Friday, January 14, 2011

Milton's Serpentine Demons Eating 'Apples of Sodom'

Apples of Sodom
They don't look so 'apple-tizing' . . .
(Image from Wikipedia)

My cyber-friend and fellow Milton scholar Carter Kaplan suggested that I cite the passage in Paradise Lost 10 where the demons in Hell are forcibly made to assume serpentine form and eat the ashy Apples of Sodom:
Jeffery, at some point are you going to turn this discussion upon the horrific descriptions in Book X of devils hungering and eating ash, and so on?
I half-demurred:
Maybe not, since I'm focusing on Eve's 'mistake' . . . but perhaps I'll take another look, now that you mention it.
What the Hell (so to speak), let's take a look at the crucial passage (PL 10.547-572), which comes hard after the demons' transformation ("thir change"):
. . . There stood [547]
A Grove hard by, sprung up with this thir change,
His will who reigns above, to aggravate
Thir penance, laden with Fruit like that [ 550 ]
Which grew in Paradise, the bait of Eve
Us'd by the Tempter: on that prospect strange
Thir earnest eyes they fix'd, imagining
For one forbidden Tree a multitude
Now ris'n, to work them furder woe or shame; [ 555 ]
Yet parcht with scalding thurst and hunger fierce,
Though to delude them sent, could not abstain,
But on they rould in heaps, and up the Trees
Climbing, sat thicker then the snakie locks
That curld Megæra: greedily they pluck'd [ 560 ]
The Frutage fair to sight, like that which grew
Neer that bituminous Lake where Sodom flam'd;
This more delusive, not the touch, but taste
Deceav'd; they fondly thinking to allay
Thir appetite with gust, instead of Fruit [ 565 ]
Chewd bitter Ashes, which th' offended taste
With spattering noise rejected: oft they assayd,
Hunger and thirst constraining, drugd as oft,
With hatefullest disrelish writh'd thir jaws
With soot and cinders fill'd; so oft they fell [ 570 ]
Into the same illusion, not as Man
Whom they triumph'd once lapst. (PL 10.547-572)
In refering to "Frutage fair to sight, like that which grew / Neer that bituminous Lake where Sodom flam'd," Milton is thinking of the so-called "Apples of Sodom," mentioned in Josephus:
The country of Sodom . . . was of old a most happy land, both for the fruits it bore and the riches of its cities, although it be now all burnt up. It is related how, for the impiety of its inhabitants, it was burnt by lightning; in consequence of which there are still the remainders of that divine fire, and the traces [or shadows] of the five cities are still to be seen, as well as the ashes growing in their fruits; which fruits have a color as if they were fit to be eaten, but if you pluck them with your hands, they dissolve into smoke and ashes. (Flavius Josephus, The Wars Of The Jews, translated by William Whiston, Baltimore: Armstrong and Plaskitt, 1835; Book IV, Chapter 8, Section 4; page 517a)
I failed to locate the original Greek text of Josephus online, but perhaps some knowledgeable reader can do so. Anyway, this connection to Josephus is well known (though perhaps not Milton's only source). See, for example, Karen L. Edwards, Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost (Cambridge University Press, 2005), both text and footnote. Neither Josephus nor Milton, however, calls the fruit by the name "Apples of Sodom." I wonder who first did. They are also known as "Dead Sea Apples" or "Apples of Asphaltus," and the scientific name is Solanum sodomæum (or Solanum sodomaeum). According to Wikipedia, "Apple of Sodom . . . [is] a name derived from the Hebrew Tapuah Sdom" (תַּפּוּחַ סְדוֹם), but I wonder if perhaps the Hebrew name derives from English or some other language since tapuah is postbiblical Hebrew, if I recall correctly.

More to my interest in today's post, however, one could argue that the demons -- in their serpentine form -- are imitative of Eve, and quite explicitly so, for the passage in Paradise Lost speaks of them being tempted in a grove "laden with Fruit like that / Which grew in Paradise, the bait of Eve / Us'd by the Tempter: on that prospect strange / Thir earnest eyes they fix'd, imagining / For one forbidden Tree a multitude / Now ris'n" (PL 10.550-555). They pluck it greedily, apparently as Eve plucked the forbidden fruit, and seem to attempt to gorge themselves on it as Eve did.

But I don't see much for my purposes here, for the parallels are rather general, albeit worth noting.

