The fact that to be touched by Ithuriel’s spear is to react exaggeratedly to only a slight touch appeared on the HH feed a few weeks ago—and it’s about time we explained a little bit more about it.
Ithuriel, as some of you will undoubtedly know, is the name of an angel or similar quasi-religious figure that first appeared in various Kabbalic and mystical texts in the late Middle Ages. Different accounts of his life cast him as anything from a high-ranking archangel to a low-ranking cherub or seraph—but most people who will have heard his name will likely know it from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667).
Jump start: Henry Fuseli’s “Satan Starting from the Touch of Ithuriel’s Spear”
In Milton’s account, Ithuriel is a cherub—a “strong and subtle spirit”—who is sent by the archangel Gabriel along with Zephon to seek out Satan and eject him from the Garden of Eden. Ithuriel finds Satan asleep in the garden and pricks him with a magical spear, “which no falsehood can endure”, that causes him to start up and reveal his true self:
Him thus intent Ithuriel with his spear
Touched lightly; for no falshood can endure
Touch of celestial temper, but returns
Of force to its own likeness: Up he starts
Discovered and surprised. As when a spark
Lights on a heap of nitrous powder, laid
Fit for the tun some magazine to store
Against a rumoured war, the smutty grain,
With sudden blaze diffused, inflames the air;
So started up in his own shape the Fiend.
It is this violent reaction to the slightest pricking of Ithuriel’s spear that is the origin of the phrase above. And from Milton’s description in the mid-1600s, to be touched by Ithuriel’s spear eventually fell into allusive use in English to describe any equally exaggerated reaction to only the slightest touch:
Rainbarrow had again become blended with night when Wildeve ascended the long acclivity at its base. On his reaching the top a shape grew up from the earth immediately behind him. It was that of Eustacia’s emissary. He slapped Wildeve on the shoulder. The feverish young inn-keeper and ex-engineer started like Satan at the touch of Ithuriel’s spear.
Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native (1880)