by Paula R. Stiles
[Supernatural season five starts tonight at 9 on the CW. Some spoilers for season four below. Obviously.]
The Supernatural writers have often mentioned that they have used various sources for their episodes, especially for creating MOTWs. However, they have explicitly mentioned two sources that they have been using for seasons four and five. For season four, show creator Eric Kripke stated that they were doing “The Book of Revelation” (c.96 CE). For season five, he has said that they were doing Paradise Lost(1667) and, from the look of things, probably its sequel, Paradise Regained (1671). Other stories, like the ancient Jewish apocalyptic The Book of Enoch (c.200 BCE), have also been mentioned, but these two are the biggies for seasons four and five.
So, what are these books and why use them as source material?
Let’s start with Paradise Lost. It was written by John Milton, a Puritan Englishman, after he had gone blind. This epic poem is, at its heart, two stories at once, both of them about a fall from Paradise. In Plot A (not introduced immediately), Adam and Eve are thrown out of the Garden of Eden after Eve and then Adam eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and lose their innocence.
In Plot B (introduced at the beginning of the poem in its aftermath and later told in flashback), the Archangel Lucifer (called “Satan” after his fall) starts a rebellion in Heaven, is defeated, and is cast down to Hell (called by the Ancient Greek name “Tartarus” in the story). Lucifer’s sin is jealousy of Christ, who was born to God and then set above the angels for them to worship as their new lord. Lucifer refused to do this, feeling Christ was an upstart, and drew away a third of Heaven’s angels in a revolt. Despite coming up with some clever war machines, he and his host were defeated on the third day of battle when Christ rode out, all by himself, and drove Satan’s entire army out of Heaven, though not before the Archangel Michael sliced up Lucifer (this becomes important in Supernatural).
Locked in Tartarus, Satan rallies his unhappy army (who are already changing from their previously angelic appearances to more outwardly demonic forms). They hold a congress and decide to send someone up to the new created Paradise of God’s, “Earth” and tempt his latest children, humans. No one is willing to go, so Satan boldly volunteers. This turns out to be fortunate because the gate to Hell just happens to be guarded by his daughter, Sin, and their son, Death (yep, Satan is the “baby daddy” of Death in this one). They let him through and make a road after him as he forges through the wild universe of Chaos up to Earth. There, he gets caught tempting Eve with dreams and sent packing. That doesn’t stop him from catching up with her later and tempting her to take that first, fatal bite. He arrives back in Tartarus, triumphant, but he and his minions are turned into serpents as punishment for corrupting Eve.
God and his angels aren’t exactly unaware of Satan’s plan. God foresees the whole thing, but lets it all roll along because…well…he’s kind of a jerk in this story. He feels that Adam and Eve have free will and should be allowed to fall if that’s what they insist on doing. In a mirror to the roll call for volunteers down in Tartarus to go find Earth (and you thought Battlestar Galactica invented that plot – ha), God asks for volunteers to save future humans from their ancestors’ poor decision-making (after a suitable interval of a few thousand years of misery, of course). Predictably, none of the supposedly holier-than-thou angels speak up. So, Christ (here being set up as an obvious foil to Lucifer) volunteers. And God, being the cheerful sadist that he is in this poem, thinks that’s a capital idea.
The Book of Revelation
This brings us to “The Book of Revelation”, AKA, “The Revelation to John”. In its original version, the word now translated as “Revelation” was the Greek word for “apocalypse”, so that gives you an idea of where this baby is headed in Plot Land. The last book of the Bible, “Revelation” is a highly-disturbing and metaphorical book that is too-frequently taken at face value when it only really makes sense when put in its proper historical context. That historical context would be a massive persecution of early Christians under Domitian around 81 C.E., about fifty years after Christ’s death.
It’s written as a combination dream/letter. The author, John of Patmos, is considered by some to also be the author of the “Gospel of St. John”, the fourth gospel in the New Testament. He is writing a letter about a prophetic dream/vision about the immediate future to seven “churches” (what they called an early-Christian community in a city-state) and their respective “angels”. He is warning them about an upcoming period of trial, in which their faith will be tested heavily.
John has a vision of Christ as the Second Coming in Heaven. Forget the blonde, blue-eyed best friend of your family bible or the hippy dude of popular Jesus tales like Godspell. This guy is scary. He is, easily, the scariest figure in the entire book, even in the entire Bible. He’s described this way in Rev. 1:13-17:
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last…
Near the end (Rev. 22:13), Christ says about himself: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” As Johnny Cash puts it in “The Man Comes Around”: “It’s Alpha and Omega’s Kingdom Come.”
Christ as the Second Coming is often not referred to by any name in “Revelation”, but when he is, he’s usually called “The Lamb”. As the Lamb, he opens the First Seal and releases one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse: War. Angels open five more seals, releasing Famine, Pestilence and Death, among other nasty things. The Lamb opens the last seal and there is “silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” [Rev. 8:1]
Angels then sound seven trumpets, killing a third of the world and bringing out floods and other calamities, such as a plague of locusts. John is then asked to eat a “little book” that tastes like honey but lies “bitter” in his stomach. This allows him to prophecy the coming of two “witnesses” who are killed by evil men and then resurrected, stronger than ever.
