Paradise Lost, or Paradise Found? The Symbology of Satan As A Feminist Icon

The Demonising of Satan Within Renaissance England

To understand Satan’s argument for female liberation, we must first examine the societal norms that existed within Milton’s time. Women within Renaissance England were socially and economically devalued against their male counterparts. Religion was an integral part of life and was used to repress women into a subordinate social state. Silvia Federici, within Caliban and The Witch, noted the medieval period paved the ground for this oppression, whereby the church had begun to link ‘holiness with [an] avoidance of women and sex’. Various religious texts, most notably the Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, intrinsically linked women to Satan due to them being the ‘fragile feminine sex’. Kramer and Sprenger stated women were more corruptible to Satan’s influence as they were more  ‘superstitious’ than men. Furthermore, Federici states that emerging mercantilism – which is a primitive form of modern-day capitalism- used these existing religious doctrines to further persecute women into becoming the breeders of the ‘army and the work-force’. She states the ‘ideal woman and wife’ was ‘passive, obedient, thrifty, of few words, always busy at work and chaste’. This standard of womanhood became a normative custom within Milton’s period. Women were thus not encouraged to think for themselves, but be passive to these societal customs. 

Satan represented the destruction of these values. Federici writes Satan was said to appear to women, either in the form of a man or familiar, to tempt them into carrying out acts of maleficium, which is an act of harmful magic normally performed for inducing ‘sterility’ in men and women. Other acts of maleficium included performing abortions or infanticide.  Federici writes this period ‘was a true war against women clearly aimed at breaking the control they had exercised over their bodies and reproduction’. Symbolically, for Stuart Clarke within Thinking with Demons, Satan and magic represented an ‘inversion’ of the social roles assigned to women. Federici expands upon Clarke’s point, whereby Satan’s inversion can be symbolically viewed in the ritual magic Witches performed for him.  The sabbat’s ‘mass [was] celebrated backwards’ and ‘counter-clockwise dances’ were enacted. For Federici, the sabbat terminated ‘sexual roles, and it also represents a use of space and time contrary to the new capitalist work-discipline’. Thus, Satan was symbolic in Renaissance England, of the destruction of gender roles, and the reclamation of a woman’s bodily autonomy.  

Paradise Lost: The Reclamation of Eve’s Autonomy Through Satan’s Influence 

Milton’s characterisation is unique within the Renaissance period for the devil is not portrayed as a two-dimensional, stereotypical villain of all-consuming evil. He is an anti-hero with clear, and justifiable motivations for the chaos he brings to Eden. His abjuration of holiness is directly caused by God’s omnipotent dictatorship within Heaven. He is not intrinsically evil, but rather falls into his role through an all-consuming depression after the fall, ‘So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse: all good to me is lost’ (Paradise Lost  Book 4, 107-113). Therefore the totality of his character can be described as morally ambiguous and not exclusively evil. Milton’s Satan employs a variety of rhetorical tropes to subconsciously influence Eve into thinking for herself, breaking the normative customs of femininity Federici established, most notably pysma, whereby Satan asks Eve a multiple set of questions within quick succession; ‘Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe/Why but to keep ye low and ignorant’ (Paradise Lost Book 9, 703-704). Milton also employs epizeuxis, which is a trope whereby a word is repeated for emphasis, with no other words used between it; ’Of knowledge, knowledge both of good and evil/ Forbids us then to taste, but his forbidding’  (Paradise Lost Book 9, 749-753). He thus stresses continuously the power of knowledge, and its ability to elevate one’s social status. 

Milton does adhere to some Renaissance stereotypes about women, for Eve is the main target of Satan’s diabolic assault due to her gender. The devil recognises the gender inequalities between Adam and Eve. Milton writes they are ‘Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed (Paradise Lost Book 4, 296). To appeal to Eve, Satan flatters her by crooning compliments such as ‘Empress of this fair world’ (Paradise Lost Book 9, 567). While Satan’s purpose in tempting Eve is in retaliation against God, here Satan inadvertently begins to present an argument for feminism. I do not believe here Milton’s Satan is outright evil for using their gender inequalities as a tactical advantage. Rather, Milton could never have presented a pro-feminist argument, for this concept simply did not exist within this period. Further, if he explicitly endorsed Satan, Milton could have been subjected to religious persecution by the church and state. To interrogate normativity through the poem, Milton had to be subtle with his words and symbology. 

This subtleness is exemplified when Satan invades Eve’s dream, whereby they gaze upon the tree of knowledge together. They are both witnessing it from the same point of view, subtly elevating Eve’s social status to that of a man. Satan is subconsciously introducing the idea that they can be equals. Milton writes:  

‘Ambrosia; on that tree he also gazed; 
And ‘O fair plant,’ said he, ‘with fruit surcharged, 
Designs none to ease thy load and taste thy sweet, 
Nor god, nor man? Is knowledge so despised?
Or envy, or what reserve forbids to taste?’ (Paradise Lost Book 5, 57-60)

The fruit described on the tree has an overabundance of sweetness; more so it is perfectly designed that way by God. The primal desire to consume the fruit becomes intermingled with God’s repression, and not Satan’s corruption. For how could a good God design such a delectable fruit, and deny his people of it? Satan interrogates why such a God would create a fruit so desirable and intertwine it with the ability to gain all-consuming knowledge. Milton’s Satan is thus not symbolic as an entity of corruption, but of physical and mental nourishment. As Eve is liberated from the uncomfortable sensation of hunger, she is simultaneously liberated socially by gaining access to infinite knowledge that could improve her inferior social position against Adam. I feel Satan has been given an unfair bad rap throughout the centuries. Yet, as explored through the symbology of Paradise Lost, he truly is an anti-hero who endorses the values of feminism. 

[Evangeline Violette-Lecter, she/her, @evangelineemakeup]

[Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro]

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