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The Celestial Hierarchy

Dionysius the Areopagite 


To my fellow-presbyter Timothy, Dionysius the Presbyter

That every divine illumination, while going forth with love in various ways to the objects of its forethought, remains one.

Nor is this all: it also unifies the things illuminated.

'Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights.'[James 1:17]

Of the Dominions, Virtues and Powers, and Their Middle Hierarchy

Now we must pass on to the middle Order of the Celestial Intelligences, contemplating with supermundane sight, as far as we may, the Dominions and the truly majestic splendour of the Divine Virtues and Powers.


The names of these supernal Beings denote the divine characteristics of their likeness to God

The name given to the holy Dominions signifies, I think, a certain unbounded elevation to that which is above, freedom from all that is of the earth, and from all inward inclination to the bondage of discord, a liberal superiority to harsh tyranny, an exemption from degrading servility and from all that is low: for they are untouched by any inconsistency. They are true Lords, perpetually aspiring to true lordship, and to the Source of lordship, and they providentially fashion themselves and those below them, as far as possible, into the likeness of true lordship. They do not turn towards vain shadows, but wholly give themselves to that true Authority, forever one with the Godlike Source of lordship.

The name of the holy Virtues signifies a certain powerful and unshakable virility welling forth into all their Godlike energies; not being weak and feeble for any reception of the divine Illuminations granted to it; mounting upwards in fullness of power to an assimilation with God; never falling away from the Divine Life through its own weakness, but ascending unwaveringly to the superessential Virtue which is the Source of virtue: fashioning itself, as far as it may, in virtue; perfectly turned towards the Source of virtue, and flowing forth providentially to those below it, abundantly filling them with virtue.

The name of the holy Powers, co-equal with the Divine Dominions and Virtues, signifies an orderly and unconfined order in the divine receptions, and the regulation of intellectual and supermundane power which never debases its authority by tyrannical force, but is irresistibly urged onward in due order to the Divine. It beneficently leads those below it, as far as possible, to the Supreme Power which is the Source of Power, which it manifests after the manner of Angels in the well ordered ranks of its own authoritative power.


This middle rank of the Celestial Intelligences, having these Godlike characteristics, is purified, illuminated and perfected in the manner already described, by the divine Illuminations bestowed upon it in a secondary manner through the first hierarchical Order, and shown forth in a secondary manifestation by the middle choir.

The knowledge which is said to be imparted by one Angel to another may be interpreted as a symbol of that perfecting which is effected from afar and made obscure because of its passage to the second rank. For, as those say who are wise in the sacred Mysteries, the direct revelations of the Divine Light impart a greater perfection than those bestowed through an intermediary; and in the same way I consider that the Order of Angels which is established nearest to the Godhead participates directly in a more resplendent light than is imparted to those who are perfected through others.

For this reason the First Intelligences are called in our priestly tradition perfective, illuminative and purifying powers in regard to the lower Orders which are uplifted by them to the superessential Principle of all, and as far as is right for them are made partakers of the mystical purifications, illuminations and perfections. For this universal ordinance is divinely established, that the Divine Light is imparted to secondary natures through primary natures.


You will find this variously set forth by theologians, for when the Divine and Fatherly Love for man reproved the Israelites and chastened them for their salvation by delivering them for their correction into the hands of cruel and barbaric nations, and with providential guidance led them back by many paths to a better condition, and mercifully recalled them from captivity to freedom and their former happy state; one of the theologians, named Zachariah, sees one of those Angels which, as I believe are first and nearest to God (for the name Angel, as I have said, is common to all), receiving from God Himself the words of comfort, as they are called, and another Angel of lower rank going to meet the first as if to receive and partake of the light, and then receiving from him, as from a hierarch, the divine purpose, being directed to reveal to the theologian that Jerusalem should be inhabited by a great and fruitful nation.

Another theologian, Ezekiel, says that the most sacred edict came forth from the supremely glorious Godhead Itself, exalted above the Cherubim. For after the Father, as has been said, had in His mercy led the Children of Israel through disciplines to a better condition He decreed in His divine justice that the guilty should be separated from the innocent. 

This is first revealed to one below the Cherubim, who was girt about the loins with a sapphire, and was robed in a garment reaching to the feet, the symbol of an hierarch. But the Divine Law ordained that the other Angels armed with battle-axes should be instructed by the former respecting the divine judgment in this matter. For He directed the one to go through the midst of Jerusalem and to set a mark upon the foreheads of the innocent; but to the other Angels He said, 'Go into the city, following him, and strike, and turn not aside your eyes; but draw not near unto those upon whom is the mark'. What could be said concerning the Angel who said to Daniel, 'The Word has gone forth'? or concerning that highest one who took the fire from the midst of the Cherubim? Or what could establish more clearly the distinction between the angelic ranks than this, that the Cherub cast the fire into the hands of him who was clothed with the sacred vestment?