After this, John tells the story of the “woman clothed with the sun” who is threatened by the “great red dragon” (Satan, one of the book’s many personifications of Evil). The woman (probably the second Mary) gives birth to a child who is rescued up to Heaven, though the woman continues on the earth, persecuted as she goes.
This event is followed by a war in Heaven. The dragon (for reasons not given) is either in Heaven or attacking Heaven. At the moment that he is identified with Satan, he is thrown out and down to earth by the Archangel Michael.
Two other figures of Evil appear, “the beasts”, and are worshipped by many people. After that, seven angels bring seven plagues and pour out seven vials that bring more disasters on the earth. After this, the famous Whore of Babylon [probably pagan Rome] shows up and is worshiped by the kings of the earth while she freely persecutes and martyrs Christians. She doesn’t last too long, though, before she goes down in flames and the angels announce it everywhere.
At this point, Christ goes riding out and you find out what that sword-tongue of his is for. Christ beats the hell out of the Beast (now singular), the Antichrist and pretty much all of the leaders left on the planet (“the kings of the earth”). The Beast and the Antichrist are captured and thrown into “a lake of fire burning with brimstone” (Rev. 19:20). An angel grabs “the dragon”, who is now definitively identified with Satan/the Devil and throws him into a “bottomless pit” with a “seal set on him” (Rev. 20:3).
Christ reigns for a thousand years in peace, then lets Satan back out (yeah, really, what’s that all about?) so the Devil can have a final blow-out at humanity’s expense. Satan gets the giants Gog and Magog and a bunch of gullible humans together and tries to take Christ’s army by surprise. I’m sure nobody reading this will be shocked to find out that plan goes sideways and Satan is then cast into the Lake of Fire, where he gets to hobnob with the beast and the Antichrist (though, since they’re not mentioned again and the Lake is referred to as “the second death” in Rev. 20:14, maybe you stop existing once you go into the Lake of Fire).
This is the point in the book where the dead all rise out of their graves and are judged one last time. Once that’s done, Death and Hell are also unceremoniously tossed into the big old fiery Lake. So much for a retirement plan after aeons of faithful service.
Christ (as the Lamb) then forcefully states that what he started he can certainly finish, gets married, and everybody who’s been Good lives happily ever after in a big, beautiful city. Everybody else goes into the Lake of Fire. The End.
The above sounds sarcastic, but it’s more a reaction to the way the book comes across. You have to understand the tone of “Revelation”. There is no such thing as “turn the other cheek”, here. It’s all about vengeance and Christ and his saints coming out on top. If you look at the events described, you may notice that most of the carnage is actually enacted on the planet by angels and Christ himself (as I said before, the Second Coming is one scary dude). All the beasts and the Antichrist (figures who apparently had real-world analogues) and even Old Scratch, himself, really do is tempt humans to do dumb things like persecute Good people and generally throw themselves in front of the Heavenly Apocalypse Bus.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’ve probably already figured out at least some of the places where the writers of Supernatural have done these stories. We’ve had seals set on Satan (though there were 66 and not seven. Or one). We’ve had Witnesses (though not two, unless you count Sam and Dean as the real Witnesses and those poor ghosts in “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean Winchester” as just distractions).
Dean’s breaking of the first seal (note who does that in “Revelation”) results in a series of disasters as the rest of the seals are broken. Sam breaks the final seal by killing Lilith, “the first demon”. In the show, Eve isn’t mentioned. Instead, we have Lilith (Adam’s first wife before Eve in Jewish myths) who, like Eve in Paradise Lost, is twisted and tempted by Lucifer, who is angry about God elevating humans over angels. In Paradise Lost, Eve falls for similar reasons as Lilith did: she resents being Adam’s dumb little wifie (and considering how patronizingly Milton and all the male characters in the story treat her, it’s hard to fault her for that). Similarly, you can see the Supernatural writers doing some gender-juggling with all three of the central characters in Milton: Ruby is obviously the serpent (Satan). Sam, in being tempted by Ruby, takes the role of Eve. Dean sells his soul to save Sam and takes the role of Adam, who consciously fell because he didn’t want to be without Eve, even though he knew what he did was wrong. And yet, Sam is more like Adam in that he’s more intellectual than Dean and Dean is more like Eve in that he has practical knowledge, as she does.
In Paradise Lost, seven angels have seen the face of God, one of them Uriel. In Supernatural, it’s only four (like the number of the four figures in front of Christ’s throne) and Uriel isn’t one of them. In “Revelation”, Satan is cast down into Hell for a while, until he’s let up for a brief time to party down and then be destroyed forever. Michael is the one who kicks Lucifer (as the Dragon) out of Heaven. It’s unclear who kills Satan (in the show, Dean has been clearly and repeatedly identified as the one who will do it), but Christ unequivocally says at the end that he both began the Apocalypse (Alpha) and ended it (Omega). So, whoever breaks the first seal, according to the story of “Revelation”, needs to be the one who also ends it. That’s the story.
