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37. Milton Knowledge and Confusion, Second Essay
Putting it Together with Milton's Account
The major tension between the two accounts (Christian and Greek), of course, has to do with whether these gods were first human and then became divine or whether they were "divine from the beginning." But another issue is evident. Was Titan actually a person/divinity or just the name of the class of those born of Ouranos and Gaia? Hesiod refers to Titans as a class of divine figures and not as either an individual god/divinity or a person.
Milton will follow the Christian tradition here. Now we are finally ready to begin to read his lines. He names the rest of Hell's inhabitants (508-10)::
"Th' Ionian Gods, of Javan's Issue held
Gods, yet confest later than Heav'n and Earth
Thir boasted Parents"
There is some humor here, too. Let's follow him. The Ionian or Greek Gods were believed, in the standard Christian belief, to be descendants of Javan. Yet they were "confest" (i.e., believed to be") later than Heaven and Earth--obviously because Ouranos and Gaia (Heaven and Earth) were their parents. Now Milton does his quick biblical sleight of hand. In the Bible it says, in Genesis 1, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." Thus, these two things were created beings. If created, they cannot be gods. And their children cannot be gods. So, by the Greeks confessing that their Titans and even their Olympians came after heaven and earth (and heaven and earth are created), then it is as if they are confessing that their gods can't really be gods. "Hah! Gotcha!" Funny. Deep theological humor. No one laughing?
Continuing the Story
Milton continues with his reliance on the Christian interpretation of the story. Titan is Heaven's first born, rather than the class of huge beings descended of Ouranos and Gaia. But then we enter into a confusion. Titan is said to have "his enormous brood," though the problem is not at all how many children Titan had but how he warred against his younger sibling Cronus or Saturn. The "enormous brood" must refer to the twelve children of Ouranos and Gaia, not of Titan himself. His birthright was seized by "younger Saturn" (512). But Saturn himself faced the same situation by being displaced by his own son. The result: "So Jove usurping reign'd" (514).
We now expect Milton to continue on with his narrative about Jove and are confused by the word "these" in 514. To whom does it refer? Does it go all the way back to the larger class of "Th' Ionian Gods" of line 508? That seems to be the antecedent. But, then again, he might be referring to a narrower group of deities, such as simply Saturn and Titan. But we are confused yet further when the narrative says (514-15):
"these first in Crete
And Ida known"
This has to refer to Jove (Zeus in the Greek tradition), who was squirreled away to Crete by Rhea to be hidden from Saturn/Cronus. If it referred alone to Zeus, then the word in 514 ought to have been "he first in Crete," with "he" referring to Jove. But since we have "these," it might mean Saturn and company who might have become known in Crete because they came there to war against Jove. But this is a stretch. Thus, my second confusion with this passage is who is meant by "these" in line 514.
Another confusion emerges if we try to read the "these" as "he" (I think there are more problems by leaving the "these" unchanged). There is no problem with line 515, since Jove was known in Crete, and then on the "snowy top" of "cold Olympus" where he "rul'd the middle air." But then, in line 517 we return to a collective--"Their highest Heav'n," suggesting a reference possibly to the entire panoply of Greek gods. And line 517, with its reference to the "Delphian cliff," clearly points to Apollo, the patron god of the Oracle at Delphi.
The reference to Dodona in 518 must refer to Jove, but it is unclear whether the Doric reference would include just Jove or all the Olympians. Indeed, some commentators just seem to assumeJove is in view; others assume that a larger collection of Olympian deities is meant. Confusion, thus, abounds. And, we aren't yet done with the confusion. The final three lines of the paragraph (519-21) say:
"or with Saturn old
Fled over Adria to th' Hesperian fields,
And o'er the Celtic roam'd the utmost iles."
Now we have a kind of joint journey with Saturn to the farthest reaches of the Western world known at the time. Why is Saturn fleeing? Is it because he is being harassed by Jove in their multiple-year war? That is what some suggest. But Milton doesn't tell us here why Saturn "fled." It just isn't clear. And, there are different traditions, which Milton doesn't differentiate, between Saturn fleeing alone and Saturn fleeing accompanied by other divinities. As one commentator (Henry Charles Beeching) notes:
"The Roman poets, who alone speak of this event (Aeneid VIII.319; Ovid, Fasti 235), represent the flight of Saturn as solitary."
In any case, Milton has Saturn fleeing from Greece to Italy ("th' Hesperian fields") to France (the Celtic) and beyond. It isn't clear, to me at least, whether the "utmost iles" includes places like Greenland and Iceland or simply England and Ireland, or the Orkneys and Shetlands or what?
My advice, had I been Milton's editor, would have been either to drop these lines, as being an unhelpful diversion, or to make them much more clear. All kinds of conflicting traditions about the Greek gods and the warfare between the Titans and Olympians existed, and the Christian overlay through the early Christian apologists added to the unclarity and complexity. When you look closely at what Milton is doing, he simply is in Hell with the demons. He doesn't need these 16 lines to advance his story. If he wanted to give us a "digression," he could have done so with a simile, which is a standard epic device for bringing in extraneous but useful ideas. But he wanted to give us the story of the origin of the Greek gods, since he was on the subject of origin of divinities. But this section was far less successful than the earlier catalogue. The great epic writer was human after all....