The Sin of Independence


Milton's female characters


Most scholars were convinced that all of Milton's Material in Paradise Lost was either original, Christian, or Greek. Only few recognized that he also drew ideas from the Midrashim which - in Latin translations - must have been familiar to him.

Obviously these sources had a great influence on how Milton created his female characters - Eve and Sin. Milton's Eve displays a desire to act independently while her biblical sister is more a subject to Adam and easy to seduce. This trace of independence indicates that Milton's Eve possibly is an amalgam of the two women of the Hebrew creation mythology: Eve and Lilith. Also, Milton's characterization of his second female character, Sin, can be seen as evidence that he was familiar with the character and history of Adam's first wife.

The reason why he created his female characters differently from traditional patterns has to do with the independence he introduced in his Eve. Milton shows what happens when wives become too independent from their husbands, and that these are too weak to rule over their wives. This goes very well with Milton's status as a Puritan and with his statements accordint to divorce.

Milton and Midrash

The word 'Midrash' derives from the Hebrew word 'darash', meaning "to search," "to investigate," "to find something by exposition." 'Midrash' (plural Midrashim), written with a capital "M," refers to the process of interpreting the biblical text as well as to the genre of interpretive literature and its individual texts; 'midrash,' written with a small "m," refers to a single unit of interpretation in a midrashic work. Midrash is always directly base on a bilblical passage, but the midrashic explanation may roam far from the text that inspired it. There is a great chain of tradition that locks Jewish midrashic sources to Christian writings of which Milton's Paradise Lost is only one link. Rabbinical materials and methods have been used by Christian theologians and writers throughout the centuries for various reasons. Knowledge of Midrash helped Christians in their debate with the Jews; it also helpped Jerome to make his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, and to write biblical commentaries which laid the groundwork for medieval Christian exegesis.

The Church set up disputattions between Christians and Jews with the aim of convincing Jews of the supremacy of the Christian faith. Often in these disputations Jewish midrashic material was used, and thereby the disputations became a channel for the transfer of information about early Jewish practices and learning. The Church Fahers required a knowlege of Jewish law for the anti-Jewish polemic: they often argue against circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath laws, and other details of Jewish ritual observance by using information they gained from Jewish sources. Among the English scholastic philosophers, Roger Bacon (1214-1294) was also influenced by Maimonides, whom he considered one of the greatest philosophers. Bacon was of the opinion that all Latin versions of the Bible were corrupted and that biblical and philosophical knowledge was best learnt in Hebrew.

Duns Scotus (1265-1308), the Franciscan who ushered in the last stage of the alliance between theology and philosophy, used Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed and cites the Jewish poet and philosopher Ibn Gabirol's (1021-1058) The Fountain of Life.

Midrashic knowledge also penetrated popular sermons and folklore, and was thereby widely spread.

The Kabbalah, the mystical and esoteric literature of the Jews, was also a subject that fascinated Christians and led them to study Hebrew and Aramaic. The occult Jewish kabbalistic literature teaches that the deepest secrets of Scripture can be uncovered by means of symbolic combination of letters and words. This method of interpteration appealed to the intellectual leaders of the Reformation who adopted it as a form of protest against the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages.

The English writers Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Thomas Vaughan (1622-1666), Henry Moore (1614-1687) and Randolph Cudworth (1617-1688) used Kabbalistic motifs througout their works. Many of these writers did not know Jewish Kabbalah in dephth, and their esoteric Christian speculations were unconnected to the original texts.

Jewish midrashic sources interested Christians during every period of their history. Some writers investigated into Jewish sources because they were curious about the origins of Christianity, others studied Talmud and Midrash in order to find material that might be used against the Jews. By the later Middle Ages, and especially at the time of the Reformation, Christians began to study Jewish sources for their intrinsic interest. Protestants were particularly fascinated with midrashic works. They had no exegetical tradition of their own and had rejected those of the Catholics, so they were in search of diverse and interersting commentaries to illuminate Scripture.

