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St. Michael the Archangel mirroring the pose of his predecessor Reshef. 

 

Summary

TL;DR: The Archangel Michael is so ancient that you can trace his name back to around at least 1600 BCE, a thousand years before he is ever mentioned in Judaism. He appears to have found his way into Hebrew via the Babylonian Exile in the fifth century BCE, and through neighbouring West Semitic cultures where he was a prominent chthonic martial deity called Mikal. While the Michael-Mikal connection has been made before, I am proposing that Mikal’s name came from an Akkadian word for “red” which was a poetic name for the planet Mars. This name was a title for both the Sumerian god Nergal (with whom Mikal was syncretized), and got taken by the Babylonian god Marduk as a result of the conquest of Sumer.
(Sources are listed at the bottom of this page.)

 

What’s in a name?

The Archangel Michael is one of the most ubiquitous figures in Abrahamic cosmology, featured in even the most obscure and remote sects. While the names and numbers of the Archangels vary from list to list and religion to religion, Michael is always there. Even witches and magicians call upon Michael and his fiery sword for protection and guidance. Few scholars doubt that Michael himself, as a mythic figure, is older than Judaism as we think of it today. He, like many angels, is a holdover from polytheistic times.

Despite being called the right hand of God, prince of the angels, and being credited with casting the rebel angels from heaven (often artistically portrayed stomping on Satan’s face), Michael the Archangel is not actually mentioned until the Book of Daniel. For those of you unfamiliar with the scriptures: this story takes place during the Babylonian Captivity/Exile [of the Jews/Israelites]. There are a few theorized dates for this period. Rainer Albertz puts it between 609 to 538 BCE, the Encyclopedia Britannica puts it at 598 to 586 BCE, another source I found said 593-571 BCE, none of theses dates are exact, and other dates are theorized, all we know is it likely occurred sometime during that century.

Daniel was one of those exiled to Babylonia. He was a remarkable man with the gift of prophecy and because of his talents he became the advisor to the king of Babylon. As such, he made a number of prophecies and performed many miracles, quite a few of which involved angels. Daniel, despite making prophecies, is not considered a prophet in modern Judaism, but he is considered a distinguished figure and a righteous man. Christian sects do, however, count Daniel as a prophet.  Daniel’s name is not contained in the Qur’an, but he is mentioned in Muslim texts and folklore. Daniel is also a prophet in the Bahá’í Faith (a Persian monotheistic religion that shares some Abrahamic lore). It has been theorized that the Daniel is not included as a prophet in the Rabbinical tradition due to the almost pagan nature of his prophecies. This is unsurprising since many Biblical scholars refer to him as a magi, who are technically priests of Zoroastrianism. Keep in mind, the concept of angels as subservient beings to a monistic godhead was first introduced by Zoroaster in the first millennium BCE, 500 years Daniel’s predecessor.

The name Daniel is ultimately of Ugaritic origins. The name first appears in the Book of Ezekiel, where it is written “Danel” like the Ugaritic hero Danel. Danel, in Ugaritic means”The god El is judge,” whereas in Hebrew Daniel means “God is my judge” or “God will judge”. Keep in mind that “El” is another name for God in Hebrew as well. Some argue that the Danel of Ugarit might be the same Danel in Ezekiel since he is referenced alongside two other ancient figures, Job and Noah, who themselves were neither Israelites nor descendants of Abraham (Job was not even Abraham’s ancestor like Noah was). Ugaritic Danel was recorded around the fourteenth century BCE, about 1000 years before Ezekiel was written the Babylonian Exile occurred.

Humorous side-note: I like the name Daniel because it basically means “Only God can judge me!” which seems like a fitting name for a prophet and a mage living in exile.

Given this information, we can date the first mention of Michael the Archangel to the fifth century BCE.  

Typically the definition  for Michael is said to be “Who is like God,” usually posed as a question, though sometimes framed as a statement: “Who [in the universe] is like God?” vs. “[He] who is [most] like God.” Given the Jewish love of wordplay, this dual interpretation is probably deliberate. “Who is like God?” is a fitting question coming from the general of the angelic army who ousted the rebels that refused to submit to the will of God and bow to God’s creation Adam. The statement, “He who is like God,” makes sense in reference to the one who sits at God’s right hand and is called “prince of the angels”. Michael has been portrayed as the loyal defender of Israel and humanity since his inception, so this double entendre quite obvious. This definition claims the name of the Archangel comes from “mi,” who,  a preposition prefix, and “el,” God. The problem with this etymology is that would also make the male name “Micah” (which is Michael without the -el suffix) mean “Who is/are/be,” which makes no sense. This definition is likely just a dubious folk etymology, especially given the not-so-subtle wordplay.