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At 6:53 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

thicker then the snakie locks
That curld Megæra

This simile, besides being very effective, may link the episode to Dante, Inferno 9.46. It marks the entrance into the "City of Dis" i.e. deep hell. "Dis" is the heathen name by which Dante calls Satan (Inferno 34.20).

Or, is the "snakie Megaera (...) up the Tree" a hint at - again - Lilith? who imitates Eve, or vice versa.

* * *

so oft they fell
Into the same illusion, not as Man

Are you sure, Mr Milton?

At 6:57 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

And, Milton compares Satan to "Dis" just one time, i.e. when he sees Eve the first time in paradise, PL 4.270.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, could you elaborate on how "thicker then the snakie locks
/ That curld Megæra" refers to the City of Dis?

Incidentally, in saying that "Milton compares Satan to 'Dis' just one time, i.e. when he sees Eve the first time in paradise," did you mean that Satan was 'dis'-tracted?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

I see the demons eating these ash apples as mytho-poetic echos of Eve's act; they are so to speak emanations. What is pertinent to the theme that is driven by the narrative, that is to the story, is he demons' inability to satisfy their hunger. This frustration is a poetic amplification, an emanation, an "objective correlative" to the existential angst that is the central theme of Book X (842-844):

O Conscience, into what Abyss of fears
And horrors hast thou driv'n me; out of which
I find no way, from deep to deeper plung'd!

The resolution to Adam and Eve's problem in this book is quite grim, and indeed I should suggest this is the darkest book in the poem. Moreover, the resolution suggests a gnostic theological insight. And what is the resolution? It is this:

Eve suggests suicide. Adam answers her, but rather than observing that suicide is not an appropriate response to their condition, he rather observes suicide is unwise, as suicide might lead to further punishments. After the descriptions of the suffering demons with mouths full of ash, Adam's insight into the punishments that the father could yet prepare for them is apt, and theologically indicative of a very grim gnostic understanding.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...



Please forward your address via e-mail and I'll send you a copy of Diogenes.

At 4:16 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

could you elaborate on how "thicker then the snakie locks
/ That curld Megæra" refers to the City of Dis?

Not in the sense that Milton was consciously thinking to this connection when he wrote those verses, but imho there are - so to speak - Baudelairian "forest of symbols" which tend to agglomerate automatically.

In this case, Megaera provides a connection among Dis/Satan, Eve, Lilith, the serpent. The link is simply given by her 'look' (see Purgatorio 9.40-42) and her place (she guards the City of Dis).

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I'll have to consider your point about the mythopoetic echoes further, for you're doubtless correct at some level.

I'm less sure about the Gnosticism angle, perhaps because I don't quite understand the argument.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 5:53 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, I see your point, but I wonder how one would place it on solid grounding.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

how one would place it on solid grounding

True. It's not the first time you ask me for such a thing. And each time I answer that such a thing does not exist.


At 7:40 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

the resolution suggests a gnostic theological insight

Very interesting, Carter. Imho Milton's basic theology is radically anti-gnostic, but, as usual, he can effectively adopt two opposite standpoints.

At 7:47 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

"[S]uch a thing does not exist . . ."

Could you also put that assertion on a more solid grounding?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:56 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Sure. Look around you and inside you.

At 8:01 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Split a stone and find it there?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 11:09 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Split a hair ;-)

At 1:59 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...


Well, Eve's advice to commit suicide could be considered to be the proper response to their situation. Adam doesn't say "no" to suicide because suicide is an inappropriate response to their condition, or because suicide is intrinsically wrong, but because Adam (wisely) fears further punishment. This does not make the Father look good, does it? Nor in this book does the Son in his response to the Father make the Father look very good. The Son, if I am reading their exchange correctly, wisely dissembles before the Father's tyranny. But as you say, Jeffery, this is Milton working at one level, among others. I should point out, however, that it is at such points of gnostic illumination of the nature of the universe and the nature of the Father that Milton's anthropological project locks in and altogether draws the disparate elements of the poem into the form of an integral statement. Milton might call his purpose "To explain the ways of God to man," but we might render this in a more familiar and candid language, and say the purpose of the poem is to demonstrate the operation of human poetic consciousness, and elaborate an anthropology of religion, the politics of myth, the myth of politics and the political science of reformation and revolution.

I am assuming in philosophical spirit Milton specifically agrees with Bacon in the identification and understanding of the action of "abstract necessities" and the "four Idols". If this is true, and I can hardly imagine this not being true, then Paradise Lost must be the anthropological/analytic project I am interested in describing.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Somewhere down there, we reach our own splitting image . . .