Christian Hebraists translated many rabbinic works into Latin, and in this translated form the midrashic material found its way into sermons, exegetica comments, and even into nontheological literature. Among the Latin translation of Midrashim by Protestant scholars containing material dealing witn Milton's subject of Adam and Eve is the Palestinian narratiev Midrash known as Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, the commentary on the treatise Pirke Abot called Abot de-Rabbi Nathan, and the Genesis chapter of a Yiddish midrashic commentary of the Bible, the Ze'enah U-Re'enah. Some of this translated Rabbinic material found its way into Milton' poetry as well as into his prose. One example is Eve's motif for giving the forbidden fruit to Adam: jealousy.

The woman went and touched the tree,
and she saw the angel of death coming
towards her. She said: Wo[Sic] is me!
I shall now die, and the Holy One,
blessed be He, will make another woman
and give her to Adam... I will cause
him to eat with me; if we shall die,
we shall both die, and if we shall live,
we shall both live. And she took of the
fruits of the tree, and ate thereof,
and also gave to her husband, so that
he should eat with her.
These thoughts of Eliezer's Eve are matched by those of Milton's Eve:
but whath if God have seen,
And Death ensue? then I shall be no more,
And Adam wedded to another Eve,
Shall live with her enhoying, I extinct.
Confirm'd then I resolve.
Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe. (IX, 826-831)
Virtually every important idea connected with Milton's depiction of Satan and the fallen angels can be found in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer . All the basic elements concerning Satan and his fellow rebel angels, as well as the motivation for and the methods used in the seduction of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost can be found here. Milton's Satan has his counterpart in the Sammael of Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer , who was also the second husband of Lilith, Adam's first wife.

The Ze'enah U-Re'enah answers a number of questions which are raised by the Biblical text. God asks Adam why he ate the fruit, and Adam answers that his wife gave it to him. The midrashist now asks what kind of answer this is. he cites Maimonides:

You gave me a wife to help me, so I thought
that I must do whatever she asks me. Therefore,
I ate what she gave me.
Then he asks the rhetorical question if Adam was so stupid that he listened to his wife rather than to God. In Paradise Lost Adam's reply to God's question is:
She gave me of the tree, and I did eat. (X, 143)
To this God answers:
"Was she thy God, that her thou didst obey
before his voice, or was she made thy guide,
Superior, or but equal, that to her
Thou didst resign thy manhood,... (X, 145-148)
This very closely echoes the midrashist's question in the Ze'enah U-Re'enah.

These are only two examples which show that Milton had knowledge of midrashic works. There can be found much more.

Divorce: Milton's possible knowledge of the Lilith myth

Milton, the Puritan, was a sexual libertine for his contemporaries. It was this attitude which made them link him with the radicals. He had his own version of the Puritan marriage ideal: marriage should be a union of two minds, mutual solace and delight was as important an object of marriage as the procreation of children. This emphasis on marriage as a voluntary union of like-minded people also supported Milton's ideas about the desirability of divorce whera a couple proved mutually incompatible. Nevertheless, he did not intend to provide 'divorce at pleasure' as his enemies suggested. His main interest was to establish the rights of masters of families 'to dispose and economize', which in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates he saw as 'the root and source of all liberty'. Subjection of wives to husbynds was conventionally accepted in the seventeenth century as an image of the political subjection of peoples to rulers. For Milton, marriage and monarchy must be subordinate to the liberty of Christian men. Behind this background and with the knowledge of the many midrashic influences on Milton it seems possible that he knew about Adam's first wife, Lilith.

Lilith appears in the Zohar's conception of the cosmic drama of good and evil. The main story is told in a late midrashic work, Alpha Beta diBen Sira (written between 700 and 1100 AD).

