The Siren’s Call: Angels with guns . . . and six-pack abs


Michael Ordoña’s recent talk, on The Times’ blog Hero Complex, with actor Paul Bettany about his role as Michael the archangel in the movie “Legion” touches on all the militaristic imagery of angels. There’s also plenty of that in a gorgeous coffee table book, “The Glory of Angels” by Edward Lucie-Smith, that came and went around the Christmas season. I retrieved mine from the shelf after seeing Bettany’s armed, winged, six-pack image at our local AMC. Then, I asked myself the following questions:

-- What was that battle between heaven’s forces and the rebel angels really like? Was it a total victory (think of the Allies in World War II) or an ambiguous, bitter conflict like Vietnam?

-- If the good guys won, if the victory was so decisive, then why do so many angels in Lucie-Smith’s book carry swords or, as is the case in “Legion,” machine guns?


-- One other thing: When did angels start sporting six-packs? I checked my Aquinas: I don’t see anything about astral bodies being pumped up.

A couple of good places to start your own angelic musings are Rami Shapiro’s “The Angelic Way” (previously reviewed in this column) and the forthcoming “Angels” by David Albert Jones from Oxford University Press.

One other thing: During their Hero Complex interview, Bettany tells Ordoña that researching his role as Michael was difficult because he couldn’t go and hang out with the archangel Michael and observe what an angel does. On the other hand, Bettany, whose wife is actress Jennifer Connelly, overlooked the obvious fact: that he’s married to one.

AND SPEAKING OF ANGELS: Danielle Trussoni’s forthcoming novel “Angelology” from Viking turns on the idea, drawn from the following verse from Genesis, that angels procreated with humans and produced a special line of progeny:

“When people began being numerous on earth, and daughters had been born to them, the sons of God, looking at the women, saw how beautiful they were and married as many of them as they chose.” (Genesis 6:1-2, New Jerusalem Bible)

The offspring - called the Nephilim - take a central role in Trussoni’s novel as provocateurs, or maybe saboteurs is better, of anything good that humanity has tried to do through the millenniums. Pitted against them is the Society of Angelologists that is trying to stop them once and for all. It’s a premise full of mythic potential not just for readers but also for the silver screen -- motion picture rights, the advance publicity materials announce, have already been sold to Sony.

“ANGELIC” IS A TERM that applies to the music of Renaissance-era Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo. There’s a breathtaking moment in Gesualdo’s hymn “Ave, dulcissima Maria” when the tempo slows and everything comes to a halt. Then, suddenly, the chorus breaks through this silence, dramatically singing “ora pro nobis” with what feels like genuine pleading, as if on behalf of all of humanity.


It’s so majestic, so wonderful that I thought Gesualdo must’ve been a household name in his day, in late-16th century Italy -- so it was a real surprise to learn from Glenn Watkins, in “The Gesualdo Hex” from W.W. Norton, that the composer’s success has only been very recent. For a long time, Watkins points out, historians and critics dismissed Gesualdo’s compositions as “slight” and “sadly amateurish,” as “closet music” that no one would ever actually perform. His work has been rescued from that closet thanks to the interest of prominent figures like Igor Stravinsky and Werner Herzog, and new developments “including the emergence of vocal ensembles that have taught us that the music . . . provides one of the most vibrant legacies of the late Italian Renaissance. . . .”

The reason for mentioning the book here, in a column about myth and superstition, is that Gesualdo’s life was obscured by a murky veil of occult interests and gothic violence. He and his servants laid a trap for his first wife and her lover and murdered them in their bed; his frequent bouts of illness led him to invite alchemists and witches to try to help him: “Gesualdo’s castle became the locus of a continual parade of magicians and medical advisors,” Watkins tells us. Watkins says the story of Gesualdo is “an overloaded tale,” but I say, bring it on, sir. The author tells an entirely captivating story about a figure whose beautiful, soaring hymns glow next to the black, lurid depths of his life.

OK, SO ONE EXPECTATION SURROUNDING Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” was that it would increase tourism in our nation’s capital. In the last few months, several published guides to the novel are like ad hoc tour books, with plenty of images and maps that seem straight out of Fodor’s. Among these is “An Illustrated Guide to ‘The Lost Symbol,’ ” edited by John Weber, which has the expected images of the capital and others pertaining to scenes from the novel.

The reason for singling out this book has less to do with its articles by contributors on all the bells and whistles in Brown’s book -- Masonic secret history, noetic science -- but because it concludes with a small gem: a timeline of developments among Templars, Rosicrucians and others taken from Umberto Eco’s novel “Foucault’s Pendulum.” The whole point of a timeline is that its significance will vary depending on the beholder: Events are more sinister and coincidences less coincidental to the true conspiracy theorist. As the timeline’s compiler laments: “I found myself in a morass of books, in which it was difficult to distinguish historical fact from hermetic gossip.” Instead, he gives up and leaves that task for us. Good luck.

A FINAL WORD ON ANOTHER BLOG now a part of my regular rounds: Davinci Automata. The Steampunk genre of fiction isn’t going away any time soon, and this blog reminds us of the real, historical roots behind a genre that takes so many mechanical flights of fancy. Next time your iPod melts down or your online bank account freezes, turn to this site for a refreshing alternative glimpse of sublime, clockwork wizardry. In fact, do it right now.

Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. The Siren’s Call appears at www.