Monday, April 27, 2009

Angelic Genitalia

You read that right! This is an entire blog post dealing solely with the question of the existence of sexual organs on the heavenly host. Why, you might ask? Well what got me thinking about this subject was actually director Kevin Smith’s 1999 comedy Dogma. In the movie Dogma angels are depicted as being “as anatomically impaired as a Ken doll,” as the angel Metatron (Alan Rickman) eloquently puts it. Despite how the rest of their body may appear physically the angels and other supernatural beings in Dogma are repeatedly depicted and described as being both sexless and incapable of sexual activity.

However, this is not always the case. On the other end of the Hollywood spectrum is the 1996 film Michael in which the archangel Michael (John Travolta) is introduced with all his sexual organs intact - albeit concealed beneath his boxer shorts. He is also seen throughout the film engaging in casual sex with a number of different human women.

Then there are those films that opt for a thoroughly different approach. The award-winning HBO miniseries Angels in America (2003) envisions angels as hermaphrodites. In Tony Kushner’s original play of the same name The Angel of America (Emma Thompson in the mini-series) is described as “possessing many phalli and a multitude of vaginas” and engaging in sexual congress with newly ordained prophet Prior Walter.

Likewise the archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton) in the movie Constantine (2005) is depicted as androgynous, as is the devil (Rosalinda Celentano) in Mel Gibson’s religious blockbuster The Passion of the Christ (2004). Constantine was based on the DC/Vertigo comic book series “Hellblazer” so its interesting to note that while angels in the DC Universe are depicted in the same genitalia-less manner as those in Dogma they are mysteriously also seen as capable of engaging in sexual intercourse (See “Hellblazer” #46 and “Lucifer” #50 for two examples).

Of course, there are a vast number of films about angels where the subject of angelic sexual anatomy never comes up at all. We have no idea what the sexual status of Clarence (Henry Travers), the iconic angel of the yuletide classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), is.

But which of the above views is right?

Well considering the fact that angels are mythical beings to begin with, all views maybe seen as in some sense correct. Asking whether or not angels possess genitalia can be seen as tantamount to asking whether or not unicorn horns are hollow – you would first need to obtain a unicorn (living or dead) before you could proceed. Taking this into account then perhaps the question we should be asking is not which “view is right” but which view mirrors the classical conception of angels as found in ancient near-eastern myths and legends.

Though scholars are still in dispute over exactly where the idea of angels came from, for all intents and purposes it is generally agreed that the beings which we today identify as angels first appear in the religious myths of the Jewish people some 6,000-years-ago. In the Hebrew Bible and other related non-canonical literature angels are depicted as being all male[1], something which may come as a surprise to people who are used to seeing angels depicted as female whether it be on greeting cards or in Victoria’s Secret catalogs.

In Hebrew the term for angel (Heb: mal'akh, lit. ‘Messenger’) is masculine, furthermore angels are referred to in the books of Genesis, Numbers, Job, and Psalms as the “sons of God” (Heb: bene ha-elohim). Whenever an angel appears before someone in the Hebrew Bible they are always described as appearing as a “man.” Also all named angels have masculine names: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael (Tobit), Uriel (1st Enoch), etc… and are described as holding what where at the time seen as male jobs: Michael is a soldier, Gabriel a messenger, Raphael a doctor, etc…

Then there is what maybe one of the most controversial passages in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 6:1-2 & 4 we read of how in the days before the flood of Noah “the Sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them.” The implication here being that angels are capable of sexual intercourse with human women. This theme is further elaborated on in two apocryphal texts; 1st Enoch (c. 2nd BCE to 1st cent. CE) and Jubilees (c. 2nd cent. BCE). Both texts tell of the Watchers (Heb: irin, Lit: “those who watch” or “those who are awake”) a group of angels sent to earth to watch over mankind but whose unbridled lust for human women forces them to abandon heaven so that they may engage in sexual intercourse with them.

In some ways this premises is also revisited in the 1998 film City of Angels in which the angel Seth (Nicholas Cage) falls in love with a mortal woman but must first “fall” and become human in order to be with her.[2] While the angels in 1st Enoch and Jubilees don’t become human after leaving heaven they do manage to spawn the world’s first giants and teach humans the secrets of the occult. Lastly it should be noted that a careful reading of Jubilees 15:27 also seems to suggest that in addition to being fully equipped sexually angels are also created circumcised.

