Since finishing another of Cassandra Clare’s series, The Infernal Devices, I was inspired to write this article, talking about angels and demons, and how they are typically handled in fiction. Since both (and especially demons) show up in religious texts all over the world, there are many different interpretations of them, though most of the time they remain closely connected to one another. These variations make it possible for authors to include them in whichever way they deem to fit their story, which allows for a lot of creative freedom that many authors appreciate.
Angels as Purely Supernatural Beings
The most common depiction of angels is from popular religious texts, which describes them as the messengers of God. They were created separately from humans, often have wings, and depending on their class, they may resemble humans or not.
Their hierarchy, also, is cause for curiosity in me, because I know that most people know about angels and archangels and believe that the archangels are the highest of the order. I was surprised to find out that this is not true, and that in most texts, the hierarchy is as follows:
Highest orders: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones
Middle orders: Dominions, Virtues, Powers
Lowest orders: Principalities, Archangels, Angels
So, while in fact archangels are above regular angels, they are typically the second lowest in superiority. I was spurred to further investigate this after reading and watching Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman since they include a character known as Aziraphale, who is a “lowly” principality. I fell into a rabbit hole of researching and have since put it aside, but I definitely flagged a few articles for later perusal. The main thing in Good Omens is that Archangels (capital A) are the highest, whereas archangels (lowercase a) are the order above angels and below principalities—simple as that.
Furthermore, as purely supernatural beings, angels are often depicted as being cold and unfeeling, inhuman, as they do not often care for mortal beings since they live forever and are all powerful. Of course, as is the Hasidic saying: “The virtue of angels is that they cannot deteriorate; their flaw is that they cannot improve. Man’s flaw is that he can deteriorate; and his virtue is that he can improve.” [Quoted within Cassandra Clare’s series, The Infernal Devices] Angels are created in whole, and while they never decay, they also cannot learn and grow—physically, mentally, or emotionally. (This is not a very common interpretation in fiction, though.)
Angels as Prior Humans
Another common interpretation of angels is that they were once (pure-hearted) humans, and their souls have ascended to Heaven. Sometimes, they even become what’s called Guardian Angels, tasked with a mortal charge on Earth—often a loved one.
I haven’t seen as much of this interpretation in the literature I’ve read, but I like the concept, and would love to explore it more.
My thoughts on the matter see these guardian angels similarly to ghosts: they cannot directly interact with the world but can make subtle changes in order to protect or lead their charge. I like the idea of them having wings, though these wings wouldn’t be used to fly since they can usually float anyway. Rather, the wings are a representation of their status.
Demons as Purely Supernatural Beings
In Cassandra Clare’s books, the demons are extra-dimensional beings. Some were fallen angels, others were simply beings coming from other dimensions, but they were in no way human (with some exceptions, i.e., Demon Pox disease).
As they were never human, they share the same flaw as angels in that they do not experience human emotion nor do they care about mortal creations—as they are often, too, immortal. There are always exceptions to this rule, though the main consensus is that demons are dark creatures who kill humans, embodiments of evil, and are readily available to authors as beings incapable of kindness: the perfect villains. They also often come in hoards, which is great for final fights that are meant to be huge and messy.
In Good Omens, all demons are fallen angels, and while most just view humans as pieces of their jobs (tempting humans to sin) or as mindless creatures living upon Earth (which was created to be destroyed), the exception comes in the form of Crowley, who, after living on Earth for 6000 years, has actually come to like humans and Earthly pleasures such as food, music, and liquor. This also makes him an exception to the guideline of angels and demons being incapable of change and growth, though not so much as to not be consistent with the slow growth of immortals.
Good Omens is actually quite an interesting interpretation, as Crowley, the demon, demonstrates many virtues, and Aziraphale, his angel companion, demonstrates what are considered sins. These acts prove that these two are at least somewhat different to the rest of their kind. They’re accused of “going native” by the angels and demons of Heaven and Hell, giving us the general consensus that they are considered “too human” to be angel and demon anymore. I think it’s quite a wonderful display of the notion that “there is good and evil inside all of us.”
Demons as Prior Humans
Most prevalent in Japanese culture (from what I know) an oni is a demon-like creature that was once a human soul sent to Hell for punishment. While I’m not sure of the specific relevance of this within Japanese culture (and I will not speculate) I know that the interpretation of demons as once-humans fits very well thematically within the “human monster” category.
Whereas humans acting in horrid fashion has been done, there is something about humans turning into (often flesh-eating) demons that aids in the othering of them. Thus, self-righteousness and hatred can more easily bloom, and thus making kindness towards these creatures even more powerful.
I think they’re similar to vampires in this way. Vampires are most often beings that were human once, and were turned due to some supernatural disease, changing the composition of their bodies and thus requiring them to intake a different source of energy (be it human blood or otherwise—see ‘Emotion-draining Vampire’).
Demons who were once human proves that at any time, a human can fall from grace. They can become a monster, and it’s not always their fault. There are, of course, still people who were born bad, psychopaths and the like, but most of the time, people act out because they are broken. A really good example of this concept actually comes from an anime series, Kimetsu no Yaiba: Demon Slayer, where the main character stands out from all other demon slayers because of his innate kindness, even towards the demons that he must kill. Though he has grown out of his softness to become decisive and without hesitation, he continues to view demons not as monsters, but as a tragedy. Because, as the series shows, most of the demon slayers are people who were hurt by demons, and most of the demons were people who were hurt by humans. Quite a sad cycle once you think about it.
Writing Your Own Angels and Demons
So, whichever interpretation you use (if you want to choose one or the other, or mix them to make up your own) there is immense creative freedom in these beings, as well as vast stores of religious and mythological backstory that you can dip into for inspiration.