Angels and daemons

Angel memorial, Westbury-on-Trym churchyard, Bristol [own photo]

Congruences in recent and current reading always fascinate me, not least because I believe a workable definition of synchronicity is “a coincidence that has significance”.

Of course that significance doesn’t have to be universal, and the congruences that follow are therefore personal to me; but you might find that they also appeal to you — or at least entertain.

My Catholic upbringing included the desirability of subscribing to a belief in guardian angels, even encouraging the child to invent a cutesy name for them — Wopsy, say. I was encouraged to read a sentimental and moralistic children’s book called Wopsy: the Adventures of a Guardian Angel by Gerard F Scriven. As I remember it, this work (first published in 1943) was explicitly designed to amplify feelings of guilt in any impressionable youngster as well as suggesting that a vocation to be a missionary was devoutly desirable. But when Wopsy is sent to be guardian angel to an African baby yet to have its soul washed clean by baptism, even to my young eyes in the mid-fifties the notion came across as being as dreadfully racist as it still appears now.

I mention this title because I’ve been enjoying Rumer Godden’s The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963). Set in the early 1960s, mostly by Lake Garda, it has one of the young characters expressing just such a belief in guardian angels, making me wonder if she’d read the Wopsy book.

Now there is an extraordinary appetite among certain English-speaking audiences for the notion of a personal guardian angel. Websites may encourage you to “think of your guardian angels like private detectives” (can you have more than one?) or as “a nurturing mother, an archetypal mother—the ‘perfect’ mother.” New Age blogs and handbooks claim to be authoritative about these and similar beings and Goodreads supplies fiction lists such as Young Adult angel related books.

Some titles I’ve seen offered online for sale or review with handsome winged males seem to verge on soft porn, if the photoshopped covers are any guide — not that there’s necessarily anything inherently wrong about them, especially if the authors and their readership are taking the beginning of Genesis 6 to their literal hearts:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.

Now, it’s generally thought that the sons of God mentioned here are angels, particularly fallen angels, associated with the Hebrew Nephilim (usually translated as ‘giants’ or alternately ‘fallen ones’). Daniel Chester French’s sculpture on this theme in the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC) is to my eye faintly ridiculous but it does at least allude to the key points in the Biblical account — gigantism, fairness, coupling — and anticipates those soft porn romances of recent years.

Daniel Chester French’s sculpture of the Sons of God and the Daughters of Men (1923), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The weirdness to me has always been the presence of wings. Anyone with even the faintest idea of biology will see the physical anomaly of a creature with powerful avian wings impossibly attached to shoulder blades, in addition to those human fore limbs. One or the other, please! Whence this nonsensical notion?

When I was a teenager I frequented Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, one of my favourite exhibits being some of the Assyrian alabaster bas-reliefs from the ancient city of Nimrud. Here one can see so-called protective spirits: sturdy male individuals with wings, headdresses and often a fir cone which, after being dipped in a bucket, could be used to sprinkle blessed or perfumed water over a worshipper. Several of these beings had the heads of eagles; similar composite beings, mostly winged, are variously fish-headed apkallu or the human-headed winged lions known as lamassu (these last familiar from the colossal examples in the British Museum). All are more impressive and more terrifying than Daniel Chester French’s Byronic Son of God.

Why wings? Presumably they are used to ferry prayers to and messages from greater deities up in heaven. This is precisely the import of the word ‘angel’, from Greek angelos translating Hebrew malakh, with both terms meaning messenger. A guardian angel must be regarded then as an individual’s personal messenger communicating with divinity.

Other recent reading (Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, Cath Barton’s The Plankton Collector and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series) has put me in mind of other guardian entities and of companions who may or may not be benevolent. To follow my line of thinking we need to briefly escape the literary world.

