Alexander: The Making of a Myth

Alexander the Great built an empire that stretched across the world and rode across the sky on a flying chariot, or so the legends say. This winter, the British Library is exploring the myths surrounding one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. With objects and books from 25 countries, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth examines the narratives that made Alexander a universal icon.

Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BC and died aged 32, by which time he had built a vast empire stretching from Greece to India. Legends about the great leader only began circulating after his death, making it difficult to extract the truth from the fiction. Even Alexander’s name does not remain constant in the legends and stories. In some cultures, he is called Iskandar or Sikandar, from which the anglicised “Alexander” developed. There are also many discrepancies in his appearance. A bust dating from the first or second century BC depicts Alexander as a beautiful youth. In contrast, an illustration in Johann Hartlieb’s Das Alexanderbuch (The Alexander Book, c.1444) shows Alexander with two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Plutarch, a Greek historian, compiled one of the earliest biographies of Alexander around AD 100. Originally written in Greek, copies were translated into Latin and spread across Europe. From these, writers developed the “Alexander Romance”, which contains a largely fictional account of Alexander’s life. The text includes invented letters from Alexander to his teacher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), describing the fantastical beasts he met in the East.

The earliest surviving illustrated copy of the Alexander Romance dates to the 13th century. It was written an estimated 1,800 years ago in Greek before being translated into many languages, including Coptic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac and Hebrew. By the publication of the first illustrated version, the lines between fact and fiction had long disappeared. One artwork in the Historia Alexandri Magni kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows Alexander entering Rome on horseback, with bowing senators welcoming him on one side and the public waving palm leaves on the other. Whilst it is plausible that Alexander received a hero’s welcome, the palm leaves suggest the writer or illustrator wanted to elevate Alexander to the same level as Jesus Christ, who received a similar welcome in Jerusalem.

Alexander’s parentage differs between stories. Today, the consensus is Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon (382-336 BC), the 18th king of Macedonia. The Alexander Romance claims the serpent-magician Nectanebo tricked Alexander’s mother, Olympias (375-316 BC), a Greek princess, into bed by disguising himself as the dragon-like Egyptian god Amun. Nectanebo II ruled as the pharaoh of Egypt from 358 BC until his deposition in 340 BC. Yet, the Persians regarded Alexander as the half-brother of King Darius III (380-330), making Alexander the legitimate heir of the Achaemenid Empire. With at least three possible fathers, different cultures believed Alexander was the rightful heir to either Macedonia, Egypt or Persia. Incidentally, Alexander conquered all three places during his short life.

Another half-truth, half-fiction legend about Alexander involves his horse, Bucephalus. Many artworks depict Alexander riding into battle on a fierce war-horse, which not only symbolises Alexander’s victories but also his physical feats and training to become a military commander. When Alexander first met Bucephalus, named after a type of branding mark anciently used on horses, the horse was a savage, man-eating beast. According to the Alexander Romance, King Philip locked the animal in a cage, where 15-year-old Alexander later discovered him. Immediately, the horse bowed before Alexander, acknowledging him as his master.

An alternative story claims that whoever rode Bucephalus would be king of the world. Many had tried and failed to tame the beast before Alexander, who realised the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Turning Bucephalus towards the sun so that his shadow fell behind him, Alexander stroked Bucephalus soothingly before jumping onto his back. The tale suggests Bucephalus immediately became tame, but regardless of whether it was instant or took time, Alexander rode Bucephalus during all his military campaigns, including in Greece, the Middle East, and India.

It is not certain who tutored Alexander in the art of warfare and military leadership, but between the ages of 13 and 16, Alexander received an academic education from Aristotle. Philip considered other scholars, such as Isocrates (436-338 BC) and Speusippus (408-339 BC), before settling on Aristotle. For a classroom, Philip provided Aristotle with the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza, in ancient Macedonia, and agreed to rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira in place of payment. During Philip’s earlier campaigns, he raised Stageira to the ground and enslaved or exiled the inhabitants.

Alexander spent most of his school days in Mieza with other children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy (367-282 BC), Hephaistion (356-324 BC), and Cassander (355-297 BC). Known collectively as the “Companions”, these friends became Alexander’s future generals. Hephaistion was “by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets.” Several writers refer to Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship in a similar vein to the mythical Achilles and Patroclus, suggesting they may have been more than friends. Ptolemy became pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt and Cassander the king of Macedonia following Alexander’s death.

Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, religion, logic, and art. Alexander developed a passion for the works of the Greek poet Homer, particularly the Iliad, which references the aforementioned relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander also learned quotes from memory, such as lines written by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BC). As for politics, Alexander picked up most of his knowledge by talking to Persian exiles at his father’s court. Philip granted Persian nobles protection after they opposed his enemy, Artaxerxes III (359-338 BC).

Philip of Macedon passed away in 336 BC, making his son the new king of Macedonia. Within ten years, Alexander expanded his empire and became the inspiration for many rulers over dozens of centuries. Alexander’s first major success was the defeat of the Persians at the battles of Granicus and Issus in present-day Turkey, followed by conquering Egypt and finally overthrowing King Darius in 331 BC. In Egypt, Alexander left his greatest legacy: the foundation of the city of Alexandria. This was the largest of the twenty-or-so cities named after Alexander throughout his empire. Stories also claim he erected the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

When Alexander first set his sights on Egypt, it was under the rule of Persia. Although King Darius controlled all of Persia, he delegated areas to his governors. Alexander defeated the Egyptian governor, was greeted as a liberator and was crowned the new Pharoah. Naturally, Alexander’s actions riled Darius, who met Alexander in battle at Gaugamela in modern-day Iraq in 331 BC. This was the final meeting between Alexander and the Persian armies. Realising he was outnumbered, Darius fled from the scene, only to be injured by two of his men. According to legend, when Alexander caught up with Darius, he ordered the two men’s execution and comforted the mortally wounded king. During his final moments, Darius allegedly asked Alexander to look after his family, marry his daughter Roxana and preserve the Zoroastrian religion.

Despite Alexander’s supposed distress over Darius’ death, he continued to capture the remaining parts of the Persian empire. In 326, Alexander reached Punjab, India, where he defeated King Porus. Some legends claim Alexander spared Porus’ life, who then made Alexander a subordinate ruler as a way of thanks. Other stories allege that Alexander killed Darius and continued his journey to China, although some scholars do not believe Alexander travelled so far east.

Regardless of the outcome, all the stories about Alexander’s army in India involve facing colossal war elephants. A coin dating to 323 BC depicts King Porus sitting on the giant animal while Alexander, riding Bucephalus, attacks him from behind with a spear. Different versions of the story propose a variety of ways Alexander overcame the army of elephants. The Shahnameh (15th century), the longest poem ever written by a single author, suggests Alexander ordered his blacksmiths to build 1,000 oil-filled iron horses, which he set alight in front of the advancing Indian army. Terrified of the flames, the elephants fled, taking their riders with them. Das Alexanderbuch contains an alternative account in which Alexander used red-hot pokers to scare the elephants.

Alexander did not spend all his time fighting but also focused on spreading peace throughout his conquered lands. While in India, he met the Brahmans, a group of priests who believed “greed is the root of all evil and we will leave this world naked and without our possessions.” In many illustrated versions of Alexander’s history, the Brahmans are naked, while Alexander and his men dress in ornate clothing. Fictitious dialogues between Alexander and Dindimus, the king of the Brahmans, suggest the king convinced Alexander there was no point waging war when the Brahmans had no possessions to lose.

In China, if indeed Alexander reached the country, he defeated two champions, Tengu and Kanifu, the latter of whom turned out to be a woman. On his way home from China, Alexander received news that the Russians had captured Queen Nushabah of Persia, so he immediately changed his route to liberate the queen and defeat her captors. After seven violent battles, Alexander defeated the Russian leader and returned Queen Nushabah to her native country.

With so many countries now part of his empire, Alexander became associated with many cultures and religions. The Egyptians acknowledged Alexander as the son of the Egyptian god Amun or the former Pharoah Nectanebo. He also appeared in Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts. Despite promising King Darius to preserve the Zoroastrian religion, many Persians accused Alexander of destroying the religion. According to the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), Alexander tore down the temples, burned the sacred texts and introduced Islam to Persia.

In the Babylon Talmud, a primary source of Jewish law, Alexander bowed down before the High Priest, Simon the Righteous. Also known as Simeon the Just, the priest went to Antipatris to meet Alexander as he marched through the Land of Israel in 332 BC. Alexander’s men criticised their leader for bowing to the priest, but he assured them he had received instruction to do so in a dream. Alexander went on to demand a statue of himself placed in the Temple, but Simon explained this was impossible. Instead, the High Priest promised that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander.

