Archangel Michael, the origins of the cult

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A sword stroke resounds in the air; as if driven by tongues of unquenchable fire, it shakes the powers of heaven. The wings of Archangel Michael open mightily, his loose hair is shaken by an imperious quiver. Terrible in his gait, he hurls himself at the enemy with a battle cry: “Mīkā’el, who is like God? Certainly no one, He alone is lord of all things, and Lucifer, the rebellious angel, will be hurled down to the depths of the universe.

Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni
St. Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni (1635). Rome, Church of Santa Maria immacolata Concezione

Michael, celestial warrior

Over the centuries, the figure of Michael was the subject of a widespread worship. It has ancient origins and developed through that cultural substratum of sacred texts and traditions that characterises the three Abrahamic religions. For Islam, Michael is a divine messenger who instructs Muhammad1, while for Jews and Christians he has the attributes of a celestial warrior, the power to ward off what is evil by virtue of a status directly conferred on him by God. Since this will is concretely reflected in human history, he is perceived as a powerful ally of the chosen people. Even in Old Testament biblical historiography, Michael protects the Jews from the Persians2; he is the supreme Prince, defender of the order that turns to good.

However, it is in the New Testament that the figure of Michael is enriched with new attributes and becomes an archangel. He is now ὁ ἀϱχάγγελοϚ, commander of the celestial militia3, the one who defeats the ancient dragon, personification of the devil4. Also, Michael is for Christians the head of the heavenly strategists in the apocryphal Letter of the Apostles5.

Then war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. 

Book of Revelation, 12, 7-9

The iconography of Archangel Michael

It is from these biblical stories that the iconography of Michael the Archangel has developed in popular culture, albeit in different figurative terms in East and West. In Byzantine art, the oldest representations, such as that of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, show us an archist Michael: beardless, with tunic and wings spread, and on his shoulders a purple cloak, called loros; in his hands he holds a labarum or a sword, sometimes a cruciform globe, the symbol of Christ reigning over the world. It is evident, in the manner of dress, the figurative reference to the person of the basileus, the emperor of the East, who evidently wanted to appear as a transposition of the Archangel on earth.

Archangel Michael
Archangel Michael in the Byzantine mosaics of Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna

The iconography of the warrior in armour and sword fighting the dragon, and often crushing its head under his feet, is later. It can be attributed to the period of wide diffusion that the cult of St. Michael had during the Longobard domination in Italy.

Eastern origins of the cult of Archangel Michael

The beginnings of a cult dedicated to archangel Michael can be traced back to the 4th century near the city of Chonai in Phrygia. The Council of Laodicea (363), which convened there, prohibited the idolatrous custom of giving angels names other than those mentioned in the Bible6. Theodoret of Cyrus, in his Commentarii in epistula ad Colossaeus, mentioned some oratories dedicated specifically to Michael7.

The miraculous waters

In Phrygia, in Cherotopa, the 10th-century Byzantine hagiographer Symeon the Metaphrast8 attests to a sanctuary from which a miraculous spring of water gushed forth, which the Archangel himself had provoked by his will in the first century. Again, an anonymous Narratio, dated between the 5th and 8th centuries, is the textual origin of the popular miracle of Michael at Chonai. The hagiography reveals the existence of a place of worship, actually attested in the 4th century, that the Archangel saved from the flooding of a river.

The Miracle at Chonai in an icon from St Catherine’s Monastery on Sinai, 12th century

Interestingly, the earliest forms of devotion to Michael, generally following tales of mystical apparitions, were linked to particular water healing rites. They are based on the Gospel of John, which relates that: “there is in Jerusalem, by the sheep gate, a pool, called in Hebrew Betzaetà, with five porches, under which lay a great number of the sick, blind, lame and paralytic. For at certain times an angel descended into the pool and stirred the water; the first one to enter it after the agitation of the water was cured of whatever ailment he was afflicted with’9. The figure of Michael was, therefore, thaumaturge par excellence, as the supreme prince of angels.

The rite of incubatio

Probably the cult of Michael spread to Constantinople, where the emperor Constantine, according to Sozomen (c. 400-450), had several churches dedicated to him, including the famous Michaelion10. Although this attribution is most likely a 5th century hagiographic topos11, there was already a pre-existing temple in the village of Sosthenion, which myth has it was built by the Argonauts and to which the sick went in search of healing. The new building dedicated to Michael took the thaumaturgic properties of the ancient pagan cult, so that Sozomen attests the rite of incubatio there. This ceremony consisted of spending an entire night in the sanctuary, waiting for an apparition of Michael to announce the healing of a physical ailment.

