The Parade of Demons I*
Bill Long 12/11/09
[*An earlier essay on this passage is here. I discuss a few of Milton's words there, such as promiscuous in l. 380 and audacious in l. 400]
Finally, we are introduced to some of the companions of Satan and Beelzebub in Hell. For 16 lines Milton tells us about them in general before moving to a description of the chief 12 by name. The number 12 is significant because the Satanic circle is meant to be a pale imitation of the circle around Christ (the 12 disciples). The most significant move Milton makes is to take a dozen divinities from neighboring nations of Ancient Israel and proclam them the chief lieutenants of Satan. These are the most bold and audacious Rebel Angels, for they dared not only to reside in the neighborhood of Zion but many of them convinced/defrauded Israelite kings to set up their temples near the precincts of Yahweh, God of Israel. An important background verse is I Kings 11:7,
"Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Moloch the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem."
Another is Jer. 7:30:
"For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it."
We see how Scripture shaped Milton's phrasings in I.376-391 when we note that he says:
"yea, often plac'd
Within his sanctuary itself their shrines,
Abomination and proximity to the House of God are the common themes. God is described as one "thund'ring out of Sion, thron'd/ Between the Cherubim," 386-87. Each of those phrases finds rich biblical resonance.
"Yahweh will roar from Zion, and thunder from Jerusalem," Joel 3:16.
"And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said, 'O Lord the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim,'" II Kings 19:15, cf. Isaiah 37:16.
The Rogues Parade
Milton has to "stretch" to come up with a dozen names of these demons. Some names overlap--i.e., there is no difference between Astoreth (438) and Ashtaroth (422), yet Milton distinguishes them. He does so by saying that Astoreth is simply one of the hosts of Baalim and Astaroth. But sometimes he conflates figures, such as Chemosh and Peor, gods of Moab (406ff.). Milton imagines that each of the surrounding territories, except Egypt, had one (demon) god, and thus he sometimes equated gods who were different. Again, in order to fill out his twelve, he had to venture quite widely, to Egypt, and there he found three--Isis, Osiris, and Orus (478). He devotes a lot of attention to some, such as Moloch, and little attention to others. It would be a fascinating and rewarding quest to find all the sources for Milton's knowledge here, and I will show those sources in a few places, but a fully detailed commentary on these places is beyond my scope. He goes far beyond the Bible, relying on a medieval chronicler like John of Mandeville (for his discussion of Rimmon) and the contemporary A Pisgah Sight of Palestine, the massive work on the geography of the Holy Land, first published by Thomas Fuller in 1650, most clearly in his portrait the land of Moab. Milton's language is, as expected by now, dense, probing, vivid, even vehement. His catalogue of demons corresponds, in "epic-speak" to that of the ships in Homer's Iliad (Book II) and the Italian heroes in Virgil's Aeneid (Book VII), but as commentators on Milton have noted, Milton's seems intrinsically important to the progress of PL, while those of Homer and Aeneid seem to be written to "constituents" (i.e., listeners who might themselves come from the same places).
These leading demons then emerge into the light of Milton's narrative, even while he says that "with their darkness durst affront his light," 391.
Beginning with Moloch (I.392-405)
We begin with Moloch the God of the Ammonites, who lived East of ancient Israel. The three consonants in his name--m-l-ch--spell the Hebrew word "king." Thus, it isn't always certain whether a specific name is always in view or simply the generic title "king." Nevertheless, Milton has many thing to say about this "horrid" king (392). He is called horrid because of the tradition, found in the Bible, of having children sacrificed to him. Note the prohibition in Leviticus:
"You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord," Lev. 18:21.
This tradition smacks of the kind of religious polemic familiar to any who have studied the history of religions--denigrating one's opponents by attributing activities to them that had only partial truth to them. We recall, for example, that orthodox-leaning Christian theologians of the early centuries said that their opponents sacrificed children in their orgiastic communion sacrifices. No evidence of that exists. Most scholars today would say that Moloch, represented since the Middle Ages as an upright calf-shaped deity with extended arms (to hold a child), received children dedicated to it and perhaps even was pleased with the purification of the infants through fire, even though they weren't actually sacrificed (i.e., killed).
The medieval rabbi Rashi, described Moloch as follows:
"Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved."
Now the first lines of Milton's description ring powerfully:
"First Moloch, horrid king, besmear'd with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parent tears,
Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud
Their children cries unheard, that pass'd through fire/ To his grim idol," 392-96.
Milton, if anything, has improved the traditions he received. His concise and vivid language makes us stop, read closely, and admire.