Vampires, witches, and werewolves have long been the icons of scary stories, as surely as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman have become the iconic trio of superheroes. Meanwhile fairies and goblins, hailing from the pagan traditions of ancient Europe, are natural inclusions in any fantasy, urban or otherwise. But the conflict between good and evil is far, far older than any of these, and has been deeply imprinted onto humanity from the beginning, and so there are far older powers which manifest within the stories we tell about that conflict and our role in it today. This week, I discuss the very agents of Heaven and Hell themselves, the angels and demons we see in urban fantasy.
Starting off with the most obvious elephant in the room: Supernatural.
The show begins with a murder committed by a demon, and it looks to be ending with a confrontation with God himself, also known as Chuck. In between, there have been angels and demons galore, drawn from every corner of the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the multitude of apocryphal add-ons which have popped up over the eons, plus a few original additions. That’s a great deal to explain, so I am going to do as Inigo Montoya did, and sum-up.
In the world of Supernatural, God had a sister who was jealous of the attention he gave his creations, so she destroyed all of them. For his creative process to succeed, he had to lock her up, and he needed help with that, so he created what we call the Archangels, who, like all angels to follow, would be incorporeal beings made of the cosmic energy of his light. With the Archangels helping, God locked his sister away, and went on to create infinite realities, but a key was required to keep her prison intact, and he entrusted this to Lucifer. Unfortunately, Lucifer became corrupted by it, so, when God created humans, beings who had actual souls, Lucifer lost his mind in jealousy, too, and went about corrupting and destroying all the human souls God had created. Thus, the first demons came into being, and they have carried on the work of corrupting humanity ever since, no matter that their original corrupter was imprisoned.
And so it has been ever since, with demons luring countless souls into bargains that seal their fate in Hell, while the angels safeguard all the other souls in the vaults of Heaven, both sides awaiting the Apocalypse. Once the Apocalypse happens, though, and not in accordance with the script, both sides undergo ordeals, undertakings, and transformations for which they are not prepared. This puts them very off-balance, as they make serious mistakes, and forge unusual alliances in desperate times. All of which allows the humans to shine foremost in the story as the equals, and sometimes the undoing, of both angels and demons.
Interestingly, as both angels and demons are incorporeal, they have to possess human bodies in order to act on Earth. Demons, perhaps because they originally were humans, are able to do this involuntarily, while angels need consent… or, rather, they need their chosen human vessel to say the word, “Yes,” in some way. On their own, demons are like wisps of smoke, usually but not always black in color, while angels are apparently towering creatures of shining power with wings. Demons forfeit humanity but keep their own will, or at least some twisted shell of their will, while angels need to learn about having and using their own will in the first place. And make no mistake, while demons are utterly self-interested, they can still occasionally be found working alongside an angel or two, while angels can be every bit as selfish and duplicitous as the worst of demons and humans.
Outside Supernatural, most stories tend to treat the subject of angels and demons with more of a feather touch, if at all. In the world of the Mercy Thompson series, for instance, there is an acknowledgement that both exist, but they do not come up that often. One character, Charles Cornick, states that he has seen an angel, but as of yet there haven’t been any details shared of that experience. As for demons, we have met one, so far, it being the primary antagonist of the second novel of the series, Blood Bound. From this, we learn that demons can be summoned to grant sorcerers great power in exchange for possessing them. These are called “demon-ridden,” and they are highly dangerous and destructive, especially as the will of the sorcerer is worn away until only the demon is left. The danger of them, I think, cannot be overstated, as their mere presence drives every creature to worse and more spontaneous violence, and the demon-ridden themselves wields power over the mind and will, and it is very, very difficult to kill.
The Monster Hunters series is a personal favorite of mine for how it treats angels and demons because, while it doesn’t go about preaching at all, there are certain traces to be found of the religion which the author and I both follow. It doesn’t get too explicit about it, but, basically, angels are servants of God who further His work and help mankind, often working through mortal allies but sometimes stepping in directly. As for demons, there are references to an ancient conflict, a division where some angels rebelled and were cast out, and they have worked against God and mankind ever since, taking a variety of shapes to do so and leaving much devastation in their wake. Where it deviates, as stories must deviate from reality, is that there are also other powers, other factions, at work in the cosmos, and so there are other angels and demons to be found as a truly cosmic conflict comes into focus.
