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?
– Castiel and Dean, 4.01 Lazarus Rising
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. 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.
Suitability of a Vessel
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. Castiel has manifested in Jimmy and Claire Novak due to their status as father and daughter, and Uriel and Raphael's two different vessels are similar enough in appearance to each other to suggest a relationship between them.
Gender appears to be irrelevant for angels; Castiel and Raphael have both used male and female Vessels when the situation demands it, although males appear to be their first choices with them only assuming female Vessels when their original Vessels are unavailable or have been destroyed. Although some angels, such as Anna, Rachel and Naomi have female names, it is unclear whether these were their original angelic names or simply assumed these names to relate to humans, making it unclear if angels have any concept of gender as humans would understand it.
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 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).
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.
– Eric Kripke, Supernatural: The Official Companion Season 4
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 (Although 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). 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 recognise 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.
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. It appears that no other consciousness was ever present in this body. 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.
– Zachariah to Dean, 4.17 It's a Terrible Life
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 6, 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.
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 (Although 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, and angels can walk over the fire if something is positioned over the fire for them to walk over. 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.
The term "true vessel" is used several times to described someone preordained to host an angel. It is particularly applied to the vessels of Michael and Lucifer.
- 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, who's self-righteous attitude is said to mirror Lucifer's. 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. Balthazar destroyed Raphael's vessel using Lot's Salt.
- 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.
- 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.
- A young man named Alfie was chosen by Samandiriel to be his vessel, though he may or may not be his true vessel as he refers to him as the nearest vessel when he needed one.
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.
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.
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.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 4.01 Lazarus Rising
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 5.01 Sympathy for the Devil
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 3.2 5.13 The Song Remains the Same
- ↑ 6.22 The Man Who Knew Too Much
- ↑ 7.02 Hello, Cruel World
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 4.20 The Rapture
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 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
- ↑ 11.0 11.1 6.03 The Third Man
- ↑ 4.16 On the Head of a Pin
- ↑ 5.21 Two Minutes to Midnight