Because Jacquie Rogers's and my next workshop, Angels and Demons Along the Silk Road and Beyond, starts in a few days over at SavvyAuthors.com, I figured I'd tell you a bit about it today!
In Western society, angels and demons have clear-cut roles: angels are good, demons are bad. But if you were to check out those terms in other parts of the world, you’ll find that those names don’t mean the same thing at all.
Consider, if you will, the “angel” you’ll find in the Philippines. Maybe it’s because of the heavy Spanish influence over the centuries combined with the dark mythology that already existed in the region or it may be something else, but the angels in the folklore in those parts are horrifying and scary and not at all like the angels you’ll find in Western culture. The gruesome angels of the Philippines will give you nightmares, even more than the weeping angels of Dr. Who fame. Bizarre? No. It’s just a word — one that means very different things, depending on where you are.
Now, think about the demons that you’ll find in the folklore and mythology of the Far East. Demons in Chinese and Japanese folklore aren’t the minions of Satan, the way you’ll find in Western society, but they are nonetheless fearsome. Some of them are ogre-like in their appearance, designed to frighten and ward off evil; some of them are menacing, but quite pleasant in appearance. Some are downright seductive. Evil? Well, maybe. You never know. Some of those demons are good, some are not. “Demon” is just a word. Some of you may be familiar with the Japanese anime “Inu-Yasha,” the half-human, half-dog demon. If you aren’t familiar with the story, Inu-Yasha (literally, “dog demon”) yearns to be big and tough and mean — but he’s saddled with the responsibility of a girl, who’s not very happy with the situation, either. (Spoiler alert: They fall in love.)
Then there are the angels you’ll find in the folklore of regions in between, from which much of Western society gets its own mythologies. For instance, the mysterious and seductive djinn are known as demons, but they have any number of skills and personality types, ranging from mischievous to malicious, shape-shifting to wish-fulfilling, even aiding mankind. “Demons,” they’re called. But are they evil?
As you may have surmised, sometimes demons don’t go by a familiar name; nor do angels. In Japanese mythology (specifically, in Japanese Buddhism), the beings we think of being good and — for the lack of a better word, angelic — are known as tennin. Tennyo (the feminine term) are described as being preternaturally beautiful, dressed in intricately designed kimonos, and they carry lotus blossoms, which are symbols of enlightenment. Tennin live in Buddhist heaven as companions to the Buddhas, and they can fly; some are shown to have wings, but more often than not they’re shown as wearing feathered kimonos, which allow them to fly.
In a story that has a very familiar sound to it, there’s a well-known story in which a tennyo comes down to our world and takes off her feathered kimono in order to bathe. A fisherman hides the kimono and tricks the angel to marry him. But after some years he confesses to his wife what he did, at which point she retrieves her feathered kimono and goes back to heaven. This story has many elements in common with stories of faeries found in Western society, which tells me that mortals are the same all over the world: when they see beautiful, ethereal females, they promptly fall in love and trick them into marrying them. Mortal men aren’t so different, no matter where you are!
And it’s also not a surprise that the angels of the other side of the world bear similarities — they come from the same roots, sons of Abraham, after all. (Since the biblical Abraham is regarded as the father of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the religious cultures are referred to as “Abrahamic.”) The roots are the same, but there are clear differences. Jibrail and Gabriel are both archangels and messengers of the Almighty, but one is from the Islamic tradition and the other Judeo-Christian. Michael is the angel of nature for Islam, but for the Judeo-Christians, he performs acts of justice and power.
What is an angel, anyway? In Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures, they are servants of God, like Gabriel often messengers to mortal man (and in fact, the term literally means “messenger”). In Zoroastrianism and Native American societies, angels are often guiding influences or guardian spirits.
And outside of the Abrahamic tradition, in Zoroastrianism, each person has a guardian angel, called the fravashi. In Sikhism, there’s Azrael, the angel of death. (If you’re a comic book fan, you’re probably aware that Superman’s original name was “Kal-El,” as in the House of El. “El,” of course, is a common angelic suffix, like Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, even Daniel. Coincidence? Probably not!)
What’s all this mean? Just that angels and demons can be found in many places, in ways you wouldn’t expect. Angels aren’t necessarily symbols of good, nor are demons necessarily symbols of evil. The names may change, but whatever you call them, myths and legends about angels and demons can be found all over the world. Let Jacquie Rogers and Eilis Flynn take you on a walk around the world to examine those myths, and see how they shift, change, and evolve as we travel.
And before we get started, let us tell you about the Silk Road. You might already know this, but just in case you don’t. The Silk Road was a series of important trading routes going over land and sea that existed long before the Christian era began. A lot of trade occurred along the route, bringing silks and spices and more from the East to the West. Traditionally, the Silk Road connected a region of China with Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, a route that was more than 5,000 miles long—a goodly distances these days, but unimaginable back then. The Silk Road had northern routes and southern routes, and the goods were transported from places as far away as the Philippines and Thailand and Brunei, all the way to Italy and Portugal and even Sweden.
Not only were silks and spices moved along these routes, so was culture, language, and even technology, and that meant Asian concepts and items were introduced to Europe, and vice versa. That includes the variations of angels & demons. We’ll see how the ideas of those elementals began and changed as we walk from region to region, changing little by little until those concepts end up drastically different when compared side by side. Come along and check out what kind of angels and demons you can find all over the world.
Eilis Flynn was an anthropology major long ago, and she's thrilled that it's finally coming in handy! She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.eilisflynn.com.