Ainulindalë: The Creation of the Angels

Eru engë,
i estaina ná Ilúvatar Ardassë;
ar ónes minyavë Ainur,
i ner i híni sanweryo,
ar nentë ósë nó ilúvë ontaina né.

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.1

Thus begins the Ainulindalë (“Music of the Ainur”)—the great elven tale of Eru’s creation of Arda (the world). The manuscript history of the tale is difficult and controverted. One ancient tradition attributes the written form of the tale to Rúmil of Tiron, who presumably learned its substance directly from the Valar. The Ainulindalë thus represents the most important ancient testimony to the creation of the cosmos, second in authority only to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. It describes the process of divine creation in five stages:

1. The creation of the Ainur.

2. The communication by Eru of his Design to the Ainur.

3. The Great Music, which was as it were a rehearsal, and remained in the stage of thought or imagination.

4. The ‘Vision’ of Eru, which was again only a foreshowing of possibility, and was incomplete.

5. The Achievement, which is still going on.2

The Ainulindalë explicitly identifies the making of the Ainur as the initial step of God’s creative work. Like the angels of the Latin Christian tradition, the Ainur are disembodied beings, “rational spirits or minds without incarnation, created before the physical world.”3 They are the most powerful of Eru’s creatures. When initially created, they were isolated from the other Ainur, unable to understand each other; but as they enter into the music of Eru, they grow in harmony and become a great heavenly choir.

We may think of the Ainur as filling in a metaphysical gap, as it were, between the transcendent One and physical beings.

St Thomas Aquinas suggests that angels are necessary to the perfection and beauty of the cosmos:

I answer that, There must be some incorporeal creatures. For what is principally intended by God in creatures is good, and this consists in assimilation to God Himself. And the perfect assimilation of an effect to a cause is accomplished when the effect imitates the cause according to that whereby the cause produces the effect; as heat makes heat. Now, God produces the creature by His intellect and will (14, 8; 19, 4). Hence the perfection of the universe requires that there should be intellectual creatures. Now intelligence cannot be the action of a body, nor of any corporeal faculty; for every body is limited to “here” and “now.” Hence the perfection of the universe requires the existence of an incorporeal creature.4

Jonathan McIntosh elaborates:

Angels are important to Aquinas not only for the light they shed on man, but . . . because they fill an ontological gap that would otherwise intervene between God and man if they did not exist. As intelligent beings that are both incorporeal (being spiritual substances that are not naturally united to a body) and immaterial (being pure form without any adjoining matter), angels represent a real ontological possibility that, while fundamentally related to human beings, is nevertheless not instantiated or fulfilled by them, so that their existence is necessary for the perfection of the created order as God has made it (ST 1.50.1-2).5

One might even say, if angels did not exist, God would “need” to invent them. The necessity here is not so much metaphysical but aesthetic. It is befitting, given the structure of the cosmos, that angels should exist.6

In the Middle Ages scholastic theologians debated whether the angels were composed of matter and form or were pure spirit, surpassing the form/matter distinction. St Bonaventure affirmed the former, positing a difference between the spiritual matter of angels and the corporeal matter of human beings. Only God, in his utter simplicity, transcends form and matter. To be a creature is to be hylomorphic.7 Thomas, on the other hand, affirmed the latter: angels are incorporeal substances; they are not intrinsically united to bodies and do not acquire their knowledge through sensory perception. David Keck explains the difference between the Seraphic Doctor and the Angelic Doctor:

For Aquinas, matter is equivalent to corporeality; he considers matter as it is already in existence in the world. For Bonaventure, matter is a metaphysical construct that is equivalent to indeterminate potency, something capable of being rendered into existence by being joined to a form. Thus for him matter is capable of being either spiritual (if joined to a spiritual form) or corporeal (if joined to a corporeal form), whereas for Aquinas “matter” is always corporeal.8

Thomas agrees with Bonaventure that angels are metaphysically composite beings, but he locates the composition differently: like all other creatures, angels are a compound of existence and essence. They need not exist; they do not possess being within themselves but receive it as a gift from the holy Transcendence. In Thomas’s angelology, each angel is a species unto themselves: each is pure mind but do not share bodily form. “This may be a motive,” comments Austin Freeman, “for Tolkien’s initial angelic isolation.”9

While it would be anachronistic to insert the Ainulindalë into the scholastic debate, the Ainur appear to be somewhat closer to the vision of Aquinas than Bonaventure. Tolkien describes the Ainur as ëalar, discarnate spirits who exist independently of matter and do not need bodies to be complete. By contrast, elves and men are composed of fëar (souls) and hröar (bodies). For both incarnate races, the separation of fëa and hröa is unnatural. From the moment of their creation, both races were united “in the association of fëar with, or ‘housing’ them in, hröar belonging to Eä, in such a way that either were incomplete without the others. But the fëar were not spirits of a wholly different kind to the Ainur; whereas the bodies were of a kind closely akin to the bodies of living things already in the primary design (even if adapted to their new function, or modified by the indwelling fëar).”10

(8 February 2018; rev.)


