The Demons and the Names I
Bill Long 8/3/08
Moloch First--Paradise Lost I.375-405*
[My next most recent Milton essay is here.]
It is a good thing to spend some time memorizing at least one difficult classical text. Memorization is "good for you" not simply because it staves off Alzheimer's (we really don't know that yet), and not simply because it yields deep and precise knowledge of the world (which it does), but because it weans you away from complete absorption in the culture around you. Whether or not you believe in Durkheim's doctrine of agelicism (to use a term, probably coined infelicitously, by American economist Emile Benoit-Smullyan in the late 1940s to describe the subsumption of individual desires and inclinations in the overwhelmingly powerful society that surrounds us), you do best to recognize the way that our culture not only gives us a language but supplies ready prejudices and solutions to problems that themselves may or may not exist for us. So, memorizaiton helps you, in fact, declare your independence from the dominating forces of culture and crowds out there. It is less costly than other forms of seeking independence...
Returning to Milton
Thus, each morning I return to Milton I am greeted with two distinct feelings: (1) the work of memorization is so strange and difficult; and (2) I so much love the different rhythms and concepts that memorization of Milton gives me. Today I want to focus on the way Milton begins to introduce us to the serried multitude of thickly-crowded demons in hell, around the middle of Book I. He shapes his introductions in imitation of the Homeric catalogue of ships in Iliad II. We have another and different kind of warrior presented here.
Before telling us the names of each, beginning with Moloch in I.392, however, he has to solve a small problem. Who, in fact, are these demons who rebelled against God? Do they have names? His theory, which had been argued at least since the time of the early Christian apologists, is that the fallen demons later become identified with the pagan gods of nations surrounding Israel. In fact, the Bible itself has two slightly different approaches to these pagan Gods. On the one hand they are merely "idols," lifeless wood creatures that have no existence at all. "The gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens" (Ps. 96:5) is a biblical verse reflecting this idea. A second approach is that the gods of neighboring people are specific demonic forces. Even if you adopt this latter approach, you still need think through whether these gods, which are demons, are identical with the angels which originally rebelled against God and then were transformed into demons. Lots of small intellectual hurdles to get over...
Milton identifies the pagan deities surrounding Israel with the original rebellious angels/demons, but to do so he has to argue in a sort of reverse order. That is, he will move from Biblical text to original rebellion and back to the text. He, as well as the early Christian apologists looked at the Biblical text and said, "Ok, Chemosh, god of Moab, yep, he is a demon." Or, "Moloch of the Ammonites, a demon for sure," etc. etc. That is where the early Christian apologists stopped. They really don't leave the text. But Milton's narrative is only beginning, because what he really wants to do is something quite audacious: not to describe the religion of the peoples living near Israel in antiquity but to take us back before the creation of the world. He wants to take us to the time well before Chemosh was a glint in the eye of the earliest Moabite. So, he has to, as it were "go backwards" from the historical Chemosh and Moab, as it were, to the demons in hell. But when he arrives at hell (which is where he begins his narrative), he has to "rush forward" back to the Biblical text to describe these demonic forces lolling and weltering around in hell. He does this back and forth movement deftly through a number of what many think are "throw away" lines beginning in I.364. There he says:
"Nor had they yet among the Sons of Eve
Got them new Names...," I. 364-65,
i.e., humans hadn't yet named them. Then, a few lines later, he will ask the Muse for help:
"Say, Muse, thir names then known..., I. 376.
But now Milton has caught himself in a little inconsistency. Do these demons receive their "new Names" in hell or only when the people from the surrounding nations to Israel name them? The earlier bolded line seems to indicate that Moloch, Chemosh and the rest were demons in hell only received their new names when the "Sons of Eve" awarded them names; the later line suggests that they already had their later names in hell, from the beginning of time. Sorry, John, I think you need to clarify...
The next essay looks at some of Milton's specific language in these lines.