The cult of Archangel Michael in the West

From Constantinople, the cult of the Archangel spread to the West. In Italy, there is evidence of a first sanctuary on the Via Salaria12. Located on the slope of a hill at the 7th mile of the road, the building, with a nave, two aisles and an apse, was consecrated on 29 September, the date when St. Michael’s Day still falls in the liturgical calendar. Its dating in the second quarter of the 5th century13 testifies that the cult dedicated to him was already widespread in Italy at that time.

Also in Rome, according to tradition, there was an apparition of Michael who, from the top of Hadrian’s mausoleum, announced to Pope Gregory the Great the end of the plague that was afflicting the city (590), an event for which the building was rededicated to the Archangel14.

St. Michael, by Peter von Verschaffelt (1750-1753), towers over Castel Sant’Angelo

When the Longobards arrived in Italy in 568 following Alboin, they discovered the figure of Michael in the Gargano area of Apulia, where the cult dedicated to him had spread due to political and commercial interactions with Constantinople.

The Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano

The origin of the cult of St. Michael at a natural cave in Monte Sant’Angelo is attested by a hagiographic source, the Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano15, in which three mystical apparitions of the Archangel to the bishop of Siponto are narrated. In the first, Michael revealed that he was the guardian of the cave, and his presence was manifested after a miraculous event involving Gargano, a rich cattle owner. The poisoned arrow that he had shot at one of the bulls escaping in the ravine came back, hitting him.

“For I am Michael the Archangel, who stands always in sight of the Lord. And resolving to protect this place and the people of this land, I sought to demonstrate by this sign that I am the watcher and guardian of the place and all things which are done there”.

Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, translation from Christopher West, St. Michael the Archangel in Late Antiquity, Undergraduate Honors Theses. Paper 737, 2014

Gargano, the eponymous hero, represented the personification of the place and its pre-existing beliefs, which were overlaid by the new cult of Michael the Archangel. These included the incubatio, which took place at a heroon dedicated to the Homeric hero Chalcas16, and the healing power of the waters. The episode of the bull, narrated in the Apparitio, was meant to symbolise the passage from the vengeful actions of the pagan gods to the mercy of the Christian God.

The Apparition of the Bull on Mount Gargano, Cappella Bessarione in the Basilica dei Santi XII Apostoli, Rome17.

In the second apparition to the bishop, Michael prophesies the victory of the inhabitants of Siponto and their Longobard allies against a Greek-Byzantine army that had besieged the city. Finally, the Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano tells how the Archangel himself had consecrated the Cave.

“It is not necessary that you dedicate this church that I myself have consecrated with my presence”.

Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano, translation from Bob Lord, Penny Lord, Saint Michael the Archangel, Journeys of Faith, 2019

Archangel Michael, protector of the Longobards

The figure of the Archangel was congruent with the attitudes of the Longobards, who claimed a warrior ancestry, and for this reason he was chosen as the protector of the Regnum Langobardorum. Especially, Michael had the same attributes as the god Wodan, who was not only a deity dedicated to war but, according to Norse mythology, also accompanied souls into the afterlife.

With the Longobards, the cult of Michael spread far beyond the borders of Italy and represented a real instrumentum regni through which the Christianisation could be achieved and political power consolidated. Even the hagiographies and stories were not exempt from this process: when in 650 the Duke of Benevento Grimoald I defeated the Byzantines at Siponto, as Paul the Deacon attests in his Historia Langobardorum, it was reported that the victory was propitiated by the Archangel, protector of the Longobards, who appeared in vision to the bishop of the city. The second apparition of Michael narrated in the Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano bears traces of this legendary topos. And since tradition dictates that Grimoald’s victory took place on 8 May, this was the dies festus of the Archangel for the Longobards.

The veneration of St. Michael thus became a national cult. During the reign of Romuald I (662-687), Duke of Benevento, work began to build the Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano at the cave of apparitions. Furthermore, the effigy of the saint was reproduced on shields and even on coins during the reign of Cunipert (7th century); in the capital of the Longobard kingdom, Pavia, the Basilica of St. Michael was built in his honour.

Sanctuary of St. Michael
The Sanctuary of St. Michael on Mount Gargano

Sanctuaries ad instar Gargani and the transfer of sacredness

The sacred site of the first apparitions on Mount Gargano became a cultic prototype over time, so that many buildings began to be constructed ad instar, in its likeness. At the cave, characterised by peculiar natural elements, there was a hierophany of the Archangel, who had himself consecrated it: the rock and the mountain, the steep climb to reach it, the healing water became indispensable aspects of the place of worship dedicated to Michael.