Satan in Paradise Lost is sympathetic in a way that the ugly, walk-on monsters of “Revelation” can never be. God’s creation and raising of Christ over the angels (his older brothers in a way) is nepotism to the nth degree. You’d have thought that Milton, who apparently wasn’t a big fan of Divine Right, would have addressed this, but he doesn’t, really. One of the biggest problems with filming either Paradise Lost or “Revelation” is not so much the complexity of the storyline or the huge production values as the fact that the “good guys” are totally unsympathetic. God’s smugness in Paradise Lost is enormously offputting as he cheerfully watches the slow train-wreck that is Adam and Eve’s temptation and eviction from Eden. Christ is somewhat nicer, but a largely-untried brown-nose (his victory in Paradise Regained is too foregone a conclusion to give him a human dimension). And as for the Christ of “Revelation”, he’s about as cuddly as a Category 5 hurricane.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that most of the filmed versions of this type of story (Omen, The Prophecy, American Gothic) show it from the perspective of either the bad guys or the human victims, but there are problems with this. The story, in either version, is not really about humans. They are more pawns than anything else. Despite Milton’s assertion that Adam and Eve are really important, it’s hard to see this when Eve is a brainless twit, Adam is patronizing to her and a toady to the angels, and the really interesting stuff happens well outside of their boring, limited world. As for “Revelation”, humans are victims and spectators, and practically-faceless ones, to boot. If you want to put someone at the dead centre of either story, you’re going to have to work hard at it. If films like The Seventh Sign and End of Days are any indication, this is an approach that lends itself to cheesy melodrama not good filmmaking.
I can see, looking at Paradise Lost, why Lucifer is an attractive anti-hero. I certainly fell in love with him when I was reading the poem one summer, age 15. He’s wildly romantic when he’s lying on the Lake of Fire at the beginning of the poem, defiantly declaring:
All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield…
That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee…
The mind is its own place and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n…
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in hell, then serve in Heav’n. (Book I, v.106-8, 110-3, 254-5, 262-3)
And later, he nearly has a change of heart when he reaches earth and sees his old home again:
Me miserable! which way shall I flie
Infinite wrauthe and infinite despaire?
Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me yet opens wide;
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n.
O then at last relent; is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left? (Book VI, v.72-9)
But when he realizes that the only way back is total submission to the will of God and essentially giving up all of his freedom and free will, he balks. It’s hard not to sympathise with him. The God of Paradise Lost pontificates a great deal about how wonderfully loving and merciful he is, but his love and mercy are entirely conditional on everyone else around him sucking up to him. Since nobody likes a bully or tyrant, it’s easy to sympathise with Lucifer and find it hard to swallow the way he’s degraded and reduced in the latter half of the poem, especially when you have unfallen angels like the smug Uriel (who’s as big a jerk in Paradise Lost as he is in Supernatural) as examples of the “good guys”.
But the truth is that Lucifer isn’t a very nice guy, either. It’s not just his decision to cause the downfall of Adam and Eve, who are innocent of any evil toward him. There’s also the way he treats his daughter, Sin. She was born to him in Heaven and was so beautiful that he had sex with her and made her pregnant. Even though she wasn’t involved in the revolt, she was thrown out of Heaven when her father was kicked out. Heavily pregnant, she gave birth to Death, which made her ugly. Death then raped her a lot and she ended up having tons of hell hound puppies. When Lucifer meets her again, he’s not at all attracted to her (even though she’s still loyal to him) and only butters her up so he can get her to unlock the gates to Hell. And on top of that, he makes it clear that he’d be as big a tyrant as God if he were able to win Heaven’s throne. No, Lucifer is not a very nice guy at all.
Holding Out for a Hero
In this context, the choice of the writers to bring Michael to the fore makes sense. In the War for Heaven in Book Six of Paradise Lost, Michael is a terrifying warrior, “as mindless and obedient as an attack dog (“Dream a Little Dream of Me”),” “our own little Russell Crowe, complete with surly attitude (“Lucifer Rising”).” He wields a sword that is the obvious inspiration for the one Uriel uses to kill angels in “On the Head of a Pin” and nearly cuts Lucifer in half with it.
But in the last chapter, when he’s sent down by God to drive Adam and Eve out of Paradise, God allows him the option of doing so gently, and he takes it. He puts Eve to sleep (Eve’s treated like a Bond girl from the Connery era, but this also shows where the writers got Castiel’s Two-Fingered Vulcan Sleep Touch). He then comforts Adam with a vision of the future, before sending the two of them out of Paradise. So, Michael, in Paradise Lost, has a softer side, whereas in “Revelation”, he’s almost as scary as the Second Coming, which is probably why some traditions (Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses) conflate Michael with Christ.
So, with these two books, you can find a lot of background for seasons four and five. Yes, the writers are playing around with it, but they’re holding to a lot of it, too. It’s not necessary to read Paradise Lost and “The Book of Revelation” to understand these seasons, but it sure is fun seeing what they’re doing with them.
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