What do you think of when you think of angels?
A halo? A harp? A robe? Maybe, but if you're like most people, you probably think of wings first.
But do ALL angels have wings? Maybe the first place to look for an answer is the Bible.
What do angels look like in the Bible?
Believe it or not, though the Bible mentions angels many times, it never mentions wings. In fact, there are instances in the Bible where angels go unnoticed among ordinary human beings. And if that's true, they couldn't possibly have had wings.
You may be thinking 'But what about Seraphim and Cherubim? The Bible says they have wings.' That's true, it does. But Bible experts point out that Seraphim and Cherubim are not 'real angels'.
They're spiritual creatures for sure, but they're in a different class or level than real angels, and the experts say that Seraphim and Cherubim are never referred to as 'angels' - or vice versa.
So the Bible doesn't make a strong case for angels having wings. What about the Torah?
What do angels look like in the Torah and Quran?
Angels in Judaism are pure spirit and have no physical characteristics. The Torah does mention angels with arms, wings or other appendages but again, experts interpret these as metaphors for their powers and responsibilities, and say they shouldn't be taken literally.
And in Islam? Again angels are very important; in fact, belief in angels is one of the six pillars of the faith. The Quran clearly describes angels as “messengers with wings – two, three, four or more pairs.” But the Quran also says that angels were created from light, which brings up an interesting point:
Why do angels need wings?
In all these cases, if angels are spirits or light, why would they need wings? You would assume that, unlike birds, they're not bound by the laws of physics. In which case wings would be unnecessary.
In fact, you might even wonder if angels need to fly at all. Being spirits they could very well have the ability to think or will themselves from one place to another, even from heaven to earth and back again.
And yet the idea of angels having wings persists and seems very natural to us. But if they don't need them, then ...
Why do angels have wings?
One explanation might be that humans have always been fascinated with flying, so much so that we often dream that we're flying.
Imagine living in ancient times and watching a bird soar up and disappear into the sky, into clouds that almost look like other worlds. Living in a time when so little was known about our world and universe, it would be very easy to believe that the bird was flying to heaven.
Maybe for that reason, many ancient cultures worshiped either birds or gods who had bird features. Egyptians for example had Thoth, a powerful god who had the head of an ibis, which was a type of bird that lived on the banks of the Nile and was itself considered sacred.
The ancient Celts also had bird gods such as Morrigan, the Crow goddess of war, hunting, protection and plenty, not to mention Manannan Mac Lir, the Seagull god, who guarded the gateway between this world and the 'other world', which the Celts believed to be beyond the seas.
When did angels get wings?
In those times, bird gods and similar winged deities were so popular and widespread that with the advent of Christianity, missionaries saw them as a way to appeal to the 'pagans' and convert them to the newer religion. Angels with wings were something they could relate to, a bridge between the older beliefs and the new religion.
That theory may or may not be true, but in any case wings came to be a very important part of religious art, not just for sake of converting new followers, but for the heavenly imagery they helped create. And religious art, especially in Churches and during a time when few people could read, were powerful sources of information.
Angels in artwork
Take for example paintings of 'The Annunciation', which is one of the most popular subjects of Christian art. (The Annunciation was when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she was to be the mother of Jesus.)
If you do an internet search for 'Annunciation paintings' you'll find an impressive number of paintings - as well as an equally impressive number of ways that the wings were painted: Pure white, rainbow, golden, green, blue, brown, black, silver, bird-like, upraised, down-turned, cape-like, small, large, solid, nearly transparent, feathered, smooth, plain, elaborate, etc. Just a few are shown below:
It's probably because the Bible never says that angels have wings, let alone what they might look like, that these artists obviously took great artistic freedom with these paintings, not just in giving the angels wings but in the many different styles they painted them.
And apparently the paintings had the approval of the churches in which they were hung, so the imagery must have been considered proper and even inspirational.
Looking at all these paintings, it's safe to say that the angels and their wings had more to do with imagination and art than with what could be proved or argued in the Bible.
But they're successful as religious artwork not only because they immediately evoke images of another world – heaven – but they also help to create artistic visions that are so beautiful they still have the power to awe and inspire viewers hundreds of years after the paintings were done.
So the real answer to 'why do angels have wings' may be simply that people like them. And because they are very expressive of what angels mean to people.
What do angels do?
Angels are important to people for many different reasons.
Others look to angels for inspiration and guidance in following one's dreams, asking the angels to help them open doors to new places.
Many depend on angels for unconditional love while others ask them for spiritual strength.
Those who have recently lost loved ones often look to angels for comfort, asking for reassurance that the departed are happy in their new place. Often they pray for a small sign – such as a feather – that their loved ones are still with them in spirit here on earth.
For angels to be able to do these things we ask of them, they must have heavenly powers, so that just like the ancient Egyptians and Celts so long ago, we intuitively think of angels as having wings in order to link them to heaven. Or maybe it's just that the beautiful imagery of the wings enhances people's beliefs in angels.
Either way, wings have come to be a symbol of everything that is meant by the word 'angel': Faith, love, compassion, protection, goodness, heaven, freedom, happiness, truth, or any number of other qualities we humans ask the angels for in our prayers.
It's likely that what you think an angel's wings look like - traditional or modern, cute or serious, earthly or other-worldly, fancy or simple, feminine or masculine, etc - depends on what angels mean to you on a personal level.
So, what do angel wings look like? What are angel wings made of? What color are angels wings? How big are angels wings? It's probably safe to say that it's all up to you. Your own personal angel wings don't have to abide by 'the letter of the law” when it comes to religious texts or experts as long as they are in keeping with the 'spirit'.