There are lots of people who get a tattoo of an angel or a pair of wings on their back, so they have a sublime, protective image with them at all times and can also identify themselves with this highly spiritual figure. Splendour, protection, refuge, defence and relief are some of the qualities of angels.
Traditionally, angels do not have an actual body but are made of pure spirit and as such are called Light Beings. In the oldest stories from the Bible, angels were able to take on a human form from their very first apparitions. According to ancient texts, these Light Beings assumed a “form” (which was completely imaginary, since they are purely spiritual beings) that corresponded to the nature of the mission they had been given. So angels have a human form because they are destined to be guardians and guides for human beings. They are often depicted holding a long sword with a gleaming blade; in fact one of their roles is to provide protection, refuge, defence and care, and for centuries a drawn sword was the most powerful symbol of that role. In some passages of the Bible, angels carry a small, portable inkpot, which is usually made from an animal horn and hangs on their belt.
I want an angel tattoo
In the tattoo world the angel is a very popular subject and we usually find it in one of two versions: the classic depiction, in human form, or the simplified image with its distinctive feature, its wings, which are almost always tattooed on the back. The tattoo of an angel is not only decorative: it is a symbolic figure that many people are feel attracted, comforted and protected by. In addition, it is a symbol of spiritual elevation.
It is said that angels are genderless but all the typical images show them with feminine features such as a soft face, delicate lines and a protective, maternal nature. This characteristic is often emphasised in a tattoo and some people give their angel an authentic female face, which can also be very beautiful and desirable.
From heaven to earth
The word “angel” can have various meanings. It describes a benevolent, celestial being that acts as an intermediate between heaven and earth, a figure present in religions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Zoroastrianism. It identifies a non-earthly creature, with a resplendent halo and a pair of wings, conventionally depicted as a human being of extreme beauty. It indicates a guardian spirit or a superior influence, a guiding spirit. It can be a real person with qualities such as goodness, purity and dedication to a great cause. Finally it describes a kind, loving person. In fact when someone helps us out in a difficult situation, we might say “You’re an angel”.
Angels in all ages
Splendour, protection, refuge, defence and relief are some of the qualities of angels, figures that the western world has associated above all with Christianity, but these Light Beings play an important role in many other religions and cultures too. For example, in Zoroastrianism (one of the most ancient religions in existence and among the most important and well known in pre-Islamic, ancient Persia (Iran). These beings are divided into numerous classes of Yazatas, the «venerable beings». The angels of Zoroastrianism have influenced gnostic religions and Manicheism, another religion that originated in the Middle East and is non-violent and pacific.
In the Islamic world the four archangels Jibrail (Gabriel), Mikail (Michael), Israfil (Raphael) and Izrail (the Angel of Death) rule the world in Allah’s place. According to popular Islamic tradition, everybody has two “recording” angels to accompany them; the one on the right records all the person’s good deeds, while the one on the left takes note of any transgressions. The Jinn are a lower order of angels that are not evil beings like the fallen angels in Christianity. In Islam, angelic beings are always incapable of sin or evil doings, even when they fall to the earth. These figures maintain many great powers and have been celebrated in various eastern fables. For example the genie of the lamp that grants wishes in Ali Baba is a jinn. Angelic beings known as Tennin and Tenshi also appear in Japanese mythology.
The Deva and the oldest winged figures
For the religions of the Far East, every living thing – from blades of grass to flowers, from trees to fruit, from ants to huge animals and even human beings – is looked after by a guiding spirit, a Deva. It is a myth that winged figures from beyond the earth only appeared with the arrival of the great, monotheistic religions such as Christianity. They can also be found in the Pagan mythology of various ancient peoples, they are often mother goddesses or always feminine figures in any case. Vanth, the young goddess of the Etruscans who accompanied souls in the arduous passage to the afterlife; Tiamat, a goddess worshipped in Asia Minor until the end of the third millennium before Christ and the goddess Ishtar, who gave her name to one of the eight gates of Babylon, all had wings. On a stone carving Ardat-Lili, the sister of the Mesopotamian Lilitu, is shown completely naked with a pair of wings on her back. The Egyptian goddess Isis is sometimes depicted with large wings. Nike, the Greek goddess of victory has wings (and also gave her name to the well-known sportswear label).
Many churches dedicated to the Archangel St Michael were built on pre-existing Pagan sanctuaries dedicated to the cult of Mithra, the ancient Sun god (Light Beings…). Finally, in European folklore winged figures appear in the form of fairies, who inherited the powers of ancient tribal and territorial goddesses. Fairies are not considered angelic beings but their function as small Deva is similar to that of guardian angels: tradition states that the fairies guard the green mantle of the earth and small creatures such as insects and snails.
The word “angel” derives from the Latin angelus, which in turn comes from the Greek ángelos, or messenger. In Hebrew it is called a malach, which also means messenger. The messenger plays a role in many stories and legends in various religions, where the angel announces important events, which may be positive or negative for the people. One well-known messenger is the Archangel Gabriel who appears before the Virgin Mary to announce that she will give birth to a son who will be the Messiah.
Angels are depicted as sacred, invincible beings, and as guardians (protectors). They are often described as a flight or multitude of angels; this concept of a multitude of angels led many ancient civilisations to identify the stars in the sky as a sign of the presence of angels.
Belief in guardian angels is very widespread. According to Christian tradition, everyone is assigned an angel when they are baptised and there is also a feast day for the Guardian Angel, on 2 October.
While Judaism has no set classification or order for its angels, Christianity has a specific hierarchy, encoded in the 5th century by Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, in which angels are organised into three main levels, which are then divided into orders or Choirs. The Heavenly Hierarchy is made up of Angels, Archangels, Powers, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Ophanim (meaning: Wheels), Cherubim and Seraphim.
The Seraphim and Cherubim are the angels that are closest to God. The former are depicted as tongues or snakes of fire while the latter are florid children, (the two little angels of the Fiorucci logo, for example, are based on cherubs). The Angels and Archangels are closest to human life, while the other angelic groups take care of interplanetary affairs.
In Christianity the angels of hell or Dark Angels (demons) are fallen angels that oppose the heavenly bodies. These figures also have wings but theirs are black bat’s wings, which are associated with underground depths (traditionally hell is located underground, in a vast cave). The balance provided by angels is reflected in this juxtaposition, the celestial multitude against the infernal multitude, with different tasks but the same constant dedication to human beings.
By Mary Tiussi
(English translation by Victoria Edmenson)
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