The Unholy Trinity: Satan, Sin, and Death in Milton’s Paradise Lost

Satan, Sin and Death, engraved by Thomas Rowlandson and John Ogbourne after T00790 1792 by William Hogarth 1697-1764

Satan, Sin, and Death represent a perversion of the Holy Trinity in Milton’s Paradise Lost, working as ideological opposites both in terms of how they are portrayed and in their moral characters when compared to their divine counterparts. Each character exists as an inversion of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, respectively, and their antitheses of the celestial deities work to reinforce allegories Milton illustrates about goodness and the triumph over evil. Furthermore, he pays homage to earlier literary traditions in his depictions of these characters and their actions, albeit through his own interpretations, and strengthens the moral of their story by hinting at earlier myths and tales into his interpretation of the Unholy Trinity.

To understand its inversion, we first have to take a look at the Holy Trinity. Comprised of God (or the Father), the Son, and the Holy Spirit (which plays more of a metaphorical part in Paradise Lost than a literal one), the Holy Trinity becomes a sum of its parts to embody the wholly positive. God is assured by his omnipotence, the Son is an outpouring of altruism, and the ever-present Holy Spirit is both the infinite life that drives existence and the manifestation of love between Father and Son. Together they comprise the foundation for both the positivity and the goodness that Satan and his inverted trinity stand in opposition to. And where the Holy Trinity is defined by balance, the Unholy Trinity is defined by abnormality—this is a dysfunctional family if ever there was one.

According to Saint Augustine, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity attempts to “describe the relationships among the three Persons of the Trinity in terms of human analogy” (White 338). The meaning of each is interrelated with one another. The Son represents the wisdom or word of the Father, while the Holy Spirit exists as the personification of the love between the two of them. In the simplest analogy, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are, respectively, the mind, self-knowledge, and self-love (White 338). Milton’s Unholy Trinity, then, is a kind of bastardization of Augustine’s analogy, representing qualities like pride, impulsiveness, and lustfulness.

The roots of this infernal threesome can be traced back directly to Satan’s hubris. With all of Heaven assembled, God announces his Son to be the ruler at his side over all others, and Satan “…could not bear through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired” (V. 664-5). With Satan’s pride wounded by the news, we witness a physical transformation of his character when he gives birth, in a way, to Sin:

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 countnance bright,

Then shining heav’nly fair, a goddess armed

Out of thy head I sprang…

(II.752-8; emphasis mine)

Satan, prideful and scorned by the realization of being named lesser than this new addition to the heavenly ranks, transmogrifies that pride into a physical being. Once Sin exists, not only as a person but also as a concept, Satan’s character changes dramatically, and “deep malice thence conceiving” he begins his plans of rebellion (V. 666). All it takes is for Satan to have the idea of sin for Sin herself to be made manifest. The concept of sin had not yet existed until this point, because no other heavenly entity had cause to feel slighted—each was part of God’s plan and trusted in that omnipotence. Satan’s pride, which both allowed him the thought to feel superior to the Son and the resistance to trust in God’s will opened the gate for the concept of sin (and the character of Sin) to come into being.

John Mulryan draws parallels between Satan giving “birth” to Sin and Jupiter (Zeus) likewise creating Minerva (Athena), with obvious distinctions. For one, many scholars neglect to cite that “Pallas is actually born from her mother Metis, who had been swallowed up by Jupiter”, whereas Milton’s Satan is “…self-impregnated, or self-raped, making love to himself and then to his daughter, the product of his incestuous mind. In fact the birth is a form of self-abuse” (Mulryan 17-8). This idea of self-abuse is also a inversion of one of the Holy Trinity’s Augustinian human analogies—self-love.

There is also the important distinction to note that Athena/Minerva represented wisdom, but where there is Sin “there is only darkness and ignorance” (Mulryan 18). Where God is an all-knowing, omnipotent creator full of infinite stratagems, Satan is ignorant of his own self and the Sin lurking within it. Milton is hinting at the dangers of ignorance, especially in relation to one’s own being, and subsequently, through God and the Holy Trinity, seems to be advocating the old maxim “Know thyself”.

Milton drew from literary antiquity in his design of Satan. His dark protagonist is “invested with the martial valor of the classical epic heroes whom Milton admired” (Hopkins 25). Satan is a defiant republican, and leaves an especially strong impression in the poem next to the “self-defensive God” and its “fragile, vulnerable human characters” (Hopkins 25). Cleverly, Milton also rigs Satan’s speech with “his sense of how the fine sentiments of republican polemic could so easily slide into an advocacy of the very kind of monarchical tyranny that it was designed to challenge”, and this is one of the reasons Satan in the early books is so appealing to the reader (Hopkins 28). His passion sounds inspiring when presented through Milton’s blank verse and Satan’s soliloquies, but his arguments unravel as the story goes on.