The idea of angels as sexually endowed and potent beings continued on until the 4th-Century C.E. Early Christians apparently shared in the myths found in Genesis 6, 1st Enoch and Jubilees as reference to them can be found in the New Testament. Most notable is the epistle of Jude who quotes from 1st-Enoch directly (see Jude 1:14-15) but also Paul who states in 1st Corinthians (11:10) that women should restrain from vanity least they entice the angels to sin again. However, as Christianity continued to grow as a religion the need to distance itself from both Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism (with its own hypersexual Olympian gods and goddesses) became more apparent. One way of doing this was to redefine angels as celibate.

In the 13th-Century, Catholic theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas declared in his Summa Theologica (1266-73) that angels were without both sex and gender and that though they can assume bodies, as human’s possess, they do not exercise the functions of life in them. This line of thinking about angels has been continued right on through to present day and appears in Protestant evangelist Billy Graham’s best selling book Angels: God’s Secret Agents (1975).

Medieval art likewise portrays angels as androgynous and it is not until the Renaissance that depictions of both male and female angels being to appear. It is interesting to note, however, that while Christian theologians and artists appear to have been troubled by the notion of sexually defined angels they had no problem with the concept of sexually defined demons. Myth, folklore, theology, and art all testify to the pervasive medieval belief in both incubi and succubi; male and female demons whose infernal job was to tempt their human sexual opposites with, well, sex.[3]

As for the tales of Genesis 6 and its related apocryphal texts Christianity saw these stories as best left forgotten. Those theologians who did bother to address these scriptures either explained the story of the “Sons of God” and the “daughters of men” away as the work of fallen angels/demons or reinterpreted the “Sons of God” as referring to the righteous descendents of Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son, and the “daughters of men” as being from the wicked line of Cain; the first murderer. Today many Christian resources on angels, such as Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr.’s book Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons (2007), don’t even mention Genesis 6.[4]

In the end, the question of sexuality amongst angels is perhaps one that will never be fully resolved. As was demonstrated at the start of this essay storytellers over the past 20-years have seen fit to reimagine the sexuality of angels in all kinds of new, old, and bizarre ways. Some like Kevin Smith, who is a practicing Catholic, will continue to reinforce the Christian notion of sexless and genderless angels while others will look back to Genesis 6, 1st Enoch, and Jubilees for their cues. In each and every case, however, it is important to remember that some statement is ultimately being made about how we as a culture view our own sexuality….

Bethany: “Sex is a joke in heaven?”

Metatron: “The way I understand it it’s mostly a joke down here too.”

- Dogma


At Top: The Metatron (Alan Rickman) maybe the Voice of God in Dogma (1999) but he's still “as anatomically impaired as a Ken doll.”

Middle: Unlike some angels Seth (Nicholas Cage) has no problem getting down with the ladies.

Films: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) directed by Frank Capra, The Prophecy (1995) directed by Gregory Widen, Michael (1996) directed by Nora Ephron, City of Angels (1998) directed by Brad Silberling, Dogma (1999) directed by Kevin Smith, Angels in America (2003) directed by Mike Nichols, The Passion of the Christ (2004) by Mel Gibson, Constantine (2005) directed by Francis Lawrence.

Sources: The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 1 & 2 (1985) translated by James H. Charlesworth, 1 Enoch: A New Translation (2004) translated by George W.E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam, Angels A to Z (1996) by James R. Lewis and Evelyn Dorothy Oliver, The Lost Bible: Forgotten Scriptures Revealed (2001) by J.R. Porter, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (2003) by Tony Kushner, Sense and Nonsense about Angels and Demons (2007) Kenneth Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., & “Can angels have sex with people?" at

Special Thanks to Dr. Barbra Thiede for pointing out Jubilees 15:27 and to Brent Starnes for pointing me towards Faraway, So Close!

[1] The idea that angels are all male is a concept that Hollywood also seems to find aesthetically pleasing. Considering the numerous films made over the years featuring angels the only two which I could find which feature decidedly female angels were the 1993 German film Faraway, So Close! and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, though interestingly in the latter’s case the angel in question was portrayed by actor Doug Jones. The long running American TV series Touched by an Angel (1994 to 2003) also featured decidedly female angels.
[2] Also released in 1998, The Prophecy II depicts angels and humans as capable of interbreeding. This was the sequel to the 1995 film The Prophecy which stared Christopher Walken as the archangel Gabriel.
[3] Interestingly Fr. Ludovico Maria Sinistrari, in his book Demoniality; or Incubi and Succubi (1879), describes the incubi as; “corporeal angels who allowed themselves to fall into the sin of lewdness with women.” a line which seems to call back to tales of Genesis 6, 1st Enoch, and Jubilees.
[4] A common Christian justification for the view that angels are both sexually undefined and impotent are the gospels of Matthew (22:30) and Luke (20:34-36) in which Jesus tells his followers that in the kingdom to come the resurrected dead will “neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” However, as common sense, and some apologetists, will tell you marriage has never been a prerequisite for sex.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
Nobody said elves were nice.
Elves are bad.”
- Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies (1992)

