Shoulder angel  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

A shoulder angel is a plot device used for either dramatic or humorous effect in animation and comic strips (and occasionally in live-action television). The angel represents conscience and is often accompanied by a shoulder devil representing temptation. They are handy for easily showing inner conflict of a character. Usually, the angel is depicted on (or hovering near) the right shoulder and the devil or demon on the left, as the left side traditionally represents dishonesty or impurity.

The shoulder angel often uses the iconography of a traditional angel, with wings, a robe, a halo, and sometimes a harp. The shoulder devil likewise usually looks like a traditional devil with reddish skin, horns, barbed tail, a pitchfork (or actually a trident) and (sometimes) cloven hooves. Often, both resemble their host, though sometimes they will resemble other characters in the story who are responsible or mischievous. The idea may have originated from the Christian concept of a personal guardian angel, who was often considered to be matched by a personal devil who countered the angel's efforts (though there is a very similar idea outlined in The Shepherd of Hermas. Especially in popular medieval dramas, like the 15th century The Castle of Perseverance. In both this and Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, of about 1592, the "Good Angel" and "Bad Angel" offer competing advice (Act 2, scene 1, etc.) to the hero. In several modern fictional stories, a character can be marked as especially evil or mischievous by receiving similarly bad advice from both shoulder figures, having a second shoulder devil instead of the angel, or being persuaded by the devil to kick the angel out.

The non-canonical book, The Shepherd of Hermas has a reference to the idea of two Angels, There are two angels with a man--one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity. (Sixth Commandment, Chapter 2). These angels in turn descend into a persons heart, and attempt to guide a person's emotions. Hermas is told to understand both Angels, but to only trust the Angel of Righteousness. The book The Shepherd of Hermas dates from around 140-150 CE.

There is a similar Islamic belief of Kiraman Katibin, two angels residing on either shoulder of humans which record their good and bad deeds. However, these angels do not have influence over the choices one makes, and only record one's deeds. They are also called Qareen.

One may view this image in Freudian terms, with the Angel representing the super-ego (the source of self-censorship), counterbalanced by the Devil representing the id (the primal, instinctive desires of the individual).

See also

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