Indeed, Satan’s rebellion against his subjugation to God goes against the idea of a harmonious hierarchy presented in the poem. The universe in Paradise Lost is one comprised of different levels, higher and lower orders of different distinctions that, despite inequalities, exist nonetheless without oppression or resentment—in fact, “the ‘lower’ party is seen as realizing its own potential life more fully and perfectly because of its subordination” (Hopkins 29, emphasis original). Paradoxically, in rebelling against subjugation, Satan finds himself with a wealth of subjects when a third of Heaven takes up with him, but he is no true leader in a comparative sense to God. It’s Abdiel in Book VI who makes this clear in his statement:

Unjustly thou deprav’st it with the name

Of servitude to serve whom God ordains,

Or nature; God and nature bid the same,

When he who rules is worthiest, and excels

Them who governs. This is servitude,

To serve th’ unwise, or him who hath rebelled

Against his worthier, as thine now serve thee,

Thyself not free, but to thyself enthralled;


Satan is not the worthiest of rule, he is not the best to lead these angels—he is a tyrant following his own will, his own passions whom these others have fallen in with. And this is his ultimate downfall, as Satan is constantly consumed and sabotaged by his pride and arrogance. These truths are often masked in his early soliloquies by a kind of tragic overcoat reminiscent of characters like Hamlet, making him both sympathetic to the reader and “keep[ing] open the possibility that Satan just might, even now, repent, while we know simultaneously and paradoxically, that he will not” (Hopkins 32). He is so steadfast in his denial of the divine and natural order of Milton’s universe that “he can never know hope, ease, tranquility, joy or relations—other than those of domination or perverted lust—with anything or anybody beyond himself” (Hopkins 33). And here is another important aspect of the perversion of the divine—God, who knows himself completely (harking back again to Augustine’s idea of God representative of the “mind”), recognizes “His perfect goodness and loves Himself”, while Satan’s self-love comes from a mixture of arrogance and self-ignorance (White 339). Satan’s love for himself does not stem from the fact that he knows he is righteous, but that he feels entitled above all others.

The Son and the Holy Spirit are aspects of God in the Holy trinity, stemming from God’s self-knowledge and subsequently his pure self-love. Sin and Death are likewise aspects that are begotten from Satan, but inversely from his self-ignorance and self-abuse. Firstly, the birth of Sin must be examined to begin to understand the depths of this inversion, and to fully grasp the subtleties alluding to this ignorance and abuse with which Milton infused her creation.

Milton compiled many sources to create his version of Sin, but while scholars tend to want to follow the literary breadcrumbs back to her origins, Milton also deviated quite drastically from many of the more popular stories often quoted as influencing his version of the character. Most obviously central in her creation is the myth of Athena and her subsequent birth from Zeus’s forehead via a headache. Sin too is born from Satan’s own headache, though what is most notable is the fact that she comes from the left side of Satan’s head—“…thy head flames thick and fast/Threw forth, till on the left side op’ning wide,” (II.754-5).

This left side, historically, had always been associated with otherness—“The child emerges from the left or sinister side of his head” (Mulryan 18; emphasis mine). In fact the origin of the word “left” comes from the Old English lyft, which means “weak, foolish”, and the word “sinister” itself comes from the Latin for “left”, which is where the unfavorable connotation originates (Online Etymology Dictionary). The term “unlucky” is also used in sinister’s archaic definition (Merriam-Webster). These connotations are also present in a historically demeaning attitude towards those born left-handed, who were often thought of as unlucky or ostracized for their “otherness”. Milton therefore subtly tweaks the well-known myth of Athena by adding this small but important detail about the left side of the head, indicating Sin’s birth from a place of unlucky weakness.

