Lekythos with Winged Victory
with Incense Holder at
Metropolitan Art Museum.
2009 © Sharon Mollerus.
I had the pleasure to read through the Rangar Cline’s book entitled Ancient Angels: Conceptualizing Angeloi in the Roman Empire (2011) which discusses in great detail the concept of angelos (angel) in non-Abrahamic religions (namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam) in the Roman era. It is an incredibly interesting theme of scholarly debate from the early 20th century. It is also a contemporary issue of discussion and debate for modern Hellenic polytheists: what was the nature of angels in ancient Greek religion, how it was involved and presented in the Late Greco-Roman religion, and how it could be differentiated from its Christian understanding? Cline gives immensely beautiful answers with the use of literary, inscriptional, and archaeological evidences. Cline focuses to the study of the Greco-Roman understanding of angels and how they have been worshiped. For Cline, the Christian authorities reacted to this unorthodox characteristic of Roman religion. The author does not “attempt to trace religious influence in one direction or another” (p.xvii), and seek to bring a holistic view of the popular beliefs about angels in Greco-Roman religion, equally providing the prevalent assumptions about and veneration of them in the Late Antiquity, Roman Empire.

It is quite straightforward from the archaeological and literary evidences that angelos (the Greek term for ‘angels’) was a noteworthy feature of the Late Antiquity’s Greco-Roman religion (p.2). An interesting first attempt for scholarly evaluate the non-Christian conception of angles in the ancient World was in Cumon, F., (1915) “Les anges du paganisme,” Revue de l’histoire des religions, 12, pp. 159–182 and later in Sheppard, A. R. R., (1980/1981), “The Pagan Cult of Angels in Roman Asia Minor,” Talanta, 13-14, pp. 77–101. The term appears in Homer (a messenger, envoy, Il.24.292,296.) later in Herodotus (Hdt.5.92); all ancient Greek literary sources identifying  angelos as a term which defines a specific responsibility or assignment that labelled the function of a particular deity or a ‘semi-divine’ (celestial) being. For Gentiles as well as for the first Christians throughout the antiquity, angelos means a messenger of divine communication (generally, one that announces, of birds of augury, Il.2.26.; Μουσῶν ἄγγελος, of a poet, Theogn.769; Διὸς ἄγγ., of the nightingale, Soph. El. 149.; c. gen. rei, ἄγγ. κακῶν ἐμῶν id=Soph. ; in LSJ, ἄγγελος , ὁ, ἡ).

Though angelos in its origin does not ineludibly represent a ‘semi-divine’ (celestial) being, it will eventually be used to identify a special class of ‘semi-divine’ (celestial) beings. Angelos, would be eventually, especially in the second and third century AD, described as a “semi-divine being or a lesser god in the service of a supreme god, a manifestation of a supreme god, the soul after death, or even a guardian spirit” (p.3).

For that specific reason the Christian Apologetics tried to outline a distinction between the Christian and non-Christian use of the term. In the Origen versus Celsus debate, it is evident that the focus on the division of meaning was based on the sematic relation between the terms angelos, daimon and theos. Origen identified the theological problem founded in the scriptures, which is the use of the term angelos as a reference to theoi (the gods). Immediately, in this point the rhetorical fallacy can be clearly viewed: as the Gentile theoi where daemons (evil spirits), also mentioned in the scriptures as angeloi, thus angelos could be a malevolent spirit too. Resulting to confusion in the early Christian writings, Origen stated that Christians should not venerate angels but straightforwardly pray and worship God (Contra Celsum, 5.4). In similar lines of argumentation Augustine suggested that the term daimon can be used only for malevolent spirits and angelos could be both be God’s “boni angeli” as well as an evil spirit. He further argued that the Neo-Platonic philosophers (namely Porphyry; see Civ. Dei., 10.26) theosophical rituals and their worship of angeloi were actually venerating daimones, evil spirits, or angels of Devil (Civ. Dei., 9.19). The Augustine’s argumentation is a good example to an alternative reading of the already existent terminology for the divine.

In fact there was a term used for the ‘evil angel’ – or in a similar approach – in the Hellenic Polytheistic World, which according to LSJ is ἀλάστωρ, (ορος, ὁ, ἡ) is an avenging spirit or deity, with or without δαίμων, (freq. Trag., A.Pers.354, Ag.1501, 1508, cf. Men.8); “ἀ. οὑμός” (S.OC 788); “ἐξ ἀλαστόρων νοσεῖν” (Id.Tr.1235); “ἀλάστορας ἔχειν” (Hp.Morb.Sacr. 1); “Ζεὺς Ἀ.” (Orph.H.73). he who does deeds which merit vengeance, wretch, (A.Eu.236, S.Aj.374); μιαροὶ..καὶ “κόλακες καὶ ἀ.” (D.18.296); “βάρβαρόν τε . . καὶ ἀ. τὸν Φίλιππον ἀποκαλῶν” (Id.19.305); “ἄνθρωπ᾽ ἀλάστωρ” (Bato 2.5, cf. Men.7D., Pk.408); “Διονύσιος ἁπάσης Σικελίας ἀ.” (Clearch.10). It was, therefore, a fact that different polytheistic cults of the Greco-Roman World used the term angelos to pray and venerate the divine which according to Cline “reveals the role of Hellenism in allowing distinct and divergent religious traditions to express similar ideas about angeloi in a common religious vocabulary” (p.167).

Ancient Angels: Conceptualizing Angeloi in the Roman Empire (2011) is an excellent source for readers and scholars interested on the concept of angels within the Greco-Roman polytheistic religion.