Milton's Knowledge (and Confusion) I
Bill Long 12/14/09
On the Generation of the Greek Gods; I.506-21
Most readers of Milton would just prefer to "fast-forward" over I.506-21. They tell stories from classical Greek mythology in/with which we are no longer interested or familiar, and we have so much more to read of PL until we get to the "big points." Thus, we have little patience for Milton's obscure niceties. But, on the other hand, often by going slowly we discover clues either about Milton's authorial method or what traditions he was dependent on as he wrote. In this passage I think Milton, uncharacteristically, introduces several unclear thoughts which contribute to our desire just to breeze through it. The purpose of these two essays is to "go slowly" and try, if not to unravel the confusion, then to lay out some problems and suggest some fruitful ways to become clear in the confusion.
Walking Slowly with the Narrative
Milton has just finished describing at some length the "Big 12" Rebel Angels in Hell. He calls them "the prime in order and in might" (506). Lest we think that these constitute the entire group of the "big" angels, there are many more ("The rest were long to tell"--507). Note what he does though at this point. Rather than just skipping to line 522 ("All these and more came flocking"), which actually follows very nicely after the words "though far renown'd" in 507, he decided to insert this quite difficult section on the origins of the Ionian or Greek gods. I wonder that if Milton had an "editor," he would have dropped these lines. They really add little to the flow, and they are a bit pedantic. Perhaps, however, this afforded him an occasion to "show off" his knowledge. There is a fine line, so fine that it is perhaps indecipherable, between knowledge actually needed in a situation and knowledge introduced to show off the fruit of one's study. However, in this section Milton allows himself also to insert some subtle humor, which I will bring out below. Hm, maybe the humor was the major reason for bringing in this material.
So, he decided to tell the story of the genesis of the Ionian Gods. The first question is where one might turn for an authoritative narrative on this subject. The logical place to begin, logical because it is most "classical," is Hesiod's Theogony. That work systematized the confusing welter of Greek gods and demi-gods by connecting them all to a common genealogical tree. Specifically, Hesiod spoke of the birth of the 12 Titans by Ouranus and Gaia (Heaven and Earth). These 12, for the record, were: "Oceanus, Tethys, Hyperion, Theia, Coeus, Phoebe, Cronus, Rhea, Mnemos, Themis, Crius, Iapetus." Theogony 132ff.
But, rather suprisingly, Milton doesn't "go there." He instead derives much of his picture of what happened regarding the birth of the Greek gods from the early Christian apologists of the 3rd-4th centuries CE (including Tertullian, Arnobius and Lactantius). These authors argue that the Greek gods, rather than having any kind of divine origin, really were just divinized kings. This explanation, known as a Euhemeristic one [and I hope I am not being Miltonic here, by just parading knowledge!], had been around since, well, the days of Euhemeres in the 4th century BCE.
The Christian Explanation of the Origins of Greek Gods
In any case, the Christian explanation of the origin of Greek gods is, in a nutshell, as follows. Since all people in the world ultimately derive from Adam and Eve or, since the Flood, from the sons of Noah, the Christians argue that the Greeks/Ionians descend from Javan, the fourth son of Japhet (Genesis 10:2). As Genesis goes on to say:
"The descendants of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim. From these the coastland peoples spread," Gen. 10:4-5.
Well, one of the descendants of Javan, according to this Christian tradition, was called either Uranus or Coelus. He appeared on the "coastlands" of Greece to establish the first small kingdom. Among his sons were Titan and Saturn (also called Kronos). Saturn eventually wrested the kingdom from his older brother Titan. An oracle prophesied that one of Saturn's sons would overthrow him, and so he quickly had his sons sacrificed to the gods as soon as they were born. Saturn had previoulsy married his sister Rhea. She became pregnant again, and this time she decided to retreat to Arcadia, on the Pelopponesus, to bear the child secretly. It was a boy, Jupiter [recall, the Christian writers describe all of these things as historical facts arising from human kings that once lived], and she vowed to protect him. After Jupiter's birth, he was sent away to Mt. Ida on Crete to be brought up. Later on he rebelled against his father Saturn and defeated him. But in the rebellion, Saturn was forced out of Greece and had to take up residence in the Western lands--such as Spain and France. Jupiter was also widely known for his lecherous behavior.
The next essay concludes our treatment of these lines.