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.


Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading your blog, and I had a few things I thought I'd add :)

A minor quibble: you say that Jewish myths go back 6000 years; I'd say the writings from the Old Testament are a lot later than that. Even if you assumed that Moses was the author of the first few books, they'd only be 3200 years old; chances are they're closer to 2500 years old. Some of the ideas in them might be older, of course.

In Milton's Paradise Lost I think angels are all described as theoretically male, but capable of commingling their ethereal bodies in a way that's analogous to sex. CS Lewis' Perelandra/Voyage to Venus is a sort of sci-fi retelling of of Paradise Lost, and he saw gender as a fundamental principle of creation, and represents the Angels of Mars and Venus as male and female respectively, although without any genitalia (or breasts, in Venus' case). I don't know how much tradition he drew upon, but he discusses a lot of the Medieval ideas of angelology in his commentary on Paradise Lost and was a something of a theologian himself, so his depiction may not be his own creation.

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