eldritch adjective el·dritch strange or unnatural especially in a way that inspires fear: WEIRD, EERIE Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
We really need to get the mainstream idea of angels out of our heads. I include in this both the pop culture view and the traditional view. The pop culture view is the Valentine’s Day picture of angels as cute cherubs – cute, fat children, with wings. They are usually portrayed as naked and often carry a bow to shoot love arrows into human hearts. Strictly speaking, this is called a putto, and has more to do with the Greek god Cupid than anything in the Bible.
The second view of an angel is as a beautiful, winged, immortal humanoid – usually blond, clothed in white, and shining – who serves God in various ways. This is closer to the truth, except for one fact. Most angels who appear in the Bible stories don’t have wings and look fairly ordinary, at least in our plane of reality. Sometimes they even eat, drink and rest. But at other times, when the reveal more of what they truly are, the results are terrifying.
Suddenly there was a great earthquake! For an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled aside the stone, and sat on it. His face shone like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. The guards shook with fear when they saw him, and they fell into a dead faint.Matthew 28:2-4
So, more eldritch than cute. This is the story of the day of Christ’s resurrection. There are other times in the New Testament where angles are described as dressed in white (John 20:12; Acts 1:10). When an angel appeared to the parents of Samson, his wife described his looks as “very terrible” (also translated as very fearsome, frightening, or exceedingly awesome – Judges 13:6)
Angels in Two Realms
How do we account for this dual nature in angelic appearance? One way is to compare them to Christ, who in his everyday interactions with people looked ordinary. Only his powerful words and mighty deeds set him apart, not how he appeared. But there was one time when Jesus showed a select few what he really looked like.
His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.Mark 9:3
His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.Matthew 17:2
As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.Luke 9:29
This is a record of the event known as the Transfiguration of Christ. One way of looking at it is that for a moment Christ was changed into an image of what he would become after his resurrection. Another way of looking at it is that for a moment the veiled glory of Christ was taken away and he showed himself as he truly was.
I think it’s the same with most biblical accounts of angels. When they’re here with us, they’re on a mission, so they (mostly) have to blend in to what we look like and expect. But, behind the scenes, in the spiritual realm, they look very different. The question is, just how different? The answer: as eldritch as you can get!
Angels as Fiery Serpents
On more than one occasion, when humans have had a vision of what an angle looks like in its supernatural habitat, the impact has been to shock and overwhelm the human mind. When confronted with an angel in Revelation, John twice fell down and tried to worship it (19:10; 22:8). But perhaps the two best examples are in the heavenly visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel when they were first commissioned as prophets.
Isaiah gives an even more awe-inspiring accounts of what happens when a mortal man has a close encounter with God. In the sixth chapter of his book, Isaiah sees God sitting on his throne, high and exalted, with the train of his robe filling the temple below. Angelic creatures called seraphim stand around him. Each had six wings: two covering its face, two covering its feet, and two for flying. They call out to each other and the foundations of the temple doorways tremor at the sound of their voices. As he witnesses them, the prophet declares himself ruined and destroyed.
Seraphim is the plural of seraph, which means burning one or fiery one, based on the underlying Hebrew verb ‘to burn’. But when used as a noun, the word means serpent. Some scholars, such as Dr Michael S Heiser, believe these two meanings are probably related here. Even though they were celestial beings, these seraphim are described to us in terrestrial terms, as having serpentine features. In the ancient mind, cobras were viewed as throne-room guardians. They described the hood of a cobra as wings, and they knew it could spit burning venom.
Angels with Four Faces
An even more uncanny account is in the opening chapters of Ezekiel. The prophet sees a fiery whirlwind and intersecting wheels. He is confronted with four living beings in humanoid form. Each has four faces and four wings. Their legs are straight but their feet are hooved, and they sparkle like burnished bronze. Each had the face of a human, a lion, an ox and an eagle. Each moved straight forward, and flew without turning.
This is all in chapter one of Ezekiel. We’re told later on that these creatures are called cherubim (9;3; 10:1-2), the plural of cherub. The exact meaning of this word is unclear but it may mean great or mighty. They served as guards of the garden at Eden (Genesis 3:24). Images of them were carved on the gold-plated cedar planks that made up the inner walls of the temple, and on the inner veil, and on the Ark of the Covenant itself. The wheels mentioned in Ezekiel may belong to their chariots, the rims of which are described as “covered with eyes” (1:18).
These cherubim show the same animal mixture as the seraphim, only with different animals. The same sort of creatures as these cherubim are mentioned in the New Testament too (Revelation 4:6-8) with the same uncanny reference to eyes everywhere. Commentators tend to explain the strangeness of their description in different ways.
- Since these are celestial beings, they can only be described by way of metaphors and images to our terrestrial brains. Their real form is beyond our imagination.
- The symbolic language used to describe them tell us more about their function than their form. The role of both angelic orders seems to be as throne guardians who directly attend God.
- Ancient mythology frequently depicted their heavenly beings as human-animal hybrids, from the Sumerian lamassu to the Egyptian sphinx.
Abominations and Art
My intention was to close with some suggested works of art that better grasp the weird and frightening aspect of angels in the Bible. But the problem is, there aren’t many. Willian Blake perhaps comes the closest to encapsulating eldritch angels in his pen and ink watercolour The Whirlwind: Ezekiel’s Vision of the Cherubim and Eyed Wheels. You might also want to scan the article Angelic Abomination in TV Tropes. Finally, you might want to ponder the opening words of angels in the Bible when they encounter human beings: “Don’t be afraid!” What else does this imply except there’s something of which to be afraid in the first place?