God created Lilith and Adam at the same time from earth. Therefore, they had equal rights. Nevertheless, Adam demanded sovereignty over his wife. Afer an argument, in which Adam demanded that Lilith has to lie under him always when they have intercourse, Lilith spoke out loud God's name and fled away. Adam complained to God: "The woman you gave me has deserted me!" God sent three angels after Lilith to bring her back. They found her in the Red Sea where she had already realized her sexual ideas with Sammael and other rebel angels. The three angels told Lilith: "When you come bach with us, all will be forgiven, but if you refuse to return every day hundred children of yours will die." Lilith chose not to return to Adam and became the wife of Sammael. God had to make a new wife for Adam which clearly was subordinat to Adam.

The indirect accusation "The woman you gave me" also appears in Milton's poem:

This woman thou madst to be my help
And gav'st me as thy perfect gift,... (X, 137-138)
The marriage of Lilith would have been perfect to illustrate Milton's ideas about marriage and divorce, but Lilith doesn't show up in Paradise Lost. One reason could be that - unlike Milton - readers didn't have the knowlidge of the midrashic text and - different from introducing Satan, Beelzebub, Moloch, Belial, and the other Princes of Hell - her introduction into the text would have been too far away from the popularly known Biblical story. Instead he introduce Sin, the keeper of the gates of hell, who shares with Eve simmilarities to Lilith.

Milton's Eve

In Milton's paradise rules have to be obeyed, and this means not only the order not to eat the forbidden fruit. The reformer's Adam and Eve are created with equal abilities and capacities. Nevertheless, they are far away from having equal rights. Living in paradise meant submission to a certain hierarchy:
Whence true authority in men; though both
Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valor formed
For softness she and sweet attractive grace,
He for God only, she for God in him:
His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule;
(IV, 295-301)
Eve's words speak out acceptance of this arrangement:
... O thou for whom
And from whom I was formed flesh of thy flesh,
And without whom am to no end, my guide
And head, ...
(IV, 440-444)

My author and disposer, what thou bidd'st
Unargued I obey, so God ordains,
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is womans happiest knowledge and her praise. (IV, 635-638)

Eve pays lipservice to God's social order but her actions speak a different language. They are the actions of an independent woman who has to obey no one. After her argumen (!) with Adam she exactly does what she wants. Like Lilith she acts according to her own reasoning - and falls. Like Lilith the fallen Eve muses over the possibility to be equal to Adam:
But to Adam in what sort
Shall I appear? shall I to him make known
As yet my change, and give him to partake
Full happiness with me, or rather not,
But keep the odds of knowledge in my power
Without copartner? So to add what wants
In female sex, the more to draw his love,
And render me more equal, and perhaps,
A thing not undesirable, sometimes
Superior; for inferior who is free? (IX, 816-825)
According to the Milton critic J.M. Evans Eve falls in the same moment she becomes aware of her own dignity for the first time. Satan's words infuse her with the consciousness of her own individuality. In trying to stand independent before God, without being responsible to Adam, she violates God's hierarchy. Eve's crime is giving up mutual dependence of true love for the independence of a dangerous adventure. In being independent she is untrue to God and Adam.

Milton comes to the same conclusion as the rabbis who told the story of Lilith: An independent woman cannot be anything else than a fundamental distortion of a state ordered by God. Eve has to be subordinate to Adam. To doubt this constellation means to be untrue to God's word.

