Dionysius the Areopagite, named in the book of “Acts” as one of those Athenians who believed when they heard Paul preach on Mars Hill, comes down to the modern age as one of the examples of early Christianity’s triumph over pagan religion. The history of the dissolution and eventual abrogation of pagan religion is readily traced in the writings of Arnobius of Sicca,1 St. Augustine, and later, the writings of the Ecclesiastics throughout the Middle Ages. If the accounts in the “Gospels” are taken to be records of historical fact, the true advent of Christianity is marked by the nativity of Christ, and the later polemics stand as mere publicity rather than documents forging the birth of the new religion as such. At the scene of the nativity, then, the gods, rites, and indeed the entire edifice of pagan religion cease to have cosmological validity, even if its gods and rites continued for some time afterward to be observed.
The pagan cult of nature, which included deified elements, and heavenly bodies, are shown in Milton’s “Hymn” to be mere servants that attend the infant Christ’s nativity “Untill their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go” (76).2 It is worth noting that the news of what “now begins,” viz., the accession of Christ to the seat of His earthly kingdom, is, in Milton’s poem, not first heard in the Near East, but in Greece. The priests and oracles at Delphi are now mute prophets, and both Apollo and the crowd of woodland nymphs alike shriek, weep, lament, and sigh as their shrines, groves, and temples are profaned and made worthless at a stroke (cf. stanzas XVIII-XXI). Next, the deities of the Near East, Peor, Baalim, Ashtaroth, and the rest, “Forsake their Temples dim” (198) and flee away. Likewise, the “brutish gods of Nile,” Isis, Orus, Anubis and Osirus, are put to flight at the advent of the Incarnation. “The dredded Infants hand” (222) passes the final sentence over them all, and the “flocking shadows pale” retire “to th’infernall jail” or “several grave” (33-35). The reverse-apotheosis is complete; the worship of the pantheon, even if prolonged in history, is hollow; the prayers, offerings, and rituals nullified; and the immortal nature of the gods extinguished by “The rayes of Bethlehem” (223).
Milton’s “Hymn” depicts a downward ontological movement: Christ assumes the form of man and comes into the world of time and space from the timeless, ethereal region of heaven; and the pagan divinities of the air and the earth go down into “th’infernall jail,” or a kind of earthly hell. The dismantling of divinity in Milton’s poem, and his vision of the gods of antiquity processing from the seat of immortality to assume a shadowy, tenuous existence, indicates that the high gods are now little better than mortal men, suspended between the poles of being and non-being. The “infernall jail,” like unto a living grave, is precisely the terms by which mortality is shaped, whether it is the body-imprisoned soul of man, or the changeless, deathless gods imprisoned in a mutable world of ceaseless change. An ontological shift occurs in the god’s nature as such; and man’s understanding of himself and his relation to the divine consequently undergoes a profound transformation to match. The “infernall jail” to which the gods are condemned by the infant Christ can be interpreted in a Christian context to be the world itself, which is fallen from a sinless, perfect state to one “Pollute with sinful blame” (41), and full of “foul deformities” (44); or in other words, the dwelling of fallen humanity.
In his prose work entitled The Gods in Exile, Heinrich Heine collects specimens from Medieval lore that tell of what became of the Greek and Roman gods after “Christianity achieved supreme control of the world.”3 Prior to beginning the fable of Apollo, Heine notes that
The superstition of the people ascribed to those gods a real but cursed existence, coinciding entirely in this respect with the teaching of the Church. The latter by no means declared those ancient gods to be myths, inventions of falsehood and error, as did the philosophers, but held them to be evil spirits, who, through the victory of Christ, had been hurled from the summit of their power, and now dragged along their miserable existences in the obscurity of dismantled temples or in enchanted groves… [and] when the true Lord of the universe planted the banner of the cross on the heavenly heights, and those iconoclastic zealots, the black band of monks, hunted down the gods with fire and malediction and razed their temples, then these unfortunate heathen divinities were… compelled to take flight, seeking safety under the most varied disguises and in the most retired hiding places. Under these circumstances several, whose shrines had been confiscated, became wood-choppers and day-laborers in Germany, and were compelled to drink beer instead of nectar.4
The exile of the gods, as a recurrent theme in literature, is a kind of fabula mundi, and necessarily of interest as a profound metaphor, or rather, a meta-theme, that does the work of interpreting the vast undercurrent of the history of the overthrow of pagan religion by Christianity. Milton’s “Hymn” strikes the modern reader as something of a late footnote to the history of the overthrow of one religious myth for another, and in Milton’s poem, as in Heine’s fantasy, the backward glance comes at two respective points in history when the threat of foreign gods to the rule of Christian culture was at best benign, if not comical as Rabelais’ topsy-turvy vision of hell was provincial. It might also be observed that such backward glances occur, or become necessary in times of extraordinary cultural or personal individual change. When previous paradigms shift or are transformed of necessity by cultural or natural forces, there are those whose perceptions of the world remain firmly rooted in the previous order, while others, presumably at odds with the reigning order of ideas and concepts, affect or embrace the arrival of foreign ideas or concepts. The whole prosaic task of organizing, sorting, and classifying into a system the mass of material that comprised previous cultural identities becomes very important, as previous cultures rarely ever vanish without leaving their imprint on the cognitive modes and daily practical habits of their successors. Both the “Hymn” of Milton, and the Gods in Exile of Heine are late illustrations of the recurring task of assimilating the pagan religious order in Europe. No cultural paradigm shift is ever self-sustaining or immutable, but requires immense labour and constant patching-up in order for it to remain culturally relevant or viable. As late as the 19th century, thinkers and artists at odds with Christianity, like Heine, were still craning their necks backwards in order to catch a glimpse of the “golden age” of pagan antiquity, and futilely attempting to imbibe something from the days before men came noticeably under the watch of the good shepherd and his magisterium.
