A Michael Miscellany

28 September 2018

Ted Harrison celebrates the archangel, whose feast falls tomorrow

Ted Harrison

A modern-day St Michael?

A modern-day St Michael?

FOR A figure who appears so rarely in scripture, the Archangel Michael is a ubiquitous figure. His name has been evoked to identify ley lines and to sell underpants. His feast day, Michaelmas, is associated with daisies, fairs, pies, and geese. St Michael and All Angels is the third most popular church dedication in England (after St Mary and St Peter), and his patronal festival will be celebrated by hundreds of parishes around the country this weekend.

Michael is a heavenly colleague of Gabriel, alongside the other archangels named in apocryphal and non-biblical texts. He is found in the book of Daniel (chapter 10) and he is mentioned twice in the New Testament. In Revelation (chapter 12), Michael and his angels wage war on the dragon, and it is from this account of the last days — as well as the Daniel reference — that Michael has earned the reputation of being leader of the heavenly army.

In Jude 1.9, Michael’s traditional involve­ment in the story of Moses is given biblical authority. By implication, therefore, the angel who, in Acts 7.38, is mentioned as having been with Moses in the wilderness is presumed by many scholars to be Michael.

Daniel 10 confirms Michael as the special defender of Israel. He is described as “one of the chief princes”. An ancient Jewish text, now incor­porated within the non-canonical book of Enoch, gives an account of a heavenly vision in which Michael revealed “all the secrets of righteousness” to the visionary.

A MYRIAD of stories, both serious and odd-ball, illustrate how deeply Michael is rooted in the collective psyche.

St Michael has been adopted as the patron saint of the police on the grounds that serving officers know what it means to face the threat of evil and imminent danger. “Michael” medals and car visor-clips can be found in many Roman Catholic gift shops — especially in the United States — and are commonly bought as presents for RC members of the police, fire, and armed services. One com­mended prayer-card reads: “St Michael, heaven’s glorious com­missioner of police . . . look with kindly and professional eyes on your earthly force.”


In some church traditions, it is believed that Michael visits the dying and gives all souls one last chance to repent before escorting them on their journey to judgement. St Michael is a popular dedication for cemetery chapels.

Michaelmas is the last day on which blackberries should be picked. According to legend, it was on St Michael’s Day that Lucifer was expelled from heaven. When he fell to earth, he landed in a bramble bush: he cursed the bush, and made the fruit unfit to eat.

Aster Amellus is the horticultural name for the European Michaelmas Daisy, “aster” — the Greek for “star” — describing the colourful flower that appears in early autumn. Paintings of Bible stories by the illustrator Cicely Mary Barker would have been very familiar to Sunday-school children in the 1950s. Barker also painted delicate watercolours of flowers and fairies, including one of the Michaelmas Daisy fairy talking to a Red Admiral butterfly, which became a highly popular print.

The food to be eaten at Michael­mas is goose. A goose used to be presented by tenants to their landlords when paying their quarterly rent, which fell due at the end of September — by then, geese that had hatched in the spring would have been both fat and tender. It is said that Queen Elizabeth I was dining on goose when she heard the news of the final destruction of the Spanish Armada, wrecked around the northern coastline of her kingdom. For the rest of her reign, she celebrated the defeat by ordering the same dinner on the anniversary: St Michael’s Day

In Ireland, the traditional Michaelmas Pie had a ring placed in it; the finder, it was said, would be married within the year. In Scotland, a Michaelmas bannock was baked using barley, oats, and rye. It was unlucky to use any metal imple­ments in its preparation.

On 29 September 1791, Captain George Vancouver discovered a new island off Western Australia, which he named Michaelmas Island. It is now a nature reserve and sanctuary for the Gilbert’s potoroo, or “rat-kangaroo”, one of the world’s most endangered mar­supials.

FOR much of the 20th century, Michael was the most popular boys’ name in the US. For many years, it was also the most commonly chosen name in Britain for a boy, but, more recently, it has slipped dramatically out of favour, reaching only 59th place in 2016.

The chivalric Order of St Michael and St George celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. The order was created to reward British subjects serving the Crown abroad, particularly in the Mediterranean; its badge shows Archangel Michael trampling on Satan — an allusion to Napoleon being crushed by the Allied powers. More than 3600 individuals have joined the order during the present Queen’s reign. Many Commonwealth countries now nominate knights and other members.

The order first admitted women in 1965. One of the most recent Companions is the astronaut Helen Sharman. The next rank up is the dame or knighthood, the KCMG; the top level is the Grand Cross, GCMG. In Foreign Office parlance, the initials stand for “Call Me God”, “Kindly Call Me God”, and “God Calls Me God”. The prelate of the order is the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquhart (himself appointed KCMG in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year).

The St Michael Alignment is one of the supposed ley lines that crosses Britain. It is a straight line running from Land’s End to Norfolk, linking several places associated with St Michael, such as St Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall, and St Michael’s, on Glastonbury Tor. In addition, it cuts through Avebury Ring and Bury St Edmunds.

After celebrating mass on 13 October 1884, Pope Leo XIII heard a mystical conversation between Christ and the devil, in which Satan boasted that he would destroy the Church. Pope Leo was inspired by the experience to compose a prayer to St Michael, which was appointed to be said after low mass.

THE doctrines and covenants of the Mormons conflate Michael and Adam: “And the Lord appeared unto them, and they rose up and blessed Adam, and called him Michael, the prince, the archangel. And the Lord . . . said unto him: I have set thee to be at the head; a multitude of nations shall come of thee, and thou art a prince over them for ever.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that Michael is another name for Jesus. They quote as authority 1 Thessalonians 4.16. “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the arch­angel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” Furthermore, they argue that, as the Bible speaks of both Michael “and his angels” and Jesus “and his angels”, and there is nothing in scripture to say that heaven has two armies, then, logically, Michael is none other than Jesus Christ in his heavenly role.

St Michael was a brand name used by Marks & Spencer for its in-house line in clothing. For more than 70 years, the archangel’s name adorned underpants and other garments. The brand was invented when the manufacturers, Corah’s, of Leicester, were looking for a name that would be different from, but complement, their existing and well-established hosiery brand known as St Margaret’s — so named because the firm’s factory was in the city’s parish of St Margaret. St Michael was chosen, as Michael was the name of one of the co-founders of M&S, Michael Marks.


The name Michael comes from a rhetorical question in Hebrew which means “Who is like God?” (alluded to in J. M. Neale’s hymn “Stars of the morning”). To Christians, Michael is the slayer of the beast in the final days. In Islam, Mikhail is one of the two archangels men­tioned in the Qur’an, together with Jibrail (Gabriel). Most of the references to Michael, however, are not to be found in scripture, but in legends that have developed out of the prin­cipal holy writings. Extra-Qur’anic sources tell of Michael as an angelic assistant to the Prophet, and say that Michael will be in charge of the scales of judgement at the end of time.

In some Jewish traditions, it is said that it was Michael who wrestled with Jacob, con­ferred with Moses, protected the Israelites in the wilderness, and is the perpetual guardian of the Jewish people.

Christians have elaborated on the Michael of the Bible to create art and literature. He is there in Milton’s Paradise Lost, in great paint­ings by the Old Masters, and in sculpture and architecture.

He is an awesome representation — and reminder — of God’s majesty and power. He symbolises the ultimate triumph of good over evil and, together with the angels, well merits the annual feast day in his name.

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