Author : Jo
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ANGEL’S TATTOO – AN ESSAY
This is a development of a brief essay that I wrote several years ago – before I started dating pieces that I had written, but probably in 2002 and definitely no later than summer 2003. It was in response to an essay that I read by Mariah, posted on Cynamin’s Angel Obsessed website. And, it was the very first thing that I wrote that was anything to do with the fandom. See? It was always Angel...
It was written at a time of prolonged illness, when I was just getting used to computers and internets, and hadn’t really comprehended much about the fandom – hadn’t really comprehended that there was a fandom at all. And because I hadn’t got my wits back after the illness, that original essay is embarrassing to read now! Still, Cynamin was kind enough to include it on her website...
That was then. This is, as I say, a development. I hope it’s more together than the original.
We’re all familiar with that marvellous and mobile tattoo that Angel has somewhere on his right shoulder. It moves around and it changes in size, and sometimes it disappears altogether, but we all love it. Yet, we have no idea of its history.
There are many tattoos used throughout BtVS and AtS, but none as enigmatic as this one.
It’s mentioned in the episode ‘Angel’, and then it’s never mentioned again. We see it from time to time, Buffy occasionally runs her fingers down it, and in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ Wes identifies the Angel-beast as Angel because of it. But, it’s never again spoken of, or referred to, and even in ‘Angel’, its wearer makes no comment, or even acknowledges that it’s there.
When Joss commissioned it, he expected to get a small tattoo which would serve to identify Angelus, a small shamrock perhaps, or something similar. He was taken aback when he saw the size of it, and it seems that afterwards he attached no significance to it other than as an identifying feature. Let’s see whether we can do better, shall we?
What is the tattoo?
Almost everyone who mentions the tattoo, in fanfic or elsewhere, refers to it as a griffin. While it’s true that ‘griffin’ (or gryphon, which is the same thing, although not griffon, which is a small dog or a large vulture) is easier and quicker to type, the tattoo is not of a griffin. It’s a winged lion.
What’s the difference?
A winged lion is a lion with wings.
A griffin has a number of different forms. It generally has the hindquarters of a lion, and the forelegs of an eagle, although there are forms of griffin that have the whole lion’s body. It usually has the wings of the eagle, although there are forms without. What it always has, though, is the head of the eagle, and where there are ears, these are much more pointed than a lion’s, and are usually feathered. It always has a beak, rather than a muzzle, and often the beak is open and the tongue is portrayed.
If we look at the tattoo, the head is that of a lion, and a snarling lion at that, with the muzzle crumpled up to expose the teeth. It isn’t a beak. The curls on its neck aren’t feathers, but a lion’s mane.
How can we be sure of this? Because this tattoo is a specific winged lion. It’s one of the depictions of the Evangelist, St Mark, from that Irish treasure, the Book of Kells.
The Book of Kells
The Book of Kells is a lavishly decorated volume of the Four Gospels, plus one or two other bits and pieces (although some of the Gospel of John is lost). It dates to around 800AD, and is a masterpiece. The name came from the Abbey of Kells, in County Meath, where it was kept for centuries, and it now resides at Trinity College, Dublin.
The pages of the book are covered in the most beautiful depictions of Christian iconography, the most frequent of which refer to the Four Evangelists, or the Tetramorph.
A Tetramorph is basically a foursome – the four quarters of the wind on a weather vane, or the four hands of contract bridge. In religious symbolism, the most famous Tetramorph is that of the Four Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each one of them, within the Christian ethos, is represented symbolically, and those symbols derive from the Tetramorph described in Ezekiel, and in Revelations.
In Ezekiel’s vision his beings each have four faces, of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle, and they were winged. Here, we get the rather confusing passage of wheels within wheels, but what Ezekiel is describing is the Merkaba, the Throne of God.
The Book of Revelations, the book of the Apocalypse, again speaks of the creatures that support the Throne of God. The first was like a lion, the second a calf, the third a man and the fourth an eagle.
Depicting the Evangelists as the Tetramorph became popular, and the Book of Kells is notable for this. In the early Church, different writers gave different qualities to each of the Evangelists, and assigned different representations to them – they have all been, at one time or another, the man, the ox, the lion and the eagle. It was St Jerome who prevailed, and he assigned the winged man (not an angel) to St Matthew, the winged ox (or calf) to St Luke, the winged lion to St Mark and the winged eagle to St John. Each of those symbols represents one quarter of the nature of Christ, with the lion representing courage, royalty and resurrection.
