What did Milton know about Satan?

While the most recent scholarship focuses on political ramifications and issues, there are two notable exceptions: Forsyth, who has analyzed possible sources and analogues for Milton’s Satan, and Russell, who has researched the more general devil character. While Forsyth’s The Satanic Epic (2003) focuses mainly on how Paradise Lost functions as an epic, the opening chapter addresses the origins of the character of Satan. Forsyth begins examining Satan chronologically so that he can trace Milton’s sources. He begins with the Adversary, in the Book of Job, Origen’s work where Satan is first seen as a rebel, he then looks at the comparison of rebellious Satan to Zeus, and Prometheus and Icarus, compares God to the Titans and Zeus to Satan. He goes on to state that Milton followed the shape of ancient mythic epics such as the Illiad and the Aeneid, as well as the heroes in them, in creating Satan. Then Forsyth states that Satan was used by the early and medieval church as a representation of heresy and argues that the story of Satan evolved through the middle ages into the story presented in Genesis B (Christ and Satan), which solidifies the idea of Satan as a rebellious angel. Forsyth’s work focuses on the “type” of character Satan is while ignoring the specific characterizations and how they are part of the character’s evolution.

Russell explores similar source territory as Forsyth with his book Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1984), where he researches the concept of evil as reflected in the figure of the devil in popular literature, art and during the middle ages. He looks at worldwide sources, and examines the devil in medieval art, poetry, and drama. Russell covers a large field, but unfortunately there are gaps in his coverage; it would have been illuminating if instead of rehashing old material, he had focused more on unexplored material, such as looking at the visual representations of the devil through this period since this is a topic rarely discussed. Both Russell and Forsyth provide the reader with background information on the types of sources Milton might have used but both focus on specific literature for references and what gets neglected are the ideas and concepts that were present in folklore about how the devil was viewed and presented.

Most of the work involving analyzing sources for Milton’s Paradise Lost was written in the first half of the 20th century. Some scholars have examined the character of Satan in general, not specific to Milton’s portrayal such as Le Bosquet’s “The Evil One: A Development” (1912), Caldwell’s series “The Doctrine of Satan: In the Old and New Testament” (1913), Kellogg in “Satan, Langland, and the North” (1949), and Stein’s “Satan: The Dramatic Role of Evil” (1950). During the second half of the twentieth century, scholarship has focused on Satan as an epic or anti-hero or on comparing Paradise Lost to Judaic and Biblical writings. The current trend of viewing Paradise Lost through a political lens has dominated scholarly work lately. An examination of the character of the devil from Christ and Satan, up to Milton’s portrayal has not been pursued.

Some individual scholars such as Lever, Woolf, Rohrich, Laoire, Potter, and Edden have looked at singular sources for the devil. Lever examines the similarities between the characters of Satan in Christ and Satan and Paradise Lost; Woolf compares the character of Satan to Loki; Rohrich examines the character of the devil in the Germanic literary tradition; Potter argues that the devil in English folktales is the same as was portrayed in drama; Edden examines how the devil was portrayed in English medieval sermons and to return to folktale; and Laoire describes the character of the devil in Irish folklore. These individual examinations are valuable, but they do not give the big picture, and the big picture is what this project will produce.

Textual analysis between Milton’s characterization and previous characterizations of the devil are invaluable because they allow us to trace how the character evolved and allows us to analyze what the presented characterizations meant within their own context. Perhaps the closest comparison is between Milton’s Satan, and the Satan of Genesis B: Christ and Satan. Lever addresses this issue in “Paradise Lost and the Anglo-Saxon Tradition” (1947), where he spends the entire article addressing the similarities between Satan in Christ and Satan and Satan in Paradise Lost; however, he counters himself at the end by stating that the similarities are simply coincidence, as should be expected of something addressing common Christian themes, a statement he does not elaborate on. Lever argues that while Milton may have been familiar with the Genesis B text, this is an unimportant point, as the commonalities of language are simply due to the similar subject matter. Despite his contradictory theories, Lever’s work is important to mine for the textual analysis of Satan in Christ and Satan.

Woolf, on the other hand, in “The Devil in Old English Poetry” (1953) states that similarities in characterization between Satan and Loki are due to Loki myths and Satan (in Christ and Satan) emerging at the same time. He argues that the origins of Satan as a hero possibly began with the Anglo Saxons, as they would have seen his actions as heroic for how he dealt with his inevitable expulsion from heaven. Woolf also addresses the fact that Christian doctrine and Loki mythology would have coincided and compares the similarities between the two characters. His evidence of both characters acting as tempters, shapeshifters, and sly and cunning characters provides an excellent source for the character of Milton’s Satan.

Folklore provides some of the richest research into the character of the devil and in “German Devil Tales and Devil Legends” (1970), Rohrich argues that devil tales and legends have stopped being folklore and have become part of the historical record. He gives a detailed description of how these devil tales and legends evolved as well as makes a reference to connections to medieval sermons. He ends his argument by citing Grimm’s fairy tales as evidence of the popularity of these tales and legends. While the Grimm brothers did not compile their tales until the early 1800s, the sources for their tales (the Germanic literary tradition) had been around for much longer and therefore these tales and legends are an excellent source for comparison to Milton.