Today when people think of elves there is a good chance that one of two images will probably come to mind. One will be the tall, blond, pale skinned and pointed ear elves of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy based on the books by famed fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. The other image will be that of the diminutive and cute elves of Christmas, such as those seen in Rankin/Bass’s beloved yuletide special Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer.

As it would turn out both images are a far cry from the elves found in the myths and folklore of Britain, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Western Germany.

Originally, the term elf denoted all types of fairies. A classic example of this is the well known German fairy-tale the "Elves and the Shoemaker” in which the diminutive cobblers in question are not actually elves but rather an entirely separate race of supernaturals known as brownies.

Eventually the term elf would come to signify a certain class of tiny, humanoid beings who could shape-shift at will and who dwelled in forests, hollow tree trucks, old long-barrows and ancient burial mounds from which they emerge at night to dance in the light of the moon. It is unclear exactly how small elves were thought to be since many legends describe elves and human interbreeding which gives one the impression that they were at least large enough to properly perform sexual acts with adult humans. In England male elves are described as looking like old men while female elves are described as having the appearance of young beautiful women.

Amongst the many different mythologies which tell of elves it is the elves of Teutonic mythology (called Alfar) which are the most fully developed and of which we know the most about. Teutonic elves are divided into two groups; light elves (Liosalfar) and dark elves (Dökkálfar) or black elves (Svartálfar). Dark elves are described as having been born from the maggots who fed on the flesh of the dead giant Ymir. Their skin was “darker than pitch,” they lived underground, and worked as blacksmiths for the gods. Interestingly these dark elves were also seen as bringers of fertility and were thus the object of religious worship – something we certainly don’t associate with elves today.

According to Prof. Jesse L. Byock of the University of California there is evidence to suggest that elves were seen as being just as important as the gods (especially amongst the common folk) and were the subject of a widespread cult in both Scandinavia and Iceland. The 11th-Century Christian poet Sigvat Thordarson describes being turned away from a farmstead in Sweden where he sought shelter because the farmer’s wife was sacrificing to the local elves. An example of such a sacrifice can be found in Kormak’s Saga, a 10th-Century Icelandic work which describes a healing ritual in which a bull would be slaughtered and the blood smeared upon an elf mound and the meat left as a meal for the elves.

In contrast to the dark elves are the light elves that are described as being “whiter than the sun.” These elves did not live underground or in forests but rather in a celestial realm called Alfheim. However unlike there dark brethren, these light elves are largely undeveloped characters. So undeveloped, in fact, that some mythographers have even questioned whether they were actually ever believed in at all.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about elves is that of their very nature. People today often perceive elves as friendly, cheerful, even noble – very different from the troublesome and even down right malicious characters found in myth and folklore.

In Iceland, for example, elves were routinely blamed for the theft of babies, cattle, milk, and bread. They were also believed to be capable of enchanting young men and keeping them prisoner in their realm for years at a time – ala Rip Van Winkle.

Elsewhere in Europe, elves were blamed for a wide variety of problems, many of which are remembered by the folkloric names they were given. Elves were seen as responsible for much mundane troubles as hiccups, tangled hair (called Elf Locks) and nightmares (Elf Dreams) as well as much more serious issues such as birth defects (Elf Marked), strokes (Elf Twisted), splenomegaly [an enlargement of the spleen] (Elf Cake) and disease amongst farm animals (Elf Bolt).

Even when acting in a manner that some may describe as charitable elves still proved to be a handful, Danish folklore describes elves rewarding housewives who keep a clean home but at the same time not hesitating to pinch some bread from the kitchen.

Like all fairies, elves are vulnerable to iron and may also be driven away by an “elf cross” which can take the form of either a traditional cross or in some cases a pentagram.

So what of our modern day conceptions of elves?

Well to start with the tradition of ‘Christmas elves’, like that of the alleged elves in The Elves and the Shoemaker, is actually something of a misnomer. Actual elves have never been associated with Santa Claus, toy making, or Christmas. The characters which we call ‘Christmas elves’ today with their red and green clothes and pointed hats are actually relatives of the Norwegian nisse (or gnomes) and the Swedish tomtars who do have a connection to the character of Santa.