[1] J. R. T. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, p. 15.

[2] Tolkien’s commentary on Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, in Morgoth’s Ring, p. 337.

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, Letter 212.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.50.1.

[5] Jonathan McIntosh, The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St. Thomas, and the Metaphysics of Faerie (2017), p. 187.

[6] Also see Pascal Parente, “Morning Stars of Creation.”

[7] See David Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages (1998), pp. 93-98.

[8] Ibid., p. 99.

[9] Austin M. Freeman, Tolkien Dogmatics (2022), p. 132.

[10] MR, p. 337.

(Go to “The God Who Is Music”)

* * *

I dedicate this series to my beloved son Aaron. He loved The Silmarillion. He read it multiple times, knew the stories and genealogies inside-and-out. We had many conversations about all things Tolkien. May his memory be eternal. 

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19 Responses to Ainulindalë: The Creation of the Angels

  1. Helpful diagram (the intersecting triangles). Might I ask where it’s from?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have no idea where I found the diagram, Ken. Sorry.


      • No worries! I often find myself verbally explaining something close to what’s being depicted in that diagram, so that’s why I ask.

        Enjoyed the article. The necessity of the angels as a kind of ontological metaxu between God and humans is an interesting notion. One thing I’m currently struggling to wrap my head around and am having trouble finding a definitive answer for is the difference between that which is intellective (aka angels) and that which is intelligible. Sometimes it seems that these are the same thing — for instance Bulgakov clearly thinks that the idea content of the world (that which is intelligible) literally is the angels; whereas someone like Aquinas would draw a distinction. But I can’t quite imagine anything that would be an intelligible essence that wouldn’t itself be an intelligence. Anyway, this is all quite far afield from your article — apologies!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ed H. says:

    I pray daily for the repose of the soul of your son. I have done so for many years. I don’t know how this fits in with the teachings of universalism, but praying in this way is what I have been taught by my Roman Catholic teachers. So it is a great privilege to participate in your son’s salvation in this way. Blessings on you, Father Kimel, and on your household.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Rob says:

    Serious (i.e. not just LOTR) Tolkien on an Orthodox theology blog. Now my life is complete.

    A blessing for your son’s memory.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Robert F says:

    “The dewdrop world
    is a dewdrop world–
    and yet, and yet….”

    The Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa wrote this haiku after the death of his daughter (altogether three of his children died during his lifetime). As a good Buddhist, in the face of his losses and his grief he affirmed the doctrine of the impermanence of all things ….and yet, and yet. As Christians we affirm a fuller hope, but there are still so many aspects of our losses and grief that make us stagger, that give us pause again and again, even in the hope of our faith, and we too say… and yet, and yet…

    Peace and healing to you and yours, Fr Kimel.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Brad says:

    I love the music of the Ainur!

    “Thomas, on the other hand, affirmed the latter: angels are incorporeal substances; they are not intrinsically united to bodies and do not acquire their knowledge through sensory perception.”

    Incidentally, this is the ground of Feser’s rejection of universal salvation. He summarizes his view in this talk, starting at the 44:10 mark:

    He concludes that fallen angels cannot learn the error of their ways, and not even God could teach them. Therefore, post-mortem humans who die in a state of mortal sin cannot learn the error of their ways because, according to Aquinas, they are, prior to the reception of their immortal bodies, basically temporary angels.

    Aside from the fact that the whole view is based on a highly speculative conception of angels and post-mortem humans, it also obviously makes God out to be unfathomably cruel.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. polithn says:

    Early last fall, in the context of a (very brief) and, I think, respectful dialogue on Twitter, I asked Fr. Rooney if he would elaborate a bit on the scriptural/philosophical basis for the doctrine (or whatever it is) that post-mortem repentance is impossible.

    (He had just asserted it, on what I assumed in context was Thomistic grounds alone, although he may have had other ground(s), too, I don’t know.)

    For whatever reason, I was granted no reply to my entreaty.

    Can anyone who might see this direct me to something authoritative and really good, with the Impr. & NO, on the question? And/or to any especially well-regarded academic treatment or monograph?

    If DBH should happen to see this, I’d be grateful and honored to look into his recommendations.


    • polithn says:

      Specifically, hoping for sound sources on the the basis in Scripture/philosophy etc. for this alleged post-mortem “fixity of the will.” And of course for any solid & well-informed critiques of this notion, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Matthew Porter-Valbracht says:

        My personal impression is although a scholastic philosopher may give all sorts of reasons, in reality there is nothing is scripture or tradition to answer the question one way or the other in any sort of definitive way. And therefore the Catholic Church chose to assume there is no postmortem redemption because it is safer than assuming that there is, considering what the consequences would be if you’re wrong.


