The Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite

(Pseudo-)Dionysus is an unknown 5th century theologian and mystic who was named for the Dionysus the Areopagite, the first century follower of Paul the Apostle. His neo-Platonic mystical works were deeply influential on medieval Christianity., including The Celestial Hierarchy, a work which sets out an angelology of hierarchal triads, each one closer to the divine nature in its purpose and what it communicates to lower levels. This hierarchy is described at some length in chapters 6-9.

Chapter VI  (What is the first order of the celestial essences, what is the middle order and what is the inferior order.)

The angelic hierarchies divided into three triads:

First --Seraphim, Cherubim and Thrones
Middle- - Dominions, Virtues and Powers
Last -- Principalities, Archangels and Angels

Chapter VII (Of the Seraphim, the Cherubim and the Thrones and of the first hierarchy that they constitute.)

  1. Seraphim -- Fire, "Those who burn"--light and life
  2. Cherubim -- Fullness of knowledge or wisdom
  3. Thrones -- Seat of Exaltation

Chapter VIII (Of the Dominions, the Virtues and the Powers and the middle hierarchy that they constitute.)

  1. Dominions -- Justice
  2. Virtues -- Courage, Virility
  3. Powers -- Order, Harmony

Chapter IX  (Of the Principalities, the Archangels and the Angels and of the last hierarchy that they constitute.)

  1. Principalities -- Authority
  2. Archangels -- Unity
  3. Angels -- Revelation, messengers

selections from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchy.


Which is the first Order of the Heavenly Beings? which the middle? and which the last?

How many, and of what sort, are the Orders of the super-celestial Beings, and how the Hierarchies are classified amongst themselves, I affirm, the deifying Author of their consecration alone distinctly knows; and further, that they know their own proper powers and illuminations, and their sacred and super-mundane regularity. For it is impossible that we should know the mysteries of the super-celestial Minds and their most holy perfections, except, some one might say, so far as the Godhead has revealed to us, through them, as knowing perfectly their own condition. We, then, will utter nothing as from ourselves, but whatever angelic visions have been gazed upon by the holy Prophets of God, we, as initiated in these, will set forth as best we can. The Word of God has designated the whole Heavenly Beings as nine, by appellations, which show their functions. These our Divine Initiator divides into three threefold Orders. He also says that that which is always around God is first and is declared by tradition to be united closely and immediately, to Him, before all the rest. For he says that the teaching of the Holy Oracles declares, that the most Holy Thrones, and the many-eyed and many-winged hosts, named in the Hebrew tongue Cherubim and Seraphim, are established immediately around God, with a nearness superior to all. This threefold order, then, our illustrious Guide spoke of as one, and of equal rank, and really first Hierarchy, than which there is not another more Godlike or immediately nearer to the earliest illuminations of the Godhead. But he says, that which is composed of the Authorities, and Lordships, and Powers is second; and, as respects the lowest of the Heavenly Hierarchies, the Order of the Angels and Archangels and Principalities is third.


Concerning the Seraphim and Cherubim and Thrones, and concerning their first Hierarchy.

Section I.

We, whilst admitting this as the arrangement of the holy Hierarchies, affirm, that every appellation of the celestial Minds denotes the Godlike characteristic of each; and those who know Hebrew affirm, that the holy designation of the Seraphim denotes either that they are kindling or burning; and that of Cherubim, a fullness of knowledge or stream of wisdom. Naturally, then, the first (order) of the Heavenly Hierarchies is ministered by the most exalted Beings, holding, as it does, a rank which is higher than all, from the fact, that it is established immediately around God, and that the first-wrought Divine manifestations and perfections pass earlier to it, as being nearest. They are called, then, "Burning," and Thrones, and Stream of Wisdom----by a name which sets forth their Godlike conditions. The appellation of Seraphim plainly teaches their ever moving around things Divine, and constancy, and warmth, and keenness, and the seething of that persistent, indomitable, and inflexible perpetual motion, and the vigorous assimilation and elevation of the subordinate, as giving new life and rekindling them to the same heat; and purifying through fire and burnt-offering, and the light-like and light-shedding characteristic which can never be concealed or consumed, and remains always the same, which destroys and dispels every kind of obscure darkness. But the appellation of the Cherubim denotes their knowledge and their vision of God, and their readiness to receive the highest gift of light, and their power of contemplating the super-Divine comeliness in its first revealed power, and their being filled anew with the impartation which makes wise, and their ungrudging communication to those next to them, by the stream of the given wisdom. The appellation of the most exalted and pre-eminent Thrones denotes their manifest exaltation above every groveling inferiority, and their super-mundane tendency towards higher things; and their unswerving separation from all remoteness; and their invariable and firmly-fixed settlement around the veritable Highest, with the whole force of their powers; and their receptivity of the supremely Divine approach, in the absence of all passion and earthly tendency, and their bearing God; and the ardent expansion of themselves for the Divine receptions.

