Thursday, August 31, 2006

Satan: nowhere to place his feet?

(Image from Wikipedia)

On an email list that I belong to, Larry Swain -- occasional blogger and regular Medievalist -- posted a query about Aelfric of Eynsham's remark that Satan fell from heaven because he found nowhere to place his feet:

The source is Aelfric of Eynsham's Libellus Veteri et Novo Testamenti and the language is Old English. Aelfric treats the fall of the angels several times in various works and sermons, and it is only in this particular one that he makes the claim that Satan found nowhere to place his feet, though he comes close in another. This is one of his later works, so it isn't as if he knew no better, but there are a few later works that also treat the fall of the angels in which he does not make this claim. In his Hexamerone composed (not merely translated) shortly after the Libellus he also makes the for Aelfric (and I stress the "for Aelfric) claim that Satan fell on the sixth day of creation, the day on which God made Adam and Eve. I can trace precisely where he derived that idea from, unique detail in his texts though it is. By analogy I'm attempting to track down the unique detail in the Libellus. I know most of his sources: the Bible, Augustine, Gregory, Martin of Bragda, the homiliary of Paul the Deacon, known in England in a manuscript collection known as Pembroke 25 of which I have a microfilm copy, Bede are his chief sources and influences. Neither Augustine nor Bede include that detail. I'm checking the other two but thought I'd ask to see if anyone on list had encountered this idea previously anywhere.
I'd never heard of this view, but it struck a chord -- an overtone perhaps -- so I pointed to a possibly related depiction of Satan in John Milton's Paradise Regained:

I'm interested in your question because I wonder if Milton is obliquely alluding to it in Paradise Regained 4.550-580, where Satan places Christ at the pinnacle of the temple and challenges him to stand on that precarious spot. Christ stands there, but Satan falls.
Although I didn't do so on the email list, allow me to quote here that passage in its context, the last of the three temptations that Satan subjected Christ to in the desert, which begins here with Satan speaking:

Therefore to know what more thou art then man,
Worth naming Son of God by voice from Heav'n,
Another method I must now begin. [ 540 ]
So saying he caught him up, and without wing
Of Hippogrif bore through the Air sublime
Over the Wilderness and o're the Plain;
Till underneath them fair Jerusalem,
The holy City, lifted high her Towers, [ 545 ]
And higher yet the glorious Temple rear'd
Her pile, far off appearing like a Mount
Of Alablaster, top't with golden Spires:
There on the highest Pinacle he set
The Son of God, and added thus in scorn: [ 550 ]
There stand, if thou wilt stand; to stand upright
Will ask thee skill; I to thy Fathers house
Have brought thee, and highest plac't, highest is best,
Now shew thy Progeny; if not to stand,
Cast thy self down; safely if Son of God: [ 555 ]
For it is written, He will give command
Concerning thee to his Angels, in thir hands
They shall up lift thee, lest at any time
Thou chance to dash thy foot against a stone.
To whom thus Jesus: also it is written, [ 560 ]
Tempt not the Lord thy God; he said and stood.
But Satan smitten with amazement fell
As when Earths Son Antæus (to compare
Small things with greatest) in Irassa strove
With Joves Alcides and oft foil'd still rose, [ 565 ]
Receiving from his mother Earth new strength,
Fresh from his fall, and fiercer grapple joyn'd,
Throttl'd at length in the Air, expir'd and fell;
So after many a foil the Tempter proud,
Renewing fresh assaults, amidst his pride [ 570 ]
Fell whence he stood to see his Victor fall.
And as that Theban Monster that propos'd
Her riddle, and him, who solv'd it not, devour'd;
That once found out and solv'd, for grief and spite
Cast herself headlong from th' Ismenian steep, [ 575 ]
So strook with dread and anguish fell the Fiend,
And to his crew, that sat consulting, brought
Joyless tryumphals of his hop't success,
Ruin, and desperation, and dismay,
Who durst so proudly tempt the Son of God. [ 580 ]
So Satan fell... (PR 4.538-581)
There are some obvious echoes of the Redcrosse Knight's defeat of the great dragon in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, with its repeated use of "fall" and "fell" to emphasize the magnitude of the fall. I'm not interested in that point at the moment, but just in case you are:
So downe he fell, and forth his life did breath,
That vanisht into smoke and cloudes swift;
So downe he fell, that th'earth him vnderneath
Did grone, as feeble so great load to lift;
So downe he fell, as an huge rockie clift,
Whose false foundation waues haue washt away,
With dreadfull poyse is from the mayneland rift,
And rolling downe, great Neptune doth dismay;
So downe he fell, and like an heaped mountaine lay. (FQ Bk I, Canto 11, Stanza 54)
As you see, the great dragon fell, and rather resoundingly. But back to Milton and my own email list query about Milton's source for Satan:
John Carey's footnote [John Milton: Complete Shorter Poems (London: Longman, 1968, 1971)] to line 560-561 [of Paradise Regained, Book IV] notes that "In visual art ... it was quite common for the artist to depict Satan as reeling or falling."