In drawing from literary sources, Milton also borrowed from Spenser’s Errour and the Greek Scylla, but again with important distinctions. Firstly, where Spenser’s Errour might somewhat resemble Sin’s eventual deformed shape, a half-woman half-serpant with a “mortal sting”, the greatest difference here is that Sin was once a being described as “heaven’ly fair”, whereas Errour is assumed to have always been the monstrous creature she is described as when the knight meets her (Martin 1). Likewise, Errour’s brood are described as “Her cursed fruitful spawn of serpants small”, where Sin’s are whelping devil dogs that are a part of her and “kennel” inside of her womb (Martin 1). And where Sin might bear some resemblance to the Greek Scylla, Scylla is an “innocent victim of a love triangle gone wrong”, where Sin’s sufferings “are clearly related to the Christian condemnation of concupiscence, not abstinence” (Martin 2). But where scholars have often looked to antiquity to tease out Milton’s sources, his own version of Sin as “a figure of fallen and fertile if finally abortive procreat[or]” seems most apt to have come from Francis Bacon:

For like Sin’s fatal allure, the attractions of Bacon’s Scylla represent not the destructive temptations of lust of false religion in particular, but the broader and more dangerous enticement of idolatrous, superstitious, and self-serving knowledge in general. Thus in either case, succumbing to this seductress’s illusionary charms means not just indulging in ‘unprofitable subtility or curiousity’ (Works 3: 286), but also in an empty, sterile, and ultimately self-destructive form of ‘knowing’ in the complex biblical sense of the word. (Martin 3, emphasis mine)

Sin therefore represents a dangerous kind of knowledge unlocked by way of circumventing God, a kind of curiosity-killed-the-cat type of danger that comes from straying from the path God has created for existence (i.e., following the urge of a “sin”), whereas the Son represents the same kind of hidden knowledge to be gained by way through the path of God, and as such he is an allegorical positive. Both lead to an awakening, but the knowledge Sin unlocks brings with it suffering and punishment, where God’s knowledge promises rewards and fulfillment. This is at the heart of Sin and the Son’s allegorical inversion.

Since he is the ultimate narcissist, Satan creates both a sympathizer and a catalyst for his actions when he births Sin—she is the embodiment of his all prideful motivations (since her very being is the physical extension of Satan’s scorn against God). Her existence, therefore, further supports his conflict with God, making her immensely attractive to him, and so he lusts after and impregnates her. It’s Sin’s creation, too, that solidifies Satan’s place as God’s opponent. Until this moment he was still at least a reluctant participant in God’s choir of angels, but from her birth forward he has a new course towards his rebellion.

Much in the same way that when Adam and Eve are first exposed to sinful knowledge they run off to ravish one another in “the solace of thir sin”, Satan’s first instinct is also lust towards Sin (IV. 1044). But his attraction is made doubly strong by the fact that Sin is also a part of him, and here is where the love between God and the Son is perverted by having it turned into an incestuous relationship. In this way Satan’s able to take a pain inflicted on him by God and alter it into a form of self-pleasure, while paradoxically also making it a form of self-abuse (since he is both making love to a part of himself and committing rape against his “daughter”).

It’s in Book II, when Satan is attempting to leave Hell and first meets Sin and Death together that we’re first directly introduced to the Unholy Trinity altogether proper, and it’s this encounter that offers the most insight into the inversion of the Trinity, given Milton’s clues about how they interact with one another. First, Satan nearly comes to blows with Death, whom he arrogantly challenges at the gates of Hell:

Whence and what art thou, execrable shape,

That dar’st, though grim and terrible, advance

Thy miscreated front athwart my way

To yonder gates?

(II. 681-4; emphasis mine)

It’s important to note the use of the word “shape” in this passage, because it alludes to Death’s relationship with the Holy Spirit, which is also a non-substantive being or force. Before the two attack one another, Sin intervenes, but there’s a peculiar moment where Satan has to be reminded of who Sin is specifically, when she asks “Hast thou forgot me then[?]” (II. 747). In Milton’s juxtaposition of the divine and infernal trinities, it’s as if he is implying that Satan’s very hubris has somehow clouded his memory, whereas God’s omnipotence would have never allowed for such a mental slip. This seems notable, because in and of itself it illustrates that Satan is singularly minded, and so centered on his own devices that he has forgotten the very existence of his offspring.

The standoff itself between Satan and Death is telling as well. Where the Son and God are communicative, loving, and nearly equal in stature and regality, Satan and Death are immediately at odds with one another, threatened by the other’s existence and ready to kill one another at a moment’s notice—both notably out of a prideful arrogance. Satan feels this shade has no business blocking his path, and Death is driven to take the life from every being he comes across. Both are predisposed to dominate.

In addition, the way Death speaks to Satan is in direct opposition to the way the Son speaks to God. The Son, who is picturesque in his loving demeanor towards his father, is described as:

Most glorious, in him all his Father shone

Substantially expressed, and in his face

Divine compassion visibly appeared,

Love without end, and without measure grace,

Which uttering thus he to his Father spake.