Or that He who called the most divine Gabriel to Himself said, 'Make this man understand the vision'? And many other similar things are related by the venerable theologians regarding the Divine Order of the Celestial Hierarchies. By moulding itself after their likeness our own hierarchy will, as far as possible, be assimilated to it and will, in very deed, show forth, as in images, the angelic beauty; receiving its form from them, and being uplifted by them to the superessential Source of every Hierarchy. CHAPTER IX


There remains for us the reverent contemplation of that sacred Order which completes the Angelic Hierarchies, and is composed of the Divine Principalities, Archangels and Angels. And first, I think, I ought to explain to the best of my ability the meanings of their holy names.

The name of the Celestial Principalities signifies their Godlike princeliness and authoritativeness in an Order which is holy and most fitting to the princely Powers. They are wholly turned towards the Prince of Princes, and lead others in princely fashion, and are formed, as far as possible, in the likeness of the Source of Principality, and reveal Its superessential order by the good Order of the princely Powers.          -175- The choir of the holy Archangels is placed in the same threefold Order as the Celestial Principalities; for, as has been said, there is one Hierarchy and Order which includes these and the Angels. But since each Hierarchy has first, middle and last ranks, the holy Order of Archangels, through its middle position, participates in the two extremes, being joined with the most holy Principalities and with the holy Angels. It is joined with the Princedoms because it is turned in a princely way to the superessential Principality and, as far as it can attain, moulds itself in His likeness, and it is seen to be the cause of the union of the Angels with its own orderly and invisible leadership. It is joined with the Angels because it belongs to the interpreting Order, receiving in its turn the illuminations from the First Powers, and beneficently announcing these revelations to the Angels; and by means of the Angels it shows them forth to us in the measure of the mystical receptivity of each one who is inspired by the divine Illumination. For the Angels, as we have said, fill up and complete the lowest choir of all the Hierarchies of the Celestial Intelligences since they are the last of the Celestial Beings possessing the angelic nature. And they, indeed, are more properly named Angels by us than are those of a higher rank because their choir is more directly in contact With manifested and mundane things. The highest Order, as we have said, being in the foremost place near the Hidden One, must be regarded as hierarchically ordering in a hidden manner the second Order; and the second Order of Dominions, Virtues and Powers, leads the Principalities, Archangels and Angels more manifestly, indeed, than the first Hierarchy, but in a more hidden manner than the Order below it; and the revealing Order of the Principalities, Archangels and Angels presides one through the other over the human hierarchies so that their elevation and turning to God and their communion and union with Him may be in order; and moreover, that the procession from God, beneficently granted to all the Hierarchies, and visiting them all in common, may be with the most holy order.


Accordingly the Word of God has given our hierarchy into the care of Angels, for Michael is called Lord of the people of Judah, and other Angels are assigned to other peoples. For the Most High established the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the Angels of God.

If someone should ask why the Hebrews alone were guided to the divine Illuminations, we should answer that the turning away of the nations to false gods ought not to be attributed to the direct guidance of Angels, but to their own refusal of the true path which leads to God, and the falling away through self love and perversity, and similarly, the worship of things which they regarded as divine.

Even the Hebrews are said to have acted thus, for he says, 'Thou hast cast away the knowledge of God and hast gone after thine own heart'. For our life is not ruled by necessity, nor are the divine irradiations of Providential Light obscured because of the freewill of those under Its care; but it is the dissimilarity of the mental eyes which causes the Light streaming forth resplendently from the Goodness of the Father to be either totally unshared and unaccepted through their resistance to It, or causes an unequal participation, small or great, dark or bright, of that Frontal Ray which nevertheless is one and unmixed, eternally changeless, and for ever abundantly shed forth.



For even if certain Gods not alien to them presided over the other nations (from which we ourselves have come forth into that illimitable and abundant sea of Divine Light which is outspread freely for all to share), yet there is one Ruler of all, and to Him the Angels who minister to each nation lead their followers.

Let us consider, the hierarch most beloved of God - not of vain gods, but a priest of the truly highest of Gods - for those wise in the things of God did not simply call Melchisadek the friend of God, but also priest, in order to show clearly to the wise that not only was he himself turned to Him who is truly God, but also, as hierarch, was the leader of others in the ascent to the true and only Godhead.

Let us also remind you in connection with your knowledge of hierarchy that Pharaoh was shown through visions by the Angel who presided over the Egyptians, and the Prince of Babylon was shown by his own Angel, the watchful and overruling Power of Providence. And for those nations the servants of the true God were appointed as leaders, the interpretations of angelic visions having been revealed from God through Angels to holy men near to the Angels, like Daniel and Joseph.

For there is one Sovereign and Providence of all, and we must never suppose that God was leader of the Jews by chance, nor that certain Angels, either independently, or with equal rank, or in opposition to one another, ruled over the other nations; but this teaching must be received according to the following holy intention, not as meaning that God had shared the sovereignty of mankind with other Gods, or with Angels, and had been chosen by chance as ruler and leader of Israel, but as showing that although one all-powerful Providence of the Most High consigned the whole of mankind to the care of their own Angels for their preservation, yet the Israelites, almost everyone of them all, turned to the knowledge and light of the true God.


