The most unique element about angels (in Supernatural) that isn't in typical lore is the notion that they have to possess. They control a human host in much the same way demons do. The only difference is that angels have to ask permission and demons don't. That provided us with all sorts of morality plays to work through because angels are nominally good, but they are putting human victims through this horrific experience just because the humans were devout enough to give their will away.
A vessel is a human that an angel possesses in order to manifest on Earth. The term vessel was first used by Castiel. Vessels are the safest and most conventional way for angels to interact with humans on Earth, as their true voices and visages can kill, and in the very least severely harm. Vessels also appear necessary for an angel to use the full range of his abilities on Earth. Zachariah explains that even Lucifer needs a vessel outside the cage.
A human must consent for an angel to use their body as a vessel.
Suitability of a Vessel
Castiel: That was my mistake. Certain people, special people, can perceive my true visage. I thought you would be one of them. I was wrong.
Dean: And what visage are you in now, huh? What, holy tax accountant?Castiel: He's a devout man, he actually prayed for this.
Castiel: This? This is... a vessel.
Dean: You're possessing some poor bastard?
The suitability of a human to be a vessel is innate. Castiel makes reference to this while possessing Claire Novak, saying that it is "in her blood." It appears that angels are tied to certain human family lineages. Michael, when he is using the young John Winchester as his vessel, tells Dean: “You’re my true vessel, but not my only one. It’s a bloodline... stretching back to Cain and Abel. It’s in your blood, your father’s blood, your family's blood,” with this statement being reinforced by Michael's later use of Adam Milligan, John's son and Dean's half-brother, when Dean refuses to consent to Michael.
Not all vessels are as suitable or durable as others. Lucifer finds his vessel Nick deteriorates, and the angel Hael also finds her vessel weak, and is intent on taking over Castiel's vessel because of this.
Gender appears to be irrelevant for angels; Castiel and Raphael have both used male and female vessels. While angels do refer to each other with gendered terms such as "brother" and "sister" it is unclear if angels have any concept of gender as humans would understand it, and what influences their choice of vessel.
While demons can possess any human against their will, in order to manifest angels must obtain the consent of the human before they can enter him or her. This consent can be coerced as demonstrated by Zachariah's treatment of Dean, with Dean's continued refusal to act as Michael's vessel prompts Zachariah to torture him, Sam, and their half-brother Adam Milligan. However, it would appear that the consent still requires the subject to say 'yes' as themselves, as Zachariah always tried to force Dean to accept rather than simply changing his memories, a feat that he has been shown to be capable of, to make Dean willing to consent (demons were more willing to attack and threaten Sam, at one point trying to trick Gary Frankel, who had temporarily switched bodies with Sam, into saying "Yes" in Sam's place, but they may simply be relying on more limited knowledge of angels.
After consent is obtained, it appears that an angel may occupy a vessel for as long as necessary, though it can be forcibly removed. Having left a vessel, it would appear that the angel requires new consent from the vessel to resume using it as a host; Castiel had to use Claire Novak as a vessel when Jimmy was uninterested in doing the same. This apparently only applies when the subject is mentally capable of doing so, as Raphael was able to re-use Donnie Finnerman after being banished from him despite Donnie being virtually catatonic and unlikely to give new consent to Raphael's use of his body. Angels can apparently re-occupy a body that has been restored without its soul, as Castiel has confirmed that Jimmy Novak was killed and passed on to Heaven after he was killed by Raphael and yet he has continued to operate in Jimmy's body for several years since.
While occupying a vessel, the original consciousness of the human is suppressed, though it can come to the surface in rare instances; Lucifer allowed Sam Winchester to experience some moments of his actions when he destroyed some of the demons that had monitored Sam during his life in an attempt to convince Sam to submit to him and Sam was eventually able to overpower him and actually regain full control of his body with Lucifer still inside it, while Jimmy Novak was at least aware of enough during his time as Castiel to recognize the Winchesters when he met them after Castiel was expelled from his body, as well as knowing how to set up a salt barrier to protect his family from attacking demons. Conversely, angels can also suppress themselves while in vessels, as shown when Ezekiel erased Sam's knowledge of him and retreated into Sam's subconscious in order to allow them both to heal.