The paradox which isn't one

The similarity between Eve and Lilith can be taken one step further: Both are dethroned goddesses. In book eleven of Paradise Lost Adam adresses Eve:
Whence Hail to thee,
Mother of all things living, since by thee
Man is to live, and all things live for man. (XI, 158-161),
which seems strange because she was the one who brought death upon mankind, and as such was cursed by Adam Before:
Out of my sight thou serpent, that name best
Befits thee, with him leagued, thyself as false
And hateful; no thing wants, but that thy shape
Like his, and color serpentine may show
Thy incarnated fraud, to warn all creatures from thee
Henceforth; Lest that too heav'nly form, pretended
To hellish falsehood, snare them. (X, 867-872)
The title 'mother of all living things' can be found in the Biblical text. Adam adresses Eve with this name after they are driven from paradise. Before he has only called her woman. The name Eve (= hawwah) in the arabic and aramaic languages is related to the word hiwya, which means serpent. The linguistic connection between Eve and the serpent is the same as it is between old fertility goddesses and serpents or dragons. In the Sumeric religion the letters NIN.TI of the cuneiform script can be read either as "Mistress of life" (title of a goddess) or as "Lady from the rib." Both puns very possibly were deliberately used by the author of the genesis text. They can only be judged as the wilful ridiculing of a female deity. The Hebrews as a tribe were surrounded by nations worshipping female goddesses which were connected to serpents, like Tiamat, whose cults included holy trees and a ceremony to secure fertility in which figs - as holy fruits of life - were given to the worshippers, and also sexual intercourse betwee the priestess and the priest - hieros gamos, the holy marriage - was celebrated. Eve, the 'mother of all living things' can be understood as the title of the ancestral goddess of a tribe. Her cult has to be placed in jerusalem around 1350 BC, a time in which a nation of Israel cannot be found. At this time Pharao Echnaton had a correspondence with Abdi-Heba, the ruler of Jerusalem. The name of king Abdi-Heba means literally 'servant of Eve'. He is the cult-hero of the 'mother of all living things'. When David conquered Jerusalem around 1000 BC he took over the local cult and Eve became the mortal mother of all Jews.

These archaic mother-/fertility goddesses were givers and takers of life. Very often the same goddess was also the war goddess, like the goddess Astarte, or the celtic Morrigan, who was a war- and fertility goddess among the pre-Christian Irish.

Here also lie the roots of the midrashic Lilith. The Burney relief which comes from Sumer and was made about 2000 BC appears as an illustration in Die große Mutter, written by Erich Neumann. The illustration is subtitled "Lilith, die Göttin des Todes" (Lilith, goddess of Death). It shows a winged female figure with the feet of a bird. In her hands she holds the rings of eternity. The goddess stands on two lions and two owls are put beside her. The goddess doesn't look threatening and her body is depicted beautifully with full breasts. She looks more like a fertility goddess than a goddess of death but very possibly was both. The division of these goddesses into good and bad aspects is a typical process in the development of the patriarchal consciousness.

Lilith was the mother goddess of immigrants fromthe east. She was the matriarchal goddess of a single Israelitic tribe coming from Sumer. under the pressure of the Jahwe-theology she was demonized into the Lilith of the Midrash. Since the Middle Babylonian period Lilith and another goddess, Lamashtu, have been assimilated to each other.


The excursus above into the world of old mother goddesses leads us full circle to the second of Milton's female characters: Sin. Milton describes her as follows:
The one seemed woman to the waist, and fair,
But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast, ... (II, 650-652)
Milton also adds a cry of hell-hounds around her waist, but the basic image seems to be the woman with the tail of a serpent. It is interesting enough that the above mentioned goddess Lamashtu, often associated with Lilith, was depicted in exactly the same way. The woman with a serpent's or a fish's tail seems to be a gobal archetype, as the fairy Melusina and the countless stories of mermaids prove. They all have in common that they personify a threat to the male hero.

It seems fairly impossible that Milton knew this and the fact that Eve and Lilith are dethroned goddesses of tribes which were either conquered by Israelites or were Israelites themselves. Nevertheless, this knowledge, or at least minimal hints of it, could have come to Milton through Greek literature. It is common knowlege that the Greeks assimilated masses of foreign deities intotheir mythologies, and from there some of them went into their literature. Virgil's Aeneas faces at the doors of hell "double shaped Scyllas". Scylla was the daughter of Hecate. She was turned into a monster with a waist of dogs' heads, above which she had tha body of a young woman and below, the tail of a dolphin.

