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.
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 surving 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.