As for Tolkien’s elves, who since their inception have successfully managed to completely reshape the appearance and behavior of elves in popular-culture, they are something else entirely. Tolkien first began writing about elves as early as 1917 in his Book of Lost Tales and would later incorporate them into both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s elves came about as the result of the fluid mixing of various mythological ideas most notably; Teutonic light elves, the Celtic fairy-gods or Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Christian conception of angels. For Tolkien, elves were tall, blond, pale skinned, spoke a variation of Finish, had Celtic-sounding names and, most importantly, possessed pointed or “leaf shaped” ears. If any one fact should convince anybody of the mark Tolkien left on the popular conception of elves it should be that prior to Tolkien there is no mention of elves having pointy ears.

For the vast majority of people today elves are no longer a subject of fear or worship but rather simply characters in fantasy fiction and role-playing games, and the elves depicted within are always decidedly post-Tolkien. However, this is not to say that some fantasy authors have not made an attempt to move back to the more traditional, more malevolent elves of myth and legend – as the opening poem by acclaimed British fantasy/humor author Terry Pratchett shows.

It is also of interest to note that according to a June 2004 episode of Journeyman Pictures, a London based independent news site, that 10% of Icelanders currently profess to believe in elves and fairies, while another 80% say that while they don’t necessarily believe in them they still don’t want to mess with them.

And Finally a Bit of Dorky Myth-Science Trivia from Terry Pratchett…

Question: What color is elf blood?

Answer: Elf blood is green. Since iron is lethal to elves (as it is to all fairies) it would be impossible for elves to have hemoglobin-based red blood which contains iron. Copper-based green blood is used by some animals such as arthropods and mollusks so it’s the obvious alternative.


Center: Elves dance through a field in Swedish painter August Malmström's (1829-1901) painting Älvalek (1866)

Bottom: Orlando Bloom as iconic Tolkien elf Legolas from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films.

Sources: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (1996) by Carol Rose, Sagas of the Norsemen: Viking & German Myth (1997) by Jacqueline Simpson, et al., The Prose Edda (2005) by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L. Byock, The Vikings: Life, Myth, and Art (2004) by Tony Allan, The Annotated Hobbit (2002) by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Douglas A. Anderson, Lords and Ladies (1992) by Terry Pratchett, and the "Elves and the Shoemaker" at SurLaLune Fairy

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Goddess “Easter:” Fact or Fiction?

Today (April 12th) is Easter[1] the most important holiday for Christians of all orders and denominations the world over; a celebration of the resurrection of their messiah, Jesus Christ, as recounted in the New Testament.

However, for many both inside and outside the faith Easter is also considered one of the most confusing holidays with its traditions of painted eggs and chocolate bunnies which seem about as far away from the ideas of death and resurrection, sin and atonement as one can get.

So where do the eggs and rabbits of Easter tradition come from? For many scholars the answer to this question seems to have a lot to do with pagan spring and fertility traditions. The only question is exactly how much?

Over the years a number of researchers have put forth the theory that our modern Easter celebrations are actually remnants of an ancient Scandinavian and Germanic cult which worshipped a goddess called Eostre, her name itself being the root of the term “Easter.” Eostre is thought to have been a goddess of springtime and fertility, with eggs and rabbits being her sacred symbols. In recent years this theory has gained a lot of backing in the form of Wicca/Neo-Pagan practitioners looking for a way to appropriate an already popular western holiday into their own faith.

However, it is also equally plausible that at least some of these symbols, such as the eggs, were also ‘home grown’ so to speak. Easter is celebrated around the same time as the Jewish holiday of Passover. The cornerstone of Passover is the Seder, a ritual meal where one of the many foods presented is a roasted egg (the Beitzah) which symbolizes the Festival Sacrifice that Jews used to make at the Temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the meaning of the egg changed to symbolize spring and rebirth. It is therefore possible that the ‘Easter Egg’ may not be pagan at all but rather Jewish in origin.

The degree of certainty with which scholars approach the theory of the cult of Eostre varies as well. Some, such as author Gabriella Kalapos in her book Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays, states with utter certainty that the holiday of Easter gets its name “from the Teutonic dawn-goddess known variously as Ostare, Ostara, Ostern, Eostre, Eostra, Eostur, Eastra, and numerous other variations.” This is in spite of the fact that linguists also posit the possibility that the term “Easter” could be derived from the German word “eostarum” which means “dawn” and has no religious or mythological overtones at all.