However, for the consecration ceremonies of the shrines ad instar Gargani to have the desired efficacy they had to be authentically Michaelic. This was obviously not possible, since Michael is indeed venerated as a saint, but he is incorporeal, he has no relics. Thus the transfer of sacredness was generated: small objects (pebbles, stones, water…) were taken from the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo with which pilgrims could consecrate new places of worship.

In 708, the bishop of Avranches, Aubert, sent some faithful to take from the Cave on Mount Gargano a fragment of rock and a strip of the cloth that covered the altar. These pignora, brought to Normandy, allowed the consecration of Mont Saint-Michel18. According to the hagiographic account of the Revelatio Ecclesiae sancti Michaelis in Monte Tumba, the Archangel, in a vision, had asked Aubert to build a church on Mont-Tombe. This was an erratic boulder that, emerging from the sea, rises more than seventy-five metres into the sky. Based on the structure of the Sanctuary on Mount Gargano, the first nucleus of Saint Michael’s Abbey in Val di Susa was built after an apparition of the Archangel to St. John Vincent19.

Pilgrimage routes

Some pilgrimage routes had the function of connecting places of Michaelic cult. Such roads are generally indicated in Medieval texts as branch routes of the Via Francigena. We thus have evidence of a Stratam Peregrinorum (1132) or Stratam magnam que pergit ad Sanctum Michaelem (1201)20, which modern scholars have named Via Sacra Langobardorum. One of the first historically attested Michaelic pilgrimages is the Itinerarium Bernardi monachi of 86721.

The sacred line of St. Michael Archangel

The three main Michaelic shrines of Europe were now constituted: Mont Saint-Michel, Saint Michael’s Abbey and the Sanctuary on the Gargano. They stay along an alignment called the Sacred Line of St. Michael. According to the collective imagination it was created by the sword stroke inflicted by the Archangel to plunge Lucifer into the underworld.

Archangel Michael
The sacred line of St. Michael

The route can be extended north to the monastery of Skelling Michael in Ireland, where the Archangel is said to have appeared to St. Patrick, and south to the Monastery of Mount Carmel in the Holy Land. Further, it passes through St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and the monastery of Symi in Greece. Each of these mystical places is connected to an apparition of Michael or to a particular veneration of him22. The idea of tracing a Sacred Line of St. Michael is made possible by the large number of shrines dedicated to the Archangel, so only those most closely aligned are chosen to the exclusion of others23, such as the important Temple of St. Michael in Perugia, yet its definition appears as suggestive as it is remarkable.

The attributes of Archangel Michael

Popular tradition has attributed numerous sacred functions to Michael. In the West he is primarily sauroctonos, the one who kills the dragon-serpent, symbol of the devil, but in the East he takes on new attributes, often of local derivation. Such is the cult of Michael the psychagogue and weigher of souls, of Coptic origin. Such characterisation, according to Didymus24, was necessary in Egypt to overwrite the cult of an earlier deity devoted to psychostasy, probably Anubis or Thoth. The concept of psychostasy was that the deceased should deserve access to the afterlife. For this reason, the iconography depicted its ceremonial by means of a scale. The soul was thus weighed by contrasting the virtues and faults it had in life.

Archangel Michael and psychostasy, on the façade of the church of San Pietro extra moenia in Spoleto25

Moreover, the attribution to Michael of the quality of psychopomp, the one who accompanies souls to paradise, has its origins in apocryphal texts. In the Assumption of Moses, a reference to which is also found in the Epistle of Jude26, the Archangel contends with the devil for the prophet’s body, and in the Life of Adam and Eve, Michael accompanies Adam to heaven after death.

[…] and so the Lord of all, sitting on his holy throne, stretched out his hands and took Adam and handed him over to the archangeI Michael, saying to him, ―Take him up into Paradise, to the third heaven, and leave (him) there until that great and fearful day which I am about to establish for the world”.

Dragos Andrei Giulea, The Noetic Paschal Anthropos: Genesis 1:27 and the Theology of the Divine Image in Early Paschal Literature, Dissertations, 2009

Even in Egypt, Michael was invoked for healings from illnesses, as attested by E. Amélioneau’s collections of Coptic tales27.