Now the name מיכאל (mem-[yod]-khaf-[alef]-lamed) is simply transliterated as:  M[y/i]-K-[a]L. The letters yod “y/i” and alef “a” are not true vowels, hence the parenthesis. Ancient Hebrew and a few other ancient Semitic writing systems don’t have characters for most vowel sounds. Vowels between these languages can be interchangeable, especially when it comes to loan words. Not surprisingly, there is a West Semitic god called Mikal or Mekal (also spelled M[y/i]-K-[a]L) who, like Danel, was worshiped in Ugarit. The name Mikal is sometimes thought to come from Amyclas of Sparta, but the name Mikal was known in many Near-East locations around the mid-Bronze Age, but Amyclas, who is dated “somewhere in the Bronze Age,” was likely not even a real human king, let alone a Greek, nor does his name have an etymology. It is far more likely that Amyclas came from Mikal. The name is distinctly Semitic and the deity follows distinctly Canaanite mythic tropes.

Reshef
Reshef with his axe/sword raised

Mikal was also called Resheph (another very Semitic name) or Reshef which means “flame” or “lightning,” but also “burning” or “ravaging” as in a fever or pestilence. Mikal was a warrior god of thunder, portrayed in full battle gear much like Michael is today. Unlike Michael he had a consort; the warrior goddess of love and sex, Anat. Reshef-Mikal was the giver and taker of plague, and god of the underworld. He was the lord of the underworld and synonymous with the Babylonian god Nergal, who was the planet Mars, from whence Mikal got his name. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) However, Mikal also had fertility and prosperity aspects, and could have just been the wrathful aspect of Ba’al. Ba’al, which just means “lord,” is very much “like God” since Ba’al and El are more or less interchangeable. The godname Mikal would have been popularized during the centuries of Babylonian expansion, having been introduced to the Canaanites by the Akkadians.

So we have the definition of Reshef, which certainly explains the lightning bolt…er…I mean, flaming sword. But what about Mikal? The answer is Akkadian: Makrû, which means “red” and is a name for the planet Mars.

Spelled in Akkadian: ma-ak-ru-u₂. (Each pair of letters between the dashes is an entire character/glyph.) Now the suffix -u₂ gets dropped when transliterated into Hebrew or Phoenician, and the vowels disappear, so that leaves us with M-K-R. “R” is a tricky consonant sound that often gets switched with “L” when passed between languages and accents, sometimes it happens when Canaanite languages adopt loanwords. That leaves us with M-K-L or מכל (mem-khaf-lamed). Semivowels need to be added as pronunciation guides, and there are only two available, yod and alef. If we add the alef between the khaf and the lamed then we get a nice –god suffix, which is fitting for the name of a star/planet, so M-K-A-L, now we’re only left with one semivowel, so let’s just put the yod between mem and khaf, and boom: M-I-K-A-L, mem-yod-khaf-alef-lamed, the name of the Archangel we call Michael.

Here is an Akkadian passage using Makrû in context:

If Mars is dark: people who have seen hunger will eat plentiful food; the heart of the land will become good; the harvest of the land will thrive; the best of Sumuqan’s livestock will thrive; the offspring of cattle will increase; cattle in the open country will lie down in green pasture; the winter growth will last until summer and the summer growth until winter; people who have seen hunger will see rest. If The Red Star (Makrû) enters the Moon but does not appear there: a king’s son will seize the throne.” – Enuma Anu Enlil, lines 150-153, during the years 1595 to 1157 BCE

Makrû literally translates to “red” but particularly glowing red, like the planet. Makrû is also said to be a title for Marduk, but Marduk is actually identified with the planet Jupiter, and Nergal with Mars. The title “Red” could also refer to Nergal’s role as lord of the sunset. When Marduk rose to prominence he absorbed the aspects of many other deities, and the Babylonian astrological system was not standardized until millennia after Marduk’s reign began, so there was a time when he was identified with Mars. This likely caused some conflation between him and Nergal. This would explain why Reshef/Mikal of Ugarit had both Jupiterian (thunder, lightning, kinghood) and Martial (warrior, armor, wrath) aspects, both have Solar roles as well. However, Mikal is a storm god like Marduk, furthering the argument that Mikal was the wrathful aspect of Ba’al. Marduk was also often portrayed fighting the rebel gods Kingu or Tiamat during the war in heaven, the same way Michael is portrayed fighting Satan. Reshef later got absorbed into the Egyptian pantheon, in fact, his worship was spread all over the ancient Near East. Reshef/Mikal was, centuries later, syncretized with Apollo and Adonis, from where the Catholic-Christian Michael gets his blonde hair and androgynous/boyish looks. The color red, especially in candles, is still canonically associated with the Archangel Michael to this day.

So there you have it: the Prince of Heaven was once the King of Hell. When you think about it, it is actually amazing how most of the basic symbolism surrounding this spirit have stayed largely intact for thousands of years. I also find it interesting that Michael’s chthonic/underworld aspects are being utilized once more through esoteric traditions, especially in the syncretic African Diasporic traditions of South and Central America.

 

Further Reading/Sources:

Marduk trampling Tiamat

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