You probably think you know what angels look like. After all, you see one every time you look in the mirror, right? Even if you aren't the kind of dead-eyed psycho who can't resist doing finger-guns into every reflective surface, you probably figure you have a pretty good idea. White robes, glowing head frisbees, duck wings, a giant blinking Christmas tree shoved up their ass. Yes, that's angels all right. Everyone knows that.
Except that image is based more on various artistic traditions than any actual religious text. The Bible itself often describes angels more like surreal cosmic abominations from the nightmare dimension. The modern byword for bizarre horror is probably HP Lovecraft, but the scariest ideas he could come up with were fish people and a type of purple that hates you. To get anything close to biblical angels you'd have to kidnap a bunch of failing architecture students, force-feed them a wheelbarrow full of mescaline, and challenge them to redesign the hedgehog. But we're not allowed to talk about that until the judge's gag order expires, so we'll just have to stick to the religious stuff for now.
In fairness, let's note that human-shaped angels do appear quite frequently in the Bible. But that's when angels are down on Earth, trying to blend in. They're apparently not that great at it, at least in part because they seem unable to resist making themselves incredibly hot, but they're clearly making an effort. And even in that form, angels tend to be terrifying, frequently showing up as an instrument of God's Old Testament anger problem. At one point, John the Baptist's dad makes the mistake of questioning Gabriel, so the angel casually takes away his ability to talk for several months (there was a reason Gabriel had to tell the shepherds to stop screaming when he showed up to announce Jesus was being born). But when the Bible starts describing angels at home in heaven, then things get really weird.
For starters, let's take cherubs, who you may know as the chubby winged angel-babies fluttering around the edges of fancy paintings. But you can't listen to Renaissance artists, otherwise we'd currently be fully nude, lounging on satin, and muscled like a water buffalo, as opposed to merely two of the three. A bunch of mischievous bird-winged smugrats couldn't be further from the original cherubs, who are the most commonly mentioned type of angel in the Bible. For example, cherubs are the angels assigned to guard the Garden of Eden, which seems like it would be a pretty big job for even the most airborne of toddlers.
But the cherubim in the Bible are a little different: "In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf...[Each] had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. They each had two wings spreading out upward...and each had two other wings covering its body...The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it." So they looked just like people! Except they were quadrilateral, had cloven feet, a bunch of animal faces, and were also on fire. No wonder we never made it back into Eden.
And it gets weirder. That description of cherubs comes from the Book Of Ezekiel, which goes on to mention that each cherub was accompanied by borderline indescribable half-machine, half creature things, called "wheels," "whirling wheels" or "the wheelwork" (depending on the translation). These were pairs of interlocking crystalline wheels, each of enormous size and completely covered in eyes. Which sound less like a heavenly vision and more like something Hellboy would battle to keep imprisoned. Since they both already faced in four directions, neither the cherubs or the eye-wheels ever turned, but simply slid smoothly through the sky. Sadly, those nerd Renaissance artists were so in love with the Greeks and Romans that they just ripped off Cupid for their "cherubs" instead of throwing a moonwalking crystal eye monster or four-headed fire griffin in the background of every painting.
It gets weirder. The seraphim are flying serpents who hover above God's throne singing about how great he is. They each have six wings, but sensibly only use two to fly, modestly deploying the other four to cover their feet and faces. Yes, the snake-angels have feet. Yes, that does sound a lot like dragons. Later texts say that the cherubim, seraphim and wheels ("ophanim" if you want to be fancy) surround and constantly watch the throne of God, never sleeping. Others say they constantly chant praise as well. How does a wheel covered in eyes chant praise?
Well, heaven is apparently a really weird place.
In the ancient Book Of Enoch, the prophet is granted a vision of heaven, which seems like it involved a lot of panicked screaming (his initial impression "No trace of delight or of life was there. Terror overwhelmed me, and a fearful shaking seized me"). The angels eventually assume human form and he calms down enough for a guided tour of the place, most of which seems to be on fire, but in a good way. At one point, he comes across a bunch of stars suspended in a void and the angels are like "Oh, yeah, that's our star prison. That's where we keep the stars who were bad." The later Second Book Of Enoch mentions angelic creatures called Chalkydri, who are rainbow-colored flying lions with crocodile heads who live in the sun. Because at some point God stopped trying to make angels and just started coming up with villains for the Thundercats to fight.
In fact, ancient writers seem to have become locked in a bit of an arms race over how weird they could make their angels. The Apocalypse Of Zephaniah describes angels with leopard faces, boar tusks, long hair and eyes "mixed with blood," who could easily alternate their angelic duties with playing bass in Gwar. In the Testament Of Abraham, Abe bumps into the angel of death, who sports 14 faces, making those lame cherubs look like mere Batman villains. To make things even better, each of the angel's 14 faces is so terrifying that 7,000 people drop dead just from standing nearby. Unfortunately, the Abraham author wasn't nearly as creative as the Zephaniah guy, so about half the faces are just him listing different kinds of snakes, which obviously pales next to the sun crocodiles.
Now, obviously you'll be reading all these descriptions of multi-headed unblinking abominations and wondering: can they get horny? The answer is unequivocally yes -- they can get quite literally apocalyptically horny. Genesis cryptically mentions that the "the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose." The full explanation can be found in the original Book Of Enoch, which is semi-apocryphal (it's quoted in the Bible, but not actually included in most versions). According to Enoch, a group of angels called the Watchers got so riled up watching human women (not creepy at all) that they rebelled against God and snuck down to Earth to get a little action. The result? A cannibal apocalypse, obviously.
Once they hit Earth, the Watchers "let out their private parts like horses" (damn son!) and began plowing left and right. They also taught humans all sorts of forbidden knowledge, like how to make weapons and eyeliner, which are apparently equally bad. But remember that these weren't your friendly Christmas angels, so their kids with human women were a little unusual. Specifically they were over 1,000 meters tall and bloodthirsty beyond all reason. Feel free to take three or four days to imagine that birthing process. Anyway, the giants quickly seized control of Earth, forcing the humans to produce food for them, which would be kind of like if we bullied ants into doing all our farming. Unfortunately, the population of giants quickly spiraled out of control and the food ran out. So they started eating people, then quickly graduated to eating each other.
God was apparently off on a business trip during all this, but eventually the archangels happened to glance over at Earth, did some kind of heavenly double-take, and ran off to tattle about the giant cannibal bloodbath currently overtaking the entire planet (you leave this place alone for a couple of generations and look what happens). Fortunately, God had the solution: tell Noah to start building a floating elephant hutch, because it was five minutes to flood time, baby. Meanwhile the Watchers were imprisoned and forced to watch as their large sons either killed each other or drowned. Frankly, their forbidden knowledge seminars should have focused less on makeup and more on snorkels, but hindsight is 20/20 we guess.
The Watchers and their planet-dooming horse dongs remain locked away, but going by their monstrous kids, they weren't exactly shiny supermodels in white robes. Combined with all the other references, and it's clear that angels are less the heavenly choirboys of popular fiction and more unspeakably alien aberrations, more animal than man. Horrifying reptilian gargoyles with bizarre geometry and an uncomfortable number of eyes. Beings so wrong that the mere sight of them could almost drive a man to madness. So just remember what we said at the start of this: You know exactly what an angel looks like. You see one every time you look in the mirror.
Top image: Zwiebackesser/Shutterstock