is really pretty simple, basically like i said above, the power of gravity pales compared to the power of electromagnetism, so any creation theory not accounting for this greater attraction( and repel) needs a SERIOUS overhaul.

there are filaments throughout the universe known as birkland currents, these birkland currents literally act as electrical power cables in space tranfering energy and spawning galaxies into existence.

Especially galaxies that are highly redshifted, many plasma universe theorists believe red shifted galaxies are not this way because of there trajectory, but their composure. the plasma universe is alot less convoluted than the standard cosmological model, which is 97% dark matter, or better put, unknown. In the plamsa universe theory there is no unaccounted for matter, thus this is a more complete model

and im not saying that susan pocket discovered that spirits exist, im saying that her theory is proposing the circumstances for spirits to exist. If a brain can generate a consiousness outside of the body purely based on the electricity provided within, then the electrical energy must also be able to stand alone.

Based on the lack of research into these supposedly 'fringe' topics, people like yourself can go right along not believing invisble beings can exist, and do exist like the bible, and the last 10,000 years of human history, has recorded. In reality the true study of material and science proves without a doubt the existence of God, spirits etc! thanks for your input!

Andrew King said...

'Based on the lack of research into these supposedly 'fringe' topics' we are no closer to finding out what the truth is.

But scientists researching mainstream ideas might answer some of our questions indirectly. For example, they either will or won't eventually directly detect or observe dark energy or dark matter. If they do, score one for conventional cosmology. If this stuff is embarrassingly elusive, maybe some idea like varable gravity, or maybe even the plasma universe, might come in from the cold.

My (totally non-expert layman's) money is on some variation on conventional cosmology, but even if this turns out to be the case, nature will probably come up with some totally unexpected twist that nobody had anticipated. Interesting times.

'Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.' (JBS Haldane)

I think we'd probably both support that sentiment, although you'd probably appreciate Haldane's thoughts on consciousness more than I would:

'It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.'

Let's just split the difference and agree that he was quite funny about beetles:

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of the distinguished British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, who found himself in the company of a group of theologians. On being asked what one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of his creation, Haldane is said to have answered, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

mr. valentine said...

Lol amen! Im glad that you are corresponding with me but i do think that the cosmological model in the future will be the flat earth theory of modern times, as do many plasma physicists- the information availble is almost staggering.

My wife and I really enjoyed your article and research but we are utterly confounded as to how someone so eloquent in explaining so many aspects of the obviously historically interlocked truth, could not believe a single word of it. It literally blows my mind! Its been really great talking with you!