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Satan and Raphael: The Significance of Otherworldly Characters in “Paradise Lost”

Satan and Raphael, divine slaves of human temptation

Satan from the epic poem "Paradise Lost", sits in darkness looking directly at the viewer. Painting by Franz von Stuck, "Lucifer", 1890.
“Lucifer” by Franz von Stuck, 1890

Satan and Raphael are two angels that have more in common with humans in “Paradise Lost” than you might think at first glance. John Milton, writes cosmic characters and infuses them with humanity, however the angels in the poem are divine slaves because they are subject not only to the will of God but also to that of human temptation.

I say the angels in “Paradise Lost” are divine slaves of human temptation. This means that they are compelled to serve the human desire for knowledge and power, even if it goes against the will of God.

I want to emphasize the versatility of characters like the angels, Satan, and Raphael in literature. Since these characters are not human, they can be used in a variety of stories without ever feeling out of place. The unique qualities and traits of these characters offer a “rich and dense cluster of topics” that can be explored and used in different ways, making them valuable to writers and storytellers (Raymond, 142).

"St. Michael" by Luca Giordano, 1663. The war in the heavens between angels in "Paradise Lost" shows the characters of Michael and Satan in combat.
“St. Michael” by Luca Giordano, 1663

I am trying to highlight the complex nature of the characters in “Paradise Lost,” particularly the angels, Satan and Raphael. By acknowledging their divine status and the unique rules by which they operate, I suggest that readers can gain a deeper understanding of the poem and its themes.

Milton’s angels are not human characters

On Satan

Satan does as angels do, he sees as angels see, he moves as angels move. He may be near omnipotent, second only to God, but he still struggles with decisions.

I suggest that Satan, despite his power and near-omnipotence, is still subject to the same struggles and decisions as other angels. Even after he has been expelled from heaven.

As a character Satan is a conscious being with a range of feelings and experiences. He is a conscious being who feels the pull of gravity, he feels the heat of the sun when he flies across the endless void of space, he feels jealousy of The Son of God and of Adam and Eve. For all intents and purposes, Satan is a very well rounded character! His feelings and his suffering are integral to the plot of “Paradise Lost.” His actions towards Adam and Eve are driven in part by the jealousy he feels towards them as the newly created beings that have taken his place in Eden. When Satan arrives in the Garden of Eden and sees Adam and Eve for the first time. He is struck by their beauty and innocence, and he experiences envy and despair because they possess something that he has lost forever, as described in book 4.

"O Hell! what doe mine eyes with grief behold,
Into our room of bliss thus high advanc't
Creatures of other mould, earth-born perhaps, [360]
Not Spirits, yet to heav'nly Spirits bright
Little inferior; whom my thoughts pursue
With wonder, and could love, so lively shines
In them Divine resemblance, and such grace
The hand that formd them on thir shape hath pourd. [365]"

"Paradise Lost" Book 4, lines 358-365, 1667
The character of Satan from "Paradise Lost" observes Adam and Eve for the first time in book 4.
Satan contemplates Adam and Eve, Book 4

On Raphael

As a character, Raphael is also portrayed as a conscious being with human-like experiences. When he visits Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he partakes in their hospitality and eats the fruit they offer him. Milton describes how Raphael eats the earthly fruits offered by Adam:

"Inhabitant with God, now know I well
Thy favour, in this honour done to man,
Under whose lowly roof thou hast voutsaf't
To enter, and these earthly fruits to taste,
Food not of Angels, yet accepted so, [ 465 ]
As that more willingly thou couldst not seem
At Heav'n's high feasts to have fed: yet what compare?"

"Paradise Lost" Book 5, lines 461-467, 1667

The passage above shows that Raphael experiences the taste and scent of food, much like a human would. It also emphasizes his celestial nature, as he is able to eat fruits that are not found on Earth and have a unique flavor and aroma. Raphael’s enjoyment of the food he eats with Adam and Eve shows that he is not just an angelic messenger but also a character with a sense of pleasure and enjoyment.