An example of a more cautious writer is Paganism/Wicca author Patti Wigington who reminds readers in her article Eostre - Teutonic Goddess or NeoPagan Fancy? that historical evidence for the existence of an “Easter” goddess in extremely slim.

Eostre,” Wigington writes, “first makes her appearance in literature about thirteen hundred years ago in the Venerable Bede’s Temporum Ratione. Bede tells us that April is known as Eostremonth, and is named for a goddess that the Anglo-Saxons honored in the spring… After that, there’s not a lot of information about her, until Jacob Grimm and his brother came along in the 1800s. Jacob said that he found evidence of her existence in the oral traditions of certain parts of Germany, but there’s really no written proof.”

Nevertheless, lack of historical evidence has not stopped the Neo-Pagan/Wicca community from latching onto and championing the idea of an ancient, long forgotten Easter goddess. It has also not stopped fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman from championing the idea either, as he did in his 2001 New York Times bestselling novel American Gods which featured “Easter” as a strong supporting character.

As for scholars, it is sometimes very much the same as with the faithful. Writers and researchers like Kalapos simply feel that Easter, with it’s abundance of fertility ritual iconography, just makes more sense if it was, in fact, originally a pagan goddess festival. Others, like Wigington in spite of her own religious affiliations, would rather err on the side of caution.

And perhaps, as a friend of mine once pointed out, it doesn’t matter. If you buy into the idea that gods and goddesses are only as real as the faithful who follow them then it is possible that Eostre does exist, if not in the past than certainly in the present.


At Top: Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts.


Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays (2006) by Gabriella Kalapos

Don't Know Much About Mythology (2005) by Kenneth C. Davis

Easter and Passover at
[1] Unless you happen to be Eastern Orthodox, in which case Easter is April 19th 2009.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April Fool's Day

Today (April 1st) is April Fool’s Day an unofficial and popular western holiday which is celebrated with the playing of pranks and the orchestrating of elaborate hoaxes. April Fool’s Day is a day on which people celebrate trickery and Tricksters – those individuals (be they gods, demons, animals or men) who specialize in the art of deceiving.

The origins of April Fool’s Day are shrouded in mystery, but celebration of the holiday goes back as far as 1582, the year Pope Gregory XIII officially replaced the Julian calendar – which was off by ten days – with the Gregorian. One theory has it that April Fool’s Day arose as a response to this change over since it not only changed the number of days in a year but also the date of New Year’s Day. Traditionally many Europeans had held New Year’s Day at the end of March, but the Gregorian calendar moved the date to the beginning of January. Once this became official anyone still found celebrating New Year at the end of March was branded a “Fool” and had pranks played on them.

April Fool’s Day first caught on in France in late 1500s and then spread across Europe. By the early 1700s it was being celebrated in Britain and soon afterwards in America. Each country also has their own unique customs when it comes to celebrating April Fool’s Day. In France the day is called Poisson d’Avril or “April Fish” and fish are a major decorating motif, being seen as a springtime symbol of fertility. A common French practical joke is to try and pin a paper fish to another person’s back without them noticing. In England all April Fool’s Day pranks are to played before noon, pranks played after noon are thought to cause bad luck to fall upon the pranker. The exact opposite is true in Scotland, however, where April Fool’s Day lasts a full 48-hours with a second day, Taily Day, being devoted entirely to jokes involving people’s posteriors – so break out the “Kick-Me” signs and whoopee-cushions.

In addition to this the archetype of the Trickster is very old with the character of The Fool being one of its many variations. The Fool (and his variants the Joker, Jester, Buffoon, Comedian, Clown, etc…) is important for his ability to speak truth to power. In times past the Fool occupied the lowest position in the hierarchy of the court and yet was the only one with the authority to speak his mind to the King and other important government officials. Furthermore, because of his unique social position the Fool was also beyond reprise and could not be punished for his remarks – this is the reason why The Fool card is worth zero points but at the same time untouchable in the game of Tarot.

April Fool’s Day is a holiday which allows us all to “play the Fool” without the fear of reprisal. It is a day on which we can embrace our own cultural Tricksters as well as our inner ones. It is a day on which we can exercise our wit and have fun…

…No Fooling.


At Top: The Fool, the only card which is worth zero points but at the same untouchable in the game of Tarot.

Bottom: Artist and researcher Jeffery Vallance’s impressive “Trickster Family Tree,” with the Fool branch at its center.

Sources: Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company: The Origins of Modern Holidays (2006) by Gabriella Kalapos