Slithering Goddesses: Reptilian Codes in The Faerie Queene
Written by Elizabeth Howell Brunner at Cal Poly, 1997, for English 512: Sixteenth Century Prose, taught by Professor Linda Halisky.  Posted online November 1999. 
Intro | Page Two | Page Three | Page Four | Page Five | Page Six | Page Seven | Page Eight | Works Cited
Maternal Obligations
       Female-oriented cycles consume Errour's role as fertile mother to a "thousand yong ones" (I.i.15).  The babies hide in her mouth when light shines off Redcrosse's armor: "Into her mouth they crept, and suddain all were gone" (I.i.15).  Spenser turns to an old folk legend, dating back to Egyptian records from 2500 B.C., that "the mother snake hisses a warning when [an] intruder approaches, whereupon the little snakes run into the safety of her mouth" (Morris and Morris 129).  Unlike a male dragon breathing fire from hell, Errour remains maternal, coaxing her offspring back into her body for safety.  The mouth and womb parallel each other, just as the earth goddess both gives life and takes life back.  Like the serpent in Genesis cursed with a split tongue after the fall and like the Great Mother Goddess silenced by patriarchal intruders, Errour cannot speak; her mouth acts, rather than dialogues. 
       Maternal obligations overwhelm Errour's breasts as well as her mouth and womb.  Spenser describes daily feeding of the thousand offspring, who suck "upon her poisonous dugs, eachone / Of sundry shapes, yet all ill favoréd . . ." (I.i.15). The ambiguous modifier forces the reader to question whether the breasts or the children are misshapen.  From an original role of nourishing the earth, the snake-goddess continues this role of feeder and breeder with Errour.  Yet Spenser's tone is of punishment, reminiscent of the curse upon childbirth in Genesis and the image of women forced "to suckle serpents as a punishment" in medieval visions of Hell (Morris and Morris 62). 
Defending the Young
     Although made grotesque in scope, these images of maternal Errour correspond to her physical protection of the offspring.  The serpent-lady Errour commits no aggression. Hidden in the dark with her brood, she only rushes "out of her den effraide" (I.i.16) when the light from Redcrosse's armor interrupts her napping youngsters. Once glimpsing the knight and his weapons, Errour attempts to retreat back into the cave, to escape from the light. But the Knight of Holiness leaps upon her, blade outstretched, and violently forces her into combat.  Only now does Errour fight back, after crying out, perhaps to warn the offspring nestled deep within her body.  Despite the theological allegory overlaying The Faerie Queene which requires Errour to be intrinsically evil, I see continued signs of a positive maternal force.  Marija Gimbutas insists that in ancient cultures, "The snake was a symbol of life energy and regeneration, a most benevolent, not an evil, creature"  (xix).  Errour preserves this function as life source in her maternal actions. 
      But once the brood is threatened, battle begins wholeheartedly.  Errour swings "her speckled taile" and threatens with "her angry sting" to repel the attacking knight (I.i.17). After Redcrosse's sword crushes down on her shoulder, Errour moves with "kindling rage" and "doubled forces,"  wrapping her serpent tail around his body (I.i.18).  With the hero immobilized, Spenser warns in the concluding Alexandrine line: "God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine" (I.i.18).  After the preceding images of constantly suckling babies, the word endlesse must mean more than the standard interpretation of ever-present temptations towards sin and heresy.  The endless threat from the primal goddess is all-consuming, female-centered fertility.  To be wrapped within 
Errour's body is to be wrapped within cycles of sexual and maternal regeneration. 
Author: Elizabeth Brunner
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