Section II.

. . . . One must consider, then, that the Hierarchy is akin, and in every respect like, to the first Beings, who are established after the Godhead, who gave them Being, and who are marshaled, as it were, in Its very vestibule, who surpass every unseen and seen created power. We must then regard them as pure, not as though they had been freed from unholy stains and blemishes, nor yet as though they were unreceptive of earthly fancies, but as far exalted above every stain of remissness and every inferior holiness, as befits the highest degree of purity----established above the most Godlike powers, and clinging unflinchingly to their own self-moved and same-moved rank in their invariable love of God, conscious in no respect whatever of any declivity to a worse condition, but having the unsullied fixity of their own Godlike identity----never liable to fall, and always unmoved; and again, as "contemplative," not contemplators of intellectual symbols as sensible, nor as being led to the Divine Being by the varied texture of holy representations written for meditation, but as being filled with all kinds of immaterial knowledge of higher light, and satiated, as permissible, with the beautifying and original beauty of super-essential and thrice manifested contemplation, and thus, being deemed worthy of the Communion with Jesus, they do not stamp pictorially the deifying similitude in divinely-formed images, but, as being really near to Him, in first participation of the knowledge of His deifying illuminations; nay more, that the imitation of God is given to them in the highest possible degree, and they participate, so far as is allowable to them, in His deifying and philanthropic virtues, in the power of a first manifestation; and, likewise as "perfected," not as being illuminated with an analytic science of sacred variety, but as being filled with a first and pre-eminent deification, as beseems the most exalted science of the works of God, possible in Angels. . . .

Section IV.

. . . . Wherefore the Word of God has transmitted its hymns to those on earth, in which are Divinely shown the Excellency of its most exalted illumination. For some of its members, to speak after sensible perception, proclaim as a "voice of many waters," "Blessed is the glory of the Lord from His place" and others cry aloud that frequent and most august hymn of God, " Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabbath, the whole earth is full of His glory." These most excellent hymnologies of the super-celestial Minds we have already unfolded to the best of our ability in the "Treatise concerning the Divine Hymns," and have spoken sufficiently concerning them in that Treatise, from which, by way of remembrance, it is enough to produce so much as is necessary to the present occasion, namely, "That the first Order, having been illuminated, from this the supremely Divine goodness, as permissible, in theological science, as a Hierarchy reflecting that Goodness transmitted to those next after it," teaching briefly this, "That it is just and right that the august Godhead ---- Itself both above praise, and all-praiseworthy----should be known and extolled by the God-receptive minds, as is attainable; for they as images of God are, as the Oracles say, the Divine places of the supremely Divine repose;


Concerning Lordships and Powers and Authorities, and concerning their middle Hierarchy.

Section I.

Let us now pass to the middle Order of the Heavenly Minds, gazing, as far as we may, with super-mundane eyes upon those Lordships, and the truly terrible visions of the Divine Authorities and Powers. For each appellation of the Beings above us manifests their God-imitating characteristics of the Divine Likeness. I think, then, that the explanatory name of the Holy Lordships denotes a certain unslavish elevation, free from all groveling subservience, as becomes the free, not submitting itself in any way whatever to one of the tyrannical dissimilarities, as a cruel Lordship; superior to every kind of cringing slavery, indomitable to every subservience, and elevated above every dissimilarity, ever aspiring to  the true Lordship, and source of Lordship; and molding, as an image of goodness, itself, and those after it, to its Lordly bearing, as attainable, turning itself wholly to none of the things that vainly seem, but to the Lordly Being, and ever sharing in the Lordly Likeness of God, to its utmost ability; and the appellation of the Holy Powers denotes a certain courageous and unflinching virility, for all those Godlike energies within them----not feebly weak for the reception of any of the Divine illuminations vouchsafed to it----vigorously conducted to the Divine imitation, not forsaking the Godlike movement through its own unmanliness, but unflinchingly looking to the super-essential and powerful-making power, and becoming a powerful image of this, as far as is attainable, and powerfully turned to this, as Source of Power, and issuing forth to those next in degree, in gift of Power, and in likeness to God; and that the appellation of the Holy Authorities, of the same rank as the Divine Lordships and Powers, (denotes) the beautiful and unconfused good order, with regard to the Divine receptions, and the discipline of the super-mundane and intellectual authority, not using the authoritative powers imperiously for base purposes, but conducted indomitably, with good order, towards Divine things, and conducting those after it benignly, and assimilated, as far as permissible, to the Authoritative Source of authority, and making this visible, as is possible to Angels, in the well-ordered ranks of the authoritative power within it. The middle Order of the Heavenly Minds having these Godlike characteristics, is purified and illuminated and perfected in the manner described, by the Divine illuminations vouchsafed to it at second hand, through the first Hierarchical Order, and passing through this middle as a secondary manifestation.