A universal figure

The popularity of the cult of archangel Michael is thus to be found not only in his warrior attributes, but in his being a mediator between the absolute sacred, which belongs to God alone, and man. He embodies, through a renewal of cults, the idea of the semi-divine hero who defeats the dragon. But this adversary, already present before the advent of Christianity, is a symbol of evil in a broadest sense, a metaphor for disease, pestilence, famine.

The need for an intermediary between sensible reality and the divine is transversal to religious belief, manifesting itself throughout human history by means of multiple deities and various hierophanies. Michael assimilates the cultic heritage of each of them; he is the most suitable figure for this purpose precisely because of his intermediate nature, neither human nor divine. On Mount Gargano, Michael replaces the cult of the healer Chalcas, in Constantinople that of Asclepius, in Egypt he embodies the psychagogue function proper to Anubis, while in Hercules we find the image of the warrior hero.

The Archangel therefore perceives both man’s metaphysical needs, related to the guarantee of a fair death, in which the soul is led to God, and concrete needs, such as healing or help in battle. Michael is a universal figure of providence and justice that emanates from the transcendent, but intercedes for this world, to establish an order in the things of earth.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Notes

  1. Quran, surah II, verse 98. ↩︎
  2. Book of Daniel 10, 13 e 21; 12, 1. ↩︎
  3. Epistle of Jude, 9. ↩︎
  4. Book of Revelation 12, 7. ↩︎
  5. Epistula apostolorum, 43. ↩︎
  6. Canone 35, J. D. Mansi, Saxcrorum conciliorum nova et ampissima collectio, II, Florentiae, 1759. ↩︎
  7. In Commentarii in Epistula ad Colossaesos Theodoret writes: “Quod non oportet Chrhsitanos, relicta Dei Ecclesia, abire; et angelos nominare, vel congregationes facere, quae sunt prohibita. Si quis ergo inventus fuerit huic facere, quae sunt prohibita. Si quis ergo inventus fuerit huic occultae idolatria evocare, sit anathema, quia reliquit  Cristum Filium Dei et accessiti ad idolatriam”. ↩︎
  8. Symeon the Metaphrast, Menologion, 10th century. ↩︎
  9. Gospel of John 5, 1-4. ↩︎
  10. Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica, II. ↩︎
  11. G. Cantino Wataghin, E. Destefanis, Culto di San Michele e vie di pellegrinaggio nell’Italia nordoccidentale in età medievale, Edipuglia, 2009. ↩︎
  12. La basilica di San Michele Arcangelo al VII miglio della via Salaria alla luce delle scoperte archeologiche, in RAC, LXXIX, 2003. ↩︎
  13. V. Fiocchi Nicolai, I monumenti paleocristiani della via Flaminia (territorio laziale) nelle più recenti ricerche archeologiche, in Domun tua dilexi. Miscellanea in onore di Aldo Nestori, Città del Vaticano, 1998. ↩︎
  14. Gregory of Tours, Historiae Francorum, liber X, 1; Iacopo di Varazze, Legenda Aurea. ↩︎
  15. G. Waitz, Monumenta Germaniae historica, Scriptores rerum Langobardicarum et Italicarum saec. VI – IX, 1878. L’Apparitio Sancti Michaelis in Monte Gargano è qui ripreso dal codice Coloniensis 19. ↩︎
  16. Strabo, Geography VI, 3, 9. ↩︎
  17. Peter1936F – Own work. ↩︎
  18. P. Bouet, Revelatio et les origines du culte à Saint Michel sur le Mont Tombe, in Culte et pèlerinages, 2003. ↩︎
  19. Chronica monasterii Sancti Michaelis Clusini. ↩︎
  20. M. Falcone, O. Giuffreda, Monte Sant’Angelo tra storia e immagini, Dalle origini al XV secolo, 1999. ↩︎
  21. U. Dovere, Itinerario dei luoghi santi, Napoli, 2003. ↩︎
  22. Kether, La linea del Drago tracciata da San Michele Arcangelo, in L’Archetipo, n. 3, marzo 2018. ↩︎
  23. St. Michael Alignment is England’s Most Famous Ley Line. But is it Real?, su Big Think, 2011. ↩︎
  24. Didymus, De Trinitate, II. ↩︎
  25. Di Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, image; di Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, image. ↩︎
  26. Ibidem note 3. ↩︎
  27. E. Amélioneau, Contes et romans de l’Egypte crhétienne, I e II, E. Leroux, ed. Paris, 1888. ↩︎

Author

Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and old-fashioned things, such as uncertain symbolism or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues mystery through adventure but that, inexplicably, is always one step further.

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