According to the Sefer Alexandros Mokdon (Tales of Alexander the Macedonian), Alexander attempted to get into the Garden of Eden. After being told “No heathen or uncircumcised male may enter,” Alexander was secretly circumcised. This claim demonstrates Alexander wanted to conform to Jewish practices, or at least this is what the Jews chose to believe. Yet, in the 18th-century Ethiopian Zena Eskender (The Story of Alexander), the writer claims God chose Alexander to be a prophet. “For I have set thee to be a prophet unto Me by reason of the purity of thy body, and through thy prayers which have come unto Me.”

In the Qur’an, Alexander is associated with the story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn, whose name means “two horns”. The name coincides with the idea that Alexander had two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw. According to the story, Dhu’l-Qarnayn (or Alexander) travelled to the end of the world, where he built a wall to separate the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog from the righteous. Gog and Magog also appear in the Hebrew Bible, where they are viewed as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah.

Regardless of Alexander’s religious status, he believed in polygamy and had several wives, most notably Roxana and Stateira. Scholars also question Alexander’s sexuality, referencing his close relationship with his companion Hephaistion and a slave called Bagoas. During his campaigns, Alexander met many powerful women, including Queen Nushabah, who he rescued from the Russians, and Kanifu, who he defeated in China.

Alexander first met Roxana after the death of her father, Darius. Their marriage was celebrated across the empire, and some accounts claim Alexander was captivated by his new wife’s beauty. Soon after, Alexander married another of Darius’ children, Stateira. Roxana, besieged by jealousy, never got on with Stateira and killed her after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Another story reveals Alexander received the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India) as a tribute to avoid war. The author writes that Alexander married her “according to the Christian religion”.

Over time, Alexander’s legendary feats have become more mythical with the insertion of fantastic beasts, such as griffins and dragons. The Alexander Romance claims four griffins carried Alexander and his chariot across the sky, and a Persian poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) describes Alexander’s adventure to the bottom of the ocean in a glass diving bell. To make this all the more unbelievable, a French version of the Alexander Romance reveals he travelled with a cockerel to tell him the time and a cat to purify the air. While submerged in the water, Alexander came face-to-face with monstrous creatures, including giants with sword-like horns. Various stories also tell of Alexander’s victory over a dragon, which he fed several poisonous cows.

Alexander desired to become immortal, but many oracles foretold his death, such as the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which told him he would die soon and never see his mother again. While in Punjab, the risk of a mutiny urged Alexander to return to Babylon. On his arrival, the still-birth of a half-human, half-creature was taken as an omen of Alexander’s pending death. Soon after, Alexander fell terminally ill and passed away in June 323 BC, aged 32. No one knows the cause of Alexander’s death, although some suggest typhoid fever.

Different cultures and religions continue to debate over Alexander’s final resting place. According to Persian tradition, his funeral procession was conducted as per Alexander’s wishes, with one arm hanging loose to show that he went to the grave empty-handed. Other stories talk of an elaborate carriage that carried Alexander from Babylon to Egypt. Historians believe the original plan was to take the body to Macedonia, but for reasons unknown, the funeral procession took a different route. The Persians wanted Alexander’s body to be interred in Iran, but the Greeks insisted he should be brought to them. Finally, an oracle allegedly decided, “His remains belong in Alexandria.”

The Bibliotheca historical, written by the historian Diodorus Siculus between 60 and 30 BC, describes Alexander’s funeral carriage as having a golden roof, a net curtain, statues, and four iron wheels. Sixty-four mules pulled the carriage while roadmenders, mechanics and soldiers accompanied the procession to ensure it all went smoothly. Artists have used this description as a base for paintings, such as André Bauchant’s (1873-1958) Les Funérailles d’Alexandre le-Grand (1940), which depicted Alexander’s companion, Ptolemy, as a pharaoh at the head of the procession.

The whereabouts of Alexander’s body remains a mystery, despite many quests to find it. Historians and authors have professed many theories, including the mistaking of Alexander’s bones for St Mark, but there is no concrete proof. Writings about Alexander’s death and burial are largely fiction, as is the majority of his life. Yet, Alexander has been and remains an inspiration for many leaders, from Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) to Henry VIII of England (1419-1547) and Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).

For someone who conquered so much land during a short period, there is relatively little information about Alexander the Great. It is also debatable whether he deserved the epithet “the Great”. In capturing so many countries and defeating other rulers, he left a lot of destruction in his wake. In dying so young, Alexander did not have time to rebuild ruined cities and place his mark upon the world in the form of architecture. Nor did he dramatically change the various cultures and religions in his Empire, except for mythical stories, the majority of which appeared long after his death.

The British Library tells the story (or stories) of Alexander the Great through a range of media. Books and illustrations from the past centuries reveal the different cultural beliefs and varying histories of the young emperor. Videos and audio, such as George Frideric Handel‘s (1685-1759) opera Alessandro, demonstrate the impact of the legendary man up to the present day. For those who know very little about Alexander, the exhibition provides a wealth of information, but visitors may come away with more questions than answers.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until Sunday 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £19, although over 60s can visit for £9.50 of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (excluding holidays).


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Feminine Power

Throughout history, women have been sidelined in favour of men, who were believed to be the stronger, smarter sex. In the last couple of centuries, women have protested these traditional views of feminity and proved they can equal men in many areas of life. The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique (b. 1971) believes, “We need more feminine energy in the world today. We need more women in positions of power and influence.” Whilst this is the aim of many feminists in the 21st century, ancient history reveals that women once held such power and influence, particularly in religion. Until 25th September 2022, the British Museum aims to show visitors the significant role that goddesses, witches, female spirits and so forth have shaped the world today. With support from Siddique and other high-profile collaborators, the museum’s exhibition Feminine Power links the past with the present to prove that women have never been the weak, powerless individuals they were forced into being.

Pele

In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes. According to legend, she was one of six daughters born to Haumea, the Earth goddess and Kane Milohai, the creator of the heavens. Usually depicted with flaming red hair, Pele was known for her fiery temper, which resulted in her expulsion from her home island of Tahiti. According to one story, she had also seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘i, who chased Pele to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Angry about her fate, Pele made her home in the volcanoes, where her unpredictable and volatile temper continues to cause rivers of lava to devour the island.

Today, Hawaiians believe Pele resides in Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that has been erupting since September 2021. Residents frequently honour the goddess with offerings and dancing in an attempt to appease her and stop the eruptions. Many believe that speaking her name out loud is enough to anger Pele, as is eating the wild berries that grow near the mountain.

Sedna

According to Inuit mythology, Sedna is the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Several versions of the myth exist, recording Sedna as the Mother of the Sea and the ruler of the underworld. In one legend, Sedna grew so hungry that she attacked her father, the creator-god Anguta. Angry with her behaviour, Anguta banished Sedna to the underworld. In another version, Sedna disapproves of her father’s choice of men for her to marry, so marries a dog instead. After angering her father, she suffers the same fate and lives for the rest of eternity in the underworld.

There are several other versions of the Sedna myth, all ending in the same fate. In each story, when Anguta banished his daughter to the underworld, he took her out to sea in his kayak and threw her overboard. Attempting to save her life, Sedna held on to the edge of the boat, but Anguta cut off her fingers, forcing her to sink into the deep waters. Most legends agree that her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales that Inuit hunters regularly sought. If Sedna thought the hunt was unfair, she hid the creatures in her hair, forcing the Inuits to admit defeat and return to shore.

Lakshmi

Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, money, wisdom and good luck, is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu goddesses. She is usually celebrated by Hindus during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In art, Lakshmi is usually depicted with four arms covered with jewellery. She is often seated on a lotus flower and surrounded by elephants.

According to myth, Lakshmi’s presence on Earth helped the warrior god Indra protect the world from demons. One day, a sage offered the god a garland of flowers, which he rejected and threw on the floor. This behaviour deeply upset Lakshmi, and she disappeared from the world. In her absence, the world became dark, and the people turned away from the gods. Desperate, Indra asked Lakshmi’s husband, Vishnu, protector of the universe, what he should do to rectify the situation. Vishnu advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. The process took a thousand years, but eventually, Lakshmi rose to the ocean’s surface upon a lotus flower, and peace returned to the land.

Inanna/Ishtar

Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is a Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, desire, war and political power. She was worshipped widely across Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Akkadia and Assyria, who praised her with hymns and artworks. Nicknamed the “Lady of Heaven”, Inanna/Ishtar was respected as both male and female, although men tended to see her as a woman, particularly concerning matters of a sexual nature.