Indigenous American cultures include a belief in spirit animals. However, it counts as cultural appropriation if those not from Native American stock or the First Nations in Canada lay claim to a personal spirit animal. Luckily (as recent Twitter conversations have confirmed) it’s okay to call your notional spirit animal, should you wish to have one, a daemon (if you’re a fan of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) or a patronus (for muggles addicted to J K Rowling’s Harry Potter universe). A patronus can defend against the Dark Arts or a Dementor, though a daemon is less a guardian and more of an alter ego.

(Pullman of course includes more about angels—especially Metatron—later in His Dark Materials, but, more on this later, much later.)

If your idea of a guardian is more human than spirit or animal, then Will Stanton’s protector Merriman Lyon in The Dark is Rising is just such a one, except that he also is, like Will, one of the Old Ones. How, then, do we view the eponymous mysterious-yet-familiar stranger of Cath Barton’s The Plankton Collector? To each surviving member of a troubled family he shapeshifts to become a friend, a confidant, an uncle, a handyman, as the occasion demands: a Guardian Angel perhaps, but one without wings.

The mainstay of many old-fashioned cartoons was the existence of two companion spirits who sat one on each person’s shoulders. One was a miniature angel, the voice of the conscience advising you to do the right thing. The other was the devilish you, egging you on to follow your worse or worst impulses.

We don’t seem to see these cartoons so much these days, but the idea of an impish counsellor or evil self is never entirely absent in literature. There are aspects of the dark side of human nature in Victor’s Creature from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the picture in the attic in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Shadow in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Demons (though not daemons) of a type, equivalent to the dangerous djinns who should’ve been left in their bottles.

Assyrian sculpture of guardian spirit, British Museum

33 thoughts on “Angels and daemons

  1. You raise such a lot of interesting angles (!) on this, not least being the nagging feeling that I’ve missed out in not being raised a catholic. Though I don’t like the sound of ‘Wopsey’, or the adventures, I envy your familiarity with the mystical side of religion. My C of E upbringing had such a prosaic, rational approach that the only real reference we had to Angels was Gabriel, visiting Mary – skipped over for a variety of reasons, I think. If only someone had explained Guardian principles to me, I’m sure I’d have found it useful. What a neat way to understand ‘conscience’.

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    1. I’m very grateful to that upbringing, Cath, because it gave me that rich background knowledge of a tradition going back two millennia: artistic, archaeological, architectural, musical, linguistic (I grew up at a time when Latin was still the official language of church rites and ceremonies).

      However, I’m not a subscriber to that tenet that asserts “once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” and I’m now, and have for decades been, avoyedly an atheist. But I’m still interested in the machinery of belief and, of course, that upbringing has given me huge cultural and historical insights.

      But that’s not to say that I don’t have my own irrational beliefs and biases! And if imagining a conscience on my shoulder is one of them, I suspect it will be a Jiminy Cricket rather than a Wopsy. 🦗

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      1. Oh yes, Jiminy Cricket. What an excellent choice.

        As to the Catholic upbringing, I confess now that it was less the spiritual aspect that appeals than the ‘rich background’ you mention. So many of the early twentieth century writers I admire seem to have benefited from immersing themselves in those ‘cultural and historical insights’. When I read them I’m often haunted by the suspicion that I’m missing on a layer of references.

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  2. In Scandinavia you could encounter a tomte (Sweden) or nisse (Norway and Denmark) who is the guardian of a farm and its inhabitants. He is usually helpful but if you cross him, e.g. by forgetting his Christmas porridge, you may have all sorts of trouble during the next year.

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    1. The tomte and nisse sound similar to the brownies from some Northern British folklore. The nisse must be related etymologically to the nix or nixie, better known here as a water-sprite (which is rather more sinister). Luckily I make up my own breakfast so the chances of me causing trouble at home are greatly minimised!

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      1. The brownies certainly sound related. The tomte/nisse is more someone you would find in a barn, watching over the animals etc. whereas I get the impression that brownies are mor likely to be found in the house? They look different too, at least since the artist Jenny Nyström started painting tomtar on her Christmas cards and basically defined their appearance.

