Malakim are not just feathery-winged happy "angels" as the Western world would paint them. Malakim can appear in many forms, humanoid and otherwise, and may serve in a number of roles (some of which are not always beneficent). They appear in almost every culture on earth, each of which has given them different names and appearances. Even individual malakim can cross different cultures, where they have often been given different names. Gabriel is one example of this - that entity is known as Jibril to the Islamic peoples, Gabriel or Gabrial to most Judeo-Christians, and Gavreel to the Ethiopian Jews. In each culture, he holds a subtly different role.
Over the centuries, a handful of Malakim have survived a number of transformations imposed on them by human belief, and absorbed numerous roles or personae. Jewish, Catholic, and Muslim cultures, to name a few, have all added to the history and variety of these entities. Depending on the viewpoint of the observer, they can take on any of these Aspects as well as their own natural form.
Expectation and previous experience always play a role in the viewer's perception. It is sometimes said of supernatural entities that they are 90% expectation and 10% actuality. That is, when a person perceives a supernatural entity, that entity's appearance is 90% based on what the person expects to see, whether because of previous experience, culture, or even the movies. The other 10%... well, that's private to the Malakim themselves. But one might be able to distill the 10% by combining all cultures' accounts and finding common points--for instance, a glowing appearance, some object out to the sides likes wings or arms, and a superior intelligence.
In Judaic lore, Malakim are divided into a number of Tribes, each of which serves a subtly different purpose. Various groups, including the Catholic church and modern-day Kabalists, have divided and ordered these Tribes differently over the centuries. However, most groups agree on several in common (the following is Gregory the Great's classification):
The Zohar, in Exodus 43a, lists them as follows:
- Bene Elohim
As noted, variations do occur. In addition, individual malakim, particularly the greater ones, can be members of more than one tribe. Mikal, for instance, is a member of the Malakim, Seraphim, and Beni Elohim tribes, among others.