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 9:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, Adam is being prudent, and that might be wise in its limited sense, but isn't he basing his reasoning on his impaired understanding? If this is a Gnostic moment, it's one projected upon God by a debased understanding -- in Milton's view, I mean.

Prior to the Fall, Adam already knew the difference between good and evil, for he speaks of evil and knows it intellectually. After the Fall, he knows evil in himself, experientially, but that is an impairment. Naturally -- in his fallen naturalness -- he now thinks more in prudent terms, whether an action will result in punishment or reward, rather than in terms of whether an act is good or bad in itself.

Also, is the Son really dissembling . . . or expressing God's mercy? Somewhere, Milton draws upon the distinction between God judging on the basis of his justice and God judging on the basis of his mercy. Isn't the Son a hypostatization of God's mercy? This can look like Gnosticism, but that's because Gnosticism does something similar, though it performs a hermeneutic of suspicion upon God's 'justice'.

I'll have to think about the rest of what you write.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:10 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Especially to Carter: see a VERY anti-Gnostic sentence by Milton in PL 6.734-6, where the Son says, "I hate, and can put on / The terrors, as I put thy mildness on, / Image of thee in all things".

In the Gnostic doctrine, the mild Christ was exactly the opposite than the punishing God (Demiurge).

The neo-Gnostic Blake wrote something like, "How different is the Son from the Father!"

At 2:00 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Hmm. I think I'll have to pass to A.D Nuttal's book for an accounting of the evidence of gnostic heresy in Milton.

Meanwhile, I think I can return to the defense of my "thesis" by making these observations:

1) The gnostic circumstances and insights are like a key that turns a lock which opens up other things--engages the analytic project so to speak--but I do not claim Milton is a gnostic.

2) PL is "science fiction." It is not proper exegesis. It is not rigorous Talmudic commentary. It contains things that look like these things, but it is not these things.

3) The text is decorated with figures and events that suggest, represent and "ape" proper commentary, but the anthropological/analytic project remains the "meaning" of the poem.

Honestly, Jesus Christ charging around in a war chariot like some "glorious" "hero" from the pages of the Iliad! Really? Ahem. Let not our sense be swayed by our sensibility. In other words, when reading this over-the-top yarn let's keep Milton's humor and his satire foremost in mind. And, btw, isn't the narrator here in book VI less than reliable?

At 5:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, I think that there are some Gnostic aspects to Paradise Lost, but Milton seems to depict a monistic rather than dualistic metaphysics.

For instance, the heavenly realm appears at odds with the realm of chaos and could almost be mapped onto a Manichaean cosmos, which consists of a realm of light above and a realm of darkness below, eternally at war with each other.

But for Milton, both realms are encompassed within God, so Milton's vision is not Gnostic.

As for reliable and unreliable narrators, Milton is honest enough to admit his own unreliability and humble enough to pray for secure insight.

I'd like to know more about your anthropological/analytic project.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 6:29 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Honestly, Jesus Christ charging around in a war chariot like some "glorious" "hero" from the pages of the Iliad! Really? Ahem

Are you joking? This is a true sci-fi Japanese UFO Robots page in a holy poem of the 17th century! I simply LOVE that page of PL.

At 7:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Isn't Milton also drawing on Old Testament imagery?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Yes, but I prefer future stuff to old one. Or, to use old materials in order to create something new. That's Milton's... testament.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Actually, I was directing the point to Carter because Yahweh seems to have a chariot in the Old Testament, so the imagery need not come from Homer.

But as for the future . . . my great grandmother, born in 1877, told me that the chariot was a prophecy of the airplane.

I couldn't quite see that . . . but maybe a spaceship.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 3:57 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

maybe a spaceship

Undoubtely. I think that the (especially American) 'interpreters' who read Ezekiel ch. 1 as a report of a close encounter with a UFO have been influenced by the way in which Milton reworks the episode.

Yes, YHWH (it would be more 'honest' not to spell His name) had a chariot too, though He very seldom used it in the Bible. And the Messiah's way of fighting in PL 6 seems to be more Greek than Biblical, showing features taken from both Zeus and the human warriors in the Iliad.

Anyway, it is not about two different standpoints here, since Milton liked to mix Christian and classical sources.

At 5:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Right, and Western Civilization has always been a synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *


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