There are many myths about Inanna/Ishtar, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero refuses her romantic advances, causing the goddess to let all fire and brimstone loose. In another myth, she chose a young shepherd called Dumuzi as her husband. Shortly after, Dumuzi died, and Inanna travelled to the underworld to arrange for him to return to Earth for half the year. From then on, male rulers (kings) were identified with Dumuzi and underwent a Sacred Marriage ceremony to declare their devotion to Inanna/Ishtar and legitimise their rule.

Sekhmet

In Egyptian mythology, the powerful goddess Sekhmet was sent by her father Ra to destroy humankind. Immediately regretting his actions, Ra dyed a field red with ochre and beer to trick his daughter into believing the people had already slaughtered themselves. The trick worked, and Sekhmet drank the fake blood, becoming too drunk to carry out her original task.

An annual festival in honour of Sekhmet, who the Egyptians depicted in their artwork with the head of a lioness to symbolise her ferocity and destructive power, aimed to appease and soothe the wildness of the goddess. Revellers danced and played music while drinking large quantities of wine to imitate the drunkenness that stopped the wrath of the goddess. Warriors and leaders, such as Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1351 BC), erected statues of Sekhmet in the hopes she would bring them victory and longevity.

Isis

Isis was the most important female goddess and the most worshipped across ancient Egypt. Unlike Sekhmet, who the Egyptians tried to appease, Isis had divine authority over wisdom, healing, and protection, both in life and the afterlife. According to myth, after her husband Osiris was murdered, she resurrected him to conceive their son, Horus. Their son grew up to avenge his father’s murder and became the god whom all pharaohs were believed to personify.

Statues of Isis often depict her with wings, with which she could shield the mummified body of Osiris from harm. Although she brought Osiris back to life, he kept one foot in the afterlife as its ruler. Isis had the power to protect people from death but also protect them after death. When the people of ancient Egypt died, they did not go straight to a place of eternal rest. Instead, the dead went on a journey full of trials and judgements, which they needed to pass before reaching their resting place.

On top of Isis’ roles as a goddess, she had duties as a mother to care for and nurture Horus. Figurines of Isis nursing Horus were popular in ancient Egypt because they symbolised her as a life-giver and protector, which, in essence, every woman with a child also embodies.

Aphrodite/Venus

The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology, is a well-known name. Greek myths have become part of contemporary literature and films, and many instantly recognise Aphrodite as the goddess of love. Aphrodite/Venus embodied ancient ideals of beauty, yet she was not revered for her looks alone. People prayed to the goddess about love, but also about social and military success. The Greeks and Romans believed she had the power to bring about reconciliation and conflict depending on her mood.

There are several stories about Aphrodite’s origins, with some claiming she was a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods. Other myths, such as that recorded by Hesiod in the 8th or 7th century BC, record Aphrodite’s birth from the sea foam at the location the titan Kronos threw his father’s castrated testicles.

Aphrodite’s beauty often caused the demise of many a mortal man. Reports of men making love to statues of the goddess reveal how beautiful the depictions of Aphrodite/Venus were when first created. Others saw past her physical appearance to claim her as their patron, placing her image on their coins to advertise their victories. Such practice was done by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla around 84 BC and Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 176 AD.

Athena/Minerva

The Greek goddess Athena, or Minerva as the Romans knew her, was the goddess of war and wisdom. The Greeks and Romans saw her as an emblem of strength, intellect and order. They sought her wisdom in all areas of public life, from military and politics to the arts. Athena was both a peaceful and an angry goddess, depending on the circumstances. In many myths, she helped and supported men in battle, but those who upset her lived to regret it.

Athena was allegedly born fully grown and fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Learning of a prophecy that he would have a child more powerful than he, Zeus ate the pregnant mother, mistakingly believing this would kill the child. Instead, Zeus developed a terrible headache until Athena erupted from his skull.

In Roman Britain, Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, was associated with the Celtic deity Sulis. Minerva-Sulis had power over justice and health, making her a popular goddess in the city of Bath, where the spring waters are said to have healing properties. People came from far and wide to have their ailments cured but also to ask the goddess to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered lead sheets containing names, curses and pleas to Minerva-Sulis at the bottom of the Roman baths.

The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique believes women should channel their inner Athena. “If you’re angry, harness that. If you’re frustrated, express that. If you’re more of a peacemaker and a quiet, persevering advocate, own that as well. It’s not about having to subscribe to any stereotypically masculine or feminine form.” Athena had both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but this did not make her more or less of a woman.

In a similar way to the ancient Greek and Roman rulers who used images of Aphrodite/Venus on their coins, Athena/Minerva appeared on coins and medals in more recent centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) were portrayed on medals alongside images of the goddess. Male military leaders also used Athena/Minerva’s image, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).

Hekate

In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft. Some people, such as those participating in Wiccan or other modern pagan activities, believe Hekate was a witch rather than a goddess. Nonetheless, in ancient mythology, Hekate stood between life and death at the entrance to the underworld, also known as Hades. As a result, she was associated with entrance-ways and crossroads and often received prayers during transitions or uncertain journeys. Hekate is also associated with the moon and magic, which play roles in pagan rituals.

Sculptures of Hekate tend to depict a woman with three heads or three conjoined women. With each head facing a different direction, the statues symbolise the goddess’ ability to help people during various transitions in life and death. The journalist Elizabeth Day believes Hekate’s three faces represent that through suffering comes access to strength and wisdom. Some statues of Hekate depict her holding torches, symbolising the goddess as a light in the darkness, guiding people through difficult situations.

Circe

Unlike Hekate, who was the goddess of witchcraft, Circe was a witch or divine sorceress. She famously appears in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), which tells of the troublesome journey of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the war in Troy. On route, Odysseus’ ship lands on the island of Aeaea, where he sends some of his men to scout the area. Here, they discover Circe, who invites them or lures them with her beauty into her house and offers them a meal. Unbeknownst to the men, Circe poisoned the food with various potions and herbs, transforming them into pigs.

When Odysseus searched for his missing men, Circe attempted the same trick, but he had been warned by the gods about her use of magic. Instead, Odysseus convinced Circe to return his men to human form and help him with the next stage of his journey. Whilst this may suggest male dominance of the woman, Odysseus had the help of the gods and did not defeat Circe alone.

Throughout history, people have feared witchcraft. Whilst both men and women were persecuted or killed for allegedly using magic, the majority of the accused witches were women. Societies feared these powerful women, going as far as to burn them at the stake to prevent them from causing any harm.

Lilith

According to Jewish mystical texts, God created Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Like Adam, God created her from the earth, giving Lilith equality with her husband. God intended Adam and Lilith to live as equals, but attempts at sexual intercourse caused problems. Adam tried to dominate Lilith, causing her to flee Eden rather than subordinate herself to him. Lilith was punished for her actions, but in recent years, she has been celebrated as an icon of female independence.

Throughout history, Lilith is portrayed as a figure of defiance or a spirit that wreaks havoc and refuses to obey. In popular culture, she is often referenced as an evil character, such as in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which she is the ancestor of the White Witch. Today, this dark side of Lilith is put to one side as feminists begin to view her as the first woman to stand up to male power.

Eve

In Christian tradition, Eve is the first wife of Adam. God created her from one of Adam’s ribs rather than from the Earth. The story of the first two humans created by God is widely known. God gave them the freedom to eat what they pleased, so long as they did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Book of Genesis in the Bible records a serpent convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she did and gave Adam some to eat. This act became known as the Fall and resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Although it is not mentioned in Biblical scripture, people have blamed Eve for her seductive powers for leading Adam into sin. Whilst some argue both Adam and Eve were to blame for their actions, Eve received the brunt of the accusations, resulting in the stereotypical opinion that women were temptresses. Regardless of the truth and various opinions, the story gives Eve, as a woman, enough power for men of the future to fear the actions of women. Unfortunately, this led to the oppression of women and lack of rights, which women have been gradually regaining since the 19th century.

Mary

In Christianity, Mary is perhaps the most important woman, although she is not usually described as powerful. Yet, over a billion Catholics worship her across the world, giving her a sense of power that other Biblical women do not receive. The Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world. The Bible describes Mary as a righteous woman favoured by God, but looking at the bigger picture, she was neither rich, important or famous.

Comedian and feminist Deborah Frances-White notes that the Bible is written through the eyes of men, so Mary’s devotion and protection of the Messiah goes unnoticed. Frances-White also points out that without Mary, there would be no Christian story, and this power must be respected.