While both Woolf and Rohrich’s focus on Germanic/Norse myths would seem to exclude their research from the scope of this project, it is important to realize that these tales would have been known to the Anglo Saxons and therefore are an important part of the literary tradition. The influence of the stereotypical characterization of the devil in folklore on Paradise Lost has not been examined in depth despite the similarities. For instance, in Book 9, when Satan goes to tempt Eve, Milton changes from referring to Satan as “the Enemy” and instead refers to him as “the Tempter”. In light of Loki’s reputation as a tempter, prankster and cunning creature, it’s hard not to draw a connection. When Milton uses words such as “the spirited sly snake” (613), “the wily adder” (625) to describe Satan and says he leads Eve “To mischief swift” (633) it becomes easy to recognize the parallels to Loki.

Another source for comparison is the portrayals of the devil/Satan in drama. In “Three Jacobean Devil Plays” (1931), Potter argues that it was the devil of English folklore that was represented on the English stage, a devil that was instantly recognizable by his physical appearances and starred in comedies of the time. The devil of these plays did not depend upon a magician to conjure him up; the action of the play begins in Hell and despite the fact that it is accepted that the devil can change his shape, he is recognized by his eyes, animal-like sounds, and the thunder or lightning that accompanies his appearance. These devils were self-possessed characters of their own merit and not dependent upon humans, although humans were often the butt of the individual devil’s jokes. These dramas served not only to show the devil of English legend and folklore but also to forward the life of the character. Which characteristics of the devil were forwarded and which weren’t is also of interest. When looking at the evolution of the character, many of these characterizations are similar to how Loki is portrayed in folklore. Cawley points out that Loki is characterized as defying Odin’s order, sly and treacherous, known as a shape shifter, as well as a tempter who possibly heralds the end of the world, Ragnarok. Milton’s Satan defies God’s order, is sly, treacherous, changes his shape so that he won’t be recognized by the angels guarding Earth and tempts Eve in the Garden. Due to these similarities, these dramas, as well as the folktales that inspired them, are worth examining.

Valerie Edden explores a previous gap in the scholarship by looking at the sermon stories of the middle ages for references to devils in “Devils, Sermon Stories, and the Problem with Popular Belief in the Middle Ages” (1992). These stories were written by religious in the vernacular between 1400-1475 and had an audience of parish clergy and lay audiences. These sermon stories had their basis in folklore and legend (214) as the Jacobean plays did but were “remade” for the church’s purposes. Edden argues that these texts are as “important for what they leave out as for what they say” (215) and notes that just because a sermon story had a characterization of a devil did not mean that the reader could assume a belief system of the original medieval reader based on this because these stories were used by the Church and it’s impossible to distinguish between their purpose and what would have been the audience’s response.

Edden’s work is valuable because she forwards several collections of these medieval sermon stories: The Alphabet of Tales, Jacob’s Well, and BL MS Cotton Cleopatra Dviii and examines the language used to describe these devils (“demon”, “Satan”, “fiend”, “little black boy”). (217). She states that medieval readers would have seen devils and angels as good and bad spirits; however, she counters the popularly held idea that medieval readers would have seen any mention of devils or angels as representative of a dualistic model in which God and the devil were always in opposition over man. She states that devils were not described as in opposition to God, but rather as parallel to angels, and as thus, were able to contend for the soul of a man without involving a conflict with God and that the medieval readers did not view the world in a dualistic manner and that to assume that they held such beliefs based on these medieval sermon stories of devils is to base an opinion on insufficient facts. While these stories were not consistent in their treatment of devils, many include the traditional role of tempter, similar to that of Woolf’s description of Loki. She also states that many stories dealt with the devil as a shape shifter, the theme of the persistence of the devil and the importance of always being vigilant. This led to two types of stories, one where men were deceived by the disguises of the devil and one where a man who was seduced by a beautiful woman who turned out to be a devil. Edden’s work is of note because it argues the opposite of how Milton chose to portray angels and demons so it is interesting that Milton chose not to follow the model of the medieval church, perhaps because of its popishness. Milton does portray Satan and the fallen angels as in opposition to and in fact, at war with, God, as can be seen in Book 1 where the fallen angels are described as “Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms” (49) and in Book 6 when Raphael is describing the war in Heaven “The great Archangel from his warlike tail/ Surceased, and glad as hoping here to end/ Intestine was in Heav’n, the Arch-Foe subdued/ Or captive dragged in chains” (257-260).

