image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In the ancient scriptures preserved in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, one of the most important heavenly messengers is the angel Gabriel.
Gabriel is the angel who appears to the Virgin Mary to proclaim that she would conceive a child who would be called the Son of God, an event known as the Annunciation described in the first chapter of the Gospel According to Luke.
Only a few verses earlier in the same first chapter of Luke, Gabriel is also described bringing a proclamation to Zacharias, the husband of Mary's cousin Elisabeth, that Elisabeth will bear a son who will be called John (this son is John the Baptist).
And, in the Hebrew scriptures of the Book of Daniel, Gabriel appears as a messenger in chapters 8 and 9, to explain to the prophet Daniel the meaning of a vision which appeared to Daniel.
Previous posts have discussed the evidence which suggests that the angelic beings known as the cherubim and seraphim may correspond to the brightest stars in the sky: there is certainly evidence which would argue that the cherubim described in the Vision of Ezekiel correspond to the four first-magnitude stars in or near the zodiac constellations of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius.
Does the angel Gabriel, then, also correspond to a bright star, in the same way that the cherubim seem to correspond to specific first-magnitude stars?
Actually, although the passages describing Gabriel in the Old and New Testaments are fairly brief, I believe there are enough clues included in these texts to conclude that Gabriel is not one of the fixed stars, but rather corresponds to one of the five visible planets -- and that in fact Gabriel corresponds to the planet Mercury, who is of course "the messenger of the gods" in ancient Greek and Roman mythology.
Previous posts have discussed the extensive evidence that the names of the gods were derived from the motions of the planets, rather than the other way around. This is what we would expect, if the world's ancient myths and sacred stories are actually built upon a system of celestial allegory, encoding the motions of the heavenly actors in order to convey esoteric meaning to us about the nature of this universe and the nature of our human experience in it (a message which is in fact shamanic and holographic in nature, as many previous posts have discussed and as future posts will examine further).
Beginning with this understanding, it should be fairly obvious why the planet Mercury appears in mythology around the world as a heavenly messenger: Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and makes the fastest orbit of any of the five visible planets, completing the journey in only 88 earth days. I believe that this fact may well account for the number of legs attributed to Sleipnir, the fantastic eight-legged steed of Odin, a Norse god who exhibits attributes of Hermes or Mercury (and who gives his name to Wednesday in English, the same day of the week named for Mercury in many Latinate or Romance languages).
The fact that Mercury's orbit is closer to the sun than that of the earth also means that for an observer on earth to see Mercury, he or she must look towards the sun. Mercury, and Venus for that matter (which also has an orbit closer to the sun than that of the earth), can only be seen if we are looking in the general direction of the sun, and this means that these inner planets are generally only visible to the naked eye when the sun is either just dipping down below the western horizon at sunset and in the hours immediately afterwards, or just getting ready to appear above the eastern horizon at sunrise and in the hours immediately preceding it.
Venus, being farther from the sun than Mercury, can range up to almost fifty degrees ahead of or behind the sun (this distance is referred to as the planet's elongation), while Mercury never achieves elongations greater than thirty degrees, and is thus always seen in the bands of the sky that are bathed in the partial glow of the morning dawn or the evening twilight (see discussions and calculations on this and this website, for example, or the helpful diagram and discussion on Wikipedia here).
This proximity to our sun, the most important star in the heavens and the giver of all life on earth, is another important reason why mythical figures associated with the innermost and fastest planet are depicted in myth bringing the message or the tidings from the divine realm to humanity. This role may also explain why gods in various mythologies who are associated with this planet -- including Thoth in ancient Egypt, Hermes and Mercury in ancient Greece and Rome, and Odin in Norse mythology -- are associated with the mysterious science of writing and letters, the systems of esoteric symbols which enable us to preserve knowledge and to convey hidden wisdom across great distances and across the millennia, and which themselves are seen as messengers from the hidden world and intermediaries between the invisible realms and our ordinary reality.
There is an extremely revealing passage in the first chapter of Luke, in which Gabriel brings the announcement to Zacharias that his wife will bear a son, and Zacharias responds with a reaction of doubt, citing his and his wife's advanced age (Luke 1:18). Gabriel then says:
I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season. Luke 1:19-20.
Here, the angel explicitly states that Gabriel is the angel who stands "in the presence of God" -- a most apt description of the planet which is the closest to the fiery orb of the sun, and which can only be seen very shortly before sunrise or very shortly after sunset, and always in a sky which is at least partially lit by the warm glow of our central solar orb.
The fact that Gabriel describes himself in these words is a very strong indicator that his character represents this planet in the Biblical texts.
Mercury figures are also associated with speech in addition to writing, of course (as befits their status as the bearers of divine wisdom), and so the emphasis Gabriel places in the passage above to the fact that he is sent to speak unto Zecharias, and to reveal to him glad tidings, as well as the punishment Gabriel gives to Zecharias for not accepting the message (temporary loss of speech until the words are fulfilled in their season) are also important indicators that Gabriel represents Mercury.