The Book of Kells contains different depictions of these symbols on almost every page. The one we are particularly interested in is Folio 5r, showing the Eusebian Canon Tables. Here, the winged man and the winged eagle occupy the upper corners of the manuscript. Beneath a central arch, we see the winged lion and the winged ox, and it is this depiction of the winged lion that has been adapted for Angel’s tattoo. The only difference is that the tattooed lion has the letter ‘A’ between its paws.
Why choose this tattoo?
There are two people who chose this tattoo. The artist commissioned by Joss, and Angel, in one of his manifestations.
The artist may simply have chosen something Irish, and this picture may just have appealed to him. We’ll never know. Or perhaps he chose it because of the Apocalyptic theme of Season 1. There’s more on that later.
And Angel? Why would he choose this? Perhaps the first question we should ask is When? Since the only time that the tattoo is explicitly mentioned is in ‘Angel’, we must take from that episode whatever we can. Giles find his information in the diaries of the watchers before him, but gives us no indication of how many diaries mention Angelus, or the age of them. We learn that the diaries mention him as having been in Ireland some two hundred years ago, that he’s about two hundred and forty, which isn’t very old for a vampire, that he leaves Ireland and wreaks havoc in Europe for several decades, comes to America and eighty years ago, shuns other vampires and lives alone. Since Giles reads all this from one book, it helps us not at all to date when amongst all that lot the tattoo was first observed, let alone how and by whom.
So, was the tattoo acquired by Liam, by Angel, or by Angelus?
The usual argument is that Liam would not have chosen a tattoo with the letter A. This isn’t necessarily a problem. Family was very important in Ireland, which clan you belonged to, which tribe, which family. There aren’t that many common family names from Galway beginning with A, but Athy is one. Liam Athy? How does that sound? And there are others. From what we know of Liam, it does seem unlikely, however, that he would choose such a manifestly religious tattoo. It could, of course, have been done in a drunken stupor, but that would bring us to the end of our quest, and it’s a bit of a tame ending.
The first question we have to settle here is whether a tattoo would actually take, on a vampire, or whether it would heal without trace. We’ve seen that vampires heal from the most appalling injuries without scarring, and yet we’ve also seen vampires with scars, and even with a claw for a hand. Much, much later on, Angel arranges for demonic surgery to sew Spike’s hands back on, so presumably these would not have regrown of their own accord. The most definitive suggestion that we see is Angel digging bullets out of his own body, and the presumption has to be that these would not be expelled automatically. Perhaps, therefore, we can have confidence that tattoo ink, too, would not be expelled.
Many tattoos are mentioned throughout the shows, but there is nothing of relevance to Angel’s tattoo, with the possible exception of one, in ‘Power Play’. Harmony sees Wes sketching the symbol of the Black Thorn and says to him, ‘Thinking of getting a tattoo, right? Put a little more "bad" in your bad boy bank.’ It’s certainly possible that Angelus had it done for no more reason than this.
But why would Angelus have such an overtly religious tattoo? We’ll come to that...
There’s no indication at all that Angel got the tattoo after he was ensouled. It’s possible that it was done as some sort of penance, but why choose St Mark? The winged lion of St Mark has long been the symbol of Venice, ever since the Venetians stole the remains of St Mark from his tomb in Alexandria, in the 9th Century, and brought them back to Venice. But neither Angel nor Angelus seems to have any affinity with Venice. Mark is symbolised by a lion for courage and monarchy, and the resurrection of Christ. None of these alone seem enough of an explanation.
Angelus and the Master
The only time that we see Angelus and the Master together is in ‘Darla’, in 1760, and then Angelus, on his first meeting with his grandsire, is not impressed and takes Darla away. He was young at the time, just seven, being sired in 1753.
Does Angelus meet the Master again? We don’t know. But, if we look at the episode ‘Angel’, there are other tantalising clues.
Darla suggests to the Master that Angel should kill the Slayer and ‘come back to the fold’. This could mean something or nothing, but it does seem to imply that Angel may have at one time been rather more a part of the master’s entourage than we saw in ‘Darla’. The Master reinforces this by replying, ‘Angel! He was the most
vicious creature I ever met. I miss him.’
Additionally, in the confrontation in the Bronze, Darla says to Angel, ‘There was a time when we shared everything, wasn't there Angelus? You had a chance to come home, to rule with me in the Master's court for a thousand years, but you threw that away because of her.’ This could be taken to refer only to Darla’s conversation with him in his apartment earlier on in that episode, but if we marry that with what the Master says after Darla’s death – ‘But to lose her to Angel! He was to have sat at
my right hand, come the day.’ – then it seems more significant, implying that Angelus had some serious status and expectations within the Master’s family.
And so we come back to why Angelus might have a religiously-inspired tattoo.