In “That Be’t Banagher and Banagher Be’t the Devil. An International Devil Tale in Irish Tradition” (1994/1995) Laoire examines an Irish folktale, The Old Woman as Trouble Maker, that has dual duty as a folktale and a religious tale as it deals with the devil and the power of evil and states that this story was used as an exemplum “in sermons from at least the thirteenth century onwards” (189). She says that there are more than 59 variants of the story and the tale occurs throughout Ireland. In the tale, the devil spends a long time trying to interfere with a married couple. In many of the stories, the devil enlists the help of a woman who, either by lying to the husband or the wife, makes them believe their spouse is cheating which results, in most variants, in the death of said spouse. In some variants, the devil sends a female helper and in some, the devil condemns this helper to Hell, as she has proven herself more wicked than he is; while in others, the devil promises his female helper a reward if she does his bidding. The moral of the story rests not on the married couple (whose sins and downfalls differ with the variants) but on the woman who has fallen into “the devil’s clutches” (196). This single tale manages to touch on several different aspects of the devil tradition in Ireland though most important to my purpose is the fact that the devil is described as a trickster, a trait shared with Loki, German and English folklore, as well as Milton’s portrayal. This work along with Edden’s, addresses the gap of written references to the devil in literature in the medieval and middle ages.

While the above scholarship gives detailed information on devil characterizations in individual sources, what is not present in the scholarship is a comprehensive examination of the evolution of the character of Satan since Genesis B and how the character culminates with Milton’s new fusion of characteristics in his portrayal. This is important because it opens up a whole new set of questions in regards to examining Paradise Lost and the character of Satan. Some of these questions are: how is the character used to personify a particular religious or political figure of the time (pope, anti-royalist)? How does the author of any given source or analogue use the character of Satan (as a figure to be feared, a moral lesson, as an anti-hero) and how seriously does the author treat the character of Satan? What role did the character play in nationalistic arguments? How was the character of Satan used to mask dangerous political positions in literature? How did the character evolve as time went by?

In not addressing these questions, scholars have failed to be able to fully place Milton fully in context. Examining classical and biblical sources Milton may have used only goes part of the way. To appreciate Milton’s new creation with the character of Satan, one must understand that he took the flat, stereotypical character as seen in folklore and early literature and made him a dynamic and compelling character that became the modern definition of Satan. In neglecting this course of study, scholars are also deprived of a course of study in examining the devil in literature that came after Milton and was influenced by Paradise Lost.

In this paper, I will look at the major characterizations of Satan in folklore and literature from Genesis B to Paradise Lost in order to understand the evolution of the character. This project will have three chapters, each focusing on a specific topic: physicality, actions and personality as seen chronologically within the following works in order to show how the character evolces and how each portrayal builds on its predecessors:

 Genesis B: Christ and Satan (7th century)

 the myths of Loki in Poetic Edda (13th century)

 the Third Vision: The Quest for Dowel, Passus VIII; the Fifth Vision, Passus XVI and the Sixth Vision, Passus XVIII of Piers Plowman (1369-1387)

 the York plays, specifically The Fall of the Angels (1463-1477)

 Malleus Maleficarum (1486), a handbook for identifying and hunting down devils, demons and witches

 Daemonologie (1597), King James’ handbook on demons and devils and how to identify and destroy them

 Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604)

 The King James Bible (1611)

 Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass (1667).

The primary focus will be on comparing the character of Satan in these works with Milton’s characterization in Paradise Lost by looking at how the character is described, both by the character himself and by other characters. A secondary focus will be the gap that exists between the 7th and 13th century in which Satan was mainly appropriated by the Catholic Church. Thirdly, I will look at how individual scholars have addressed some of these individual sources and analogues.


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Achinstein, Sharon. Milton and the Revolutionary Reader. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

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Bosquet, John Edwards Le. “The Evil One: A Development.” Harvard Theological Review Volume 5 (1912): 371-384.

Bryson, Michael. The Tyranny of Heaven: Milton’s Rejection of God as King. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004.

Caldwell, William. “The Doctrine of Satan: I. In the Old Testament.” The Biblical World Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan 1913): 29-33.

Cawley, Frank Stanton. “The Figure of Loki in Germanic Mythology.” The Harvard Theological Review Vol. 32, No. 4 (1939): 309-326.

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Laoire, Lillis O. “That Be’t banagher and Banagher Be’t the Devil. An International Devil Tale in Irish Tradition.” Bealoideas Vol 62/63, Glortha on Osnadur: Paipeir a cuireadh i lathair ag an Siomposium Nordach-Ceilteach (1994/1995): 189-198.

Lever, J.W. “Paradise Lost and the Anglo-Saxon Tradition.” The Review of English Studies (1947): 97-106.

Lieb, Michael. Theological Milton: Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2006.

Lowenstein, David and John Marshall. Heresy, Literature and Politics in Early Modern English Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Potter, Russell. “Three Jacobean Devil Plays.” Studies in Philology Vol. 28, No. 4 (1931): 730-736.

Rohrich, Lutz. “erman Devil Tales and Devil Legends.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1970): 21-35.

Russell, Jeremy Burton. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press , 1986.

Woolf, R.E. “The Devil in Old English Poetry.” The Review of English Studies (1953): 1-12.


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