The iconography and art created down through the centuries showing the angel Gabriel often depict this figure with many characteristics shared by Hermes and Mercury, including some type of wand (sometimes composed of flowers) corresponding to the caduceus typically carried by Mercury. Below are several examples, each one depicting Gabriel carrying a short wand of some sort in the left hand, although you have to look closely in some of the images in order to see the wand (continue reading below for a bit more discussion):
The similarity of many of these artistic depictions of the angel Gabriel to ancient depictions of Hermes should be readily apparent, including of course the slender wand, the wings, and the running posture.
Another very important shared aspect of the imagery of both Gabriel and Hermes/Mercury is the slightly (or even strongly) hermaphroditic characteristics of their depictions in art. This aspect is very readily apparent in many of the images shown above. It can probably be explained by understanding how the position of the orbit of the planet Mercury contributes to the behavior of the planet in the sky.
Previous posts have demonstrated evidence that conjunctions of planets in the sky are often depicted in myth as sexual dalliances. One of the best examples of this interpretation can be found in the illicit liaison of the goddess Aphrodite (played by the planet Venus) with the god Ares (played by the planet Mars), described in numerous ancient Greek sources including the Odyssey, and interpreted even by ancient writers as an episode which corresponds to the conjunction of those two planets (see discussion here).
As discussed above, the planets Venus and Mercury are interior planets to observers on earth: their orbits are interior to the path followed by earth because they orbit closer to the sun than does our planet. They will always be seen fairly close to the horizon, because they appear above the eastern horizon prior to sunrise when they are ahead of the sun, or above the western horizon after sunset when they are trailing the sun. They will never be seen arcing independently across the middle of the midnight sky, because if we on earth are turned away from the sun (as we are at midnight) we are looking out into space away from the interior planets, where we could expect to see Mars or Jupiter or Saturn but never Venus or Mercury.
Because of this, the planets whose orbits are exterior to earth's orbit (the so-called superior planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) can often be seen much further from the horizon than Venus and Mercury, who are "tethered" to the sun, so to speak (Mercury being tethered even more closely than Venus). Thus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn can sometimes be seen steadily approaching Venus (for example) from the wider sky, as if those farther wanderers were approaching or "pursuing" a more modest maiden who waits for their advances. There are many myths in which Ares and Zeus pursue sexual liaisons with Aphrodite, and Hephaestus (who exhibits attributes of Saturn) is actually depicted in Greek myth as Aphrodite's husband (although she seems to prefer the swifter and more athletic Ares or Mars). See for example the previous post entitled "Dangerous liaisons: Jupiter, Venus and Mercury."
Because Mercury is actually interior even to Venus, it is Venus who can "range" further from the horizon (and from the sun) than can Mercury, and therefore when conjunctions take place involving Mercury and Venus, it is Venus who often seems to be "pursuing" Mercury -- and this fact is also reflected in myth, with Aphrodite being lured by Hermes rather than pursued by him. There are also many myths in which Aphrodite or Venus is depicted as pursuing a shy and unwilling youth, such as in the story of Venus and Adonis, a pattern which has numerous important mythological parallels, and which is almost certainly related to this quality of the planets Venus and Mercury. Because, metaphorically speaking, approaching is a "masculine" attribute, and receiving or being approached or pursued is a "feminine" attribute, the poetic allegorization of the planets in the stories of the myths depict Mercury or Hermes as possessing some feminine aspects, even though he is typically understood as a male god.
For this reason (and perhaps for other reasons as well), Hermes or Mercury and all the other manifestations of this heavenly actor in the world's ancient mythology is a boundary-crossing deity, and hence a transcendent being (more discussion here). The angel Gabriel embodies this aspect of transcendence, because Gabriel crosses easily between the realm of the unseen, the realm of the divine, and the realm of incarnate men and women whose general experience is characterized by "ordinary reality."
The message that Gabriel bears is a transcendent message as well: a message of a profound miracle, of a manifestation of the invisible Spirit, of the human birth of one who is divine.
Ultimately, as I have tried to explain in many previous posts such as this one and this one, I believe that this message from Gabriel, the one who "stands in the presence" of the divine, is a message to each one of us as well. These ancient myths, which encode the cyclical motions of the sun, moon, stars and planets, convey to us that our universe is composed of both the physical realm which we can see, and the invisible realm of spirit which we normally cannot.
Further, they convey to us the urgent message that we ourselves can be seen to be beings -- transcendent beings -- from the other world who have taken on flesh and been born into the physical incarnation: we each contain the invisible spark of divinity, even though it is easy for us to forget it (or even, like Zacharias, to deny it or refute it or reject the message for a time, which of course can have negative consequences for us).
We should be very grateful for the ancient wisdom of our planet, preserved in the world's ancient myth, and which still streaks across the void and across the millennia like a messenger from the invisible realms to speak to us, and which continues to pour forth good tidings through the circling motions of the awesome celestial actors in the universe above our heads, and of which we are an important part.