Section II.

No doubt, as regards that message, which is said to pass through one angel to another, we may take it as a symbol of a perfecting completed from afar, and obscured by reason of its passage to the second rank. For, as men skilled in our sacred initiations say, the fullness of Divine things manifested directly to ourselves is more perfecting than the Divine contemplations imparted through others. Thus, I think, the immediate participation of the Angelic ranks elevated in first degree to God, is more clear than those perfected through the instrumentality of others. Wherefore by our sacerdotal tradition, the first Minds are named perfecting, and illuminating, and purifying Powers of the subordinate, who are conducted, through them, to the super-essential Origin of all things, and participate, as far as is permissible to them, in the consecrating purifications, and illuminations, and perfections. . . .


Concerning the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, and concerning their last Hierarchy.

Section II.

The (Order) of the Holy Archangels is of the same rank with the heavenly Principalities. For there is one Hierarchy and Division, as I said, of them and the Angels. But since there is not a Hierarchy which does not possess first and middle and last powers, the holy order of Archangels occupies the middle position in the Hierarchy between the extremes, for it belongs alike to the most holy Principalities and to the holy Angels; to the Principalities because it is turned in a princely fashion to the super-essential Princedom, and is molded to It as far as attainable, and unites the Angels after the fashion of its own well-regulated and marshaled and invisible leadings; and it belongs to the Angels, because it is of the messenger Order, receiving hierarchically the Divine illuminations from  the first powers, and announcing the same to the Angels in a godly manner, and, through Angels, manifesting to us, in proportion to the religious aptitude of each of the godly persons illuminated. For the Angels, as we have already said, complete the whole series of Heavenly Minds, as being the last Order of the Heavenly Beings who possess the Angelic characteristic; yea, rather, they are more properly named Angels by us than those of higher degree, because their Hierarchy is occupied with the more manifest, and is more particularly concerned with the things of the world. For the very highest Order, as being placed in the first rank near the Hidden One, we must consider as directing in spiritual things the second, hidden; and that the second, which is composed of the holy Lordships and Powers and Authorities, leads the Hierarchy of the Principalities and Archangels and Angels, more clearly indeed than the first Hierarchy, but more hidden than the Order after it, and the revealing order of the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels, presides, through each other, over the Hierarchies amongst men, in order that the elevation, and conversion, and communion, and union with God may be in due order; and, further, also that the procession from God vouchsafed benignly to all the Hierarchies, and passing to all in common, may be also with most sacred regularity. Hence, the Word of God has assigned our Hierarchy to Angels, by naming Michael as Ruler of the Jewish people, and others over other nations. For the Most High established borders of nations according to number of Angels of God.

Section III.

But if any one should say, "How then were the people of the Hebrews alone conducted to the supremely Divine illuminations?" we must answer, that we ought not to throw the blame of the other nations wandering after those which are no gods upon the direct guidance of the Angels, but that they themselves, by their own declension, fell away from the direct leading towards the Divine Being, through self-conceit and self-will, and through their irrational veneration for things which appeared to them worthy of God. Even the Hebrew people are said to have suffered the same thing; for He says, "Thou I hast cast away knowledge of God, and hast gone after thine own heart." For neither have we a life governed by necessity, nor on account of the free will of those who are objects of providential care, are the Divine rays of the providential illumination blunted; but the inaptitude of the mental visions makes the overflowing light-gift of the paternal goodness, either altogether unparticipated or impenetrable to their resistance, or makes the participations of the one fontal ray, diverse, small, or great, obscure, or brilliant, although that ray is one and simple, and always the same and ever overflowing; for even if, over the other nations (from whom we also have emerged to that boundless and bounteous sea of Divine Light, which is readily-expanded for the ready reception of all), certain not-alien gods were wont to preside; yet there is one Head of all, and to this, the Angels, who religiously direct each nation, conduct those who follow them. . . .


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding