“Pondering his voyage”: The Evolution of the Character of Satan from Genesis B: Christ and Satan to Paradise Lost
Milton’s Satan is a fallen angel, both fascinated with, and envious of man, a tempter, a seducer, a shapeshifter, an inventor, known for his cleverness. But where does this characterization come from? Forsyth’s work The Satanic Epic traces what sources Milton probably used for Paradise Lost yet this work falls short as it begins and ends with source identification. What did the devil look like before Milton? How did he function? What fears or anxieties did he represent? How as he a reflection of a specific historical and cultural moment? Milton’s Satan is the end result of over six hundred years of evolution of the character of the devil, given that his characterization of Satan has becomes the modern conception of the character seen in literature and film, what is it about this characterization that is so enduring? Why has Milton’s characterization become the definition of this character?As Blake is often quoted “people are guilty of knowing their Milton better than their Bible” and this is especially true in the case of the devil. I argue that the reason that this characterization has endured is because Milton pulled together and used the folkloric representation of the devil, appealing to the devil of the folk. As such, in order to understand how Satan in Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost in general, functions as a representation of the people, it is necessary to understand where the folkloric figure of the devil first appears in popular literature, how he is represented, how the character changes through time, and why he changes. This project will examine the evolution of the character from the Genesis B text up through Milton’s characterization.
In the Genesis B text of the Junius 11 manuscript the devil appears as a man, although the appearance of wings, and a crown mark him as a fallen angel. This is the last time that the devil appears as a man. However, there are some descriptions that foreshadow what the character will become. He is associated with the dark, and blackness. He is illustrated as tempting Adam and Eve. He is visually marked as different and separate from them. He is also associated with death, fire, worms (or serpents), lying, and cunning. All of these become markers for the folkloric devil, easily classified into physical description, and personality and actions.
Throughout the medieval period, the devil displayed these same characteristics, with his physicality after the Genesis B becoming animalistic, with the devil described as having horns, hairy, with claws, a tail, and later in the medieval period, wings. He was usually described as associated with darkness, and this darkness was usually seen as the devil portrayed with having dark fur. During the medieval period, the devil as tempter and seducer, describing both his personality, and his actions is emphasized in the works of Voragine, Julian of Norwich, Langland, and Margery Kempe. It was also during this period that the concept of the devil making deals and signing contracts, as seen in the legend of Theophilus, became part of the lore. These texts show sinners praying to saints, as well as the Virgin Mary, to intercede with them against the devil to break the contract. In the morality and mystery plays of the time, these same physical and personality traits were seen, although there was also a comic element added that served to deemphasize the power of the devil and emphasize the power of the Church. There was also a tradition during the late medieval period of associating Merlin with the devil, claiming his father was a/the devil, as seen in works such as the Prose Merlin and Sir Gowther.
In the early modern period, the devil displayed these same physical and personality traits although the character becomes a little more sophisticated, and it’s worth noting that he appears mostly in drama, and pamphlets, genres directed at the “folk”. This sophisticated devil appears in Doctor Faustus (1589), Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589), Edward II (1592). By the Jacobean period, the folkloric characterization of the devil is the de facto representation, so much so that dramas and pamphlets of this period rarely had to flesh out or describe the character in detail, instead simply gesturing towards the known characteristics of him. The devil rarely appears in poetry, but was often used in pamphlets and polemics, both the visual image on covers, as well as the figure himself standing in for evils and corruptions of the day such as in Thomas Dekker’s The News from Hell and Double PP (1606). It was also during this period, the comic nature of the devil, as well as his association with witches becomes more of a focus in the drama of the time such as The Devil is an Ass (1616), The Virgin Martyr (1620), The Witch of Edmonton (1621), and The Late Lancashire Witches (1634).
A common critique of literary scholars who work with folklore is that they begin and end with identifying motifs, or focus too much on form or structure. Dundes argues that while identifying these components is important, it should only be the beginning of the work, leading to a psychoanalytical analysis of the work, examining what fears and anxieties are repressed or exposed in a work. The same critique could be made of both Forsyth and Russell’s work on the devil, neither go beyond an identification of sources, and while both are valuable resources, they should be the beginning of the work, not the end as neither takes the next step, examining how the devil functions, or what work the character of the devil does within these works. With this project, I propose to go one step further than Dundes, identifying the structural elements of the folkloric character of the devil from Genesis B to Paradise Lost, analyzing what fears and anxieties these characterizations represent, and finally, investigating how these representations are reflections of their specific historical and cultural moments.