Some Christian art depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Although it is not written in the Bible, Roman Catholics believe that at the time of her death, Mary was taken directly to Heaven. This event is known as the Assumption and is celebrated in some Catholic churches. Some Christian denominations believe Mary appears before mortals in times of need to offer guidance and protection. Thousands of sightings are recorded, particularly at pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France. These claims elevate Mary to a similar status as ancient goddesses, who also appeared to mortals when necessary.

Maryam

Depending on the point of view, the highly revered Islamic Maryam is the same person as the Virgin Mary. Maryam is described as “the righteous one” and is favoured by God above all women. Her devotion and virtue are a model for all Muslims to follow. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam, which features stories about her life, including the miraculous virgin birth of her son, the prophet Isa (Jesus).

In the present day, Muslims feel connected to Maryam in various ways. For some, her faith and hope are inspiring, and others appreciate her strength, honesty and spiritual fortitude. In both Islam and Christianity, Maryam/Mary is a timeless model for all women.

These are only a handful of women and deities who feature in the British Museum exhibition Feminine Power. The selection provides different versions of power, both physical and emotional, intentional or not. These examples prove women can be powerful and on equal footing with men. They are not more powerful, nor are they described as being like men. Women have their own power, which is equally as powerful as the power men wield.

The British Museum does not try to claim that women are better than men; that is not the point of this exhibition. What it does do is challenge stereotypes and discuss the meaning of power. For some, power may look like physical strength, rage, anger and determination; for others, it is peaceful, loving and nurturing. Whether women are fighting battles or taking care of others, they are always powerful.

Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic is open until 25th September 2022. Tickets are priced from £15 and advanced booking is recommended.


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Jews, Money, Myth

In 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary listed the definition of “Jew” as “to cheat or overreach”. For centuries, myths and harmful stereotypes have formed that link Jews and money, the majority of which are untrue. In an attempt to disperse these tropes, the Jewish Museum London has staged an exhibition that explores the role of money in Jewish life, which over 2000 years has led to gross misconception. Jews, Money, Myth combines art, literature, culture and politics in a bid to challenge these false impressions and explore how they took shape in the first place.

Godines, Benjamin Senior; Triptych

Scenes from the life of Isaac – Benjamin Senior Godines, late 17th century.

Today, the OED’s definition of the word “Jew” is “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Ultimately, being Jewish is about religious faith and this is where the exhibition starts.

“Charity is equivalent to all the other commandments combined.”
– Talmud Bava Batra 9a

For Jews, charity or Tzedakah is a vital part of their faith. Tzedakah is a Hebrew word that literally translates into English as “justice” or “righteousness” but is more commonly associated with charity. This form of charity, however, is a different concept to the general Western perception of charity, which is typically seen as a spontaneous act of goodwill. In Judaism, Tzedakah is an ethical obligation and can be achieved by giving money to the poor, to health-care institutions, to synagogues and so forth.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'”
– Deuteronomy 15:11

Many of the Jewish commandments involve Tzedakah in some shape or form and, although they are not obliged to give Tzedakah on a daily basis, there are two festivals where giving is customary: Yom Kippur and Purim. The exhibition includes a couple of examples of Purim plates on which Jews can place their donations.

The Jewish celebrate Purim in the early spring, in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. During the celebration, the Book of Esther is read aloud after which everyone places three coins on the Purim plates for charity. Tradition states that each coin should be the denomination of half the standard currency in that country (e.g. half a shekel, half a dollar, half a pound).

“Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.”
– Exodus 13:13

Another Jewish custom involving money is Pidyon haben or redemption of the first-born son. According to the Code of Jewish Law, the firstborn son is destined to become a priest, however, this fate can be “redeemed” for five silver coins.

Ironically, the exhibition moves on to scenes recorded in the New Testament, which is not part of the Jewish Bible. Nonetheless, certain events in the Gospels have played a major role in establishing the negative connection between Jews and money.

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”
– Matthew 26:14-16 (NIV)

Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, has become the archetypal traitor and personification of the Jews. The Passion of Christ or the Easter story is well-known by the majority of the Western world regardless of religion. Judas’ involvement in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion is perhaps not as recognised, however, his actions have permanently associated him with treachery and greed – something that managed to cast a shadow over the way Jews are perceived.

In exchange for thirty silver coins, Judas Iscariot agreed to hand Jesus over to the Romans, thus allowing God’s plan to come to fruition. Despite being a small part in a much bigger story, Judas is often the man blamed for Jesus’ death. Depicted in artworks with red hair and wearing yellow, these colours have become icons of evil and deceit.

The fact that the other Disciples were Jewish but had not betrayed Jesus is overshadowed by Judas’ treachery. A snap conclusion has been drawn that because Judas took the money and he was a Jew, then all Jews must be greedy. Whilst that statement can be seen as ridiculous, it managed to create an almost permanent judgment about Jews.

In many artworks, Judas is portrayed with a money bag tied to his belt, suggesting his love of money, however, Rembrandt (1606-69) avoided this stereotypical imagery in his painting Judas Returning Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629).

“Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders”
– Matthew 27:3

Rembrandt’s painting shows the moment Judas attempts to return the money after he realises the extent of his actions. Judas kneels pleadingly on the floor, the thirty coins scattered at the feet of the priests and elders, who refuse to take the money back. Whilst his remorse is stronger than his desire to keep the money, some people point out that Rembrandt has painted Judas with his head turned towards the coins on the ground as though he still craves the money. Nevertheless, Judas, full of guilt and shame, hanged himself.

“For I did dream of money bags tonight.”
– Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

The Jewish stereotype that stemmed from Judas was enhanced by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his play The Merchant of Venice. The play’s antagonist Shylock, is a Venetian Jewish moneylender who lends money to his Christian rival Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio cannot pay back the loan, Shylock demands his flesh.

Throughout the play, Shylock’s appearance is stereotypical of the perception of Jews during the Elizabethan era. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and were not allowed to resettle in the country until Oliver Cromwell’s (1599-1658) rule, however, there were plenty of Jews in other countries, for instance, Venice, where the play is set.

During the 16th and 17th century, Jews were often presented as a hideous caricature, usually with a hooked nose and bright red wig. Completing their costume, of course, was their ever-present money bag. Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity at the end of the play is supposedly a happy ending, “saving” him from his unbelief and desire to kill Antonio. Overall, the play is typical of the antisemitic trends in Elizabethan England.

To counteract the antisemitic views expressed in The Merchant of Venice, Roee Rosen (b1963), an Israeli multidisciplinary artist, writer and filmmaker, produced a retelling of the story told from Shylock’s point of view. As the title The Blind Merchant suggests, Shylock is blind in this version. The “parasitical” text written by Rosen is interspersed between the original text of Shakespeare’s play, offering alternative ways of interpreting the action. Alongside the text are black and white illustrations, many of which the author/artist produced while blindfolded. Through this book, Rosen proves there is more than one way of viewing a situation, thus emphasising the prejudices in Shakespeare’s version.

The exhibition moves on from the middle ages, introducing visitors to names of notable Jewish businessmen who, due to their wealthy lifestyle, unintentionally created the tropes that “all Jews are rich” and “Jews get rich at the expense of others.” During the Commonwealth, Jews sought permission from Cromwell to return to England. Although nothing official was signed, Cromwell conceded and the Jewish population began to grow once again. Sephardi merchants from Spain presented annual gifts to the Lord Mayor to ensure their protection. Many of these Jews were involved with international trade, for instance, the East India Company, whereas others were seen as pedlars or beggars.

As is the norm, it is the rich Jews whose names are recorded and a handful of these people are responsible for the development of banks and trade during the 18th and 19th century. One famous name is Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Baronet (1784-1885), a British financier, banker and later Sheriff of London. Coming from an Italian-Jewish background, Montefiore distributed generous amounts of money to help establish industries, businesses, economies, schools and health resources among the Jewish community in the Levant. He also served as President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had been established in 1760 to safeguard the interests of British Jews as a religious community, both in the British Isles and the colonies.

Montefiore’s brother-in-law, however, was just as, if not more, famous, becoming the richest man in the world during his lifetime. Nathan Mayer, Freiherr von Rothschild (1777-1836) was born in Germany to the Jewish banker who founded the Rothschild banking dynasty. The Rothschild brothers, of which there were five, moved to different cities where they established a new branch of the Rothschild bank. Nathan moved to England in 1798 as a textile merchant, however, he eventually set up his banking business in 1811. N. M. Rothschild and Sons was founded at New Court in St Swithin’s Lane in the City of London, where it still operates today.

