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The Watchers

Ancient Jewish and Christian narratives relate the story of the Watchers, primordial fallen angels who mated with mortal human women, brought conflict to the world, and then introduced illicit knowledge to humanity.

Francisco de Goya, El Coloso (detail), 1808, oil on canvas, 116 x 105 cm. Courtesy Museo del Prado.

Various ancient Jewish and Christian texts speak of the Watchers, angels who fell in love and married mortal women during the time of Noah. This union of humans and angels produced monstrous offspring, the Nephilim or giants, whose destructive ways were one of the primary explanations for God enacting a worldwide flood. The Watchers traditions provide ancient etiologies and moral instruction surrounding topics such as magic, medicine, and feminine vanity.

Who are the Watchers?  

The most fully developed narrative of the Watchers appears in the Book of the Watchers, an ancient Jewish text of the third or second century BCE that is now collected in 1 Enoch 1–36. The meaning of the term Watcher is unclear, but it likely relates to a Hebrew root that means “to rouse oneself/be awake.” According to the Book of the Watchers, the Watchers are angelic beings who descend from heaven, have relations with earthly women, produce gigantic offspring, and introduce humankind to forbidden knowledge. The Watchers follow the lead of two chief angel figures, Shemihazah, who leads the Watchers down to earth to have forbidden sex with human women, and Asael, who introduces humankind to forbidden knowledge. The Watchers almost certainly have some connection to the sons of God mentioned in Gen 6:1–13, who descend to earth, cohabit with daughters of men, and produce the Nephilim. The Watchers also appear in later Jewish and Christian narratives, such as the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs and Justin Martyr’s 2 Apology, where they often serve to underscore divine punishment and act as a warning to those who sin. 

What evil did the Watchers introduce into the world?

The Watchers traditions position angelic descent as an explanation for the origins of human sin and suffering. Where and when evil enters into the world, however, is ambiguous. Many biblical scholars and ancient interpreters believe that the dominant sin of the Watchers was bringing sexual desire to the world, a direct result of their cohabitation with earthly women. Alternatively, the sin brought by the Watchers could be violence, as implied by their offspring, the Nephilim or giants, who produced an outcry on the earth that resulted in conflict and destruction. According to 1 En. 15:9–12, upon the death of the Nephilim, their souls continued to torment the earth in the form of demonic entities.

Ancient writers also cite the Watchers narratives to explain how certain types of knowledge and skills first came to be adopted by humankind, including common practices such as metalworking and cosmetology. Metalworking allowed humankind to make weapons, thus supporting the idea that the Watchers (and their destructive offspring) provided an etiology for violence and warfare. According to these same traditions, the Watchers’ teachings also resulted in the adoption of jewelry and cosmetics, which many ancient interpreters connected with a rise in vanity and promiscuity. Finally, the Watchers narratives were also cited as an explanation for the origins of sorcery, divination, and pharmacology, all modes of knowledge forbidden by the torah.

Whatever evil the Watchers were said to have introduced, the texts that mention the Watchers functioned to shore up the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. They explained why the faithful were persecuted and why there continued to be alternative cultic systems. They associated condemned knowledge and practices with foreignness and so contributed to the sharpening of differences between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. Such explanations were highly influential. As Annette Yoshiko Reed explains, texts related to the Watchers traditions may have even functioned as scripture for some ancient Jews and early Christians. Classical rabbinic literature contains almost no traces of Watchers traditions, and later Christian writers increasingly preferred alternative explanations for the origins of evil. Nevertheless, despite their later wane in popularity, the Watchers were important figures in ancient Jewish and Christian cultures, functioning to explain the origins of evil and (illicit) knowledge, warn the wicked of divine punishment, and demonstrate the ills that came from mixing heaven and earth.

  • McKenna Boling is from Port Clinton, Ohio. She did her undergraduate studies at Wittenberg University majoring in psychology and minoring in religion. She plans to continue her education at the University of Toledo pursuing her master’s degree in psychology.

  • Travis Proctor is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. He specializes in ancient Mediterranean religions and early Christianity, with research interests in ancient demonology, the early Christian body, environmental history, and animal studies. He received his PhD in religious studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.