Slithering Goddesses: Deciphering Reptilian Codes 
in Book I of 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
      In 1978, my prim Louisiana-bred mother tied a gingham apron over her expensive dress and borrowed my brother's air rifle. Without hesitating, she shot a three-foot rattlesnake in our entryway, leaving six unnecessary holes in the marble and splattering red venom on an antique armoire. With the children following, my mother retrieved a garden hoe from the shed and then smashed the rattler into thirteen mangled pieces.  That day, my mother took revenge not merely on loathsome reptiles, but on the decline of her marriage, on the pressures of raising five children, and on the Apple Computer millionaires whose new mansions overshadowed our own.  The snake became victim to a family disintegrating.  And almost twenty year later, permanently estranged from a woman capable of killing snakes, I remain fascinated by serpent icons.
      Just as reptiles haunted the Brunner clan, from the snake tattoo on my sister's ankle to the rattler tails collected by my oldest brother, serpents have slithered through diverse religions and cultures since the primordial age.  Described by linguist Karen Randolph Joines as "a strange synthesis of life and death, an object of both intense animosity and reverence" (vi), the various manifestations of snakes -- from serpent to dragon to leviathan -- seem inherent to myth making.  Worship of the goddess-identified snake from fecund waters dates back to Neolithic cultures.  In Egypt, the hieroglyphic of serpent represented immortality.  The Babylonians believed that their "god Marduk split in half the dragon monster Tiamet, symbolized by the chaotic ocean, and from her carcass created the universe" (Toombs 283).  In classical mythology, a serpent couples with Chaos and serpents weave through Medusa's hair.  Biblical contexts range from the tempting serpent in Genesis to dragonized Satan in Revelations. Tracing such associations proves as complicated as unraveling a dragon's coiling tail. 
      During shifts between cultures and epoches, previous serpent images merge into new ones, with symbolic transformations assuming political significance.  As patriarchy subsumed matrifocal realms, the serpent shifted from a sign of female liquidity to a male phallic symbol.  As monotheistic Christianity replaced the panorama of paganism, the serpent changed from powerful and multifaceted to exclusively diabolical.  And throughout Edmund Spenser efforts in The Faerie Queene to replace Roman Catholicism with Protestantism, the serpent-derivatives represent female sexuality, as well as false religion. 
     Reptiles in Spenser's The Faerie Queene
      As poet, scholar, and proselyter, Spenser uses layers of snake allusions to connect the dragon Error who spews forth her "fruitfull curséd spawne" (I.i.22) with Duessa's "neather partes misshapen" (I.ii.41).  In keeping with what feminist scholar Stevie Davies describes as "[t]he syncretistic tendency of the Renaissance scholar" (7), Spenser focuses not on overthrowing previous symbolic associations but rather on accumulating multiple meanings within each serpent reference.  But embedded in all of Spenser's snakes are primitive archetypes of the genital, both moist femaleness and penetrating maleness.  These instinctive sexual associations connect monstrous Error and Duessa's deformed private parts, with serpent images drawing upon matrifocal and patriarchal traditions to embody both dangerous female lust and dangerous papist seduction. 
     How does Spenser use reptiles -- serpentine, sensuous, cruel, cold-blooded -- to contain  female procreation and attack falsehood?  Why would the serpent-woman Errour withdraw to her cave and swallow her offspring?  How could the mother goddess' power of sexual procreation degenerate into the corrupted vagina of a Catholic witch?  Answers require snake-hunting, both through history and through Book I of The Faerie Queene.  The changing history of serpent symbolism allows Spenser to merge unchaste sexuality and competing religions into monstrous female figures, but careful decoding reveals additional commentary on primal male fears of the female reproductive capacity. 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
Main Web Site: