To read "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," by John Milton requires prior knowledge of Christian theology, Puritan controversy, seventeenth-century history, and classical mythology.
At line 5 of his poem, when Milton proclaims: "Our great redemption from above did bring;/ For so the holy sages once did sing," he joins centuries of Christian authors who saw in the classical stories of antiquity a kind of prophecy of the coming of Christ. In vain does the reader of Milton's Ode find any reference to the human personages long associated with the story of Christmas. Instead, the poet celebrates the Incarnation of Christ as a kind of cosmic revolution in which the ancient forms and images give way to "Son of Heav'ns eternal King."
What follows is a line-by-line guide to many of the classical allusions in the poem:
(line 5) holy sages. Ancient Hebrew prophets, but perhaps also Virgil, who predicts the birth of a peace-bearing child in the fourth book of Virgil's Eclogues.
(line 50) amorous clouds. The image suggests Jupiter assuming the form of a cloud to seduce Io in Ovid's Metamorphoses 1.
(line 51) mirtle. Associated with Venus in Virgil's Eclogues 7.62.
(line 68) Birds of Calm. The halcyons or kingfishers that Ovid describes in Metamorphoses 11.745-6 making love and nesting on the seas calmed especially for them.
(line 74) Lucifer. The morning star, Venus. In Latin, literally, "light-bearer." Milton consistently associates Venus, Lucifer and the "morning star" in his poetry
(line 84) Axletree. A metonymy for the sun's chariot, driven by the god Phoebus
(line 89) Pan. The [great] Pan is an image of Christ in Spenser
(lines 101-102) hollow round of Cynthia's seat. The sphere of the moon personified by the goddess, Cynthia.
(line 135) age of gold. the time of peace in the Eclogues of Virgil
(line 176) Apollo. the god of light and healing
(line 191) Lars and Lemures. Roman gods of home and spirits of the dead.
(line 194) Flamins. Priests serving a Roman deity.
(line 203) Hammon. Lybian god, Jupiter-Ammon, represented as a ram.
(line 211) gods of Nile. Isis was the Egyptian moon goddess, horned like a cow according to Herodotus (History 2.41). Horus, the Egyptian sun god, was her son by her brother Osiris. Anubis, his son, was figured with a jackal's head.
(line 213) Osiris. The principal Egyptian god also known as Apis, usually figured as a black bull with a white triangle on its forehead (Herodotus Histories 3.27-29).
(line 226) Typhon. In Greek myth, Typhon or Typhoneus was a fire-breathing giant with 100 heads and a serpentine body. See Hesiod's Theogony 820.
(line 227) his Godhead true. These Lines compare Christ to Hercules, who strangled two serpents a jealous Hera sent to destroy him while he was only an infant.