The character of the archangel Raphael converses with Adam and Eve during book 5 of "Paradise Lost."
The archangel Raphael converses with Adam and Eve

However, I also caution readers not to make the mistake of treating the angels in the poem as if they are human characters.

Because “to treat this angels as human characters, and to apply to them modes of character criticism associated with nineteenth-century novels, in which stories are translated into ethical guides to conduct, is to miss the interesting twist” (Raymond, 139).

In other words, by reading the angels as humanlike characters, readers are ignoring the gap that exists between angels and humans.

Don’t forget that angels are ANOTHER type of being and should be read as such. They are not human and never will be. Satan’s actions cannot be translated to human equivalents! Understanding the unique nature of the angels in the poem is key to understanding the themes and messages of “Paradise Lost.”

The angel character of Satan in "Paradise Lost" walks through the garden of Eden after escaping hell.
Satan walks through the Garden of Eden. Engraving.

The Historical Context of Angels in Paradise Lost

I want to highlight the historical context in which John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost,” specifically with regard to the popular fascination with angels at the time.

The church had incorporated many non-scriptural doctrines into its teachings about angels, which had led to a great deal of confusion and disagreement among religious writers and thinkers. 

Protestants outright rejected the central doctrines of “Roman Catholic angelology” and sought to distance themselves from them, which included the following points:

  1. Individual guardian angels
  2. Pseudo-Dyonisian hierarchies
  3. The efficacy and legitimacy of prayers to and invocation of angels
  4. The insight of angels into human souls and thoughts
  5. The intercession (intervention) of angels and the fact that they appear in front of humans (Raymond, 141). Protestants thought that angels stopped appearing in front of humans after the Apostolic age.

John Milton, in writing “Paradise Lost,” was able to draw on this fascination with angels while also creating his own interpretation of these celestial beings. On that note, I suggest that Milton’s depiction of angels in the poem can be seen as a form of science fiction, as he created his own universe with its own rules and limitations for these divine beings. Overall, I’m highlighting the complex and varied ways in which angels were understood and depicted in the historical context in which “Paradise Lost” was written.

The character of the angel Michael watches over the fallen angels of the poem en "Paradise Lost."
The archangel Michael and his troops

John Milton’s portrayal of Satan and Raphael in “Paradise Lost” reflects the confusion surrounding the nature and role of angels during his time. The Protestant Reformation challenged the non-scriptural doctrines surrounding angels and their hierarchy, leaving a gap in the understanding of these celestial beings. In this context, Milton’s portrayal of the angels is strikingly human, as he attempts to answer these unresolved questions about their creation, purpose, and abilities. He delves into the concepts of free will, individual names, and the physical and sensory experiences of angels, offering a new perspective on these enigmatic beings. Through his imaginative portrayal of the angels, Milton adds to the rich and diverse cluster of topics surrounding these celestial beings, which were so popular in his time. (Raymond, 141).

In essence, the angels in “Paradise Lost” are crucial characters that serve to highlight the complexities of the universe created by John Milton. Through the characters of Satan and Raphael, Milton explores the limitations and experiences of these divine beings, giving readers a glimpse into their otherworldly existence. However, it is through their otherness that we can truly appreciate the uniqueness of Adam and Eve, the first humans, and their place in this vast universe. As such, the angels’ role in the story is not just to serve as interesting characters, but to further the themes and messages of the poem. Milton’s creation of his own angels with their own powers and limitations shows how he grappled with the historical context of angels in his time, and his exploration of their otherness and limitations emphasizes the divine nature of Adam and Eve. In Paradise Lost, the angels’ otherness is not just a feature, but a crucial element in understanding the complexities of the universe and the divine beings that inhabit it.

Satan, the character from "Paradise Lost"


Raymond, Joad. “Milton’s Angels.” The Cambridge Companion to Paradise Lost, edited by Louis Schwartz, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. <138-151>.

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