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The Angel of Mons Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians
By David Clarke
John Wiley & Sons ISBN: 0-470-86277-7
Chapter One The unseen host
Now and then the western clouds after sunset assume a shape resembling that of a vast extended wing, as of a gigantic bird in full flight - the extreme tip nearly reaching the zenith, the body of the bird just below the horizon. The resemblance is sometimes so perfect that the layers of feathers are traceable by an imaginative eye. This, the old folk say, is the wing of the Archangel Michael, and it bodes no good to the evil ones among the nations, for he is on his way to execute a dread command. Richard Jefferies, Wild Life in a Southern County, 1879
From the beginning of recorded history there are stories of spectral armies seen in the sky and of visions appearing before war leaders on the eve of battle. The idea of divine intervention at the Battle of Mons in 1914 is only the most recent and best-known example of a tradition of belief in supernatural intervention that has become a fundamental element in world mythology. These traditions have very deep roots indeed.
In the ancient world the gods had an intimate and often stormy relationship with the world of humans. For instance, in the myths and legends of ancient Greece, the vengeful gods frequently intervened in earthly battles to provide assistance to the warriors whom they favoured, or to send plague and storm against those who hadoffended them. In early Hebrew tradition, the God Yahveh behaves in a very similar manner. He appears, speaks directly to individuals, and sends storms and thunder to punish both individuals and nations. Job, for instance, loses his sheep, his servants and ten of his children to storms and calls out, 'Why is there evil in the world?' The voice of Yahveh speaks to him from the midst of a whirlwind, explaining that he has ultimate control over nature, and that humans cannot understand the divine plan but should place their trust in his ultimate purpose.
These stories suggest that in the ancient world divine intervention occurred regularly, in a seemingly partisan manner that can appear arbitrary, cruel and even incomprehensible today. In the Old Testament, God exerts his power on the world by the use of the weather, sending storms, floods and earthquakes. The myth of a universal deluge is the most persistent and widespread of these early myths. In many early traditions, the flood marks the end of the age where gods directly interfered in human affairs and the beginning of a new era in which God became more distant and merciful.
The age of the angels
With the separation of the sacred from the profane, angels were necessary to act as messengers between humans and the distant God. The word 'angel' is derived from the Greek aggelos and is translated from the Hebrew mal'akh, which means 'messenger'. The role played by angels in the cosmic scheme has been the subject of dramatic changes in the transition from the ancient to the modern world.
Angels are closely associated with the monotheistic religions and first appear as supernatural entities in the early Zoroastrian cosmos, which exerted a heavy influence upon the evolution of Judaism. Zoroaster was born in Persia (Iran) around the beginning of the first millennium BC and the religion he founded was based around a cosmic battle between good and evil that was fought by angels and demons. Similar beliefs are found in Judaism, where the Old Testament God was portrayed as the 'Lord of Hosts' whose angel warriors fight against the forces of evil led by Satan. All these elements were eventually adopted and modified by Christianity and Islam, where angels are portrayed as benevolent and righteous. They are in effect the powers that oppose Satan, the 'fallen angel' and his demons, who symbolize the destructive power of the old gods. Judaism also adopted the Zoroastrian division of the universe into three realms, with heaven as the upper celestial region inhabited by Yahveh and his angels. Hell is the subterranean world of chaos and darkness that was the abode of Satan. The world inhabited by humans was positioned between the two, forming the battleground between the forces of good and evil.
In the Old Testament, angels could be malevolent and murderous when they acted to enforce divine law or punish the wicked. In the early eighth century BC, Sennacherib, the King of Assyria, besieged and captured the fortified cities of Judah, demanding the payment of a huge tribute in gold and precious stones. As the Assyrian army rested overnight in their camp they were visited by an angel who killed 'every valiant warrior, leader and commander'. The Israelites were frequently assisted by angel hosts particularly when the odds were heavily stacked against them. The second book of Kings describes how the prophet Elisha was surrounded by the armies of Assyria at Dothan. During the siege Elisha turned to his terrified servant and said: 'They that be with us are more than they that be with them', and prayed that his eyes be opened. At that moment the servant saw 'the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire around Elisha' protecting them from the enemy forces.
Another story describes how in the second century BC more divine horsemen appeared as Judas Maccabaeus led his army in an uprising against Roman oppression. The army of Judas fought on against overwhelming odds and at the height of the battle the Romans saw 'five magnificent figures' in the sky, riding horses with golden bridles. The divine horsemen placed themselves at the head of the Jews and formed a protective circle around their leader. According to the Hebrew account, 'they launched arrows and thunderbolts at the enemy, who, confused and blinded, broke up in complete disorder.' Later in the same campaign and in the midst of a bitter siege of Jerusalem, a horseman appeared among them, 'arrayed in white, brandishing his golden weapons', and led them to victory.
These Old Testament stories have become familiar precisely because of their biblical source, which has ensured their survival. What is less well known is that pagan nations had their own traditions of supernatural intervention in battle, which are less likely to have been preserved by the Christian scribes. The Romans had a tradition that attributed the outcome of the battle of Lake Regillus in 496 BC to appearance of the divine twins, Castor and Pollux, in the guise of phantom horsemen. In the Lays of Ancient Rome Lord Macaulay portrays the gods as armed and mounted on magnificent white steeds riding at the head of the legions. After the victory the twins carry the news of the victory with supernatural speed to Rome. A mark resembling a horse's hoof was later identified in the volcanic rock of the lake and it was believed this had been left by one of the celestial chargers.
The angel hierarchy grew ever more complex in the first four centuries of the Christian era and on occasions the church had to move to end the worship of angels by some early sects. During this period angelology - the study of angels - was influenced by older pagan traditions and by the teachings of a sect known as the Gnostics, whose name means 'the knowing ones'. The Gnostics shared the old view of the universe as a battleground between good and evil forces and believed that angels controlled the movements of the stars and the four elements. A hierarchy of angels had emerged who were able to assume human form and, by their actions as God's messengers, bridge the boundary between heaven and earth.
The Bible identifies the three most important archangels as Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. St Michael is the warrior angel who leads the heavenly hosts in their war with Satan. He is often depicted in Christian art wearing elaborate armour and wielding a sword as he stamps on the defeated armies of evil. Beneath the archangels were lesser orders of angels, including the cherubim and the seraphim who surrounded the divine throne. The cherubim were described by the prophet Ezekiel as bizarre creatures with four wings and four faces (lion, ox, eagle and man) that travelled on fiery wheels surrounded by eyes. In the twentieth century, Ezekiel's vision of angels has been portrayed by some as a description of extraterrestrial beings visiting the earth in a fleet of flying saucers.
This modern interpretation is the latest example of the way depictions of angels have reflected the culture and beliefs of the society that portrays them. Originally angels were depicted as androgynous youths or children, as it was believed they were created directly by God and could not reproduce. However, Renaissance art represented them as adolescent males and indeed the original Greek word aggelos is a masculine noun. By the late Gothic period a further change had occurred, with increasing emphasis being placed in Christian art upon the beauty and compassion of angels. This led to the development of the familiar image of the female guardian angel wearing white robes and bathed in radiant light that became very popular during the Victorian era in England. Out of this complex cultural background a concept emerged that portrayed angels as God's messengers and ministers. They ministered and guided Christians towards salvation, and adopted the older role of guardian spirits to the individual.
Supernatural intervention in wars continued to occur as the ancient world gave way to the modern. In early Christian times, stories of vengeful pagan gods were still widely believed, but were slowly integrated into the new religion. Across Europe, the saints and angels adopted the role in battle formerly occupied by the gods of war. In Irish tradition, saints were able to summon magical reinforcements or send magic mists to conceal Christian armies from their enemies. Newly Christianized kings and emperors were encouraged to forsake the war gods that had once been called upon by their ancestors, for the protection of patron saints. During the Middle Ages, this tradition continued with victories against pagans and heretics attributed by the church to the direct intervention of God via his agents on earth. Meanwhile newly Christianized warriors inherited some of the roles of the angels as supernatural protectors of territory and the patrons of kings and soldiers.
Many nations and peoples have traditions of supernatural protectors that emerge at times of great danger and national emergency. The foundation for a British tradition of divine intervention emerged during the early medieval period. At that time the Christian church preferred magic to be worked in the name of the one true God via the saints. In early medieval England, armies relied upon a variety of competing patron saints for supernatural protection, but by the time of the Crusades the church was keen to promote a single supernatural personage as protector of soldiers preparing for campaigns in the Holy Land.
These qualities were all found in St George, whose cult is similar if not identical to that of St Michael. Both the saint and the angel are depicted by artists as warriors who overcome the forces of evil, which are depicted symbolically in the form of a dragon. St George's elevation as patron saint and supernatural protector of English armies can be traced to the eleventh century at the time of the First Crusade. Although the warrior saint is one of the most famous Christian icons, little is known of his life, and contemporary evidence is so poor that some historians doubt that a real historical person of that name ever existed. Early hagiographers claimed that George was a soldier martyred in what is present-day Syria during the reign of Diocletian in late third or early fourth century AD. One version claims he held the rank of tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by the emperor for protesting against the persecution of Christians. His bravery in defending the poor and defenceless quickly led to veneration, and by the sixth century his cult had spread to western Europe, with churches and convents dedicated to him across Christendom, including several in England.
St George's connection with England was popularized in the early histories of the saints that appeared during the eighth century AD. The apocryphal Acts of St George describes his visits to the Roman city of Caerleon and to Glastonbury, and these stories were translated into Anglo-Saxon. Later, the Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) popularized the story of 'St George and the Dragon', which had a particular appeal to the Anglo-Saxons who had their own traditions of struggles between warriors and monsters. While it is unlikely that the real St George - if he did indeed exist - ever visited the British Isles, these legends were encouraged by the church as they cemented his role as a patron and protector of the English in battle. The seal was placed upon this role by the Crusades, which gave impetus to the veneration of St George by Christian armies, and by the English in particular.
The enthusiasm of the Crusaders for the soldier-martyr continued to grow and eventually became a military cult. The invocation of his name as a rallying cry in battle raised the popularity of St George among the nobility in England, Aragon (part of Spain) and Portugal who adopted him as their patron. When in 1095 Pope Urban II announced a crusade to reconquer the Holy Land from the Muslims, he declared that God alone would lead the Christian army to victory. But feuds between the Crusaders split the army into two forces and they entered Asia Minor with little knowledge of the terrain or the enemy they faced. Despite the famine and hardships endured by the Crusaders, they initially enjoyed success against the Muslims who were also divided by their own internal rivalries.
Christian chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury were quick to attribute the early success of the Crusaders to divine intervention. In his account, it was during the Battle of Antioch in 1098 that the visions of saints George and Demetrios appeared in the nick of time to save the besieged Crusader army, which had become trapped by hordes of advancing Saracens. He claimed they saw a mighty host charging down the hillside to their aid, 'with banner flying and horse hoofs thundering', the sight of which rallied the Crusaders and led them to overcome the fearsome odds and achieve victory. He also claimed that a phantom horseman, presumably St George, appeared to rally the Crusaders who captured Jerusalem from the Muslim forces on 15 July 1099. This story was probably influenced by the biblical story of the angel horsemen who appeared at Jerusalem during the Maccabean wars. From that point the legend of St George and the stories of warrior angels described in the Old Testament became interchangeable in the medieval mind.
Excerpted from The Angel of Mons by David Clarke Excerpted by permission.
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