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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Vomiting Wisdom
       At Una's encouragement to strangle the monster, Redcrosse manages to free one hand from the constricting tail and grip Errour's female throat.  Under the knight's stranglehold, the serpent-lady responds with vomit:
Therewith she spewd out of her filty maw,
A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,
Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobblets raw,
Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke
His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:
Her vomit full of bookes and papers was
With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,
And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:
Her filthy parbreake all the place defiléd has.  (I.i.20)
     While Spenser portrays Errour's vomit as a repulsive attack,  herpetologists know that "[s]nakes frequently disgorge living prey as a reaction to the shock of capture" (Morris and Morris 116).  If vomit is the regurgitation of previously digested material, then what did Errour eat for lunch?  Perhaps her male counterpart.  Pliny spread a persistent folk belief that female snakes become impregnated by swallowing and eating male snakes.  Barbara G. Walker traces this "superstitious notion about the sex life of snakes" to "[t]he image of the male snake deity enclosed or devoured by the female" (904).  Errour's vomit also provides a playful reversal on an Egyptian creation myth about the giant snake Apep arising from the chaotic ocean realm of snakes and frogs to spit forth both gods and humans (Fourcade 185). 
     Many scholars connect Errour's spewed frogs to a marginal gloss for Revelations 16:13 in the Geneva Bible of 1560: "That is a strong number of this great devil the Popes ambassadours which are ever crying and crocking like frogs and come out of the Antichrists mouth . . ."  (in Rhu 102).  Long before the Renaissance, however, an Egyptian precursor of Hecate served as "heavenly midwife," and "[h]er totem was the frog, symbol of the fetus" (Walker 378).  The link between Errour, Hecate, and deformed frogs leads inevitably to witchcraft, the traditional accusation against rebellious women.  The Protestant technique of personifying the Roman Catholic Church as witchcraft-practicing whore condemns female and papist in a single image. 
      As a result, the literature pouring forth from Errour's mouth may represent female-centered wisdom from goddess-worshipping traditions, as well as Catholic propaganda.  Douglas Waters represents the traditional scholarly view that these books symbolize "secular erudition" and "the false rationalism of the Church of Rome" (23).  To borrow an amusing phrase from Lawrence Rhu, Errour functions as "apocalyptic bookmobile" (105).  But by remaining focused on Errour's manifestation as half snake and half woman, I am led back to the serpent from Genesis and the realm of the goddess.  Karen Randolph Joines argues that the snake in Eden possesses "esoteric knowledge of life" (17) and convinces Eve that god "grudgingly withheld knowledge and truth from her" (21).  The vomited books possess a paradoxical meaning.  First, Errour reveals the truth that male gods unjustly violated the powers of female divinity equal to male divinity, a truth that Redcrosse Knight perceives as heresy against his Christian God.  Since the books are combined with toads, symbols of the fetus,  Errour's proof of injustice is that both wisdom and fertile creation were stolen from the goddess.  Secondly, in a conflicting layer of meaning, Errour spits out the patriarchal re-writing of goddess myths, rejecting gods who re-assigned creative powers from the womb to the phallus. 
      Spenser encourages this hunt for secondary meanings within Egyptian mythology when he compares Errour's vomit to the "fertile slime" of the Nile River, filled with the spontaneous generation of "Ten thousand kindes of creatures, partly male / And partly female of his fruitfull seed" in "ugly monstrous shapes" (I.i.21).  In these lines, the Nile is personified as male, creating through his seed and claiming provenance over fertility.  Not only does the poet vilify the ability to reproduce life from chaos, but he attributes this diabolical power to a male force.  Certainly, mythology attributed both life and death to the river; Nissenson and Jonas explain, "The combined creative and destructive aspects of nature that snakes so often represented were manifested in the annual flooding and receding of Egypt's Nile River" (31).  The dual capacity meant female.  In fact, even sorcery books from the Middle Ages borrowed the word Uraeus -- based on the Egyptian snake-shaped hieroglyphic meaning Goddess -- as a secret and mystical name for divinity (Walker 904).  Once again, these early images from The Faerie Queene overlap reproductive capacity, the tension between good and evil, and the struggle between gods and goddesses. 
Author: Elizabeth Brunner
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