According to Castiel in his second conversation with Dean, angels are "walking among" humans for the first time in 2,000 years. Uriel made a comment in the 1970's that it was against orders to manifest on Earth in a vessel. At least two angels have been on Earth during this period: Anna Milton and Gabriel. Anna fell, cutting out her grace, and was subsequently born as a human. When she regains her grace, her body is destroyed, but is later regenerated for her to occupy as a vessel. If Gabriel has used the same vessel since arriving on Earth after Lucifer's fall, it must have been serving him for thousands of years. While some angels enjoy their time on Earth in vessels, others resent it. Uriel holds disdain for humans, and Zachariah in particular, whose vessel is never identified, despises the prospect, as illustrated by the following quote:
Dean: Oh, great. That's all I need is another one of you guys.
Zachariah: I'm hardly another one, Dean. I'm Castiel's superior. Believe me, I had no interest in popping down here into one of these smelly things. Zachariah indicates his body.
In Heaven, angels can appear in human form to souls there. When Dean and Sam are captured by Zachariah in Heaven, they still see Zachariah as he appears on Earth in his vessel. According to Zachariah the reason they perceive him the same way in Heaven is because they're limited. Joshua is also seen in human form in Heaven by Dean and Sam, but it is unclear if his appearance reflects a particular vessel or if it was something he chose at random. In 5.14 My Bloody Valentine, Castiel demands that a Cupid reveals itself, and it instantly appears in human form. Whether or not it needed a vessel is unknown.
At the end of season six, Castiel absorbs the souls of Purgatory to gain their power and defeat Raphael. Balthazar worried about the instability inherent in Castiel acting "as the vessel" for the souls. This could result in the destruction of Earth. Whether the souls are also housed in Castiel's vessel or are a part of his spirit is not known. He is still using his vessel after declaring himself the new "God", although it is quickly established that the strain of holding these souls- as well as the leviathans- would have been too much for his vessel to hold them long-term, forcing Castiel to discard them or self-destruct.
Sam and Castiel learn that when an angel leaves a vessel, they leave behind a bit of their grace which can be extracted and used to track them. However, repeated healings of the vessel over time causes the grace to be eliminated.
Strengths and Weaknesses
An angel in a vessel can withstand injuries that would kill a human, and can heal the vessel of almost any wound they receive, unlike demons who merely suppress the damage their "meatsuits" sustain while they are in control. Even so, acting as a vessel is a trial. Jimmy Novak described his experience as a vessel as "like being chained to a comet." Although Jimmy came through his time as Castiel's vessel physically and mentally intact, apart from being hungry as Castiel never ate, he still recalls having been shot, stabbed, and healed while his body was being "used" by Castiel. Castiel also warns Jimmy that he will not age while occupied by an angel, however long he serves as a vessel.
In the case of archangels, the human host takes on even greater risk, as the sheer power of an archangel can inflict permanent damage on a vessel (however, this does not seem to be something the archangel cannot control.Michael was able to protect John Winchester from suffering significant damage when he took John as a host for a few minutes in the 1970s). Donnie Finnerman suffered brain damage after his occupation by Raphael, and Castiel tells Dean, were Michael to possess him, Dean would suffer even greater damage. Lucifer's presence causes Nick to deteriorate slowly during his time as a vessel; he says that Nick can barely contain him, forcing him to consume gallons of demon blood to retain enough stability to operate in Nick until Sam will consent to him.
Vessels are sometimes destroyed. It has been shown that an archangel has the power to obliterate the vessel of another angel, and the angel himself. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse can harm occupied vessels, as demonstrated by Famine and Pestilence exerting their influence on Castiel (although his weakened condition at this time may have contributed to their ability to attack him - Pestilence noting in particular that his powers affecting Castiel while in a vessel was a sign that he was "out of angel juice" - making it unclear how the Horsemen would deal with an angel at full strength). Holy fire can destroy an angel and its vessel if the angel walks through the flames, although Archangels are at least able to recover from this attack if given enough time. Powerful artifacts of Heaven, such as Lot's Salt, can permanently destroy a vessel (although Raphael was able to escape the vessel without being destroyed himself). Another angelic weapon, the Staff of Moses can harm angels in a vessel. As mentioned above, Anna's body was destroyed when she regained her grace, but was recreated as her vessel.