That the primal inspiration for the character of Sin comes from Greek literature becomes obvious when Milton describes her birth with words which have a strong reminiscence of the birth of Athena, the goddess of wisdom:

All on a sudden miserable pain
Surprised thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzy swum
In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast
Threw forth, till on the left side op'ning wide,
Likest to thee in shape and count'nance bright,
Then shining heav'nly fair, a goddess armed
out of thy head I sprung: ... (II, 752-758)
Sin's functions in Milton's poem are various. She and her father (Satan) can be seen as a negative mirror image of God and his son. Second, she appears as an anti-Eve, where she is characterized by her strict obedience towards her father, the one out of whom's body she sprung. Eve who was taken out of the body of Adam, finally disobeys him. Sin's reward for her obedience is her 'rule' over the earth. Nevertheless, she also parallels Eve, when she disobeys God and gives in to Satan and opens the doors of Hell. Hike Eve after her, Sin once has lived in a beautiful world, but was driven out of it by God because of her disobedience towards him.

Sin portrays, even in her obedience, a very assertive character. She acts independently and has the courage to stop the fight between Satan and Death. Like Eve, she brings disaster over mankind.


Obedience, disobedience, and authority are three of the themes which can be found in Milton's poem. He uses a mass of non-Christian sources, like Greek mythology and Midrashim. like the Rabbis he comes to the conclusion, that a man who wasn't able to contro his wife was the root of all evil:
But still I see the tenor of man's woe
holds on the same, from woman to begin."
"From man's effeminate slackness it begins,"
Said th'angel, "who should better hold his place
By wisdom, and superior gifts received. (XI, 632-636)
This dominance of men over women for Milton was ordered by God himself. Eve's sin was her independence which she shares with her midrashic counterpart and model Lilith. Lilith's punishment is drastic. She becomes a demon, but she is free to go where she wants to, and she is still immortal because she has never tasted the forbidden fruit.

Compared to this freedom Milton's punishment for Eve seems very hard: while Adam has his vision of the future, the archangel Michael induces Eve to fall into a sleep which brings fatal dreams:

Her also I with gentle dreams have calmed
Portending good, and all her spirits composed
To meek submission: ... (XII, 995-997)
This seems to be the end of the independent Eve. From now on, no trace of Lilith will be found in her.

Lacking an exegetical tradition of their own, and rejecting the Catholic tradition, the Reformers used old midrashic texts as new commentaries on the Biblical text. Milton equipped his Eve with a negative Anima which can easily be identified as Lilith. Through the Lilith-Anima Milton expresses the anxieties men had about assertive, independent, and free women. Humans tend to destroy what they fear or don't understand, and Milton destoys Eve's Lilith-Anima. Milton's perfect woman is submissive, a good housekeeper, and content with her husband being the only source of knowledge available to her.


Midrashim: All Midrashim quoted are taken from:
Werman, Golda: Milton and Midrash. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995
Maimonides: A twelfth-century talmudic codifier and philosopher. he was much admired by Milton. He believed that the obscurities in the Bible are purposeful. God communicated his ideas in figurative language, so that each one might interpret Scripture for himself and understands it according to his own ability.
Talmud: The collected record of the academic discussions of scholars (Rabbis, Sages), written in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic. The function of the talmudic Rabbis and Sages was to teach Scripture and oral law.
Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer: Translated by Willem Vorstius (1644). The assumed author was Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, an important talmudic Sage who lived at the end of the first century.
Ze'enah U-Re'enah: Translated by Johan Saubert (1660).
Zohar: A medieval kabbalistic work, written in an artificial Aramaic, that even experts in Judaica cannot decipher without specialized training.
Alpha Beta di Ben Sira: A narrative Midrah from the Middle Ages. Translated into Latin by Paul Fagius, a professor of Hebrew at Strasbourg and Cambridge (1542).
Obedience: A central idea of the plot of Paradise Lost. Compare the footnote in the Norton Critical Edition, relating to II, 865.

Paper: © Copyright 1996 by THE RAEWYN.

Last updated: 12. February 1997


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