History of Angels

"War in Heaven," ceiling fresco, Göttweig Abbey, 1739, by Paul Troger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“War in Heaven,” ceiling fresco, Göttweig Abbey, 1739, by Paul Troger. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

According to Jorge Luis Borges, in his brief pages dedicated to a History of Angels (1926), the angels are “two days and two nights” older than we are, and “these primitive angels were stars.”[1] As proof he cites the Book of Job, in which the Lord speaks out from the whirlwind about the genesis of creation “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”

In times like the present, when so many backwoods stupid things are being said about Muslims and Islam, Borges’s summary essay reminds us:

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 sixty.

Seraphim in Hagia Sofia. (Credit: Ian Scott / Wikimedia Commons)

Seraphim in Hagia Sofia. (Credit: Ian Scott / Wikimedia Commons)

With regard to the known attributes and faculties of angels, Borges cites the “German speculative theologian” Rothe:

ATTRIBUTES: Intellectual force; free will; immateriality (capable, however, 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.

FACULTIES: Utmost suppleness, the power of conversing among themselves instantaneously without words or signs, and that of working wonders, but not miracles. They cannot create from nothing or raise the dead.

The Winged Man (The Fallen Angel), oil on cardboard, by Odilon Redon, c. 1880. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Winged Man (The Fallen Angel), oil on cardboard, by Odilon Redon, c. 1880. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Borges cites the lines of several Spanish poets (Juan de Jáuregui, Góngora, Lope de Vega) as a mere few of the “inexhaustible examples” of the appearances of angels in literature. My favorite lines are from Juan Ramón Jimenez (1881-1958):

Vagos ángeles malvas

apagaban las verdes estrellas

 [Vague mauve angels

snuffed the green stars]

Spanish, Thomas Merton once wrote, is the perfect language for mysticism.

"Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy," oil on canvas, by Caravaggio, 1594. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy,” oil on canvas, by Caravaggio, 1594. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The History of Angels was written, Borges implies, to marvel at 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.

We should not use or misuse our angels too much, Borges concludes. They may fly away.

OG

Jorge Luis Borges, photo from the book "Historia de la Literatura Argentina Vol I" edited by Centro Editor de América Latina. Published on November 1968 Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jorge Luis Borges, photo from the book “Historia de la Literatura Argentina Vol I” edited by Centro Editor de América Latina. Published on November 1968 Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “History of Angels” in Selected Non-Fictions, ed. Eliot Weinberger, trans. Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine and Eliot Weinberger (New York: Viking, 1999), 16-19.

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