An angel can be pulled from its vessel by other angels, or even powerful demons; Alastair once attempted to exorcise Castiel from his vessel using a spell, but he was interrupted before he could finish, leaving it unclear whether he would have been able to actually banish Castiel from Jimmy. According to Castiel, there is an open connection between an unoccupied human vessel and its angel. This connection can be used to summon an angel back to its vessel using the proper incantation.
Vessels possess the ability to expel the angel using them if they are strong enough and aware of the possession. Gadreel kept Sam from knowing about his possession to prevent exactly this, especially as he was vulnerable in his weakened state, but was eventually expelled by Sam when Crowley possessed him to bring the truth to his attention.
Even if a vessel doesn't remember it, they are aware of everything the angel is aware of and can access their memories.
- Dean Winchester was preordained to be Michael's vessel, being described as "Michael's sword." Zachariah tells Dean that Michael needs him as a vessel, so that Michael can lead the the Host of Heaven in the final battle against Lucifer.
- Sam Winchester was preordained to be Lucifer's vessel. Sam was present in the Chapel not just to kill Lilith, but also so that following Lucifer's release he could become his vessel. According to Castiel, consuming demon blood strengthens the person's body, making it possible for him or her to host Lucifer.
- Donnie Finnerman was chosen by Raphael to be his vessel. Donnie was a mechanic in Maine prior to his consent to Raphael; by the time Raphael vacated his body, his presence within Donnie left the man badly brain-damaged. It is unclear if Donnie was Raphael's true vessel. Using Lot's Salt, Balthazar killed Donnie and rendered his body unsuitable for Raphael to remain in, forcing Raphael to find another vessel.
- Jimmy Novak was chosen by Castiel to be his vessel. While he initially consented, Jimmy is keen to resume his life with his family after Castiel is forcibly summoned back to Heaven. He does resume his former angelic occupation as Castiel's vessel. Unlike Dean, Jimmy can hear Castiel's true voice and perceive his true visage unharmed. Since the loss of his grace, Castiel has apparently become a vessel as Hael attempted to force him to consent to her when her originally chosen vessel began to deteriorate.
- Claire Novak is Jimmy's daughter and is briefly a vessel for Castiel. After Jimmy is shot by a demon possessing his wife, Castiel possesses his daughter Claire. Jimmy, near death, begs to be allowed to take her place. Castiel agrees.
- Alfie was a young man who worked at a fast food place called Wiener Hut. He was chosen by Samandiriel to be his vessel, though he may or may not be his true vessel as Samandiriel refers to him as the nearest vessel when he needed one. Samandiriel was primarily known to Dean by his vessel's name. Both Alfie and Samandiriel were killed by Castiel in 8.10 Torn and Frayed.
- Sam Winchester is able to act as a vessel for Gadreel so he can heal both himself and Sam. Although not Gadreel's true vessel, Sam is able to bear Gadreel for an extended period of time, possibly because he is the true vessel of the more powerful angel Lucifer. Sam expels Gadreel when he learns of the angel's presence in 9.10 Road Trip.
- Corey was a pop singer chosen by Thaddeus to be his vessel; Thaddeus possessed Corey because he wanted to enjoy Corey's pop star lifestyle. It is not mentioned if Corey was Thaddeus's true vessel, though Corey was evidently capable of containing angels in general. Corey and Thaddeus were both killed by Gadreel in 9.10 Road Trip.
- Alexander Sarver was a man who was married to an unnamed woman and had a daughter named Delilah. Alexander was an unlikeable, abusive person. For this reason, Abner feels justified in using him as his vessel and supplanting his life. It is not stated one way or the other if Alexander was Abner's true vessel, but he was serviceable for angels in general, as his body did not appear to deteriorate under Abner's possession. Alexander, along with Abner, was killed by Gadreel in 9.10 Road Trip.
