The Heavenly Host in Coptic Traditions

By Otto F. A. Meinardus, Ph.D.*

Within the context of the theology and piety of the Copts the
heavenly host occupies an important place. There are the seven archangels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Suriel, Zedekiel, Serathiel, and Ananiel. They are the seven spirits of God (Rev. 4:5). Furthermore, the Holy Scriptures mention the seraphim with their six wings who filled the house with smoke (Is. 6:2 f) and the cherubim that provide the throne for the Lord (Ps. 99:1). The angels represent the lowest category of the celestial hierarchy. They are also closest to mankind.

The Holy Scriptures offer several answers pertaining to the various functions and responsibilities of angels. On the one hand, they appear in the form of a person conversing extensively with Hagar, the maid of Sar’ai (Gen. 16, 7), on the other hand, they are invisible (Col. 1:16). They are spiritual, bodiless creatures representing a superior rank in God’s creation. They protect and guard mankind (Ps. 91:11) and they expel all demons (Tobit 8). On the day of the last judgment they will separate the evil from the righteous one (Mt. 13:49). Moreover, they will carry the souls of the destitute to Father Abraham (Lk. 16:22). An angel appeared to Joseph (Mt. 1:20), to Zechariah (Lk. 1:13), to Mary (Lk. 1:28) and to the holy women at the empty tomb (Mk. 16:5). As to their numbers the biblical books provide different answers. Jacob dreamed that angels ascended and descended the heavenly ladder (Gen. 28:12). According to the prophecy of Daniel (7:10) there were literally millions of angels that served the ‘Ancient of Days,’ on the other hand, Jesus merely referred to twelve legions of angels (Mt. 25:53). For the seer of Patmos there were myriads and thousands of thousands (Rev. 5,11). On Christmas Eve we hear of the angel being accompanied by a multitude of the heavenly host (Lk. 2:13) For the medieval Kabbalists there were altogether 300,655,722 angels. The Dominican theologian St. Albertus Magnus (13th cent.) corrected the Jewish figure and estimated 399,930,004 angels, of whom, however, a third had fallen. Over against these almost astronomical figures, the Coptic numbers appear quite moderate. An early Coptic text, attributed to St. Bartholemew, merely mentions 12,000 cherubim, 20,000 seraphim and another 43,000 celestial beings.

The Copts pay special attention to St. Michael. On the 12th of each month they ask the archangel for protection and support. His power and might is limitless. He determined the annual rising of the Nile flood (12. Misra) and even stopped the movements of the sun (12. Baûna). At least 40 Coptic churches in Lower and Upper Egypt are dedicated to St. Michael. In most Coptic churches one altar is named after the archangel. On the occasion of the apparition of the Holy Virgin Mary on the roof of the Church of the Holy Virgin in Zeitûn in April 1968 “there appeared standing behind the Holy Virgin Mary a huge angel with his wings spread out” (24. Baramhat). Many Copts believed that this was St. Michael, the prince of the heavenly host.

Special psali – songs of praise – are offered to honour St. Gabriel, the angel of the annunciation (Dan. 8:16; Lk. 1:19, 20) on 30. Baramhat and 26. Baûna. St. Raphael commands the celestial powers and protects all those who call upon him. For the Copts St. Suriel serves as the heavenly trumpeter. With a loud trumpet-call he will gather the elect from the four winds (Mt. 24:31). He will cause the righteous to rise from the dead (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:32) and he will lead them to paradise (27. Tabah).

In the Coptic tradition apparitions of angels and archangels are quite common. It is, therefore, impossible to present a complete listing of all the various celestial manifestations. The following events are recorded in the Coptic synaxar. Sts. Dioscorus and Aesculapius were strengthened in their faith when the archangel appeared to them (1. Tubah). The angel of the Lord touched the tongue of St. Ezekiel of Armant (14. Kihak) and comforted St. George of Damirah (19. Baûna). An angel called upon St. Isaac of Tiphre to prepare himself from martyrdom (16. Bashons). St. John of Sanhût was guided by an angel to the town of Atripe to testify there to his faith (8. Bashons). An angel appeared to St. John of Lycopolis and ordered him to settle down in the desert (12. Hatûr) and St. John Kame received word from an angel to establish a monastery (25. Kihak). St. Macarius was led by an angel into the inner desert (27. Barmudah) and Sts.Warshanufi and Paphnutius of Dendera were admonished by an angel to seek the crown of martyrdom (20. Barmudah). An angel appeared to St. Pidjimi and told him to become a monk (11. Kihak). During the years 1995 and 1996 many Copts from Cairo and Lower Egypt, but also many Muslims, experienced numerous apparitions of the Archangel St. Michael in the Church of St. Michael in the Sharqiya-village of Kafr Yusuf Samri, a few kilometers south of Zaqaziq in the diocese of Anbâ Yaqûbûs of Minya Qamh and Zaqaziq. According to the testimony of Abûnâ Samîl Zecharîah, the parish priest of the Church of St. Michael, the archangel appeared in various forms, sometimes as a youth dressed in a white galabiya (cf. Mt. 28:3), others saw the angel in an unusually bright light, while others even testify of having seen the angel with his wings in the nave of the sanctuary. Many miracles were recorded, viz. demon exorcisms, multiplications of oil, several healings of oedema, hypertrophies, Haemorrhoids, tumours, etc.

These manifestations ought to be seen in the light of the present precarious situation of members of a beleaguered minority. Wholeheartedly they trust in the words of the prophecy that “all that time the archangel Michael shall arise and deliver his people from all trouble” (Dan. 12: 1, 2).

In addition to the “good angels,” the Copts also know about Abbaton, the merciless and furious angel who punishes the unredeemed. Moreover there exists Sakliatoboth or Mastema, known among Western Christians as Lucifier or Satan, the Leviathan (Ps. 74:14). It is interesting to note that Coptic iconography has avoided to present the angels in the form of the Old Testament tetramorphs with their four faces each having four wings (Ez. 1:4-28). On the contrary, the forerunners of the Coptic angels seem to have been the hellenistic angels, viz. the “flying eros” on a square tunica-insert.

Additionally to the seraphim, cherubim, archangels, angels, thrones, dominions, principalities and authorities (Col. 1:16), there are the Twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse. They play an important role in Coptic theology, liturgy, magic and iconography. They are clad in white garments wearing golden bowls full of incense and joining in a new song (Rev. 4:4; 5:8). Before the heavenly throne they fall down while praising the Lamb of God (24. Hatûr). The oldest iconographic representation of the Twenty-four Elders – although badly damaged – is in the apse of the church of the Monastery of St. Simeon, Aswân (9th / 10th cent.) Another 10th century fresco adorns the haikal of the Chapel of St. Takla Haymanot in the Church of the Holy Virgin al-Mu’allaqah in Old Cairo. Throughout the centuries, Coptic parish-and monastic churches in Lower and Upper Egypt were adorned with frescoes of the imagery of the Aposcalypse, including the Twenty-four Elders. Among the better known Apocalyptic cycles are those in the Chapel of St. Benjamin in the Monastery of St. Macarius (11th century) and in the Chapel of the Twenty-four Elders in the Monastery of St. Paul the Theban (1710). In most churches the paintings of the Twenty-four Elders decorate the walls of the haikal as in the Church of the Holy Virgin, Rod al-Farag, Shabra or the Church of St. George in Giza.

According to Coptic tradition the Twenty-four Elders are named after the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, viz. Akhaêl, Banoêl, Ganoêl, Daoêl, Zaoêl, Eaoêl, Thaoêl, Ioêl, Kaoêl, Laoêl, Maoêl, Naoêl, etc. It is really not surprising that for the Copts the images of the Apocalypse are part and parcel of their religious tradition. On Easter Sunday all 22 chapters of the last book of the New Testament are being read. Moreover the four bodiless living creatures (asomati) and the Twenty-four Elders are mentioned in the final blessing at the service of the evening raising of incense.

A few years ago, there has been a rather interesting ‘addition’ to the celestial world of the Copts. The iconographers of the neo-Coptic school of art of Professor Isaac Fanus have repeatedly incorporated pre- Christian pharaonic images and symbols into traditional biblical subjects. Thus, for example, to the well-known Coptic theme of the Flight of the Holy Family from Bethlehem to Upper Egypt they have added Horus, “the god ruling over the sky and the stars” in the form of a magnificent bird whose wings touch the limits of the earth. He guides the Holy Family and Salome the midwife along the Nile Valley to Upper Egypt. Special attention is given to the udjat-eye which was damaged by Seth but eventually restored by Thot. The Christian, however, sees in the well-known udjat the “never-sleeping eye” of God with which He leads his people through heights and depths of their daily life. (Ps. 121:3,4).

*Professor Otto F.A. Meinardus is a member fo the German Archaeological Society. He taught in the American University at Cairo and in the Cairo Institute of Coptic Studies. He has written numerous articles and books on Coptic history and monasticism. His latest book, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity is reviewed in this issue.



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