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        1. The brownie in Northern British tradition is hard to nail down (metaphorically of course!), sometimes in the house, sometimes in outhouses. The Nystrom tomtar, with their rosy faces and red hats, to me resemble garden gnome ornaments and also the brownie Big Ears in Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, but I suspect such sprites were more amorphous and were imagined differently in different cultures. Nor were they always friendly or as helpful as sometimes portrayed.

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          1. I believe the tomte is supposedly an ancestor spirit or something along those veins which is connected to the land (tomt=ground or plot), someone that arrives (or forms?) when the ground is cleared. So helpful but stingy fits with that background, the tomte is protecting the farm as long as you stay on its good side.

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            1. I draw most of my understanding of such beings from the wonderful storehouse that is Katharine Brigg’s A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies And Other Supernatural Creatures — hours of browsing guaranteed!


            2. Someone must have told me some of these stories as a child but I’m not sure who, so I guess I could blame cultural osmosis. It mostly checks out though when I look-into things but a dictionary would help. Is Brigg’s focused on the British varieties or more general?

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            3. It’s mostly British—English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish—but she does draw extensive parallels with neighbouring traditions (including Scandinavian) as well as some classical antecedents.

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    1. I think that the casual, sometimes irreverent use of the concept of a ‘spirit animal’ is what offends some people when they talk of cultural appropriation but, as you point out, Indigenous or aboriginal Americans don’t have a monopoly. Interestingly, I’ve seen the word ‘totem’ suggested as a substitute, but isn’t that a Native American word in the first place? On that basis we’d have to eschew the Polynesian word ‘taboo’ and a whole host of other loan words, perhaps on the basis that we nicked them rather they were willingly lent? 🙂

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  3. Why did you stop writing? You were entertaining and not only, I was learning something new about something I know about since it’s in our collective consciousness, methinks.

    I grew up in a Roman Catholic country, but Catholicism was diluted in my time. Nowadays I am part of a group of plain christians, and all that jazz is not part of our beliefs, but that’s not to say I don’t see it around. All ideas, specially those which intertwine with anything spiritual, come back and show up in literature, culture, and in whatever the ‘new religion’ fashion of the moment.

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    1. Sorry to call these things “all that jazz”, (I’m realizing it sounds pejorative, and I may have written it in a haste, when I should have been polite about what others may believe which for them is not inconsequential, obviously.)

      I also didn’t know that the Native Americans have that claim on animism, Ola G, and true, I wonder what the Aboriginal Australians would say to that as well.

      And still I also don’t know “why the wings?”, ha ha ha, but hey, if you google it, you find this,

      I love the Disney cartoons that portray that angel and demon that appears in The Emperor’s New Groove.

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      1. ‘All that jazz’ sounds fine to me, Silvia, it makes a clear distinction between what is the essence of a religion and what is, as it were, the clothing placed over and around it.

        Thanks for the link to the piece about angel’s wings. Effectively what it’s saying is that the idea of angels as divine messengers suggests to most believers that wings may be needed (if the divine is in some sky-based heaven). The notion that they may also be sheltering and protective, as adult birds’ wings might be, reinforces the original symbolism. As the link suggests, we don’t have to take them literally, especially as other interpretations have angels as manifested light, or merely as humans dressed in white.


        1. Exactly. There’s also references to non winged angels. And yes, they need to fly, right? But as you said, the placement of the wings is weird. They make more sense attached to our arms. I like the verses where God says we are under his wings.

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    2. I’d nearly completed a quite full reply to you when it disappeared from my screen, no idea why. Ho hum. I’ll try again, but I’ll have to summarise what I was going to say.

      I’ve long recognised that there’s a difference between much Christian (particularly Catholic) dogma and Christ’s message as was recorded in the first century after his death. I can go along with the humanity and compassion of his parables, for example, but the Baroque excrescences that have developed in the intervening years, beautiful or poetic as they may at times be, speak nothing to me of the simpler messages first expressed in the gospels and in parts of the epistles.