(III. 139-43)

While inversely, Death begins by calling his father “that traitor angel”, then further slights him by naming himself the king of Hell, and ends by threatening him to leave “lest with a whip of scorpions I pursue thy ling’ring, or with one stroke of this dart strange horror seize thee, and pangs unfelt before” (II. 689-703). All of this only enrages Satan more, and illustrates that the relationships between Satan & Death and God & the Son are polar opposites.

But Death, more aptly, is the inversion of the Holy Spirit, who while not figuring specifically in the poem is representational of both the love between God and the Son and the eternal life within all things (i.e., the Holy Spirit as “The Giver of Life”). In the way that the Holy Spirit brings life to all Godly things, Death inversely exists to remove that life. Both also share the quality of formlessness, as the Holy Spirit is the intangible aspect of the Holy Trinity, and Death is an “execrable shape” (II.681). And where the Holy Spirit is also a product of the bond and love between the Father and Son, Death is a product of the incestuous rape between Satan and his self-begotten offspring—the very perversion of that love the Holy Spirit embodies. This reversal is further emphasized by the gruesome transformation Death causes in his mother during his birth, and especially in his own subsequent rape of Sin, resulting in the mewling hellhounds that torment her endlessly. This is about as far away from the “love without end” between God and Son that one could get.

Only after finding out that Sin and Death are his offspring does Satan change his tune with them—after Sin tells him who she is, but more importantly when she reveals what she is charged with keeping hold of:

Driv’n headlong from the pitch of Heav’n, down

Into this deep, and in the general fall

I also; at which time this powerful key

Into my hand was giv’n, with charge to keep

These gates forever shut, which none can pass

Without my op’ning.

(II. 772-7)

He answers “smooth”, i.e., manipulating them, calling them “dear daughter” and “fair son” where only a moment before he was repulsed by them and ready to fight, now Satan “his lore soon learned” (II. 816-18). Once he discovers that Sin’s key—and her choice to use it—is the only way out of Hell, he completely changes tactics to try and win her and Death over with promises of rewards on Earth:

I come no enemy, but to set free

From out this dark and dismal house of pain,

Both him and thee, and all the heav’nly host

…And bring ye to the place where thou and Death

Shall dwell at ease, and up and down unseen

Wing silently the buxom air, embalmed

With odors; there ye shall be fed and filled

Immeasurably, all things shall be your prey.


Where one of the key elements between the three figures in the Holy Trinity is love, with the Unholy Trinity it is lies. Satan lies to himself about the Son, feeling him inadequate when in actuality he is “fraught with envy against the Son of God” (V.661-2). It is Satan who feels inadequate, but his ego buries this truth under his consciousness until he becomes ignorant of it. And it’s ignorance that plays the largest and most detrimental role in the Unholy Trinity.

If God is the mind and all the positive knowledge it represents, then Satan has chosen to veer from that path by rebelling against him, and in doing so he rebels against God’s logic with his ignorance. The extension of that ignorance takes a cognizant form in Sin, where the extension of God’s knowledge (or self-knowledge) begets the Son, and the perverse love (or self-abuse) between Satan and Sin gives birth to Death, the nihilistic inversion of the Holy Spirit. Superficially, this Unholy Trinity creates a balance with the Holy Trinity, but in reality Milton has given us a clear moral loser in Satan and his family. The Unholy Trinity exist to reinforce the argument that the path to true knowledge comes from trusting in the will of God, exemplifying what happens when self-centered motivations are pursued in lieu of altruistic ones. Most importantly, Milton’s Unholy Trinity brings a greater depth and weight to the positivity inherent in the Holy Trinity, reinforces the Augustinian analogies thereof, and leaves the reader with a foreboding message about the nature of sin and evil.


Works Cited

Hopkins, David. Reading Paradise Lost. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.

“Left”. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2014. Web. 12 May 2014.

Martin, Catherine Gimelli. “The Sources of Milton’s Sin Reconsidered”. Milton Quarterly 35.1 (2001): 1-8. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1943-2175. Print.

Mulryan, Paul. “Satan’s Headache: The Perils and Pains of Giving Birth to a Bad Idea”. Milton Quarterly 39.1 (2005): 16-22. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

“Sinister.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 12 May 2014.

“Sinister”. Online Etymology Dictionary. 2014. Web. 12 May 2014.

White, Robert B. “Allegory of Sin and Death: A Comment on Backgrounds”. Modern Philology, Vol. 70, No. 4 (May, 1973), pp. 337-341. Web. 6 Feb 2014.


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