Rothschild was also involved with supplying funds for the British army during the Peninsular War (1807-14), and founding the Alliance Assurance Company (now Royal & SunAlliance) with his brother-in-law. Furthermore, Nathan Mayer Rothschild played a key role in the abolition of the slave trade, helping to finance the British government’s buyout of the plantation industry’s slaves.

The Rothschild family, in general, was renowned throughout a large part of the world. Lionel Nathan Freiherr de Rothschild (1808-79), Nathan’s son, became the first practising Jew to sit as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. As well as being a politician, he was responsible for raising large sums for the government, which aided the Crimean War (1853-6) in particular. His most famous contribution, however, was financing the government’s purchase of the Suez Canal shares from Egypt for £4 million.

Not all the rich Jews stemmed from the Rothschild family; Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, 1st Baronet (1818 – 96) was a British Indian businessman who was a major benefactor to the city of Bombay. He made many philanthropic donations throughout his life, including 60,000 rupees towards the construction of the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room and made a significant contribution towards the erection of a large equestrian statue of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (1841-1910), commemorating his visit to India in 1875.

Unfortunately, the wealthy Jews were not received favourably by everyone and many satirical illustrations began cropping up in publications. The biggest target was Nathan Mayer Rothschild who was accused of numerous allegations. Some saw the Rothschild’s as people obsessed with material possessions, only parting with money if it would benefit themselves. Despite Nathan’s involvement with the abolishment of slavery, the Rothschilds are accused of colonialism and globalisation as a result of their trade with less wealthy countries.

Nathan Mayer Rothschild became the personification of greed. Many caricatures portrayed him as a rotund man sitting on piles of money. Rather than working for that money himself, it was claimed others were doing the hard work for him. One illustration from Die Karikatur der europaischen Volker vom Altertum bis zur Neuzeit by Eduard Fuchs titled Die Generalpumpe (The General Pump) suggests Rothschild was controlling everyone around him. He was also portrayed as a demonic, evil creature, for example, Jean-Pierre Dantan’s (1800-69) grotesque sculpture.

Not all Jews were “filthy rich”, however, with that stereotype firmly in place, the less affluent Jews were not looked upon favourably. When Jews first returned to England, many earned a living by peddling their goods on the streets. An illustration titled “Rhubarb!” shows a turbaned Jew selling the plant from a box around his neck. In one hand is a scale to weigh his money – an icon that became synonymous with Jews.

The Charles Dickens’ character Fagin from his acclaimed novel Oliver Twist, gradually became a visual representation of the less wealthy Jew. Yet, Jews were never considered to be poor; their second-hand clothing businesses and the like were considered to be ways of making money rather than a living. Whilst they may not have appeared wealthy in their pre-owned clothing, the prejudiced believed they had lots of money stashed away, just like Fagin and his ill-gotten gains. In 1830, an illustration of a Fagin-esque character was published in a periodical, alluding to a supposed 11th Commandment that the Jews closely followed: “Get all you can, keep what you get, give nothing away.”

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Antisemitic propaganda

Whilst the Rothschild’s helped to found things, such as the London Underground, their personal lives were under scrutiny. They supposedly married their cousins in order to retain control over their assets, which led people to believe they aimed to control the world. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was particularly concerned that the Jews aimed to destroy Germany. He also associated the Jews with communism – another thing he wished to eradicate. We all know the result of Hitler’s incorrect thinking and prejudice, and while thousands of Jews were able to escape his clutches by migrating to England, many more died as a result of the Holocaust.

Throughout the Second World War, antisemitic propaganda was spread throughout Europe claiming that not only were Jews aiming to destroy Germany, but they also sought world domination. One poster from Serbia in 1941 shows a man in traditional Jewish clothing holding a scale. On one side sits a pile of money and on the other, a rather irate Adolf Hitler. The text reads: “Who will be heaviest? [Who will overcome?] No one because the Jew is holding the scale.”

Fortunately, some Jews were able to find safety in England where Poor Jews Temporary Shelters were set up to help them get back on their feet. Gradually the strong prejudices established by the Nazi Party began to disperse and Jews became accepted in society.

4zydki

Żydki, “Little Jews”

Unfortunately, antisemitism has not been completely eradicated from the world and the age-old stereotypes still exist. In Poland, Żydki or “Little Jews” are figurines that are sold in marketplaces as good luck charms. The superstitious believe that having one in the house brings wealth to the family. The figurines come in all sorts of styles, however, they all have the stereotypical features that have existed for centuries. Whilst the Żydki are not deliberately making a mockery of the Jews, some find them derogative and a source of controversy.

A 17-minute film at the end of the exhibition reveals the prejudices that are still in the world today. These clips feature Donald Trump addressing a Jewish society, carnivals where people are dressed similarly to the Żydki sold in Poland, and protests against Jewish billionaires who are supposedly controlling the media. One hand-made banner encouraged people to “Google Jewish Billionaires” – I did, approximately only 8% of the world’s billionaires are Jewish.

Jews, Money, Myth is an educational and eye-opening exhibition. Most people are aware of Jewish stereotypes and nearly everyone has learnt about the Holocaust, however, it is interesting to discover where and how these myths came about. Ultimately, the exhibition is challenging two particular tropes: “All Jews are rich,” and they “get rich at the expense of others.” Both statements are proved wrong and are only based upon a handful of Jews, for instance, the Rothschilds.

Some aspects of the exhibition are shocking and uncomfortable as they drag up old propaganda and illustrations that would never be allowed in print today. Yet, we cannot ignore that these things happened, that people had these opinions and that certain events followed. In order to educate the current generation, the past must not be forgotten but learned from. The Jewish Museum London has done an excellent, if not brave, job putting the exhibition together.

The exhibition Jews, Money, Myth is open until 7th July 2019 and is included in the entry ticket to the museum. Tickets are £8.50 for adults, £6.50 concessions and £4.50 for children under 16. These prices include a £1 voluntary donation. The ticket grants visitors entry to the temporary exhibitions and permanent displays.


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Jewish Britain

Founded in 1932 by Professor Cecil Roth (1899-1970), Alfred Rubens (1903-98) and Wilfred Samuel (1886-1958), The Jewish Museum has one of the world’s finest collections of Judaica. Featuring objects from all areas of Jewish life, the museum in Camden, London explores the public and private lives of communities throughout Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. With both temporary and permanent exhibitions, the museum focuses on Jewish traditions and ceremonies, and the history of Jewish life in Britain: Judaism: A Living Faith and Jewish Britain: A History in 50 Objects.

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Mikveh

Before visitors reach either of the two main galleries, they are introduced to the oldest exhibit in the museum. Built into the floor is a mid-13th-century mikveh, which had been discovered by archaeologists on a London building site in 2001. A mikveh is a type of bath used for ritual cleansing as part of many ceremonies and Jewish traditions. For instance, in Judaism, menstruation is regarded as unclean, therefore, women must visit the mikvah once a month. Men, on the other hand, can have a ritual cleansing before holy occasions, e.g. the Sabbath or an annual festival. The bath is also used prior to marriage, after childbirth and as the closing stage of converting to Judaism.

Judaism is one of the oldest religions in the world that is still practised today. The religion can be traced back over 4000 years, as far as the biblical land of Israel. Jewish societies consider themselves to be descendants of Abraham, who established the belief in one God – a belief now shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

As recorded in the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon (c.990-c.931 BCE) built the First Temple in Jerusalem in approximately 960 BCE, which became a religious centre for Jewish people. Centuries later in 586 BCE, the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into captivity. For the first time, the Jews were moved out of Israel.

Eventually, the Jewish population returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, however, it resulted in a similar fate. In 70 CE, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans who were in power at the time, resulting in many Jews fleeing the land of Israel in search of safe homes elsewhere. Thus, Judaism began to spread around the world.

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The main teachings of Judaism can be found in the Torah, the first five books (Pentateuch) of the Bible: Genesis (Bəreshit), Exodus (Shəmot), Leviticus (Vayikra), Numbers (Bəmidbar), and Deuteronomy (Dəvarim). These contain 613 commandments that form the basis of the religion. Although Jewish customs have altered over time as they spread themselves out over the world, all Jewish communities use the Hebrew language of the Torah during prayers and celebrations.

On entering Judaism: A Living Faith gallery, visitors come face to face with a Torah scroll attached to 19th-century silver rollers. Scrolls such as these are the most precious object within any Jewish community and are used regularly during services in the synagogue. In traditional Hebrew fashion, the parchment scroll reads from right to left and would have been written by a scribe with a special quill and ink. After production, the scroll is considered to be holy and must not be touched with bare hands. In order to help people read the tiny script, they may use a yad (pointer) to keep their place.

