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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Rejuvenation of the Maternal
       As Redcrosse reels from the stench of vomit, Errour takes advantage of his momentary weakness to spit out of her mouth -- "her hellish sinke" -- the brood of "fruitfull curséd spawne of serpents small, / Deforméd monsters, fowle, and blacke as inke" (I.i.21).  The redefinition of terms is deeply political: fertility becomes vomit, regeneration becomes male, fruitful becomes cursed, serpents become foul.  Errour's offspring swarm over Redcrosse Knight's legs, annoying but not injuring him. Just as patriarchal religions often tolerated and assimilated worshippers of the goddess, Redcrosse at first withstands the brood, but male pride leads him to violence.  Fearing shame in front of Una's watchful gaze, the knight decapitates the female head from the monster's "body full of filthie sin" while a "streame of cole black bloud forth gushéd from her corse" (I.i.24).  Likewise, the Old Testament severed the Goddess from the creative process in the Book of Genesis, and the New Testament condemned the Goddess as filthy whore of Babylon in Revelations. 
     The serpent children attempt to resurrect their mother by sacrificing themselves.  The offspring approach Errour's body and "suckéd up their dying mothers blood, / Making her death their life, and eke her hurt their good" (I.i.25).  I am reminded of the proclamation of Pythagoras, repeated in The Book of Beasts: "Serpents are created out of the spinal marrow of corpses" (White 190).  Closer to earth cycles, the snakes and the goddesses accept decay and rebirth.  The behavior of Errour's offspring offers a curious opposition to medieval folktales about adders, whose "unborn young were so impatient to emerge that they gnawed a hole" in their mother¹s belly to escape (Nissenson and Jonas 76).  In contrast, Errour's children consume her in an effort to re-merge with the maternal source. 
       Redcrosse Knight watches with repulsion and amazement as "th'unkingly Impes of heaven accurst" cannibalize Errour until their bellies burst; the spawn "slaine themselves" with "bowels gushing forth" (I.i.26).  Like many critics, Donald Cheney compares this passage to redemption through Christ's blood, insisting that "No such communion is possible to the creatures of Error" (69).  Although Errour's family is not resurrected before Redcrosse leaves on his next holy adventure, I anticipate rejuvenation, like the re-swelling of the Nile after receding, like the Egyptian uroboros emblem of a serpent swallowing its own tail in "the endless cycle of annihilation and creation" (Nissenson and Jonas 29).  Even the Greek god of healing, Ascelpius, used vials of  snake-haired Medusa's blood for dual purposes: one vial brought death and the other brought  resurrection.  Walker views immortality as "the special province of the skin-shedding Serpent and the blood-bestowing Goddess from earliest times" (907).  The burst bowels of Errour's offspring allude to early myths which identified the serpent divinity "with the Earth's intestines" and led to the biblical use of the phrase "separation from the bowels" to mean "birth or rebirth" (Walker 907).  While a modern reader pictures entrails and feces, an archaic meaning of bowel refers to the inner source of tender emotions.  In consuming their mother and sacrificing themselves, the serpent brood explode in adoration of primitive mother-love.  Yet Una proclaims that Redcrosse Knight has proven himself worthy of the Protestant armor through the glory of this bloody infanticide. 
Fertile Potential to Devouring Desire
      Intuitively, I associate the distortion of Errour's reproductive capacity with the distorted genitalia of Duessa as revealed later in Book I of The Faerie Queene.  In an article originally published in 1966, Donald Cheney offers a brief hint which sparks my own argument: "As a combination of woman and serpent, she [Errour] anticipates Duessa's foul nether parts and may point toward Adam's fall" (69).  Critics agree that Duessa represents multiple threats to the Protestant faith, from the Church of Rome to Mary Queen of Scots, from lust to falsehood.  But just as I sought subtext related to the goddess and childbirth while exploring Errour's portrayal, I focus not on Duessa as religious and political allegory, but on Duessa as representative of the female reproductive capacity. 
      Soon after meeting Duessa, Redcrosse Knight hears Fradubio's tale of witchcraft, shape-shifting, and ugliness-disguised-as-beauty. Fradubio is deceived by Duessa, in the pose of Fidessa, until he sees her bathing with the herbs "origane and thyme," revealed in her nakedness to be a "filthy foule old woman" (I.ii.40). Fradubio cannot see the submerged lower half of the witch, but imagines horrors: "Her neather partes misshapen, monstruous / . . . did seeme more foule and hideous, / Then womans shape man would beleeve to bee" (I.ii.41).  Fradubio plans to flee, assuming that Duessa's genitals represent "danger great, if not assured decay" (I.ii.41). But Duessa interprets his facial expression, numbs his senses with magic ointments, and turns him into a tree.  Just as Errour is half-woman and half-snake, Duessa apparently combines the female with the monstrous, even the serpentine, as she rests partially below water like the mythological Great Serpent who arose from the chaotic ocean.  Duessa shape-shifts between the Petrarchan ideal of a beautiful woman and the ancient mystery of the goddess as crone.  Nether refers to the underworld in a Christian cosmology, but can signify the realm lying below the earth's surface in a pagan context.  Prehistoric traditions found the Great Mother Goddess at these lower depths, in the navel of the earth and as the womb for creation.  Fradubio speaks as a virginal male, one who never saw the female sexual organs but only fantasized about their shape.  Confronted with Duessa at an old age, Fradubio shifts his fantasies from longing to pornography to horror, just as patriarchal myth-making shifts female sexuality from fertile potential to devouring desire to evil seduction. 
       Disguised Duessa avoids exposure by Fradubio, but this witch will be stripped naked after Arthur rescues Redcrosse from the dungeon in canto eight.  Part crone and part monster, Duessa again stands revealed for Spenser's litany of female ugliness.  The Norton edition glosses "filthy scald" (I.viii.47) as scabby disease, but I hear hints of snake scales in Spenser's word choice.  After describing her baldness, scabs, and bad breath, the poet focuses on Duessa's breasts: "Her driéd dugs, like bladders lacking wind, / Hong downe, and filthy matter from them weld" (I.viii.47).  Spenser converts her breasts into urological and scatological images, denigrating the source of maternal nourishment and insulting female potency.  The core of Duessa's "secret filth" surpasses acceptable vocabulary; the poet acknowledges that "good manners biddeth not be told" that full truths about her body (I.viii.46).  Two stanzas later, Spenser reinforces this obscenity that defies the pen: "Her neather parts, the shame of all her kind, / My chaster Muse for shame doth blush to write" (I.viii.48).  And yet, we can be told of the witch's posterior in graphic detail: "But at her rompe she growing had behind / A foxes taile, with dong all fowly dight" (I.viii.48). Douglas Waters carefully documents how these animalistic images correlate to language used in sixteenth century "Protestant condemnations of the craftiness and cowardice of the Mass-priests" (41).  While I accept this analysis as intrinsic to Spenser's political agenda as a Protestant, the poet's decision to focus on Duessa's sexual organs encourages additional levels of interpretation.  Forging associations between the breasts, vagina, and defecation, Spenser deliberately denigrates the childbirth capacity of women.  I recognize Duessa's evil role in the plot, but the poet might have exposed her worm-eaten heart or her tortured soul rather than the corruption of her genitalia.  
Author: Elizabeth Brunner
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