Wednesday, September 29, 2010

John Milton: Eve as Serpent in Paradise Lost?

Adam and Eve and Feminine Serpent
(Image from Wikipedia)

I want to return to a passage from Paradise Lost that I cited a few days ago, in which Adam castigates Eve as a "Serpent" for having tempted him to sin, and look briefly into some linguistic speculations on Eve's similarity to the Satanic serpent that tempted her:
Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best
Befits thee with him leagu'd, thy self as false
And hateful; nothing wants, but that thy shape,
Like his, and colour Serpentine may shew [ 870 ]
Thy inward fraud, to warn all Creatures from thee
Henceforth; (PL 10.867-872)

Thomas H. Luxon, ed. The Milton Reading Room, September 2010.
On "thou Serpent," the note by Thomas Luxon in his annotated Paradise Lost cites Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg, eds. The Oxford Authors John Milton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), who state: "It has been noted as early as the ancient rabbinic commentators that the name Eve is related to old Semitic words, that is, in Phoenician and Aramaic, for 'serpent'" (page 913). I don't have access to that book, so I don't know what evidence they give.

My copy of Alastair Fowler's 1998 edition of Paradise Lost, on its note for Adam's choice of "name" in line 867, states that "Some commentators interpreted 'Eve' as 'serpent.'" Fowler cites page 229f of John Leonard, Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve (Oxford, 1990). I don't have access to that precise passage of that book, but I do have access to Leonard's annotated Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics, 2003), which says: "Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius had claimed that 'Eve' aspirated means 'serpent'" (page 431, lin 867). Leonard cites D. C. Allen, Modern Language Notes, 74, 1959, pages 681-683. According to Allen:
[The] statement appears in the Protrepticus of Clement of Alexandria, an author whose Paedagogus and Stromata were well known to Milton. In the Hebrew, says Clement[,] if the name of Eve is aspirated it is the same as the feminine of serpent . . . . Clement ties all of this in with the Bacchic orgies, the handling of serpents, and the shouts of [the name Eve] . . . . The same story is repeated in the Praeparationis Evangelicae libri XV of Eusebius, another of Milton's known authorities; this somewhat fuller account translates:
The Bacchants celebrate in their orgies the madness of Dionysus, holding a holiday every month with a raw flesh dinner, and, when they distribute the flesh of the slaughtered victims, they are crowned with garlands of serpents and call upon Eve, that Eve, through whom deceit came in and death followed closely. A consecrated serpent is the symbol of the Bacchic orgies. Therefore, according to the exact Hebrew pronunciation, the name Heva with an aspitate, is interpreted as a female serpent. (citing Ed. Heinichen (Leipzig, 1842), I, 70-1.)
So when Adam tells his wife that the name of serpent befits her best, neither he nor Milton is talking off the top of the head. (page 682)
Allen also notes:
The same account is found again in the fourth century S. Epiphanius, Adversus Haereses, PG, XLII, 802, an author who is mentioned by Milton, but I cannot find evidence that he read him. The chronologically first suggestion of Eve : snake appears in S. Theophilus, Ad Autolycum, PG, VI, 1098 where there is a simple statement that Eve translates as serpent. I can establish no connection between this text and Milton. (page 682)
I'll need to look into this further. I do know that the Gnostics played with a belief that Eve and the serpent were linked in some way, perhaps etymologically. I have my doubts that there's any real etymological relation -- in fact, I'm pretty sure that there is none, and that this is merely a bad pun -- but the wordplay could be something that Milton worked into his text.

But I have to say that the evidence isn't strong, and a lot of speculation rests on Adam's intemperate words "thou Serpent" and "name." Adam does later pun angrily on "Eve" and "evil," so such a libelous wordplay might be present in the passage above, but I'm not yet persuaded.

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At 12:32 AM, Blogger Isaac Ewart said...

Great Article, I stumbled upon this concept in a footnote in Robert Alter's translation of Genesis (W W Norton & Company (1996)) and am comparing it to the negatively placed towards women in Hesiod's Theogony.

At 3:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Ewart, for stopping by. Let me know what you discover in your research.

Jeffery Hodges

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