July 13, 2012


An order or ranking of celestial or spiritual beings or entities in Western religions; Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Functioning as messengers or servants of the deity or as guardians of individuals or nations, such spiritual beings have been classified into ranks or hierarchies by theologians or philosophical thinkers of the major Western religions, of sects that have become religions in their own right (the Druzes, a religion that developed from Islam), and of syncretistic movements (Gnosticism, a religious dualistic-belief system incorporating Jewish, Christian, Iranian, and Hellenistic religious concepts and in which matter was viewed as evil, the spirit as good, and salvation as being achieved through esoteric knowledge, or gnosis).

The number of such celestial beings in the rankings -often 4, 7, or 12- was generally based on the theory of planetary spheres in Hellenistic or Iranian astrology or on the hierarchy derived from Oriental monarchical government. In Zoroastrianism, a religion founded by the 6th-century-BC Persian reformer Zoroaster, the amesha spentas, or bounteous immortals, of Ahura Mazda, the Good Lord, are arranged in a hierarchy of seven: Spenta Mainyu (the Holy Spirit), Vohu Manah (Good Mind), Asha (Truth), Armaiti (Right Mindedness), Khshathra Vairya (Kingdom), Haurvatat (Wholeness) and Ameretat (Immortality).

In Judaism, the hierarchy of angels -often called in the Old Testament the "hosts of heaven" or the "company of divine beings"- is not strictly defined. In postbiblical Judaism -especially in apocalyptic literature, which describes God´s dramatic intervention in history -seven angels, sometimes called archangels, lead the heavenly hosts that in the Talmud (an authoritative compendium of Jewish law, lore, and commentary) are viewed as countless. These seven, noted in nthe noncanonical Fist Book of Enoch (chapter 20), are: Uriel (leader of the heavenly hosts and guardian of sheol, the underworld); Raphael (guardian of human spirits); Raguel (avenger of God against the world of lights); Michael (guardian of Israel); Sariel (avenger of the spirits, "who sin in the spirit"); Gabriel (ruler of Paradise, the seraphim, and the cherubim), and Remiel, also called Jeremiel (guardian of the souls in sheol). Of these, two (Michael and Gabriel) are mentioned in the Old Testament and two others (Raphael and Uriel) in the Apocrypha, a collection of noncanonical works. In rabbinic literature, angels are classified into two basic groupings: higher and lower. Included among the higher group are the cherubim and seraphim, winged guardians of God´s throne or chariot, and the ofannim (Hebrew: "wheels"), all of which are noted in the Old Testament. Among the sectarians associated with the Deal Sea Scrolls, the higher angels include the angels of light, darkness, destruction, and holiness.

Christianity developed a hierarchy of angels based on the Judaic tradition. In addition to angels, archangels, seraphim, and cherubim, five other spiritual angelic groups -named in the letters of Paul in the New Testament- were accepted in the church by the 4th century: virtues, powers, principalities, dominions, and thrones. Together they made up a hierarchy or choir of angels. As objects of devotion, special attention has been given to the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Inheriting concepts of angelology from Judaism and Christianity, Islam also developed a hierarchy of angels. In a descending order of importance are: the four throne bearers of Allah (hamalat al-arsh), symbolized by a man, a bull, an eagle, and a lion in Islamic legend (which drew from the imagery of the Revelation to John in the New Testament); the cherubim (karubiyun), who praise Allah; four archangels (Jibril, or Gabriel, the revealer; Mikal, or Michael, the provider; Izrail, the angel of death; and Israfil, the angel of the Last Judgement); and lesser angels, such as the hafazah, or guardian angels.

Hierarchies of celestial or spiritual beings also were developed among various religions that arose out of the major Western religions, such as the Druzes, and among syncretistic religions, such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, a dualistic religion that was founded by the 3rd-century Ad Persian reformer Mani. Such religions usually incorporated into their hierarchical concepts aspects of emanation theories such as aeons or Archons, or of astrology, such as the signs of the zodiac.

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