Celestial Hierarchies - Chapter XV
What is the meaning of the formal semblances of the Angelic Powers?
What of the fiery and the anthropomorphic? What is meant by their yes, nostrils, ears, mouths, touch, eyelids eyebrows their manhood, teeth, shoulders, arms, hands, heart, breasts, backs, feet and wings? What are the nakedness and the vesture, the shining raiment, the priestly insignia, the girdles? What are the rods, spears, battle-axes and measuring-lines? What are the winds and clouds? What is meant by their brass and electron? What are the choirs and the clapping of bands? What are the colors of the various jewels? What is the form of the lion, the ox, the eagle? What are the horses, and their various colors? What are the rivers, the chariots, the wheels? What is the so-called joy of the Angels?
Fire: But we… must ask... why the Word of God prefers the sacred symbol of fire almost above all others. For you will find that it is used not only under the figure of fiery wheels, but also of living creatures of fire, and of men flashing like lightning who heap live coals of fire about the Heavenly Beings, and of irresistibly rushing rivers of flame. Also it says that the Thrones are of fire, and it shows from their name that the most exalted Seraphim themselves are burning with fire, assigning to them the qualities and forces of fire; and throughout, above and below, it gives the highest preference to the symbol of fire.
...the holy prophets frequently liken that which is super-essential and formless to fire... For the sensible fire is in some manner in everything, and pervades all things without mingling with them, and is exempt from all things and, although wholly bright, yet lies essentially hidden and unknown when not in contact with any substance on which it can exert its own energy. It is irresistible and invisible, having absolute rule over all things, bringing under its own power all things in which it subsists. It has transforming power, and imparts itself in some measure to everything near it. It revives all things by its revivifying heat, and illuminates them all with its resplendent brightness. It is insuperable and pure, possessing separative power, but itself changeless, uplifting, penetrative, high, not held back by servile baseness, ever-moving, self-moved, moving other things. It comprehends, but is incomprehensible, unindigent, mysteriously increasing itself and showing forth its majesty according to the nature of the substance receiving it, powerful, mighty, invisibly present to all things. When not thought of, it seems not to exist, but suddenly enkindles its light in the way proper to its nature by friction, as though seeking to do so, uncontrollably flying upwards without diminishing its all-blessed self- giving.
But they also invest them with the likeness of men because of the human powers of intellect and aspiration, the straight and erect form, the inherent power of guiding and governing; and because man, although least in sense-perception in comparison with the powers of irrational creatures, yet rules over them all through the pre-eminence of his intellect, the lordship of his rational knowledge, and the intrinsic freedom of his unconquerable soul.
Thus it is possible, I think, to find in the various parts of our bodies fitting symbols of the Celestial Powers by taking, for example, the power of sight as an image of their most transparent upliftment to the Divine Light, their single, free, unresisting reception of that Light, their responsiveness and pure receptivity without passion to the divine illuminations.
The human power of distinguishing odors signifies the power to receive the inconceivable and most fragrant divine influences, as far as is attainable, and the definite recognition and utter rejection of others not of this kind.
The power of the ears denotes participation in and conscious gnostic receptivity to divine inspiration. The power of taste represents an abundance of spiritual food and the reception of divine streams of nourishment.
The power of touch symbolizes the power of distinguishing that which is of advantage from that which is harmful. The eyelids and eyebrows represent the guarding of intellectual conceptions in divine contemplations. The images of youth and vigor denote their perpetual bloom and vigor of life. The teeth symbolize the distribution of the sustaining perfection supplied to them; for each Intellectual Order, receiving a unitive conception from the Divine, with Providential Power divides and multiplies it for the proportionate upliftment of the one below.
The shoulders, arms and hands signify the powers of activity and accomplishment. The heart is a symbol of that Divine Life which imparts its own life-giving power beneficently to those within its care. We may add that the chest, being placed over the heart, represents the indomitable power which guards its own life-giving dispensations. The back denotes that strength which holds together all the life-giving powers. The feet signify the power of motion, swiftness and skilfulness in the ever-moving advance towards divine things. Wherefore the prophet described the feet of the Celestial Intelligences as being covered by their wings which symbolize a swift soaring to the heights, and the heavenly progression up the steep, and the exemption from everything earthly through the upward ascent. The lightness of the wings shows that they are altogether heavenly and unsullied and untrammelled in their upliftment on high. The naked and unshod feet symbolize their free, easy and unrestrained power, pure from all externality, and assimilated, as far as is attainable, to the Divine Simplicity.
But since that single and manifold Wisdom both clothes the naked and assigns to them implements to carry, let us unfold, as far as we can, these sacred garments and instruments of the Celestial Intelligences.
Their shining and fiery vestures symbolizes, I think, the Divine Likeness under the image of fire, and their own enlightening power, because they abide in Heaven, where Light is: and also it shows that they impart wholly intelligible Light, and are enlightened intellectually.
Their priestly garment symbolizes their authority as leaders to the mystical and divine contemplations, and the consecration of their whole life. The girdles denote their guardianship of their own generative power, and their state of unification, for they are wholly drawn together towards their essential unity surrounding it in a perfect circle with changeless sameness.