      ‘All that jazz’ is exactly what early on put me off about Catholicism, plus its stance that its accumulated traditions owed nothing to any traditions seen as external, pagan or heathen.


      1. I hate when that happens to me. Thanks for trying again, I much second your thoughts in this comment. I remember your Christmas post, I can see there’s an expression of the Roman Catholic traditions that drink from the external, pagan or heathen, absolutely. That’s mostly the reason why, when I questioned my beliefs in my late twenties, I got close to a different view, one more in the spirit of the Reformation, (but which doesn’t ascribe to any particular denomination, although it surely has a story itself, -how could not it be the case?-

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        1. I have a book which, for some reason, I never finished and which was titled The Unvarnished Gospel. It stripped away all the later accretions—chapter and verse divisions, archaic language, pious circumlocutions—to present a scholarly but straightforward translation into English.

          Its purpose was to present how the early traditions and writings about Jesus and what he reportedly said may have appeared to early followers, given that we can never really appreciate fully what it must have been like for them. I must dig it out, finish and review it—I did very much like the approach. You might enjoy it too!


          1. I would like to read that book. The last book on Christianity I read, The Divine Conspiracy, also attempted to bring that appreciation. The author wrote the verses he quoted in contemporary English, to make us pay fresh attention. Much of what he wrote, was trying to remove the varnish of our familiarity and rut explanations of things like the Sermon at the Mountain, the Beatitudes, etc.

            And you never heard of “chew the meat and spit the bones?”, Maybe it’s more American expression.

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  4. One more thing. Catholicism, — or any other rich background that comes through a religion — can be a great cultural heritage. I too am happy for the things my more city diluted — tongue in cheek — upbringing gave me. It’s not as minimal as I say, the nuns I attended for a while, gave us the stories of the Bible. At my mom’s village, which we visited in the summer, I also experienced cultural and religious events. While they are not part of what I practice as religion anymore, they were mostly a heritage as good (bad or limited) as any other.

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    1. I agree that Catholicism represents a great cultural heritage. I delight in church structures, from the simple single-cell buildings that abound in Celtic countries to the great European cathedrals. I enjoy the Renaissance paintings that once adorned Continental churches that have found their way into the new temples we call art galleries. The choral tradition that provides the music I regularly sing would be significantly impoverished if there was no sacred music by Tallis, Gabrieli, Monteverdi or Bach. And I appreciate the narrative that services like the Mass provide, offering hope out of despair, good in spite of evil.


      1. It all comes in a great big mess centuries old, lol, the great with the obnoxious. Like you, I take what is good, and “spit the bones”?(that’s what we say in English, right?)

        We would be so poor without the Renaissance, which can’t be unglued to particularly, Catholicism.

        Even in my non Catholic faith, I read and take much from Kempis, Agustin, I also pray some Catholic prayers. It took me some time to venture in their treasure chest, but now I am more grounded in my faith, and more able to contrast it, or to borrow from what I find to be true, good, and beautiful from other sources.

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  5. Patricia

    I recently re-read my Wopsy books 70 years later, after discovering that was my first experience of people of colour. They are so racist! Wopsy was deployed to look after a black baby in Africa with ‘a white soul because he’d been baptised’ not like the other black people with black souls. I read on with mounting horror. ‘God said Wopsy could call him (the baby) anything he liked because he only had a horrible pagan name…’ ‘The guardian Angels of ordinary babies have not a very great deal to do, but of course it’s rather different when the baby is a black one and a pagan one too.’ ‘… it can’t be very interesting for them (the angels) to look after a lot of pagans.’ And so on, through four white-child-friendly books. And missionaries who dined on elephant steaks!! I’d had my first lessons in racism from books approved by English Catholic bishops! I prefer to think it was the ‘English’ 1940s imperialism rather than the ‘Catholic’ that was the greater influence. These books should not be on sale anywhere!!


    1. Gosh, it’s even worse than I remember! I sincerely hope this is no longer published but held up as a dire warning from history. And, as literature, the Pullman works so much better even though he also has his own moral stance.


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