For almost 2,000 years a belief in angels was a crucial part of Christianity. In the fifth century, a Christian mystic named Dionysius the Areopagite claimed he learned the hierarchy of angelic beings through visions and meditation. This author outlined nine “choirs” of angels, with three sets grouped together as “spheres.”
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Johann Sebastian Bach - "Jesu, der du meine Seele" BWV 78
For almost 2,000 years a belief in angels was a crucial part of Christianity. Islam and Jewish scriptures mention angels as well, but it was in the fifth century that a Christian “mystic” named Dionysius the Areopagite claimed he learned the hierarchy of angelic beings through visions and meditation. This author outlined nine “choirs” of angels, with three sets grouped together as “spheres.” He’s also referred to as “Pseudo-Dinoysius,” because he made the bogus claim that he was an apostle of Paul mentioned in the Bible. Nonetheless, his celestial taxonomy has still been accepted by many theologians since the Middle Ages.
The first sphere of angels classifies the Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones. Seraphim are fiery serpent angels with four faces and six wings. They are the highest order of angels, representing love, light and fire, burning away sin to purify the spirit.
Their colleagues, the Cherubim are known as the keepers of God’s knowledge. So they’re like heavenly librarians, sometimes portrayed as sphinxes with wings and human faces. Later they were conflated with Cupid and depicted as chubby babies with wings. They guarded the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and foretold the coming of the Messiah in a vision to the prophet Ezekial.
The last choir from the first sphere of angels are called “Thrones.” These are some weird looking beings. They’re basically glowing, winged, wagon wheels covered in eyeballs. Thrones govern God’s justice and dispense his judgement. One legend says that most of the Thrones were among the fallen angels who were banished from Heaven and now they represent injustice and discord… in Hell!
The second sphere contains the angelic choirs known as Dominions, Virtues and Powers. Dominions are the middle management, receiving orders from the first sphere and doling out duties to angels lower in the family business. They keep universal order by empowering our authority figures. Dominions are also forces of nature, manifesting in Earth’s animals, plants and minerals.
Virtues, by contrast, are sparks of light that inspire us to study science. Sometimes they manifest as musicians, artists or even physicists. They elso emanate heavenly grace, and are considered to be the source of all miracles.
Last in the second sphere are the angels known as Powers. They’re brightly colored, hazy fumes, who are considered to be border patrol agents between Heaven and Earth. Powers are also warrior experts in theology, keeping demons from interfering on Earth. During an exorcism for instance, it is the Powers who are called upon to expel a possessing demon.
The last Sphere encompasses beings called Principalities, the Archangels and the “everyday” angels who interact with humankind. Principalities are rays of light who oversee the entire world, from religion to politics. They’re supposed to have a “princely” authority -- hence the name -- that allows them to lead humans and angels alike.
Most of us have heard of the Archangels. They’re the famous ones from stories, like Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. They’re also the frontline for dealing with humans, and as such look the most like us. They use this familiarity to pioneer exploration, philosophy and human rights on Earth.
Finally, there’s the plain ol’ “angels.” This is their proper name because they are the lowest ranking choir of the nine, the ones who directly interact with human beings. They purify, heal and lift us up as the “guardian angels” that have our backs daily.
So now that you know all 9 choirs and their pecking order, let me ask you… do you believe in angels? Let us know in the comments below. And to learn more legends about these celestial beings, check out our complete article at HowStuffWorks.com. Oh and one last thing! Make sure you click “like” and “subscribe” if you enjoyed this episode. It’s not like your guardian angel’s gonna do it for you.