Fertilis in mortes: Lucan’s Medusa and Milton’s Sin

Joanna Pypłacz


Fertilis in mortes: Lucan’s Medusa and Milton’s Sin

This article attempts to show whether, and if so, to what extent, John Milton’s portrayal of Sin in Paradise Lost is underlain by Lucan’s so-called “Medusa excursus”. Scholars have shown beyond reasonable doubt that Milton’s depiction of Sin alludes to one particular English hypotext, namely Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. However, although the Lucanian character of Milton’s epic is now generally acknowledged, the “Medusa excursus” has, to date, not been considered to be a possible Latin hypotext for Milton’s depiction of Sin.
Leaving aside the indisputable similarities between Spenser’s Error and Milton’s Sin, the author shows that for all their apparent differences, Sin and Medusa actually have much more in common than it would seem at first glance. Firstly, both monsters are allegories of some primeval evil that, having set in motion a never-ending process of destruction, is portrayed as being a deadly, oxymoronic fertility that brings forth death instead of life. The morbid procreative prolificacy of both Medusa and Sin is triggered by a crime, which, once it has violated their bodies, renders them eternally “fertile in death”. While Medusa, having been mutilated by Perseus, posthumously “gives birth” to poisonous snakes, Sin, violated by Satan, literally becomes the mother of Death.
Although it is highly likely that the motif of monstrous fertility has itself been taken directly from Spenser, it would seem that Milton may also have been inspired by Lucan. The name of Cerberus, which is present in Milton and Lucan, but absent in Spenser, is a telling detail. Milton’s depiction of Death, which is described as being shapeless and similar to a substance, brings to mind Medusa’s poisonous blood. The subsequent rape of Sin by Death results in the birth of a pack of infernal dogs. This element also follows the Lucanian pattern of a crime triggering a deadly procreation by a wronged party.
Interestingly, Spenser’s depiction of Error itself contains certain motifs (for example that of “black poison” or that of the killing of a monster by a warrior) that are also present in Lucan’s Medusa excursus. This, together with some possible allusions to Hesiod’s legend of the rape of Medusa, as well as Ovid’s account of Scylla, leads us to conclude that the relationship between the discussed passages of Paradise Lost and their Lucanian and Spenserian hypotexts are quite complex, as they seem to reflect a process of elaborate contamination.
It is shown that Lucan’s depiction of Medusa may also have inspired Spenser himself. The connection between the portrayals of Medusa and Sin is not limited to the seemingly vague and superficial similarities that mainly concern the physical appearance of the two monsters, but is deeply rooted in the moral concept of a crime that triggers a perpetuum mobile of destruction. Although Milton and Spenser both share Lucan’s idea that one wrong leads to the “birth” of innumerable wrongs, only Milton consistently follows this line of thought by providing his monster with horrendous procreative powers that are also eternal and (literally) deadly. Seen against the background of Milton’s familiarity with the work and ideas of the Roman poet, it would seem that all the similarities between Sin and Medusa are far too striking to be attributable to mere coincidence.


Słowa kluczowe: Lucan, Milton, Spenser, Pharsalia, Paradise Lost, The Faerie Queene, Sin, Medusa, Error, fertility, death, serpent

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