I also love how the Dresden Files depict angels and demons. We don’t see much of them early on, except for one scene fairly early in the series where the main protagonist summons a demon, as wizards can, to gain information. The demon appears to be rather civil, at first, which encourages the hero to think of him like one of those unusual friends that demons are often depicted to be. But that soon turns out to be a facade, and the truth is revealed: the demon is evil and malicious, and careful and cunning, and ravenously eager to obtain the hero’s soul. It leaves him a bit shaken as he realizes the truth.
The same hero has to contend, several times, with an order of fallen angels (ie, demons or devils or what have you) who possess human hosts by way of their possession of some rather infamous silver coins which were once given to Judas Iscariot. The hero himself becomes partially possessed, though he deals with it in an unusual way. Through this experience, he gains even more insight into how the other side works, especially in terms of temptation and turning a shining knight’s own virtue into a weapon which destroys them.
Finally, there are the angels, and the audience sees at least two of them. A powerful fae refers to the Archangels as if familiar with their behavior, but we see one of them directly more than once. Uriel is his name, and he is something like, if God had ninjas, then he’d be chief among them. He is clever, cunning, patient, and he’s always working on a plan. He also takes the time to explain things to the hero every so often, to help them understand, and chief among what is to be understood is this: they fight for free will itself, which means they cannot, must not, violate it. Ever. That means striking a balance between acting too directly or not acting at all.
The other angel the audience meets is none other than an angel of death. And that, too, is not as one might think. They come to collect souls, yes, but death itself is not evil and not to be feared. No, the angel’s primary purpose is to protect the soul they collect, especially when that soul has done so much good that the powers of Hell would dearly, dearly love to take retribution.
To wrap this up, there are two more shows I am discussing in this little monster-themed series which give me a bit less to work with.
The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off The Originals don’t seem to have much of either angels or demons at all. I am given to understand that something at least demonic comes into play in the third show of the franchise, Legacies, but so far as I know, everything supernatural on the shows is pretty much the result of the activities of witches.
As for the Buffy and Angel shows created by Joss Whedon, the word “demon” seems to be practically a catch-all for supernatural creatures that are not human, as opposed to witches, vampires, and werewolves. That leaves a lot of room open for what can qualify as a demon, including a number of ancient, apocalyptic evil forces and their many servants. It can refer to creatures that come and feed on humanity, and it can refer to truly massive monsters that we only see once or twice. It can refer even to the thing that resides within a vampire that makes it a vampire. Some are phantasmal, others are entirely physical. Some eat flesh, and some eat souls. Almost all of them, I believe, originate from other planes of existence, other dimensions, other worlds. Which, as my best friend noticed, all of these other planes and dimensions seem to be hellish and spawn demons who invade our world and feed on us. But, he also noted, that could be explained if our world was appealing to them, while those who might be theoretically more advanced and enlightened and safer might see our Earth as some backwater planet, and with porous, unsecured borders to boot. Small wonder they would stay away, while the savages continually infiltrate and pillage.
As opposed to the proliferation of everything that is called “demon,” there are no angels at all. In fact, the closest we get to benevolent cosmic protectors is some nebulous unknown group of intelligent beings referred to on Angel as the Powers That Be. Despite the name, they seem to be pretty well powerless to act for themselves, so they select servants and champions and vessels and the like, including giving the gift of visions which not only are too obscure, but are also eventually lethal for a human to have. And then there’s how the single strongest Big Bad on Buffy was formerly a god (or, a Hell-goddess, really), and one of the worst evils on Angel is a Power That Was, which rebelled against its fellows and descended to take control in a manner that is strikingly reminiscent to me of the devil as my own religion sees him. As in, I seriously wonder if Joss Whedon based this on the “mythology,” so to speak, of my own faith.
Either way, there are certain similarities found among all of these iterations of angels and demons, made more prominent, I think, by their differences.
Both of them are unearthly powers, agents of opposing forces greater than themselves. They are limited in some ways as to how directly they can intervene, being much more effective with the aid of the mortals whom they aid/use in turn. Demons are rebels doomed to failure and suffering, while angels are strongest when they stand firm and unyielding for the sake of others. One side actively spreads suffering and urges people to be their worst selves, while the other tries to mitigate suffering and encourage the best in others.
Ultimately, though, it strikes me that demons are just self-serving angels, which angels were never meant to be. When was the last time you heard of someone being called angelic when they did something selfish, instead of something selfless?