Joss tends to steer clear of religious matters. True, we have crosses, holy water and Bibles uses in slaying and exorcisms, and Angelus has a thing about convents and confessionals, but it’s all done in a very non-religious way. Matters of God are rarely mentioned. There is an exception to this.
‘Somnambulist’ is not an episode from which we can comfortably and reliably derive background information about Angelus, and yet, there are some worthwhile clues for our quest. We learn that Angelus sired Penn, a Puritan, around 1786, when he was going through a period of mocking God, which presumably also saw him making his depredations on convents. Might the tattoo date to this period? And might it be something to do with the Master?
The Master and the Tattoo
We’ve seen that the Master intended Angel to sit at his right hand after the Apocalypse, although we haven’t seen anything about Angel's relationship with the Master after he and Darla left. We’ve seen that the Book of Revelations (4:7) speaks of four creatures, represented as a winged lion, a winged bull, a winged man and an eagle supporting the celestial throne and that these figures also represent the four evangelists, Mark, Luke, Matthew and John. We’ve also seen that Ezekiel (1.10) had a similar vision of creatures supporting God's chariot, each with the face of a lion, a bull, a man and an eagle, and that all four evangelical symbols are represented in the Book of Kells. And we’ve seen that Angel’s tattoo is an image from the Book of Kells.
Suppose that we continue the 'mocking God' theme, and think that the Master might have wanted his own four 'evangelists'. Might the tattoo, then, not reflect that idea, marking a blasphemous set of supporters for the Master's throne? Angelus seems to have been the senior of these supporters (a position often given to Mark).
This would be a very appropriate design to place on Angel’s shoulder, given the Master as The Apocalyptic Big Bad in season 1, and may have weighed with the artist who took it from the Book of Kells for Joss. It’s possible, too, since the prophecies of Aurelius are important to the Master, who features in them, that the A really stands for Aurelius, although this isn’t something that I’d strongly suggest.
Might there have been (or be) another three vampires out there marked with the bull, the man and the eagle? We know that one of the Master’s most trusted vampires in Season 1 was called Luke. Luke of the Evangelists was the physician, the healer, and the vampiric Luke was the one chosen by the Master to be the Vessel, the means of harvesting souls to free the Master from his imprisonment and to allow him to rise. We don’t know whether he was marked with the winged man, but we can see him as The Master’s healer. Luke’s symbol is also a figure of sacrifice, service and strength, which seems to describe the vampiric Luke.
Might the tattoo, therefore, have been a sign of Angel's status within the order and of his relationship with the Master? Of his promised dark future? And a mockery of the visions in Revelations and Ezekiel, of the Evangelists, and of God's throne?
We can even look at Wolfram and Hart’s position, that all the prophecies agree that Angel is important in the coming Apocalypse. This would certainly be the case if he had been marked as one of the four supporters of the throne of the Anti-God, and even though the Master’s Apocalyptic tendencies were foiled, prophecies go on, with a sort of life of their own, and Angel went on to bring about the Apocalypse himself.
This would also explain why Joss didn’t follow the tattoo up in any way. If it was about the Master, and his intention of bringing back the Old Ones and to rule the world, then it lost its meaning after the death of the Master in Season 1 of BtVS, and if it was a blasphemous perversion of the Evangelists, it also fell foul of Joss’s reluctance to include unnecessary religious iconography and references. And it would also explain why Angel never, ever acknowledges it.
We’ll never know exactly what Joss wanted the tattoo to represent, and it’s entirely possible that he had no intentions about it at all.
Perhaps Liam had the tattoo done, as a mark of family, as a nod to his latest girlfriend, or in a drunken stupor.
Perhaps Liam/Angelus/Angel/Joss really did want a griffin, and the artist who drew it on Angel’s back, or the artist who drew it for Joss, thought they were drawing a griffin.
Perhaps Angel had it done as a sign of remorse, of penance.
But my money is on it being taken straight from the Book of Kells, as a sign of mocking God, of something to do with the Master’s Apocalyptic ambitions, and as a mark of Angelus’s position in the Master’s family.
Whether I’m right or wrong, it’s still a winged lion, and not a griffin!
As a rule, one should never cite Wikipedia as the sole source. Even Wikipedia’s founder acknowledges that something like 18% of entries are wrong. However, there’s at least some good information in these, and they make a good starting point. There are plenty of other websites to be found through Google, and there are even those strange rectangular things called books, that are found in places called libraries, or, perhaps, on bookshelves...
Book of Kells
(includes an image of the folio with the original of Angel’s tattoo)
Venice and the winged lion of St Mark
Images of winged lions
The Four Evangelists
(All King James’ Version)
Irish surnames (Galway)