Therefore the Word of God, when relating how Israel devoted himself to the worship of the true God, says, 'He became the Lord's portion'. Moreover it shows that he too, equally with other nations, was given into the charge of one of the holy Angels, in order that he might know through him the one Principle of all things. For it says that Michael was the leader of the Jews, clearly showing that there is one Providence established superessentially above all the invisible and visible powers, and that all the Angels who preside over the different nations lift up to that Providence, as to their own Principle, as far as is in their power, those who willingly follow them.




We have agreed that the most venerable Hierarchy of the Intelligences, which is close to God, is consecrated by His first and highest Ray, and uplifting itself directly to It, is purified, illuminated and perfected by the Light of the Godhead which is both more hidden and more revealed. It is more hidden because It is more intelligible, more simplifying, and more unitive, It is more revealed because It is the First Gift and the First Light, and more universal and more infused with the Godhead, as though transparent. And by this again the second in its own degree, and by the second the third, and by the third our hierarchy, according to the same law of the regular principle of order, in divine harmony and proportion, are hierarchically, led up to the super-primal Source and End of all good orders, according to that divinely established law.


Each Order is the interpreter and herald of those above it, the most venerable being the interpreter of God who inspires them, and the others in turn of those inspired by God. For that superessential harmony of all things has provided most completely for the holy regulation and the sure guidance of rational and intellectual beings by the establishment of the beautiful choirs of each Hierarchy; and we see that every Hierarchy possesses first, middle and last powers.

But to speak rightly, He also divided each rank in the same divine harmonies, and on this account the Scriptures say that the most divine Seraphim cry one to another, by which, as I think, it is clear that the first impart to the second their knowledge of divine things.

This may fittingly be added, that each Celestial and human intelligence contains in itself its own first, middle and last powers, which are manifested in a way analogous to the aforesaid ordination belonging to each of the Hierarchical illuminations; accordingly each intelligence, as far as is right and attainable to it, participates in the most spotless purity, the most abundant light, and the most complete perfection. For nothing is self-perfect nor absolutely unindigent of perfection, save only That which is truly self-perfect and above all perfection.




Now that these things have been defined, the reason for applying the general name, Celestial Powers, to all the Angelic beings demands our consideration. For we cannot say of these, as we can of the Angels, that the Order of the holy Powers is the last of all; moreover, the higher Orders of beings, indeed, have part in the illuminations of the lowest, but the last by no means possess those of the first. 

And for this reason all the Divine Intelligences are called Celestial Powers, but never Seraphim or Thrones or Dominions; since the lowest do not share in the whole characteristics of the highest. For the Angels, and the Archangels above them, and the Principalities, and the ranks which are placed by theology after the Powers, are frequent1y called by us Celestial Powers, in common with all the other holy beings.

But we deny that in using the general name, Celestial Powers, for all we cause any confusion with regard to the characteristics of each Order. For all the Divine Celestial Intelligences are divided, according to the supermundane account of them, into three groups in respect of their essence, power and activity; and when we name all or some of them, loosely, Celestial Beings or Celestial Powers, we are referring to them indirectly in terms of that essence or power which each possesses.


But we must not assign the highest characteristics of the holy Powers (which we have already well distinguished) to all the natures wholly below them, for this would bring confusion into the clear and harmonious Order of Angels: for, as we have frequently rightly shown, the highest Orders possess in fullest measure the holy characteristics of the lower, but the lowest do not possess the pre-eminent unitive principles of those more venerable than themselves, because the First Radiance is imparted to them through the first Orders according to their capacity.



Those who earnestly study the holy Scriptures sometimes ask, 'If the lowest ranks do not possess to the full the powers of those above them, why is our Hierarch called in the holy Word the Angel of the Omnipotent Lord?'

This, however, does not contradict what has been already defined. For we say that the lowest choirs do not possess the integral and pre-eminent power of the higher Orders, since they receive it partially, in the measure of their capacity, in accordance with the one harmonious and binding fellowship of all things.

For example, the choir of the holy Cherubim participates in higher wisdom and knowledge, whilst the Orders below them are themselves also partakers of wisdom and knowledge, but more partially, and in a lower degree proportioned to their capacity. For the universal participation in wisdom and knowledge is shared by all the Divine Intelligences, but the degree of participation, whether immediate and first, or second and inferior, is not common, but is determined for each by its own rank. 



This also may be rightly said of all the Divine Intelligences, that even as the first possess in the highest degree the holy characteristics of the Orders below them, so the lowest possess the powers of the higher, not in equal measure, but in a subordinate degree.

Therefore I do not think it unreasonable that the Scriptures should call our hierarchs Angels, since they participate according to their own power in the interpretative characteristic of the Angels, and uplift themselves, as far as is possible to man, into an assimilation to the Angels as revealers of truth.

You will find, moreover, that the Word of God not only calls these Celestial Beings above us Gods, but also gives this name to saintly men amongst us, and to those men who, in the highest degree, are lovers of God; although the First and Unmanifest God superessentially transcends all things, being enthroned above all, and therefore none of the beings or things which can truly be said to be wholly like Him, save in so far as those intellectual and rational beings who are wholly turned towards union with Him, as far as is in their power; and who, uplifting themselves perpetually, as far as possible, to the Divine Radiance, in the imitation of God (if it be lawful so to speak) with all their powers, are thought worthy of the same divine name.