The untold truth of fallen angels

First, a bit of a disclaimer: Religion is as complicated as the people who follow it. Taking on even a small section of theology is a massive undertaking, and honestly, it's just a mess of different versions of all kinds of stories and beliefs. So that being said, let's talk about some of the bad boys of several religions: fallen angels.

Everyone knows what angels are — wings, halos, all kinds of bright light and grace. Fallen angels started out not-so-different at all, and there's a lesson to be learned there. The first — and often, the only — fallen angel most people think of is the Christian version of Lucifer, who took on God, fell from heaven, and went on to run a nightclub and consult with the LAPD.

But he's definitely not the only one, and different religious traditions even have their own and very different pantheons of fallen angels. They're a fascinating glimpse into what mere mortals fear most, and looking at just who fallen angels are and what they do tells just us just as much about ourselves as it does about them.

What makes a fallen angel, well, fallen?

So here's where things get complicated. Fallen angels are basically angels that have given up on the good and righteous path and turned to evil, everyone knows that, right? But in some religions, there's more to the story. According to Whitney Hopler of George Mason University's Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, the Jewish and Christian traditions believe that fallen angels were originally just as holy as any of the other angels, but fell when the most beautiful of them all — Lucifer — decided to rebel and enticed others to go with him. The rebellion and their loss to Michael and his angelic army turned them evil, and a lot of them — about a third of all angels — fell with Lucifer.

In Hindu traditions, it's a little different. They believe that the creator god, Brahma, actually made some angelic beings good and some evil from the very beginning. Why? Because it's meant to illustrate the natural order of things, and balance in the universe.

And fallen angels don't exist in Islam, where traditions say that all angels are good — including the ones tasked with overseeing those whose evil souls who have landed them in hell. They're lording over hell, yes, but they're still doing divine work. There's another explanation for Satan there, too, and it basically says he's not an angel, he's a jinn: a creature made from fire and free will.

Where most of our knowledge of fallen angels comes from

Whitney Hopler of George Mason University's Center for the Advancement of Well-Being says those who believe in fallen angels typically believe them to be responsible for things like tempting mortals into sin. And they're tricky about it, too, sometimes masquerading as good angels as they torment and tempt.

How do we know all this? A lot of our knowledge of fallen angels comes from the non-canonical Book of Enoch, which was written about 350 B.C. and was found with the Dead Sea Scrolls. It's pretty heavy stuff, too, according to the Biblical Archaeology Society Library. The texts claim to be the revelations of Enoch, who was taken up to heaven and told the universe's deepest secrets, then shown just what would happen during mankind's ultimate judgment.

Enoch shows up in other texts, and according to the Gnostic Society Library, there are a ton of stories about him. He lived to be 365 years old, eventually telling his tales to his son, Methuselah, who achieved an impressive 969 years on Earth. Strangely, even though the stories of Enoch were influenced by the mythology of places like Babylon and, in turn, influenced Judaism and Christianity, the only place that all 100 chapters of the book survived was Ethiopia. Among those chapters was a fascinating explanation of fallen angels.

Lust destroyed the angels of the Book of Enoch

One of the most widely told tales of fallen angels says it was Lucifer who rebelled against God and brought a bunch of angels down with him, but the story told in the Book of Enoch is very, very different.

According to the Gnostic Society Library, the Book of Enoch tells the tale of angels who are destroyed by lust. (The story also shows up in Genesis, but in less detail.) Before the Great Flood, angels and humans met and mingled pretty commonly, and the inevitable happened: children. Those children were the sons and daughters of 200 angels, and they were a race of 450-foot-tall giants. The angels started teaching their giant offspring evil ways, and God not only imprisoned them, but subjected them to judgment and sent the flood to hit the reset button on his creations. (It's also worth noting that Les Enluminures says Noah is the great-grandson of Enoch.)

Enoch, the story says, tried to speak on behalf of the angels and their giant children — but sadly, a lot of the texts are missing. We do know that Enoch was the one God selected to act as an intermediary to the fallen angels, instructing him to tell them what their punishment would be for their transgressions. They were to be condemned to the ends of the earth, and punishment was definitely going to be a big part of their version of eternity.

Fallen angels were disobedient to God in other traditions

According to Les Enluminures, Enoch was considered a prophet to early Jewish writers. When Christianity started to adopt his teachings, he largely fell out of favor with Judaism. Christian writers took the Book of Enoch with them when they converted the rather isolated areas of Ethiopia in the fourth and fifth centuries, preserving the text there, where it stayed before being brought to Europe in 1773. Meanwhile, Christian scholars and writers were doing some serious interpreting of the version of the Bible approved by the church, and the thing is, it's never said that Satan is a fallen angel.

How he became one is a bit of tricky logic, says Live Science. The reasoning went like this: God created everything in the universe, and therefore, God created Satan. But the only things God creates are good things, so therefore, Satan must have been good at one point. He needed to have the free will to turn bad, so he became a fallen angel.

To get technical about it, the first Biblical character given the moniker "lucifer" wasn't a fallen angel at all — it was Jesus. He was called "Lucifer" in an old translation of the Bible, and the name was only later applied to the world's least favorite fallen angel when, in Luke 10:18, Jesus said, "I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky" (via Franciscan Media).

The first of the fallen angels

According to the Book of Enoch, each one of the first of the fallen angels was responsible for teaching mankind something that led them to sin. Take Asbeel. He's the one who gave the evilest of counsel to the "holy sons of God," and introduced them to the wonders — and basest evils — that came with hooking up with women. Kasdeja was the one who brought mankind knowledge about spirits and demons, and who showed them "the smitings of the embryo in the womb" and "the smitings which befall through the noontide heat."

The creation of a race of giants (half-angels, half-human) was said to have been the work of one angel in particular: the leader of the fallen, Shernihaza (via the Gnostic Society Library). Other sources cite variations of the name, like Samjaza, but he was the one that led to the ultimate imprisonment of the fallen and the end of the world with the Flood. The Book of Giants tells the story of some of his children — like Ohya and Hahya — but sadly, much of the manuscript has been lost.

Perhaps the strangest of all was Penemue, the fallen angel credited with giving mankind something that led to all kinds of evil: the written language. With writing came the knowledge of destruction, and writing was supposedly responsible for widespread death and descent into darkness.

The one you know? That's Gadreel

There's one fallen angel in particular that warrants talking about on his own, and that's Gadreel. According to the Book of Enoch, Gadreel was responsible for a lot of trouble on his own and even though most might not recognize his name, they're familiar with his work. He's the one who's credited with enticing Eve with the forbidden fruit and leading otherwise unsuspecting, holy humans down the path of sin in the first place. He's also the one who gave mankind "all the weapons of death," along with shields and armor, and he first showed people how to kill each other.

That's completely different than the picture many have about just what went down in the Garden of Eden, an act of temptation that's usually credited to Satan in the guise of a snake. But according to the Biblical Archaeology Society, that absolutely wasn't on anyone's mind when it was first written, mostly because at the time there was no concept of the devil as we think of him today. Personification of the snake started with Enoch and Gadreel, but it took a few centuries before the fallen angel morphed into one much more well-known.

Fallen angels originally looked quite different

Quick, describe a fallen angel. There are probably some scowly faces, bat-like wings, maybe even some horns or cloven hooves. But National Geographic says it wasn't always like that. In early Christian art, fallen angels looked pretty much the same as their holier counterparts. One of the earliest representations of the idea that there were angels and fallen angels opposing each other in an otherworldly battle is featured in a mosaic (above) in the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. Jesus is in the middle, and on one side are an angel in red with some sheep. The sheep are the faithful, and red was originally used to depict the holy kingdom. (It didn't become associated with brimstone and hellfire until later.)

On the other side is a figure thought to be Lucifer or Satan, but he doesn't look very Satanic. He stands next to goats instead of sheep, and he's wearing blue, which was the color of the damned. The mosaic also suggests fallen angels kept their iconic halos, which were a symbol of power, not holiness.

According to the British Library, this image of fallen angels started to morph into something much more grotesque in the Middle Ages, and they were designed to be an evil interpretation of a traditionally angelic form. Still, fallen angels retained the ability to disguise their true form, and that's extremely creepy.

Our ideas about fallen angels were largely created by fiction writers

If fallen angels started out looking like, well, angels, why do we think of them as horrible, twisted, demonic creatures? The answer, says National Geographic, involved John Milton's Paradise Lost and his depiction of Lucifer. But it's more complicated than that. Milton — who was writing in the 17th century — tapped into what was essentially a pop culture depiction of a fallen angel who wasn't described in the Bible at all.