- A woman named Darlene Foster was chosen by Rebecca to be her vessel. Whether or not Darlene was Rebecca's true vessel is unknown. When Bartholomew killed Rebecca, he also killed Darlene.
- Hannah used a woman named Caroline Johnson as her vessel until she returned to Heaven so that Caroline could return to her own life.
Alternate vessels, referred to by Lucifer as "an improvisation" and "Plan B." are vessels that angels use for short periods of time, or as a last resort. It is implied that the archangels require their true, preordained vessels in order for them to operate at their full capacity.
- Nick assents to Lucifer near the end of 5.01 Sympathy for the Devil. He serves as a Plan B vessel for Lucifer in 5.03 Free to Be You and Me, 5.10 Abandon All Hope..., 5.19 Hammer of the Gods and 5.22 Swan Song. Castiel says that Nick must be drinking gallons of demon blood to remain intact, and Lucifer himself notes that Nick is wearing a bit thin.
- John Winchester assents to Michael to save his wife from Anna, with Michael assuring Dean that he will protect John from experiencing too much damage during his time as Michael's vessel.
- Adam Milligan is taken by Michael in 5.18 Point of No Return. He serves as a Plan B vessel for Michael in 5.22 Swan Song when Dean refuses to accept the responsibility himself.
- Hael manifested after being banished from Heaven by possessing a woman in 9.01 I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here, identified as Gloria Lewellen Jacobson in 9.03 I'm No Angel. However, Gloria's body eventually began to deteriorate as she was not strong enough to hold Hael, which forced Hael to try and take Castiel as a vessel before he killed her. It is unclear if Gloria would have been a suitable host for another angel or if she was simply a desperate gambit.
While still confined to his Cage and restricted by the 66 Seals, Lucifer talks with Azazel via the body of a dead nun inside St. Mary's Convent, speaking through her mouth. Azazel made a blood sacrifice of at least seven nuns to enable the communication, which was only possible because the convent was positioned on top of the location where Lucifer's Cage was sealed.
The following angels possess vessels with no (or yet-to-be) revealed profession, background, or history:
- Uriel manifests on two separate occasions by possessing a man.
- Zachariah manifests by possessing a man.
- Gabriel manifests by possessing a man.
- Balthazar manifests by possessing a man.
- Virgil manifests by possessing a man.
- Raphael manifests after his original vessel is destroyed by claiming another vessel, this time a female one.
- Rachel manifests by possessing a woman.
- Hester manifests by possessing a woman.
- Inias manifests by possessing a man.
- Naomi manifests by possessing a woman.
- Metatron manifests by possessing a man.
- Gadreel initially manifests by possessing a man. After being expelled by Sam, he returns to this vessel.
- Bartholomew manifests by possessing a man.
- Ephraim manifests by possessing a man.
Although he has not appeared on Earth himself, Joshua has appeared to Sam and Dean in human form when he met the Winchesters in Heaven, but it is unclear if his appearance reflected the vessel he would use to operate on Earth or if it was merely an appearance that he chose at random in order to provide something that Sam and Dean could process.
Vessels in Lore
While some religions believe angels can manifest in human form, this is not through actual possession of a person source. The closest concept is possibly that of the Ibbur in Jewish mythology, in which a righteous soul can taken possession of a human in order to perform a good deed or mitzvah. Usually the human must consent to this possession. The ibbur then departs when the task is complete. source.
- 4.01 Lazarus Rising
- 5.01 Sympathy for the Devil
- 5.13 The Song Remains the Same
- 9.03 I'm No Angel
- 6.22 The Man Who Knew Too Much
- 7.02 Hello, Cruel World
- 9.11 First Born
- 4.20 The Rapture
- 5.03 Free to Be You and Me
- 5.19 Hammer of the Gods
- 5.14 My Bloody Valentine
- 5.21 Two Minutes to Midnight
- 6.03 The Third Man
- 4.16 On the Head of a Pin
- 9.10 Road Trip
- 9.10 Road Trip
- 5.21 Two Minutes to Midnight