A Dictionary of Angels by Gustav Davidson

A Dictionary of Angels Including the Fallen AngelsA Dictionary of Angels Including the Fallen Angels by Gustav Davidson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This dictionary attempts to list all the angels named in authoritative sources, along with what is known of their functions and relationships.

I got this book in December 1983, probably as a Christmas present (sorry, can’t remember from whom). I had started to acquire reference books, and I had certainly turned toward an interest in spiritual things, so this book would have been a natural addition to my library. But since my main interest was not in Christianity or Judaism, and I did not particularly believe in angels myself, I never gave it more than the odd glance over the years.

Things have changed. For one thing, my current literary opus in progress is about a world in which angels figured much more prominently in people’s imagination; and for this reason alone I have now read the book cover to cover. But another reason is that my view about the existence of angels has swung from skepticism to a definite inclination toward belief. Indeed, the only reason I don’t simply declare my belief in angels is due to lingering uncertainty as to what exactly that term points to. But if I simply stick with the definition that appears in my Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary—”a spiritual being superior to man in power and intelligence”—then I can simply come out and say: I believe.

Indeed, my own belief in angels seems to be greater than Gustav Davidson’s. In his intriguingly personal and fervent introduction, he has this to say about it:

A professed belief in angels would, inevitably, involve me in a belief in the supernatural, and that was the golden snare I did not wish to be caught in. Without committing myself religiously I could conceive of the possibility of there being, in dimensions and worlds other than our own, powers and intelligences outside our present apprehension, and in this sense angels are not to be ruled out as a part of reality—always remembering that we create what we believe. Indeed, I am prepared to say that if enough of us believe in angels, then angels exist.

This profession of belief—if that’s what it is—is surprisingly tepid, considering the passions he experienced in the researching and compiling of his dictionary (a 15-year task, according to The Wall Street Journal). He says he “was literally bedeviled by angels. They stalked and leaguered me, by night and day.” He goes on to say:

I remember one occasion—it was winter and getting dark—returning from a neighboring farm. I had cut across an unfamiliar field. Suddenly a nightmarish shape loomed up in front of me, barring my progress. After a paralyzing moment I managed to fight my way past the phantom. The next morning I could not be sure (no more than Jacob was, when he wrestled with his dark antagonist at Peniel) whether I had encountered a ghost, an angel, a demon, or God. There were other such moments and other such encounters, when I passed from terror to trance, from intimations of realms unguessed at to the uneasy conviction that, beyond the reach of our senses, beyond the arch of all our experience sacred and profane, there was only—to use an expression of Paul’s in 1 Timothy 4—”fable and endless genealogy.”

So Davidson’s project was a kind of obsessive quest, one that led him down many dark and traumatic byways. Starting with the Bible, which, while mentioning angels many times, names only two or three, he worked his way out, writing to theologians and expanding the range of sources he was prepared to investigate to include the pseudepigrapha, such as the books of Enoch, which led him on to “related hierological sources and texts: apocalyptic, cabalistic, Talmudic, gnostic, patristic, Merkabah (Jewish mystic), and ultimately to the grimoires, those black magic manuals.”

Where angels occurred in lists and hierarchies, he recorded and collated these. Often what seemed to be one and the same angel appears under one or more different names (in the case of the angel Metatron, under dozens or maybe hundreds of names). These Davidson carefully noted and kept track of.

The result of all these labors is this dictionary, and it’s a wonderful thing. It consists of a long alphabetical list, followed by 33 short appendixes and an extensive bibliography. The appendixes contain things like various lists of angels (the angel rulers of the seven heavens, the angelic governors of the twelve signs of the zodiac, the angels of the hours of the day and night), but also delightful things like the angelic script and “A Spell to Guarantee the Possession of the Loved One.”

By and large, not much is known about most angels, and so most entries are short—a couple of lines. But many entries are longer. Here’s a fairly typical one:

Crocell (Crokel, Procel, Pucel, Pocel)—once of the order of potestates (i.e., powers),now a great duke in Hell commanding 48 legions of infernal spirits. Crocell confided to Solomon that he expects to return to his former throne (in Heaven). Meantime he teaches geometry and the liberal arts.

Sounds appealingly human: a guy who’s made mistakes and now is getting by with a teaching job in hell.

Or how about this one:

Nilaihah (or Nith-haiah)—Ambelain lists Nilaihah as a poet-angel of the order of dominations. He is invoked by pronouncing any of the divine names along with the 1st verse of Psalm 9. He is in charge of occult sciences, delivers prophecies in rhyme, and exercises influence over wise men who love peace and solitude.

I’d like to think that I have a relationship with the angel Nilaihah—and maybe I do.

There is much, much else in here (there must be 4,000 entries in this book), including a few references to fictional angels in famous (or not so famous) literary works. Here and there the author points ironically to contradictions and absurdities in the various accounts, but he serves them all up as they are, mostly without overt editorial comment.

Even though I have evolved from a nonbeliever to a believer in angels, I’m not sure of the status of the various entities named in this dictionary. Are these actually existing beings? Do they really have these mostly Hebraic names? That’s a tough question; we’re dealing with a supernatural topic, and words, relatively natural things, turn back. Where did the writers of the various source texts get their information?

Maybe we’ll never know. But a great deal hangs on the question of the existence of angels: a universe with them is a much, much different place than a universe without them. In any case, what has been thought and written about angels as individuals has been brought together in this book by Gustav Davidson. It’s a treasure-trove of angelic lore, and a most appropriate addition to a decent reference library.

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