Current scholarship in Milton studies focuses on several related topics Paradise Lost’s function as a polemic, Paradise Lost as anti-royalist writing, Satan as a revolutionary and the use of Satanic subjects as a way of illustrating Milton’s heretical tendencies. These topics can be seen in Lander’s Inventing Polemic: Religion, Print, and Literacy Culture in Early Modern England (2006), Bryson’s The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King (2004), Achinstein’s Milton and the Revolutionary Reader (1994), Lieb’s Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon (2006), Loewenstein and Marshall’s Heresy, Literature and Politics in Early Modern English Culture (2007), Achinstein and Sauer’s Milton and Toleration (2007) and Beer’s Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot (2008). These works tend to look at Paradise Lost as either a way to view the other political writings of the time or as proof of Milton’s heretical leanings. Surprisingly, these political examinations of Milton’s work focus on the upper class as audience for Milton’s work, but I argue that Milton’s use of the folkloric devil forces a reexamination of Milton’s work.
While the most recent scholarship focuses on political ramifications and issues, there are two notable exceptions: Forsyth, who has analyzed possible sources and analogues for Milton’s Satan, and Russell, who has researched the more general devil character. While Forsyth’s The Satanic Epic (2003) focuses mainly on how Paradise Lost functions as an epic, the opening chapter addresses the origins of the character of Satan. Forsyth begins examining Satan chronologically so that he can trace Milton’s sources. He begins with the Adversary, in the Book of Job, Origen’s work where Satan is first seen as a rebel, he then looks at the comparison of rebellious Satan to Zeus, and Prometheus and Icarus, compares God to the Titans and Zeus to Satan. He goes on to state that Milton followed the shape of ancient mythic epics such as the Illiad and the Aeneid, as well as the heroes in them, in creating Satan. Then Forsyth states that Satan was used by the early and medieval church as a representation of heresy and argues that the story of Satan evolved through the middle ages into the story presented in Genesis B (Christ and Satan), which solidifies the idea of Satan as a rebellious angel. Forsyth’s work focuses on the “type” of character Satan is while ignoring the specific characterizations and how they are part of the character’s evolution.
Russell explores similar source territory as Forsyth with his book Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1984), where he researches the concept of evil as reflected in the figure of the devil in popular literature, art and during the middle ages. He looks at worldwide sources, and examines the devil in medieval art, poetry, and drama. Russell covers a large field, but unfortunately there are gaps in his coverage; it would have been illuminating if instead of rehashing old material, he had focused more on unexplored material, such as looking at the visual representations of the devil through this period since this is a topic rarely discussed. Both Russell and Forsyth provide the reader with background information on the types of sources Milton might have used but both focus on specific literature for references and what gets neglected are the ideas and concepts that were present in folklore about how the devil was viewed and presented.
One of the difficulties faced when analyzing the character of Satan is the choice between the literary character or the folkloric character. Recent scholarship has addressed the idea that Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost has become the modern concept of the devil (Knoppers and Semenza). Forsyth has in detail, addressed the origins of the character in both The Satanic Epic and The Old Enemy. However, one issue that I do not believe has received enough attention is how Milton’s characterization of Satan has more basis in folklore than in literature, specifically the folklore character of Loki. One of the problems with this approach is that folklore often falls under the heading of anthropology, while the character of Satan has mainly been analyzed through literature. However, analysis of this issue quickly reveals that in Britain, the character of Satan is deeply rooted in folkloric material. My dissertation will build mainly on the work of Forsyth and Russell, examining not just the examples of Satan in English literature from the Anglo-Saxons to Milton, but will also historicize and analyze the significance of these representations. I argue that Milton’s Satan is the folkloric, and not the literary representation, and my dissertation will trace the evolution of this folkloric character.
Most of the work involving analyzing sources for Milton’s Paradise Lost was written in the first half of the 20th century. Some scholars have examined the character of Satan in general, not specific to Milton’s portrayal such as Le Bosquet’s “The Evil One: A Development” (1912), Caldwell’s series “The Doctrine of Satan: In the Old and New Testament” (1913), Kellogg in “Satan, Langland, and the North” (1949), and Stein’s “Satan: The Dramatic Role of Evil” (1950). During the second half of the twentieth century, scholarship has focused on Satan as an epic or anti-hero or on comparing Paradise Lost to Judaic and Biblical writings. The current trend of viewing Paradise Lost through a political lens has dominated scholarly work lately. An examination of the character of the devil from Christ and Satan, up to Milton’s portrayal has not been pursued.