A.C. Swinburne, who was a contemporary of Heine in the world of letters, is another example of this species of jealous glorification of the first-born pagan religion over the terrible child Christianity. Swinburne’s poem, “Hymn to Proserpine,” 5 published in 1866, elucidates the remoteness of Christianity’s triumph over the gods of antiquity in the same way as Milton’s “Hymn,” and Heine’s The Gods in Exile, but from the opposite perspective. In Swinburne’s poem, the speaker, who is an unnamed follower of the Roman goddess Proserpine, observes the passing of his religion, and the accession of the new gods marked “by the proclamation in Rome of the Christian faith.” As the setting in Swinburne’s poem makes clear, the speaker witnessing his “Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day,” (13) is the last representative, the sole remaining adherent to the religion of the pagan divinities. Rather than address his plea to a warlike god, the speaker in the poem calls upon the goddess of sleep, and of the underworld, and begs for the tranquility of death, for safe passage out of a world no longer recognizable— a world presided over by the eccentric promises of the Galilean:
Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean?…
More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?
Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.
A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?
For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.
And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:
Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?
Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fulness of death.
Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;
But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.
Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end;
For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend. (23-40)
Milton’s “Hymn,” on the other hand, although confusing in the order of events and the time in which events occur, is apparently narrated by one present at the nativity of Christ. The narrator is seemingly omniscient, and views events of the past, present, and future indifferently. In any case, the narrator of the poem observes first-hand the infant Christ “wrapt in the rude manger” (3), recognizes and believes in the Incarnation, and foresees the plan for man’s redemption, even while the Redeemer is perceived to be yet a babe. This witness, then, can accordingly be hypothesized as the first Christian, the first believer in Christ. The dichotomy set up by juxtaposing the respective speakers in Milton’s “Hymn” and Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” is of interest on account of the personal reaction to cultural forces that are either at odds or in agreement with their beliefs and desires; but in any case, beyond their control. Both Milton and Swinburne’s poems address the exigencies of religion as a cultural phenomenon, and one that all men at once have a part in the creation and preservation of, and yet are subservient to its demands. Heine’s The Gods in Exile is a record not only of the myths that sprang up in the wake of the demise of paganism, but also of the long-forgotten fortunes of the many adherents once devoted to the “heathen gods.” Mythology, whether Christian or pagan, serves to illustrate how remote a thing is man’s own history from himself. Gods once worshiped as severe and mighty are burlesqued in Milton’s “Hymn” and Heine’s essay, and Swinburne teaches a valuable lesson in cultural alienation by putting into the mouth of his speaker a bitter lament for the riches of bygone days, and disdain for the sterility of all things new and untried of time.
1 Cf., The Case Against the Pagans.
2 John Milton, The Poetical Works f John Milton, edited by the Rev. H. C. Beeching, M.A. (Oxford University Press, New York, 1935). All line and stanza numbers in reference to Milton’s “Hymn” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.
3 Heinrich Heine, The prose Writings of Heinrich Heine, edited by Havelock Ellis (Walter Scott Ltd., London, 1892), p. 268.
4 Heine, pp. 268-69. Brackets mine.
5 A.C. Swinburne, The Poetical Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne (John Williams, New York, 1910), p. 25. All line and stanza numbers in reference to Swinburne’s “Hymn to Proserpine” are given in parenthetical citation in the body of the text.