Paradise Lost in Translation
John Milton would be ashamed
FROM his brimstone bed at break of day
A walking the devil is gone,
To visit his snug little farm the earth,
And see how his stock goes on.
- “The Devil’s Thoughts” by Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1835
Our modern view of the Devil was not formed by the Bible. Remember that bit about the serpent? Just a snake. That story about the rich guy that loses everything? Part of El’s innermost council. In fact, sometimes the translation for the word “satan” is used as a stand in for the Tetragrammaton.
Our cultural understanding of a devil figure is actually based on an epic poem from John Milton. The understanding of a devil character in the New Testament is based on a book that doesn’t exist in the canon for any denomination except for the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
So why on earth are we so obsessed with anthropomorphising evil?
Paradise Lost was kind of a big deal. Chances are you’ve seen some quotes from it recently. As bloggers and article writers dive deeper into classics to pull meaningful quotes, the breadth and distance from the source material grows.
This comes from book one of ten, as the Devil himself looks to shore up his fellow rebels as they find themselves in a hellscape (literally…).
“Woe there yuppy,” an SBC affirmed pastor shouts from the back, “What about Isaiah 14:12 and all of its cross references!”
This is where we get the name Lucifer for sure, yet it is not consistent with the original manuscripts. It is an oft reproduced mis-translation from a scribe translating Latin into the King’s English. King James’ English to be precise.
quomodo cecidisti de caelo lucifer qui mane oriebaris corruisti in terram qui vulnerabas gentes
Lucifer literally translates to Morning Star. Everything seems consistent up to this point. Save one thing. Morning Star is a metaphor, not a name. A metaphor for the King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. It’s right there:
3And it will be in the day when the LORD gives you rest from your pain and turmoil and harsh service in which you have been enslaved,
4that you will take up this taunt against the king of Babylon, and say,
“How the oppressor has ceased,
And how fury has ceased!
5“The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked,
The scepter of rulers
“Au contraire mon ami, Jeremiah clearly uses Babylon as a parallel to the kingdom of Satan (51:53), claiming that it is trying to ascend to heaven.”
Except that heaven in this context is not a place in the afterlife, but the sky. The only place in the Jewish vision of the afterlife is Sheol, the common grave, with some sects believing in a special place nearest to the heart of God called Abraham’s bosom. But in reality, there was no consensus or overwhelming belief in a life after death for the early Jewish people. There was no hereafter. That’s why wailing was so important. That’s why health, wealth, and legacy is so important still to this day in Jewish communities.
We have read our own culture into the Bible once again. Just like the Genesis story. As it turns out, English is not the best language to get the nitty gritty out of Hebraic nuance, and it never has been. And even though the King James Version sounds all fancy and skubala, it is a translation of a translation (of a translation in certain instances #septuagintlife).
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.- Book one, as the cast out demons elect their leader through some Hellenistic democracy.
A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.- literally Satan
They also serve who only stand and wait.-Also the devil
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.-so sayeth evil incarnate
He who reigns within himself and rules his passions, desires, and fears is more than a king.-Yep, that’s the devil once again
What hath night to do with sleep?- This one is Moloch, the infant eating Canaanite deity
To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable.-Satan once more
What though the field be lost? All is not Lost; the unconquerable will, And study of revenge, immortal hate, And the courage never to submit or yield.
-There goes Mr. Morning Star again
Yet from those flames No light, but rather darkness visible. -Michael this time… talking about Hell
I agree with most of these sentiments. What gives?
Culture has shifted a bit since the 17th century, perhaps unsurprisingly it has shifted a great deal. Of course there is still hunger and war and disease and other plights, nonetheless we persist in our constant evolution as human beings interacting with one another and the world around us.
As the world dances around the sun, so too does human experience dance around impossible mysteries. While individuality was shirked for the common man once, it is now the rallying cry of western culture as a whole, including and perhaps because of the Church.
In Milton’s day one was subservient to just about anything one could be subservient to. Whether that be king and country, God and priests, or the abject tyranny of poverty and hunger. Everyone had a master, most had a lot. Only a select few had the luxury of individualism.
Those few often weren’t very kind people.
The idea of personhood was a distant echo for most, lives lived in subsistent monotony. We are no longer slaves to that. We are liberated, in some ways, from the oppression of ignorance.
We have the great fortune of living in a world where philosophy and art are not limited to the wealthy. That’s great. But we don’t do anything with it. At least most of us don’t. We are far too content with our worldview to challenge the cultural narratives, like that of the Devil.