The rods are tokens of the authority of sovereignty and leadership and the true directing of all things. The spears and battle-axes represent the power of dividing incongruous things and the keen, vigorous and effectual power of discrimination. The measuring-lines and carpenters' tools are figures of the power of foundation and erection and perfection, and whatever else belongs to the providential guidance and upliftment of the lower orders. Sometimes, however, the implements assigned to the holy Angels symbolize the divine judgment upon ourselves; for some are figures of His corrective discipline of avenging justice, others of freedom from difficulties, or the perfection of disciplinary instruction, or the restoration to our first happiness, while others signify the addition of other gifts, great or small, sensible or intelligible; and no acute mind would have any difficulty at all in finding the correspondence between the visible symbols and the invisible realities.
The name winds given to the Angels denotes their swift operations, and their almost immediate impenetration of everything, and a transmitting power in all realms, reaching from the above to the below, and from the depths to the heights, and the power which uplifts the second natures to the height above them, and moves the first to a participative and providential upliftment of the lower.
But perhaps it may be said that the name winds, applied to the aerial spirit, signifies the Divine Likeness in the Celestial Beings. For the figure is a true image and type of Divine Energy… corresponding to the moving and generative forces of Nature, and a swift and irresistible advance, and the mystery, unknown and unseen by us, of the motive principles and ends. For He says: 'Thou knowest not whence it cometh nor whither it goeth.' The Scriptures also depict them as a cloud, showing by this that these holy Intelligences are filled in a super-mundane manner with the hidden Light, receiving that first revelation without undue glorying, and transmitting it with abundant brightness to the lower Orders as a secondary, proportionate illumination; and further, that they, possess generating, life-giving, increasing and perfecting powers by reason of their intelligible outpourings, as of showers quickening the receptive womb of earth by fertilizing rains for life-giving travail.
The Scriptures also liken the Celestial Beings to brass and electron, and many colored jewels. Now electron, [an alloy of silver and gold] resembling both gold and silver, is like gold in its resistance to corruption unspent and undiminished, and its undimmed brightness; and is like silver in its shining and heavenly luster. But the symbolism of brass (in line with the explanations already given) must resemble that of fire or gold. Again, of the many colored varieties of stones, the white represents that which is luminous, and the red corresponds to fire, yellow to gold, and green to youth and vigor. Thus corresponding to each figure you will find a mystical interpretation which relates these symbolical images to the things above.
But now, since this has been sufficiently explained, I think, according to our ability, let us pass on to the sacred unfoldment of the symbolism which depicts the Celestial Intelligences in the likeness of beasts.
The form of a lion must be regarded as typifying their power of sovereignty, strength and indomitableness, and the ardent striving upward with all their powers to that most hidden, ineffable, mysterious Divine Unity and the covering of the intellectual foot-prints, (7) and the mystically modest concealment of the way leading to divine union through the Divine Illumination.
The figure of the ox signifies strength and vigor and the opening of the intellectual furrows to the reception of fertilizing showers; and the horns signify the guarding and unconquerable power. The form of the eagle signifies royalty and high soaring and swiftness of flight and the eager seizing of that food which renews their strength, discretion, and ease of movement and skill, with strong intensity of vision which has the power to gaze unhindered, directly and unflinchingly upon the full and brilliant splendor of the brightness of the Divine Sun.
The symbolism of horses represents obedience and tractability. The shining white horses denote clear truth and that which is perfectly assimilated to the Divine Light the dark, that which is hidden and secret; the red, fiery might and energy; the dappled black and white, that power which traverses all and connects the extremes, providentially and with perfecting power uniting the highest to the lowest and the lowest to the highest…
We must now consider the representations of the Celestial Beings in connection with rivers and wheels and chariots. The rivers of flame denote those Divine Channels which fill them with super-abundant and eternally out- pouring streams and nourish their life-giving prolificness.
The chariots symbolize the conjoined fellowship of those of the same Order; the winged wheels, ever moving onward, never turning back or going aside, denote the power of their progressive energy on a straight and direct path in which all their intellectual revolutions are super-mundanely guided upon that straight and unswerving course.
The figure of the spiritual wheels can also have another mystical meaning, for the prophet says that the name Gel, Gel is given to them, which in the Hebrew tongue means revolutions and revelations. For the divine fiery wheels truly revolve, by reason of their ceaseless movement, around the highest Good Itself, and they are granted revelations because to them the holy hidden Mysteries are made clear, and the earthly are lifted up, and the high illuminations are brought down and imparted to the lowest orders.
The last thing for us to explain is the joy attributed to the Celestial Orders. For they are utterly above and beyond our passionate pleasures. But they are said to rejoice with God over the finding of that which was lost, as well befits the Godlike mildness of their nature, and as befits their beneficent and boundless joy at the providential salvation of those who are turned to God, and that ineffable bliss in which holy men have often participated when the illuminations of God have divinely visited them.
Let this be a sufficient account of those sacred symbols which, although it falls far short of their full interpretation, will yet, I think, contribute to prevent us from lingering basely in the figures and forms themselves.
If you should point out that we have not mentioned in order all the Angelic powers, activities and images described in the scriptures, we should answer truly that we do not possess the super-mundane knowledge of some, or rather that we have need of another to guide us to the light and instruct us; but others have been passed over for the sake of proportion, as being parallel to what has been given; and the hidden Mysteries which lie beyond our view we have honored by silence.