The Jewish Museum owns a large number of Jewish objects from various locations and centuries, however, many of them are used for the same purposes despite the variation in their design. Take, for example, the ornaments that decorate the tops of the Torah rollers. These rimmonim, which literally means pomegranates, are all styled to resemble the fruit. Pomegranates are an important symbol in Judaism due to the misconception in rabbinic tradition that the fruit contains 613 seeds – the same number of commandments. Despite being inspired by the pomegranate, the designers have interpreted this in unique, contrasting ways. Whilst a 19th-century rimmonim from North Africa may be made of wood and decorated with paint, another may be silver and contain a number of bells.

Other objects of various design include spice containers and kiddush cups. Spices, which are used during ceremonies on the Sabbath, are kept in special, decorative containers that are shaped to resemble towers, often inspired by local architecture. An example from Schwäbisch Gmünd in Germany contains illustrations and gems as well as elaborate silver metal work. Similarly, the kiddush cups are also used on the Sabbath and are usually made from silver. An example from 19th-century England, however, was made from the shell of a coconut and carved with biblical scenes and Hebrew verses.

The life of an Observant Jew involves praying three times a day, including the Shema, the most important prayer. In order to say the Shema, which takes place in the morning and evening, a tzitzit (tassels) and tefillin (small boxes) must be worn, and a mezuzah (decorative scroll case) attached to the doorpost. These are items that remind the Jews of God’s presence and examples can be found in the museum.

When a male child is born, he is circumcised at eight days old and named during the ceremony. Baby girls, however, are given their names during a ceremony at the synagogue. The children are brought up to follow strict Jewish rules, for instance, only eating food that is kosher (fit to eat) and to attend the synagogue for the main Sabbath service on a Saturday morning. Later, at the age of thirteen, boys celebrate their barmitzvah (son of the commandment) and, at twelve, girls become batmitzvah. After these ceremonies, they are considered adults and, therefore, are expected to take responsibility for their own faiths.

Marriage ceremonies must also be performed as written in Jewish law. Wedding ceremonies take place under a huppah (canopy), a sheet supported by four poles, and the ketubah (“written thing”; marriage contract) is read and signed. This outlines the rights and responsibilities of the groom in relation to his bride.

Even with death, rules must be followed precisely. The body must be buried as soon as possible – cremation is a big no-no because the body is the “temple of the soul” – and relations must remain at home for a mourning period of seven days (shiva). Due to Jewish customs, the dead are never forgotten. Every year on the yahrzeit (anniversary of death) a memorial prayer is said and a candle is lit.

The main Jewish community centre in the synagogue is where not only prayer and worship occur, but education, celebrations and social events too. Originally based on the Temple in Jerusalem, the architectural appearances of synagogues have altered over time and vary from place to place, however, some things remain consistent. In Britain, synagogues should be built facing east towards Jerusalem and it is forbidden to display images of God within the building.

Another common feature is an Ark, which holds the Torah scrolls, and a ner tamid (eternal light), which hangs above it. The Jewish Museum owns a beautiful example of 17th-century Ark that is believed to have come from a synagogue in Venice. Made from walnut, it is decorated with marbled paintwork and Jewish symbols. A Hebrew inscription at the top reads, “Know before whom you stand.”

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A model of the interior of a synagogue helps visitors visualise Jewish services. This exhibit is child-friendly and people are encouraged to find the Ark, the ner tamid and the bimah (a desk that the Torah scrolls are read from).

Within Judaism, there are different religious groups who follow a mix of traditions. In Orthodox synagogues, the rules are strict: men and women are not allowed to sit together and may be separated by a mechitza (screen); the rabbi is always male. In Reform and Liberal synagogues, however, people are free to sit wherever they choose and, in some instances, the rabbi is female.

Whilst it is the centre of Jewish religion, not all worship takes place in the synagogue. According to the Hebrew Bible, God created the world in six days and “on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” (Genesis 2:2 NIV). The Jews call the seventh day Shabbat (the Sabbath) and believe it is a time of rest for everyone. “Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all the work of creating what he had done.” (Genesis 2:3 NIV)

The Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday night. During this time, families and friends come together to relax and pray, often sharing a meal. The museum has set up a table with important objects and place settings so that non-Jewish visitors can get a sense of the peaceful atmosphere that is felt during this time of worship.

As with any religion, there are several Jewish festivals throughout the year. Most of them, at least by name, will be familiar to visitors, however, what they involve and the objects used may not. In the winter, while the majority of the world is preparing for Christmas – a holiday Observant Jews do not partake – Jewish societies are celebrating Hanukah, the winter festival of light. This festival observes the spiritual survival of the Jews under Syrian Greek rule in 165 BCE. Jewish practices were banned and the Greeks began worshipping their own idols in the Temple. In retaliation, a group of Jewish rebel warriors known as the Maccabees fought back and reclaimed the Temple. Naturally, much of the Temple had been damaged, however, the Maccabees were able to find enough oil to keep the menorah (candelabrum) alight for one day. Yet the menorah did not burn out as expected; it lasted for eight days by which time more oil had been sourced.

The Jews remember this miracle by celebrating an eight-day annual festival, which involves candle lighting and prayers every evening. Hanukah lamps, similar in style to the seven-branched menorah in the synagogue, have eight candles to represent the eight days the Maccabee’s menorah stayed alight. Also at this time, children receive gifts and everyone feasts on oily food, for instance, doughnuts and latkes (fried potato pancakes).

In the early spring, the Jewish celebrate Purim in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. Purim is celebrated by reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue followed by fancy dress parties, plays and plenty of food and drink.

One of the most important Jewish festivals of the year is Pesach (Passover), which celebrates the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery, as told in the Book of Exodus. The well-known story recounts the experience of the Israelites who were enslaved in Egypt then, after God sent ten plagues to persuade Pharaoh to free them, were led across the Red Sea by the prophet Moses. The Torah states that this story must be told to each generation, therefore, an eight-day festival is given annually for this purpose. During this time, people eat matzah, a form of unleavened bread, as a reminder of the flatbread the Israelites ate on their journey out of Egypt. During this period, leavened bread (hametz) or any food containing yeast is forbidden.

The history of Jews in Britain begins in roughly 1066 following the Norman invasion, which put William the Conqueror (1028-87) on the throne. The largest Jewish community settled in London, however, the law forbade them from owning land. Many Jews became moneylenders, which was a position that was forbidden to Christians at the time. Despite this, a Jewish name, Manasses, appears in the Domesday Book, a land survey commissioned in 1086.

More Jews arrived in England after the first Crusade, which took place between 1095 and 1099. This was the first attempt by Christians to reclaim the Holy Land. As a result, the Jewish community in London grew and by 1130, the Great Synagogue was founded in the Jewish quarter of London. Unfortunately, there was a lot of hostility towards the Jewish population and in 1144 the first European blood libel occurred in Norwich. By 1190, Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity, however, many decided to commit suicide instead.

Despite King John (1166-1216) granting Jews the right to live in England, he made their lives difficult by imposing huge taxes on their communities. In 1218, Henry III (1207-72) ordered that all Jews should wear a badge (sound familiar?) and attempted to persuade Jews to convert to Christianity. Then, in 1278, hundreds of Jews were accused of coin clipping resulting in the execution of more than 200 people.

By 1290, Edward I (1239-1307) had decreed that all Jews should leave England and have all their property confiscated. Nonetheless, there were still Jews in the country by the time the Tudor monarchs were on the throne. In fact, Elizabeth I’s (1533-1603) most trusted physician was Rodrigo Lopez (1517-94), a Portuguese Jew (although he had converted to Catholicism). Unfortunately, he was later accused of treason and hung, drawn and quartered in 1594, an execution that was witnessed by a massive crowd who mocked him for being a Jew. It is believed that Lopez was Shakespeare‘s inspiration for Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

It was not until 1656, with England being ruled by parliament, that Jews began to be welcomed back by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), although more for economic reasons than anything else. Nonetheless, the Jewish community once again began to grow, first with an influx of Sephardim Jews (from Spain and Portugal), shortly followed by Ashkenazim Jews (from Germany and Poland).

The end of the 18th-century saw Jews spread over all areas of society. They were particularly popular within the theatres as both performers and managers. Plays were often performed in Yiddish, a language spoken by most Central and Eastern European Jews. Plays ranged from comedies to tragedies, featuring folk tales, stories based on true life and adaptations of Shakespeare. The museum has a number of theatre posters on display as well as the opportunity to dress up in some of the clothing worn at the time, including a top hat.