Unfortunately, Carey gives no examples, so I'm not sure if he's speaking just about the iconography of Satan tempting Christ but himself falling or of iconography showing Satan's first fall.

The image of Satan 'reeling' in iconography suggests Satan's difficulty in finding footing (but that's Carey's descriptive wording).
That was what I wrote in reply to Swain's original query. Now, I admit, the possibility is remote, but I still wonder if Milton is perhaps making an oblique allusion to Satan falling by failing to find a place for his feet at the temple's spire, whereas Christ can stand there.

Suggestions welcome ... on any of these points.

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At 9:46 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

This is tangential, but eventually relates. Numerical composition figures notably in Paradise Regained, but in a highly selective way. PR closes with the angelic celebration. It is exactly 40 lines long (596-636). This has to serve as an echo of the temptation in the wilderness. Its central point is Christ's triumph, which revisits the "pinnacle" image. Six lines before the central point--the axis mundi--of the passage--Milton makes the point that Satan will no more "set foot" in Paradise. Six lines after the central point, Milton makes the point the Satan will be "trod down" under Christ's "feet". Images are being implicity balanced around a point that focuses on the stability of Christ the Saviour and what has been brought by his resistance. This mimetically develops the passage you are interested in: Christ standing on the "pinnacle". It makes the point that there is no room for Satan to stand. The "pinnacle" is envisaged by Milton as proleptic of a world in which the feet of Satan have no place. Christ occupies the central position (as his Chariot passage does in Paradise Lost). There is also another possible bit of number symbolism framing the passage you are interested in. Firstly, Satan rises "without wing of hippogrif"...not only is Milton drawing an epic parallel, but he is also linking Satan with Babylonian imagery. The passage dealing with Christ's forced ascent and taunting lasts 19 lines.
Milton would have known the Biblical connection between that number and Nebuchadnezzar and how he came like Satan to Jerusalem to threaten the House of God. Christ denies Satan. Then Satan's fall occurs...another 19 lines. Nebuchadnezzar, as a type for God's rod of punishment was of, course, well established in Renaissance thought. Effectively, the second use of the number 19 represents the overthrow of God's rod by God once his punishment had taken place. This is a parallel to how Satan is overthrown by Christ's act of standing. The "pinnacle" which is a translation of the Babylonian ziggurat (Lieb) and an image of the sacral Holy Mount brings together a double image of kingship, false and true, the Babylonian Satan and the Puritan Christ. Milton is exploring the whole link between holy status and "station" and their common root in "to stand". Is it also possible that Milton's repeat use of "fall" and "fell" mime the reeling fall of Satan? These are just poetic speculations...

At 10:42 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

No help over Aelfric, I'm afraid, although it was nice to see him getting attention.

But the "Cast herself headlong" simile in "Paradise Regained" reminded me that long, long ago (probably as an undergraduate) I did a paper comparing that very passage to the conclusion of the War in Heaven in "Paradise Lost" VI: 864-865: "headlong themselves they threw / down from the verge of Heav'n".

Which is where the epic opens, of course. And perhaps suggests a more literal twist to "his Pride / had cast him out of Heav'n" than the reader originally might have supposed.

I think I argued that Milton was consistent in suggesting that Satan, and his followers, ultimately "fell" *out* of Heaven, in terms of dramatic action, of their own accord, acting in despair. Just as they had freely chosen to fall from their moral stature.

Or something of the sort. I'm not sure the piece, as written, would stand up, even in my eyes, if I could find it. However, I think the resemblances themselves are valid. (And something tells me I had a longer list; although your comparison to Spenser is unfamiliar, besides being convincing.)

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks to both of you, Eshuneutics and Ian. I'm fortunate to have such intelligent and well-read online interlocutors.

We should all three of us together write a paper on this topic.

By the way, my semester just began today, so I'm already too steeped in work to respond in detail to the comments of both of you at the moment. But I will read and think carefully about them.

Jeffery Hodges

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