Throughout the Middle Ages, a strange thing started to happen. Creatures from ancient Babylonian texts — called Lilitu — started to take on a new life as these winged seductresses became associated with Adam's first wife, Lilith. At the same time, parallels were drawn between Satan and the ancient Canaanite deity Beelzebub, and the ancient Roman half-goat, half-man god of nature, Pan.

Then, in the 14th century, Dante described Satan as lording over the deepest depths of hell, and gave him his bat wings. Milton hopped on board a bit later — when Satan had been transformed from a passive adversary into an active evil — and wrote the descriptions of the fallen angels that we now think of today, existing in "Adamantine Chains and penal Fire." (Above, Milton's fallen angels are illustrated getting totally wrecked in battle.)

Fallen angels were a huge problem for theologists

The existence of fallen angels has presented theologians with some serious problems; namely, how could they even exist? Since God created everything, that also meant God had created something evil or with the capacity to be evil, and that just wasn't going to fly with most Christian scholars. The implications of that were terrifying, so there had to be another explanation.

Until the 12th century, "pride" was the typical answer as to why fallen angels fell. But that meant God would have had to create something with a crippling, all-powerful amount of pride, and that didn't fly. So scholars came up with the idea that angels had been created with a natural love that allowed them to love God, themselves, and each other. Part of that love was involuntary, and another part was voluntary. That voluntary love was further divided into the idea of friendship and the idea that some love exists because it makes someone happy.

It was further argued that angels' love of God was the involuntary kind, and all was fine. Until, that is, one angel realized that he loved God because God made him powerful, and that made it voluntary. Once that angel — Lucifer — realized how nice it was to love and be loved for selfish pleasure instead of simply for love's sake, well, that's when all the problems started.

After Lucifer, the other angels fell because they were lonely

The idea that Lucifer kicked off the fall of the angels because he started experiencing love for a selfish reason is all well and good, and it kind of makes sense. It's another side to the pride coin, but a twisted, dark, selfish love … that's something most people can understand. That may have made it possible for that Lucifer to fall, but what about the other angels that went with him?

That presented another theological problem because other angels just weren't on the same level as Lucifer, God's most beautiful creation. Scholars thought it was a little unbelievable that lesser angels could possibly love in the same way, so what's up with that? The explanation is actually pretty heartbreaking.

The theory developed by thinkers of the Middle Ages says those angels fell not because they hated God but because they loved Lucifer. God was largely an absent, distant figure, after all, and Lucifer was their friend. Rather than condemning themselves to struggle for the acceptance of an unreachable father, perhaps they followed their brother into exile.

Fallen angels' lack of lust for men was used to condemn anyone who was gay

Religion impacts the material, human world in strange ways, and one of those ways, says scholars from the Mirabilia Journal, is that the idea of fallen angels impacted just how homophobic the world was for a long time. Scholars have long debated about whether fallen angels and demons are capable of love, and some described it not as a love like most know it, but as a desire for other creatures as a sort of stepping stone in the creation of their own evil ends.

Since Christian writers as far back as Paul warn women of attracting the lusty gazes of fallen angels, it's safe to say they believed there was something going on there. But it's not so much love as it is lust, and the male demons and fallen angels seem to only have these affections for women. Early scholars declared that since not even fallen angels would lust after their own sex, there was something very fundamentally wrong with humans who did that. The role of fallen angels is to tempt in the most horrible and basest of ways, and even they wouldn't tempt other men. Cue centuries of persecution.

Other angels are tasked specifically with punishing fallen angels

If you think about it — really, really think about it — there's nothing in our contemporary version of things that suggests there's really any kind of punishment for the fallen angels that joined Lucifer from his descent from the heavens. Sure, there's a hell, but they're not exactly at the mercy of all the demons there … they are the demons. Right?

Not quite. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, the seven archangels counted the punishing of the fallen angels among their heavenly duties. Each one of the archangels was in charge of particular facets of the otherworldly life: Jeremiel, for example, keeps watch over the souls in the underworld, while Michael protects Israel, Gabriel is the overseer of Paradise, and Uriel leads the host. They're the ones with direct access to God, and they're also in charge of punishing the fallen.

Punish how? Take Azazel, who was the one who taught mankind how to make weapons. According to the Watkins Dictionary of Angels, he was punished by Raphael, who put him in chains, threw him in a pit full of sharp rocks in the middle of the desert, and brought the darkness down on him while he waited for his condemnation after the final judgment. Sounds like a grand ol' time.