Of course, Jews still faced discrimination, as did anyone who was not a member of the Church of England. In 1753, the “Jew Bill” allowing Jewish immigrants to become British subjects was repealed due to public outcry, however, protests during the 19th-century changed this. By 1874, Britain had its first Jewish-born Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81), although he had converted to Christianity as a child.

Although Jews were finding acceptance in Britain, they were not so lucky in other European countries. In Russia and Poland, Jews were severely restricted in terms of occupation and housing, therefore, many were living in poverty. Due to the violence targetted at them, over two million Jews left their homes to seek a better life, 150,000 of whom arrived on British soil.

Those who already had relatives in Britain were able to move in with their families, however, the majority of the migrants were complete strangers, starving and penniless. As a result, the Jew’s Temporary Shelter was set up in London to provide food and a safe shelter for the immigrants whilst they searched for jobs and homes. The museum has an example of a deed box that Jews were invited to place their valuables for safekeeping.

The Jewish Museum explains how the new arrivals gradually began to fit into British society. Jewish schools and hospitals were set up as well as synagogues, which helped to make the Jews feel more at home in this foreign country. By the outbreak of World War One, the Jewish communities were as patriotic as the rest of the country and as many as 50,000 Jews served within the British armed forces.

War is difficult for everyone, but the Jews who joined the British ranks had another challenge on their hands. Britain was on the same side as Russia, the country many Jews had fled from. This caused friction within Jewish communities, however, the soldiers were welcomed back as heroes. Some of the Jews who fought in the war also received the Victoria Cross for their gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

The 1930s brought more European Jews to England due to the growing power of Nazism in Germany. 10,000 children arrived via Kindertransport, which the Museum had a temporary exhibition about at the beginning of the year (2019). As everyone should know, thousands of Jews lost their lives in Nazi Germany due to the policies of party leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Holocaust caused the death of 6 million European Jews and it is estimated that in total, 17,000 million people fell victim to the Second World War. A survivor’s account of his time in a concentration camp is the main focus of a small exhibition within the museum.

“We are all human beings, whatever colour or race we are, everybody deserves respect.”
Ann Kirk, Kindertransport refugee

The Jewish Museum may not be on many people’s radar, however, it is an important museum to have in London. Non-religious people tend to shy away from things labelled “Jewish”, not due to discrimination, but because they think it is something only for Jewish people. This museum, however, is for everyone. It provides an eye-opening history of the Jewish religion as well as a shocking record of Jewish life in Britain. Whilst the Holocaust plays a large part in Jewish history, there is so much prior to that of which the majority of the British population will be unaware. There is information in this Museum that will never be taught in schools. After all, it is the winners that write the history books and the Jewish rarely were.

The Jewish Museum can be found in the heart of Camden Town, a mere 3 minutes walk from the underground station in Raymond Burton House, Albert Street. Opening hours are between 10am and 5pm on weekdays, except Friday, which closes at 2pm ready for the Jewish Sabbath. The entry fee is £7.50 for adults, £5.50 concessions and £3.50 for children between the ages of 5 and 16.

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Christian Angelology​

Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: “Glory in the heights above to God, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.
Luke 2:13-14

What are angels? A supernatural being found in various religions and mythologies? A humanoid of extraordinary beauty? A creature with wings and a halo? Something that is only seen at Christmas time in Nativity plays, cards and decorations? A guardian? A myth? The term angel has become so commonplace in the English language that it has almost lost its religious heritage. Today, the term “you’re an angel,” is often heard when someone performs a favour, whereas, in reality, they are merely human. So, what are angels?

The word angel derives from the Late Latin word angelusliterally meaning messenger, which in turn had derived from the Greek aggelos. In religion, particularly Christianity, the term was used to describe the celestial beings who acted as emissaries between God or Heaven and mankind.

The Christian idea of angels was inherited from Judaism, with Michael (who is like God), Gabriel (God is my strength) and Raphael (it is God who heals) being the most well-known in both the Abrahamic religious and secular world. Angels also appear in Islam, Zoroastrianism, and Neoplatonism, although, with slightly different manifestations.

“Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air.”
– Christina Rossetti

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The Assumption of the Virgin – Francesco Botticini

Angels in Judaism are categorised into ten hierarchies, the more important being in the top ranks. Likewise, Christianity has adopted this idea of a hierarchy, splitting the angels into three groups of three. This Christian angelic hierarchy was initially put forward by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th-6th century), an ancient theologian and philosopher, in his book De Coelesti Hierarchia (On the Celestial Hierarchy). This work inspired many scholars throughout the middle ages and medieval period to expand upon the idea of angel orders or “Angelic Choirs”, suggesting alternative classifications.

When writing De Coelesti Hierarchia, Pseudo-Dionysius referred to passages from the New Testament, as did Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), an Italian Dominican friar and Catholic priest, when tackling the same subject in his work Summa Theologica. Whilst the New Testament is fairly quiet on the hierarchy of angels, both writers used passages, such as Colossians 1:16, to develop a schema of three Spheres of angels, each comprising of three Orders or Choirs.

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”
– Colossians 1:16 (NIV)

Due to the subject of angelology coming from sources outside of the Bible, not all Churches believe or accept Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas’ proposed hierarchy. It is viewed on a similar level to the communio sanctorum or the communion of saints, which is mostly associated with Roman Catholicism. Nonetheless, the nine orders of angels are generally agreed upon, as recognised by Pope Gregory I (540-604) at the end of the 6th century:

  1. Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

Naturally, the first sphere contains the angels who are closest to God – those who serve as his heavenly servants. The first two orders, Seraphim and Cherubim are the most recognised titles throughout Christianity and beyond, mostly thanks to the popular Christmas poem-cum-carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Yet, what these terms mean remains a mystery to many.

Seraphim, meaning burning ones, are the highest order of angels and serve as caretakers of the Throne of God. The Seraphim or Seraphs are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible in Isaiah 6:1-7. In a vision of the Lord, the prophet saw the Seraphim hovering above God chanting, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Interestingly, Isaiah’s description of their appearance goes against contemporary manifestations of the heavenly beings. “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.” (Isaiah 6:2 NIV)

Pseudo-Dyonisius maintained that Seraphim aided God to sustain perfect order, purifying those on Earth with their ” burning and all-consuming flame”. Around the throne of God, there is no day or night, the light comes from God himself and his Seraphim whose “radiant and enlightening power” dispell and destroy the “shadows of darkness”.

Another early Christian scholar and theologian, Origen of Alexandria (184-253), also wrote on the topic of Seraphim. In his treatise, On First Principles, Origen argues that the angels described in the Book of Isaiah are in fact physical representations of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit. As a result, he concludes the Seraphim are privy to the knowledge of God, thus elevating them to the top tier of angels.

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Putto on building in Ptuj, Slovenia

Whereas Cherubim are ranked ninth (second from bottom) in Jewish angelic hierarchy, Christianity places them directly below the Seraphim. Of all heavenly beings, Cherubs are mentioned the most in the Hebrew Bible and are traditionally believed to be the guardians of the Garden of Eden. “After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:24 NIV)

Cherubim are highly revered throughout the Bible, for instance, God considered them important enough to feature as gold statuettes on either side of the cover of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17-22). Carvings and statues of cherubim feature in the “Most Holy Place” mentioned in 2 Chronicles 3:7-14 (NIV) as well as in the sanctuary described in 1 Kings 6:23-28. It is also believed that Satan came from the Cherubim order before his fall from grace.

The physical appearance of Cherubim is written in the Book of Ezekiel and, similarly to Seraphim, go against contemporary conceptions. According to Ezekiel, the Cherubim were completely covered in eyes, both on their bodies and their wings, of which they have six, as Revelation 4:8 suggests.

“Each creature had four faces. The first was the face of a bull, the second a human face, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.” (Ezekiel 10:12-14 GNT) Whilst this sounds rather grotesque, it is said that each face has a particular purpose to represent the four dominions of God’s rule: domestic animals, humanity, wild animals and birds. These faces have since been adopted as symbols of the four Gospels: Luke, Matthew, Mark and John respectively.

In the western world, Cherubim have incorrectly become associated with putti or “baby angels”. Putti also derived from the classical Roman god Cupid, who was traditionally portrayed with a slender, youthful body. Putti can be typically found in figurative art, both with and without wings, in the form of small, plump male baby- or toddler-like beings.

