Satan, Sin, and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell — an illustration by William Blake derived from Milton’s Paradise Lost c. 1806.
(Satan is on the left, Sin in the middle, and her half-transparent son Death on the right.)
And the relevant text from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
‘But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast, a serpent armed
With mortal sting: about her middle round
A cry of hell hounds never ceasing barked
With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
If ought disturbed their noise, into her womb,
And kennel there, yet there still barked and howled,
Although it is easy to get swayed by the graphic imagery, it would be wise to keep an open mind. Many regard this as an outdated and misogynist representation of Sin but that would be a shallow interpretation of Milton’s text, nowhere near the inherent message.
Milton has in fact been genial. In these horrifying few lines he managed to encapsulate a resonant message: that Generation and Degeneration are synonymous. That life and strife are bound together.
Consider this: The ‘hell hounds’ are situated around ‘her middle ground,’ (not her bosom or head) i.e. near her bowel. In other words ==> Sin has a visceral quality. It is associated with the regions responsible for the digestion of food and, in the case of women, the generation of life.
Furthermore, when disturbed, the hell hounds burrow ‘into her womb’ whence they bark and howl. ==> Hell and Life share the same space. They are both borne of the same womb. They are products of Creation. One cannot exist without the other.
==> Birth involves Agony, both a process of ‘delivering’ a life, but also as the phenomenon of maintaining life on the whole.
==> Creation is inextricably entwined with Destruction.
==> Birth (Creation) and Strife are by default adjoined, residing in one common body (Creator) known as Sin.
==> Sin’s nature, with all her qualities (both life-affirming [womb] and strife-providing [womb-partial hell hounds]) attracts Satan and Death.
==> Satan represents either organized rebellion or cruelty and sadism. Both of these qualities have to do with destruction and domination: rebellion is the romanticized version of the devil; cruelty and sadism, on the other hand, represent reviled evil.
==> Death represents Degeneration i.e. the end of Life i.e. the Catharsis that takes place for new life to arrive and grow.
==> Satan and Death are inherently associated with the rush to animate life (Animation). They wield spears and flames, which they thrust, like sperm, onto the world to attain their goal.
==> Destruction, Degeneration and Domination are associated with sperm (lightning rods and spears wielded by male figures), hence, with a male quality.
==> When combined, Sperm and Womb involve the creation of Life and Hell.
And here we are; a more holistic interpretation of the content of Milton’s text and Blake’s imagery combined, addressing the premises behind each item mentioned and action depicted in terms of their underlying qualities, without being swayed by the cultural politics of any given era.
Misogyny suddenly falls way short as an interpretation, doesn’t it?
Not to mention that if one were to stick to a gender-centered interpretation, one would have to call this imagery deeply misandrist as well. Having Satan and Death depicted as males isn’t exactly flattering to the male gender.
Clearly the content of Milton’s above passage, and Blake’s accompanying imagery, and many such related pieces of art and literature, go beyond the modern-day Mars and Venus chickensoup-versus-bourbon tiff, addressing gender issues at a more profound, telling level.
Here’s what I do when dealing with older material. I keep modern-day motifs out of the interpretation, at least when starting off. It enriches my understanding of the material, revealing aspects of life far deeper than previously anticipated.
As one progresses from the basic to the elaborate, from the ancient to the modern, from the archetypal to the so very typical and from there on to the unexpectedly revealed — the fresh detail hiding in plain sight, the rousing insight suddenly seeping through the mesh of stereotype and bias — one is increasingly able to apply newer and more particular interpretations, accentuating the inherent meaning, adding to the overall experience.
In the meantime, let’s all pretend to forget that Life and Strife are rhyming words with intertwined meanings and purposes. Let’s pretend that these are the extravagant hallucinations of older, mad people so that we can get on with our carefree, all-knowing way of life. Why would we want to consider the parallelisms and symbols in these old texts and images? Life is simpler and more handleable when seen through lenses that don’t contradict what we know — that depict sin as something bad, that perpetuate the simple stereotypes of all things old and misogynist. We don’t need to contemplate the overlap of life and hell, of sin and womb.
Life is easier that way.
Or so we make ourselves believe, barking and howling with Cerberian mouths at anyone who contradicts our way of life, appreciating only what we want to appreciate.
Ours is the hideous peal, though we pretend not to issue it.
It gives us hope about being able to sleep soundly later at night.
From your ever-discerning Spin Doctor,
Have a Sin-free, or Sin-full, depending on how you look at it, spring, and, most importantly,
Eyes open, mind sharp.