The Many Faces of the Angels of Death
by Pamela Turner
Although the concept of an angel of death has existed since Biblical times, such a being was not specifically named or described. According to Angels A to Z, “Only in postbiblical literature does the idea of an angel of death as such emerge. This ‘angel’ gradually developed into a demonic figure acting on his own initiative. According to the Talmud, the angel of death was identified with Satan, and the notion of the angel of death as evil was reflected in many folktales...”
Despite this association with the devil, angels of death are also among the holy echelons. The Talmud Baba Metzia mentions the angel isn’t necessarily evil and remains an agent of God. Christian belief cites Michael as a psychopomp who, according to A Dictionary of Angels, Including the Fallen Angels, “leads souls into the eternal light.”
Michael is also one of the memitim, a certain angel who, along with Gabriel, Samael, Sariel, and Malak Almawt (an Islamic angel of death), brings “about the destruction of those whom the guardian angels no longer protected.” (http://www.hauntedamericatours.com/ghosts/SaintDeath.php)
Rabbinic writings list fourteen angels of death: Adriel, Apollyon-Abaddon, Azrael, Gabriel, Hemah, Kafziel, Kezef, Leviathan, Malach ha-Mavet, Mashhit, Metatron, Samael (Satan), Yehudiah (Yehudiam), and Yetzer-hara. The Pirke Rabbenu ha-Kadosh lists six angels of death: Gabriel (young people), Kafziel (kings), Meshabber (animals), Mashhit (children), Af (men), and Hemah (domestic animals).
There is also, according to Eisenmenger (Traditions of the Jews), a hierarchy among the angels of death. Metatron is the supreme angel of death and his subordinates are Gabriel and Samael.
Metatron, Gabriel, Samael, and Azrael, along with Xariel (Sariel), are angels of death in my short novel, Death Sword. While Metatron oversees the angels of death, somewhat like a CEO, Gabriel and Samael are his seconds-in-command.
Azrael is the highest-ranking angel of death in Death Sword. In the story, he’s exiled himself on an island of apple orchards. A legend has Azrael holding an apple from the Tree of Life to the nose of the dying person in order to entice the soul from the body. In Death Sword, the fallen apples represent souls to be collected. Azrael delivers the names of these people to Metatron, who passes them on to Gabriel and Samael, and so on.
The supreme angel of death, however, is not without his challengers. Samael, an angel of death relegated to desk duty, resolves to overtake Azrael’s position. His plan is thwarted by the arrival of Karla Black, a half-human angel and daughter of the Grigori leader, Azazel.
Samael determines to destroy Karla before she can realize her destiny. His weapon is a venomous rapier that can kill with one drop of poison. Samael, whose name means “poison angel” is also considered to be the chief of satans. He’s described by the Talmud Abodah Zarah, 20, as “altogether full of eyes.” When he reaches berserker stage in Death Sword, these eyes are revealed. In legend, he is said to have had, before the Fall, twelve wings and a rank above the Seraphim. If this is true, then he could be equated with Lucifer. Like many angels, Samael is considered good or evil, depending on the source.
Xariel (Sariel) is one of the angels of death who takes his orders from Samael. Sariel (Suriel) is called the angel of death in the Falasha Anthology and was said to have fetched the soul of Moses. Among Xariel’s other duties are to act as a sort of angelic officer, being “responsible for the lot of angels that violate God’s sacred ordinances” (Angels A to Z).
Like Samael, Xariel is both holy and fallen. As one of the Grigori, he taught men the lunar cycle, formerly deemed forbidden knowledge. In Death Sword, this action results in him being cursed by the Seraphim. No sex on the new or full moons and he loses his angelic powers.
Although Xariel is under Samael’s command, he formerly worked for Gabriel until a misunderstanding caused them to part ways. Along with Michael, Gabriel is the only angel mentioned by name in the Bible, not counting the Apocryphal writings. While he is best known as the angel of the Annunciation, he is also an angel of death who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The Talmud Sanhedrin 95b describes him as someone who “smote Sennacherib’s hosts ‘with a sharpened scythe which had been ready since Creation.’”
In Death Sword, Gabriel wields a large scythe and doesn’t hesitate to summon it, even against Karla or Xariel. A warrior angel, he approaches situations with the mindset of a soldier. Although Karla irritates him, he admires her determination to stop Samael, even at risk of her life. Gabriel’s passion is chess and he despairs of ever teaching Xariel the finer points of the game. He’d also like for Xariel to quit drinking.
The angels in Death Sword operate under free will, controlled only by the machinations of three Seraphic angels. It’s a world where love is considered a weakness and the Seraphim rule with intolerance and fear. One of my goals is to challenge peoples’ preconceived views of angels as well as notions of good and evil. Whether or not I’ll succeed remains to be seen.
Pamela Turner is the author of the upcoming short novel, Death Sword (Lyrical Press, Spring 2011). A former Wisconsinite, she lives in Kentucky where the bugs are bigger and allergies aren’t an option but the law. She spends way too much time in cemeteries and catering to her cat’s every whim. You can find out more at her website and blog. She’s currently working on the second book in her Angels of Death series.