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. 
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Critical Debate over Errour's Significance
       The academic debate on Errour's multiple-layered significance intensified between 1950 and 1975.  Critical consensus recognizes that Errour incorporates both the half-nymph, half-speckled snake Echidna from Hesiod's Theogony and serpent-derived monsters from Revelations.  Typical of scholarship on Errour's function, Raymond-Jean Frontain summarizes: "Redcrosse Knight must learn to recognize deceit and thus avoid falling victim to Error" (52).  Patrick Cullen identifies the type of allegorical error represented by the serpent-lady: "intemperance and pride" (24).  Prominent scholar Frank Kermode narrows the religious context of Errour's sins to heresy, ranging from obscure isms associated with apocalyptic seals in Revelations to the Roman Catholicism that far more directly threatened Spenser's doctrine (43). 
       I acknowledge the primacy of these doctrinal and theological interpretations, but assert a subtext of goddess-associated serpent symbolism crawling beneath the more overt Christian references.  The pleasures of The Faerie Queene rest with what David Lee Miller lists as "suggestiveness, resonance, endless readability" (37). For Kermode, this endless range of interpretations results in a "fantastic cobweb of conscious correspondences, running over all the interlinked systems of knowledge" (39). I would expand on Kermode's description: even unconscious correspondences prove valid when related to myth and archetype.  By their inherent nature, primeval symbols like snake and earth mother incorporate a parade of shifting cultural meanings.  As poet-creator, Edmund Spenser can preference one symbolic meaning above another, but older layers lurk inevitably within the serpent image itself. 
Interpreting the Tail
     Spenser's choice of vocabulary while envisioning Errour's tail exemplifies this multi-layered meaning.  The poet provides a two-part description.  First, we see the tail coiled and knotted: "Her huge long taile her den all overspred, / Yet was in knots and many boughtes [coils] upwound, / Pointed with mortall sting" (I.i.15).  Then, we view the tail in a second posture; when Errour rushes forth from her cave as Redcrosse Knight approaches, she "hurl[s] her hideous taile, / About her curséd head, whose folds displaid / Were stretcht now forth at length without entraile [coiling]" (I.i.16).  An immediate association might be made with medieval images of the diabolical.  For instance, the Book of Beasts from the twelfth century pictures the devil as "the most enormous of all reptiles" whose power lies "not in his teeth but in his tail because he beguiles those whom he draws to him by deceit" and who "lies hidden round the paths of which they saunter, because their way to heaven is encumbered by the knots of their sins, and he strangles them to death" (White 167).  Like the devil, Errour deceives her prey.  The knots in her tail could represent the knots or essential flaws of her victims¹ character.  And yet this analysis seems less than satisfactory, because once Errour moves outside the cave her tail stretches out rather than coils tighter. 
      Another layer of association connects Errour's coils with sexual debauchery, reminiscent of snakes wrapped around the naked, dancing bodies of Dionysus' cult worshippers during Greek and Roman fertility celebrations  (Fourcade 193).  Inside the cave, Errour's tail twists upon itself like a nest of breeding, interwoven snakes; but when attacking, the tail becomes almost an erect phallus, usurping the male role.  Looking further back to pre-history, the coiling tail connects with primitive art, described by Gimbutas as full of "dynamic motion: whirling and twisting spirals, winding and coiling snakes" with "cyclical, not linear, mythical time" (xix).  Within her sanctuary, Errour dwells in natural, cyclical time, welcoming the serpentine and circular patterns which connect her with eternal femaleness.  But to approach Redcrosse, Errour must shift to the linear male paradigm, both in the physical carriage of her tail and in the military confrontation with the knight. 
Author: Elizabeth Brunner
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