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The Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne – William Blake

The third order in the first sphere are the Thrones, however, there is some discrepancy as to who or what they are. Christian theologians describe them as adoring elder men who listen to the will of God and the prayers of men. These same theologians believe that the twenty-four men mentioned in the final book of the Bible come from the order of Thrones: “Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.” (Revelation 4:4 NIV)

Not including this verse in the book of Revelation, there is only one direct mention of Thrones in the Bible. Paul the Apostle writes about the Thrones in his letter to the Colossians: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16 NIV). There is, however, no physical description.

The idea that the twenty-four elders are Thrones has become generally accepted, however, some writers have other views. Rosemary Ellen Guiley (b.1950) is one of a handful who associates Thrones with Ophanim or Wheels mentioned in Ezekiel 10:16: “When the cherubim moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the cherubim spread their wings to rise from the ground, the wheels did not leave their side.” (NIV)

“The ‘thrones’; also known as ‘ophanim’ (offanim) and ‘galgallin’, are creatures that function as the actual chariots of God driven by the cherubs. They are characterized by peace and submission; God rests upon them. Thrones are depicted as great wheels containing many eyes, and reside in the area of the cosmos where material form begins to take shape. They chant glorias to God and remain forever in his presence. They mete out divine justice and maintain the cosmic harmony of all universal laws.”
– Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Encyclopedia of Angels (1996)

There is, however, very little evidence to support this argument, the strongest being that the Cherubim and their wheels carry the throne of God according to chapter 7 of the Book of Daniel. As a result, tradition states that Thrones are a separate body of angels from the Cherubim and are not purely material beings.

The angels in the Second Sphere, who work as heavenly governors of God’s creation, are much more difficult to comprehend and find Biblical evidence for their existence. The first of this trio is known as both Dominions or Lordships, which is also mentioned in Colossians 1:16 alongside Thrones: “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.” (ESV) The only other Biblical reference is in Ephesians: “Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come.” (1:21 KJV)

Depending on the translation of the Bible, Dominions or Lordships are sometimes not mentioned at all but when they are, their title depends on whether the text was derived from the Latin or Greek version. Dominions derive from the Latin dominationes, whereas Lordships stem from the Greek term kyriotēs.

Some theologians claim that Dominions look like divinely beautiful humans with a pair of feathered wings, much like the kind seen on Christmas cards, however, they rarely make themselves physically known to humans. Some claim the Dominions or Lords carry glowing orbs on the end of their sceptres or the pommels of their swords, but where this suggestion came from is unknown.

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The Virtues, late 15th century stained glass panels

The second order in the Second Sphere is Virtues or Strongholds. These also appear in chapter 1 verse 21 of Ephesians, however, in some translations are also referred to as powers. Aquinas opted to use the term Virtues in his Summa Theologica. 

Pseudo-Dionysius also wrote about the Virtues, stating that they signify “a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies.” They are strong in character and never succumb to weakness, always having their sights set on the “Source of Virtue.” Little else has been recorded about this angelic order.

The final order in the Second Sphere is Powers or Authorities, not to be confused with the powers mentioned in some translations of Ephesians 21:1. Stemming from the Latin potestates and Greek exousiathis order is introduced briefly in Ephesians 3:10: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (NIV)

It is thought that the purpose of the Powers is to maintain order throughout the cosmos, supervising the movements of celestial bodies and making sure everything remains in order. Represented as soldiers wearing full armour and helmets, the Powers or Authorities use their shields, spears or chains to fight off evil spirits, particularly ones that threaten the equilibrium of God’s creation.

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The Principalities, late 15th century stained glass panels

The third and final sphere of angels contains those that act as heavenly guides, protectors, and messengers to humans. Whilst these are the lower ranks of angels, at least two of the orders are more familiar in today’s world.

The first, however, is as obscure as those of the Second Sphere. These are the Principalities or Rulers, sometimes referred to as Princedoms. Biblical acknowledgement of the order appears in both Ephesians 1:21 and Ephesians 3:10, along with those previously mentioned.

Principalities are responsible for the protection and guidance of nations or large groups of people, for instance, the Church. They are depicted wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre and follow instructions given to them by the upper sphere angels. As well as overseeing groups of people, these tasks involve bequeathing blessings upon the Earth. The Principalities or Rulers are also known as the educators and guardians of the people on Earth, often inspiring the study of the arts or sciences.

The second order of angels in the Third Sphere is perhaps the most famous: the Archangels. The name comes from the Greek archangelos, which translates into English as chief angel, which considering they come so low down the ranks, is a rather peculiar title.  The word only appears twice in the New Testament and, despite what many believe, only one archangel is named.

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16

The named Archangel is Michael who appears in Jude 1:9, Revelation 12:7-9 and Daniel 12:1. In the latter, Daniel is informed that Michael will appear at the “time of the end”, i.e. the apocalypse, and in Revelation, Michael’s fight with Satan is recorded in a description of a war in heaven. In Jude, Michael is also recorded confronting Satan:  “But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!'” (NIV)

Another named Archangel is Raphael, who is written about in the Book of Enoch. This book, however, is not included in Christian canons and, therefore, Raphael is not officially a Biblical character. He also appears in the Book of Tobit, however, since this book is deuterocanonical, it also does not count as a Biblical reference.

In Enoch 10:4-6, Raphael is recorded defeating the fallen angel Azazel: “And again the Lord said to Raphael: ‘Bind Azazel hand and foot, and cast him into the darkness: and make an opening in the desert …'”

The most famous story about Raphael is recorded in the apocryphal Book of Tobit. The Archangel appears to Tobiah, the son of Tobit disguised in the human form of “Azarias the son of the great Ananias.” Tobiah is on an errand for his blind father and Raphael keeps him company on the journey, protecting him in many ways, including defeating a demon in an Egyptian desert. The archangel only reveals himself as “the angel Raphael, one of the seven, who stand before the Lord,” (Tobit 12:15) after healing the blind Tobit later in the story.

Uriel is another of the named Archangels, however, is only mentioned in the second apocryphal book of Esdras, therefore, most Christians dismiss him as a Biblical angel. Uriel, whose name means Light of God, is sometimes listed as a Cherub and, according to Abbot Anscar Vonier (1875-1938) stands at the Gate of Eden with a fiery sword.

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Virgin of the Rocks – Leonardo da Vinci

The angel in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452-1519) painting Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6), which shows Christ and his mother being reunited with John the Baptist after their flight to Egypt, is thought to be Archangel Uriel. Some Christian sources claim that Uriel rescued Jesus’ cousin John and his mother, Elizabeth, from the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod.

Some Christians may argue that Michael is not the only Archangel mentioned in the Bible. The other is Gabriel, meaning God is my Strength, however, he is never referred to as an Archangel in the passages in which he features.

The most famous reference to Gabriel occurs in the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament making him a fundamental character in the Christmas story – and, therefore, the key reason for the cute, white-winged angels on Christmas cards. The angel Gabriel first appears to Zechariah, revealing the prophecy that he will have a son: John the Baptist. The second appearance occurs in Luke 1:26-38, in which similar news is delivered to Mary, telling her that she will have a baby.

“And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women … thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”
Luke 1:28-31 KJV

Due to the lack of the word Archangel in reference to Gabriel, some people believe he is only an Angel, the lowest of the ranks and the final order of the Third Sphere. Frustratingly, it is not certain why this order is named Angels, also the umbrella term for the entire three spheres, which can make explaining Christian Angelology rather confusing.

These Angels, or malakhim as they are known in Hebrew, whilst the “plain” angels, are the most recognised in the Bible. They are mentioned in numerous book of the Bible, including Psalms, Colossians and Hebrews. “Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2 GNT)

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Kristus i Getsemane – Carl Bloch

Angels of the third sphere variety are the ones who have the most contact with the affairs of men. Often, they are sent to Earth with messages, hence the belief that Gabriel is not an Archangel. They are also sent to guide and support people, for example, the angel who comforted Jesus in Luke 22:43 during the Agony in the Garden.

It is from this realm of angels that the idea of Guardian Angels has arisen. Those who believe in Guardian Angels claim that everyone has been assigned one, regardless of their religious affiliations. Although belief in Guardian Angels can be traced back to antiquity, there is no Biblical evidence of their existence.

So, in answer to the opening question – what are angels? – they are a lot of things. So many things that it requires around 3000 words to fully explain. There is no straightforward answer. One thing for certain is that they are not all the white-robed, feathery-winged, halo-wearing creatures in paintings, literature, Christmas ornaments, and so forth, however, it is much easier to imagine them as such, particularly at this time of year – Merry Christmas.

Christmas Card 2018
Christmas Card designed by me