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  • Nonnos and Milton’s “vast Typhœan rage”: The Dionysiaca and Paradise Lost
  • George F. Butler

After their meeting in Pandaemonium, Milton’s demons partake in a variety of diversions. While some of the fallen angels joust, compete in athletic events, or engage in philosophical debates,

Others with vast Typhœan rage more fell Rend up both Rocks and Hills, and ride the Air In whirlwind; Hell scarce holds the wild uproar. As when Alcides from Oechalia Crown’d With conquest, felt th’ envenom’d robe, and tore Through pain up by the roots Thessalian Pines, And Lichas from the top of Oeta threw Into th’ Euboic Sea.

(PL 2.539–46) 1

Milton’s “vast Typhœan rage” is most obviously a re ference to Typhoeus or Typhon, a monster from classical mythology who rebelled against Jove and whom Milton had previously mentioned in his comparison of Satan to Briareos, the Titans, and Leviathan (PL 1.199). In their glosses on Paradise Lost 2.539, Milton’s editors have noted that “Typhœan” is likely an allusion to fierce winds, such as those that Milton says the demons ride. Merritt Y. Hughes explains that “The name Typhon or Typhoeus meant ‘whirlwind,’ and the Greek word has influenced the English word ‘typhoon,’ which is of Arabian or Persian origin.” Alastair Fowler notes that “whirlwind” in line 541 “Brings out a mild pun in Typhoean, for ‘typhon,’ besides being a name, was an English word meaning ‘whirlwind.’” And in a similar note on “whirlwind,” Roy Flannagan comments: “There may be a reference to Typhoean as well, since English ‘typhon,’ or more familiarly ‘typhoon,’ was a whirlwind.”2 In focusing on the link between the Typhoean rage of the demons and their whirlwind-like rides, these commentators give little attention to the larger context of “Typhoean,” save for some glosses on Alcides. In doing so, they overlook Nonnos’s epic poem, the Dionysiaca, as one of Milton’s sources for this passage.

The Dionysiaca, written in 48 books of Greek hexameters [End Page 71] by the Byzantine poet Nonnos of Panopolis around AD 500, is the last great classical epic. Though the poem is chiefly a recounting of the exploits of Dionysos and his conquest of India, it is also a storehouse of mythology, like the Metamorphoses, and Nonnos is sometimes compared to Ovid. Some of its myths are told only by Nonnos, and Milton was probably familiar with the poem. The Dionysiaca was available in several Renaissance editions, the first of which appeared in Antwerp in 1569 (Lind xx). Some others which would have been available to Milton include Dionysiaca; nunc denuo in lucem edita, et Latine reddita per Eilhardvm Lvbinvm (Hanover, 1605) and Les Dionysiaques, trad. par C. Boitet (Paris, 1625). Perhaps most significant was the Nonni Panopolitae Dionysiaca. Petri Cvnœi Animadversionvm liber. Danielis Heinsii Dissertatio de Nonni Dionysiacis & cjusde Paraphrasi. Iosephi Scaligeri Coniectanea. Cum vulgata versione, & Gerarti Falkenburgi lectionibus (Hanover, 1610). The involvement of Daniel Heinsius and Joseph Scaliger—two of the most important classical scholars of the Renaissance—testifies to the importance of that work. The Dionysiaca was consulted by mythographers and commented on by literary critics throughout the Renaissance. Castelvetro mentions Nonnos in his 1570 Poetica d’ Aristotele Vulgarizzata et Sposta, where he cites the poem as an example of an epic that relates many events in the life of a hero (88). Conti, in his Mythologiae, which appeared in numerous editions between 1551 and 1669, quotes the Byzantine poet’s explanation of Dionysos’ name (272–73).3 And Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, in his 1645 De religione gentilium, repeats Nonnos’s account of Dionysos talking to a dog (247).4 Nonnos had additional status in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because he was considered a Christian writer of antiquity. He was believed to have composed a hexameter paraphrase of the Gospel of John, though his authorship of that work is now disputed.5 Through his paraphrase, Nonnos became part of the Renaissance grammar school curriculum. In his Certain Epistles of Tully (1611), William Hayne, for example, had listed chapter five of the paraphrase as one of the texts that students should read (Baldwin 1...