        • polithn says:

          Yes, a policy of due prudence. A case for that.

          btw, I listened to Dr. Feser’s talk from the point Brad indicated, 44:10 and following for ~ 15 minutes. It was lucid as far as it went, but I think it mostly raised more questions in my mind than it answered.

          I could list some of these apparently undemonstrated assumptions that occurred to me. But maybe these are demonstrated or at least supported elsewhere, and I suppose that’s what I’m hoping for: sources in Scripture, tradition (left that out) or philosophy & science (broadly understood, i.e., in the sense of Wissenschaft) so I could look into this more.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I believe the logic works like this: an eternally populated hell is a biblical given. Since it would be unjust of God to not forgive the damned if they were to repent and beg for his forgiveness; therefore it must be the case that they never do and cannot do so. The theological task, therefore, is to speculate on why repentance is impossible for the damned.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Rob says:

            “an eternally populated hell is a biblical given”

            And that is the assumption that must be challenged.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Stranger says:

            I cannot speak to tradition or philosophy and should hardly speak to Scripture but(!) If I am not mistaken, the impossibility of postmortem repentance is sometimes at least, and mistakenly, I believe, based in part on Romans 1:19 (people are without excuse) and Hebrews 9:27 (we are fated to live and die once and after that to face judgement).

            The doctrine excluding postmortem repentance seems to involve not so much these scriptures, however and of course, but meanings imputed to them, all of which beg several questions, not the least of which is what the “judgement” referenced in Hebrews involves: eternal sentencing? Or a review, from a loving God, of where each of us has fallen short – or rather, of all the ways we can further grow and heal, all with the goal of completing the theosis left incomplete – for any number of reasons; this fallen world, our ignorance, our sinful nature, our woundedness – during our time of life.

            Regarding the possibilities of what that “judgement” referenced in Hebrews might entail; studies here and elsewhere regarding better translation of the “aeon”-related terms in Matthew 25 have helped me round out my understanding, (i.e that judgement may merely be determing whats next in the next age but not the final age) as has consideration of the possible meanings of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.

            Lastly, I overcome my own indoctrination to the belief (and fear) with reference to the implications of God, at the end, being “all in all” as per 1 Corinthians 15:28.

            Liked by 3 people

          • That’s what I’ve gathered. If one surveys exegetical & patristic sources, it seems that a populated hell is taken for granted. We all know who the notable exceptions are among the Fathers & Mothers and what alternate Scriptural interpretations are on offer.

            D. Bradshaw provides a good chronicle of such thought:

            It does seem to me that a medieval speculative angelology is where most have turned to explain why the damned cannot repent. It may be that, even given a universal hylomorphism, where incorporeal agents would be mutable, many nevertheless might maintain that a hardened vicious character disposition could still prevent postmortem repentance. e.g. Bradshaw wrote: “As Metropolitan Hilarion has shown in detail, there was broad agreement that this did not include all who were in Hades, for some had so formed their character during their earthly life that even when they at last heard the Gospel, they did not believe.”

            That’s incoherent. Astute Thomists acknowledge that eternal impeccability vis the beatific vision cannot plausibly have a character-based beatific contingency.

            Even then, others have, instead, invoked an indwelling-based beatific contingency, drawing distinctions between the divine omnipresence & divine indwelling. While that’s a meaningful distinction for other purposes, it can’t plausibly be used by those of us who, properly, reject a concrete natura pura (which is otherwise, at most, a hypothetical abstraction).

            Point is, I’ve not seen anyone succeed at the theological task of plausibly speculating on why angels & humans cannot repent postmortem.

            If one accepts the minority reports which interpret the Scriptures & certain Fathers & Mothers as consistent with universalism, the theological task has already been done, anthropologically! By Scotus & Bonaventure on angel mutability. By Thomists on election, predestination, impeccability, inancaritability, etc, all consistent with hell as limited in duration, purgatively.

            Liked by 3 people

      • Brendan Case best articulated the Francis­can critique of spiritual immaterialism, here at Eclectic Orthodoxy. If universal hylomorphism is true, both angels & incorporeal human persons are mutable. It is true, btw.

        Liked by 3 people

  7. Grant says:

    While Ainu might not have material bodies, but it might not necessarily follow they don’t have bodies altogether.

    In anycase, in one key way all the Ainur are different from Aquinas’ concept of incorporate intellects, in that the Ainur do not suffer fixity of the will. Examples in the legendarium involve Osse responding to Melkor’s temptations and briefly joining his rebellion befo Ulinen persuaded him to return back and recieve pardon from Ulmo. Sauron to it least began to repent before falling deeper than before manifesting as Annatar.

    So even if the Ainur are concieved as incorporate intellects, Tolkien clearly, at least as far as his own mythology goes, sees some things differently to Thomists.

    Liked by 2 people

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