Some individual scholars such as Lever, Woolf, Rohrich, and Potter have looked at singular sources for the devil. Lever examines the similarities between the characters of Satan in Christ and Satan and Paradise Lost; Woolf compares the character of Satan to Loki; Rohrich examines the character of the devil in the Germanic literary tradition; and Potter argues that the devil in English folktales is the same as was portrayed in drama. These individual examinations are valuable, but they do not give the big picture, and the big picture is what this project will produce.
Textual analysis between Milton’s characterization and previous characterizations of the devil are invaluable because they allow us to trace how the character evolved and allows us to analyze what the presented characterizations meant within their own context. Perhaps the closest comparison is between Milton’s Satan, and the Satan of Genesis B: Christ and Satan. Lever addresses this issue in “Paradise Lost and the Anglo-Saxon Tradition” (1947), where he spends the entire article addressing the similarities between Satan in Christ and Satan and Satan in Paradise Lost; however, he counters himself at the end by stating that the similarities are simply coincidence, as should be expected of something addressing common Christian themes, a statement he does not elaborate on. Lever argues that while Milton may have been familiar with the Genesis B text, this is an unimportant point, as the commonalities of language are simply due to the similar subject matter. Despite his contradictory theories, Lever’s work is important to mine for the textual analysis of Satan in Christ and Satan.
Woolf, on the other hand, in “The Devil in Old English Poetry” (1953) states that similarities in characterization between Satan and Loki are due to Loki myths and Satan (in Christ and Satan) emerging at the same time. He argues that the origins of Satan as a hero possibly began with the Anglo Saxons, as they would have seen his actions as heroic for how he dealt with his inevitable expulsion from heaven. Woolf also addresses the fact that Christian doctrine and Loki mythology would have coincided and compares the similarities between the two characters. His evidence of both characters acting as tempters, shapeshifters, and sly and cunning characters provides an excellent source for the character of Milton’s Satan.
Folklore provides some of the richest research into the character of the devil and in “German Devil Tales and Devil Legends” (1970), Rohrich argues that devil tales and legends have stopped being folklore and have become part of the historical record. He gives a detailed description of how these devil tales and legends evolved as well as makes a reference to connections to medieval sermons.. He ends his argument by citing Grimm’s fairy tales as evidence of the popularity of these tales and legends. While the Grimm brothers did not compile their tales until the early 1800s, the sources for their tales (the Germanic literary tradition) had been around for much longer and therefore these tales and legends are an excellent source for comparison to Milton.
While both Woolf and Rohrich’s focus on Germanic/Norse myths would seem to exclude their research from the scope of this project, it is important to realize that these tales would have been known to the Anglo Saxons and therefore are an important part of the literary tradition. The influence of the stereotypical characterization of the devil in folklore on Paradise Lost has not been examined in depth despite the similarities. For instance, in Book 9, when Satan goes to tempt Eve, Milton changes from referring to Satan as “the Enemy” and instead refers to him as “the Tempter”. In light of Loki’s reputation as a tempter, prankster and cunning creature, it’s hard not to draw a connection. When Milton uses words such as “the spirited sly snake” (613), “the wily adder” (625) to describe Satan and says he leads Eve “To mischief swift” (633) it becomes easy to recognize the parallels to Loki.
Another source for comparison is the portrayals of the devil/Satan in drama. In “Three Jacobean Devil Plays” (1931), Potter argues that it was the devil of English folklore that was represented on the English stage, a devil that was instantly recognizable by his physical appearances and starred in comedies of the time. The devil of these plays did not depend upon a magician to conjure him up; the action of the play begins in Hell and despite the fact that it is accepted that the devil can change his shape, he is recognized by his eyes, animal-like sounds, and the thunder or lightning that accompanies his appearance. These devils were self-possessed characters of their own merit and not dependent upon humans, although humans were often the butt of the individual devil’s jokes. These dramas served not only to show the devil of English legend and folklore but also to forward the life of the character. Which characteristics of the devil were forwarded and which weren’t is also of interest. When looking at the evolution of the character, many of these characterizations are similar to how Loki is portrayed in folklore. Cawley points out that Loki is characterized as defying Odin’s order, sly and treacherous, known as a shape shifter, as well as a tempter who possibly heralds the end of the world, Ragnarok. Milton’s Satan defies God’s order, is sly, treacherous, changes his shape so that he won’t be recognized by the angels guarding Earth and tempts Eve in the Garden. Due to these similarities, these dramas, as well as the folktales that inspired them, are worth examining.
While the above scholarship gives detailed information on devil characterizations in individual sources, what is not present in the scholarship is a comprehensive examination of the evolution of the character of Satan since Genesis B, how the character culminates with Milton’s new fusion of characteristics in his portrayal, that Milton’s character is the folkloric Satan, and what work is done by this character in these works. This is important because it opens up a whole new set of questions in regards to examining Paradise Lost and the character of Satan. Some of these questions are: what marked the folkloric devil in these texts (physical description, personality, actions)? How is the character used in these texts (religious didactism? comic relief?) What fears or anxieties are repressed or expressed through this character? What historical or cultural moments are reflected in the character’s portrayal?
In not addressing these questions, scholars have failed to be able to fully place Milton fully in context. Examining classical and Biblical sources Milton may have used only does part of the work. In order to understand Milton’s Satan it is necessary to examine not only what Milton built on but also how the devil is the vehicle for the work of a text. Combining folkloric and literary studies is the best approach for understanding Milton in context and the work Milton’s Satan does. In neglecting this course of study, scholars have been deprived not only of a complete understanding of Milton’s Satan, but also of the devil in literature and popular culture that came after Milton and was influenced by Paradise Lost.
In my project, I will look at the major characterizations of Satan in literature from Genesis B to Paradise Lost in order to trace the evolution of this folkloric character. This project will have three chapters, as well as an introduction and conclusion., each focusing on a specific topic: physicality, actions and personality as seen chronologically in order to show how the character evolves and how each portrayal builds on its predecessors. My introduction will give a brief history from 1066, examining how the Norse mythology and folklore of minority populations became the basis for English folklore. In particular I will focus on the character of Loki, and his influence on the character of Satan as a tempter and shape-shifter.
Chapter one, ““Our Enemy” will argue that Satan’s physical characteristics, both as having animal traits, and as a shapeshifter, are proof of his folkloric nature. I will also use Said’s theory of Orientalism to examine in which ways the character of Satan is used to mark marginalized groups or figures in literature such as Jews, Turks, and women as subaltern. I will also argue the ways in which Said’s theory breaks down in certain examples. I also plan on using Bakhtin’s theory of the grotesque to examine how the animal nature of Satan is used rhetorically in these texts to mark these figures as subaltern. I will also use psychoanalytic theory to examine how these animalistic descriptions are used to represent repression.
Chapter two, “Dark Suggestions” and “Dark Designs” will argue that Satan’s characterization as a tempter, who uses words and rhetoric to seduce and convince has it’s basis in the mythology of Loki, and is one of the main features that marks Satan as folkloric. I plan on using Foucault to examine these examples, specifically how Satan uses words to manipulate and gain power. Satan’s action, as a tempter, seducer, and trickster figure are inseparable from his personality, as it is his personality that directs his actions. I will specifically focus on the language of pacts or contracts that is used by Satan, using a Foucaultian lens as well as examining Bakhtin’s theory of carnivale.
Chapter three “Among the Nations round” will pull all of these examples together and build on them to argue that Milton purposely chose the folkloric representation in order to achieve his original intent of writing a national epic. I will examine how Paradise Lost contains the elements of a national epic, as well as historicize the text by examining the scholarship on Milton’s original intent to write a national epic, and explain how the folkloric representation of Satan presents a Paradise Lost as a text aimed at the people.
My conclusion will examine how Milton’s characterization of Satan becomes the basis for modern representation because of its folkloric nature. I will also present how this combination of folkloric and literary studies opens up the field for reexamining other literary works and investigating the larger work that the texts do. I will end with questions for further examination in folkloric studies of the devil, as well as in Milton studies.
My argument focuses on the folkloric character of Satan, so I am restricting my text choices to literature that clearly and specifically mentions Satan and would have been known to the general public, the folk. For the purposes of this research, the term Devil, devil, Satan, and Lucifer are interchangeable, as they were often used in this way. Likewise, while church documents, strictly religious writings, and polemical/political writings all make reference or use of the devil figure, I am excluding them from my dissertation as their impact on the populace, and thus as a reflection of popular culture/folklore of the time cannot be gauged in the same way that it can in literature.
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