Octopuses, Milton's Angels

I love it when science converges with literature. When a discovery in the natural world renders some flight of fancy prophetic. Here's one marvelous instance: octopuses appear to exhibit the phenomenon of "distributed consciousness"–similar to the mode of sensory function John Milton envisioned for angels in Paradise Lost.

Chris Smith/Out of Chicago/Foter/CC BY-NC-SA

Apparently, octopuses have limbs that react to stimuli even when separated from the body, a possible indication that their consciousness is distributed, rather than centralized in the brain like ours.

As for Milton's angels, the first point to note is that they have a true corporeal existence at all–one of many controversial aspects of his theology. They even bleed. But their bodies are not like ours.

While the angels battle Satan's rebel army (in Book 6, which has the feel of a biblical Iliad), we discover that their bodies differ in a very alien way: their sensory functions, and their very thought, are not housed in separate organs. Every part of them thinks and feels equally and simultaneously. You might call them panorganic.

Gustave Dore, 1688, "... Hurled Headlong Flaming"
Gustave Dore, 1688, "... Hurled Headlong Flaming"

We learn this in a description of the Archangel Michael, after he is wounded by Satan's sword:

Yet soon he heal'd; for Spirits that live throughout Vital in every part, not as frail man In Entrailes, Heart or Head, Liver or Reines; Cannot but by annihilating die; Nor in thir liquid texture mortal wound Receive, no more then can the fluid Aire: All Heart they live, all Head, all Eye, all Eare, All Intellect, all Sense, and as they please, They Limb themselves, and colour, shape or size Assume, as likes them best, condense or rare.

And we see it again in a description of the four angels that convey Christ in his chariot:

as with Starrs thir bodies all And Wings were set with Eyes, with Eyes the wheels Of Beril

Milton kept up with scientific advances in his day, alluding to Galileo's discoveries in his own depiction of the cosmos. What would he have made of cephalopods, these beautiful creatures that fly through their dark underwater domains with angelic sentience?

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