Returning to Singapore has been academically challenging, not only for the lack of resources, but also because my research interest seems utterly incomprehensible – not to mention irrelevant – to most casual observers. Trying to keep my mind tuned in to the Anglo-Saxon world I was once immersed in has proven far more difficult than I’d first imagined! So, thank you for waiting so patiently for my next contribution to this blog.
I resume my blogging exploits with a somewhat left-field question – do demons have wings? My instinctive reaction was a resounding ‘Yes’. The Anglo-Saxon depictions of demons often made reference to their powers of flight. In Blickling Homily 15, which is itself an adaptation of the passiones of Peter and Paul, the wicked Simon Magus is carried into the air by invisible flying demons. This belief in flying demons carrying human beings can also be found in Felix’s Life of Guthlac (c.31) and Bede’s Life of Cuthbert (c.22). However, I came across Lockerbie-Cameron’s discussion of flying demons in Aelfric’s writings and how this concept of ‘wicked flying spirits’ was not necessarily heterodox, but nevertheless required some further explanation with regards to its intellectual origins.
That got me thinking about the conceptualisation of demons in Anglo-Saxon England. If demons were not always assumed to have the power of flight, then perhaps my assumption about the existence of demonic wings might be overly hasty. Pictorial evidence, such as images of demons in the Junius 11 manuscript and Psalm 37 in the Eadwine Psalter, clearly depict winged demons. But, interestingly, the lengthy description of the physical appearance of demons in Felix’s Life of Guthlac makes no reference to wings at all:
‘…they were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeon breasts, scabby thighs, spreading mouths, raucous cries. For they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shriekings that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowings.’ (c.31; trans. Colgrave)
I feel somewhat exposed without the actual text before me as I might have neglected to include some information in my notes, but based on my own remarks on the Life of Guthlac, the absence of wings is curious. I relied extensively on the Anglo-Latin hagiographies and Old English medical manuscripts for my research, but neither set of texts seems to make any particular reference to demonic wings. Peter Dendle does comment on the appearance of wings on the bound Satan in the Junius 11 manuscript (Dendle, Satan Unbound, p.91), but I’m unaware of any further discussion of the matter.
It is, admittedly, a somewhat trivial point, but I’m intrigued nonetheless by two key questions: when did demons ‘grow’ wings, and why? The earliest evidence I know of a winged demon is the depiction of Satan in the tenth-century Leofric Missal, which predates the Junius 11 manuscript and Eadwine Psalter by about a century. One can just about make out feathered wings attached to Satan’s back in the image. I admit I’m no palaeographical expert, but I’m not entirely certain that the wings were originally part of image and may possibly have been a later addition. My skepticism is fueled by the illuminations in the Harley Psalter of the mid-eleventh-century. None of the figures in the psalter can be conclusively identified as demons, but the image accompanying Psalm 117 seems to depict angels defending the psalmist against supernatural enemies. This psalm, of course, was recited a form of demonic defence (Life of Oswald, c.1; Life of Guthlac, c.29). In the Harley illumination, the angels defending the psalmist are winged, but not their supernatural adversaries. Thus, I suggest that it was only in the later half of the eleventh century that winged demons became more popular.
The ‘why’ question is even more difficult to answer than the first. My hypothesis brings me back to angels and the theological understanding of demons as fallen angels. I believe it is no coincidence that the Junius 11 manuscript, which is one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon depictions of winged demons, also clearly identifies demons as fallen angels, in line with the narrative from the Book of Enoch. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Book of Enoch was probably used as the primary theological explanation for the existence of demons on earth. As fallen angels, demons retained some of the characteristics of their former glory; wings and the power of flight may well have been considered among them. Angels most certainly had wings [see Isaiah 6:2], so it was not inconceivable that demons simply retained their wings as a relic of their former angelic state.
There are, of course, many other alternative explanations. Meaney has highlighted Aelfric’s tendency to allegorise the swifts around the steeple as representations of demons (pp.70-6), and perhaps the close association between birds and demons eventually created the concept of winged demons. Considering that demons could fly as early as the eighth-century hagiographies, it could also be argued that the authors simply assumed that flying demons would have wings and didn’t see the need to belabour the point.
Unfortunately, this is where I feel the frustration of being thousands of miles away from the British Library, the Bodleian, and the other arteries of my Anglo-Saxon lifeblood that course through England. Without the actual sources on hand, my hypothesis remains speculative rather than conclusive. But I hope that these thoughts might lead to further inquiry into our conceptualisation of demons in the Anglo-Saxon period and how much of it has been shaped by later influences.
Bede. ‘Life of Cuthbert’. In The Age of Bede, trans. J.F. Webb and D.H. Farmer, pp.41-104. Penguin, 1965.
Bryhtferth of Ramsey. ‘Life of Oswald’. In The Lives of St Oswald and St Ecgwine, ed. and trans. Michael Lapidge. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009.
Dendle, Peter. Satan Unbound. University of Toronto Press, 2001.
Felix. The Life of Guthlac, translated by Bertram Colgrave. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956.
Lockerbie-Cameron, M.A.L. ‘Aelfric’s Devils’, Notes and Queries Sept. 1993: pp.286-7.
Meaney, Audrey. ‘The Devil Can Seriously Damage Your Health: Reflections on Anglo-Saxon Demonology’. In The Devil in Society in Premodern Europe. Edited by Richard Raiswell with Peter Dendle, pp.69-108. Toronto: CRRS, 2012.
The Blickling Homilies, translated by Richard Morris. London: OUP, 1967.