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.|
|Given the complicated religious significance of the dragon, Redcrosse Knight, so naive and young, seems particularly vulnerable against his declared foe. But divine fate, human error, and the poet's pen lead the Protestant Knight forward on his pilgrimage, through the labyrinth of the Wandering Wood "to a hollow cave" (I.i.11). Spenser critic Patrick Cullen connects the woods to "the primal source of error, the taint of the flesh we have inherited through Adam's fall" (25). Of course, who might be blamed for that fall in the Garden of Eden? A snake and a woman. Beware Redcrosse. Yet the overly self-reliant knight charges onward, ignoring Una's heartfelt warning of "the perill of this place," of "this Errours den, / A monster vile, whom God and man does hate" (I.i.13). Her words hint at battle lines: God and Man against Snake and Woman. Without benefit of a plot synopsis, the reader might conclude that our hero is already approaching his ultimate enemy, that the monster Errour equals the horrible dragon of the knight's grand mission. Although a male dragon will offer prolonged, bloody spectacle on center stage in canto eleven, female Errour comes first. Likewise, the lineage of patriarchal gods fought the snake as goddess long before the snake as Satan.|
|Placing Errour within a cave furthers the mythological associations. Consider Apollo's fight with the oracle Python of Mother Earth Gaea; even after the sun god gained control of Delphi, the snake continued delivering prophecies from the earth's navel (Morris and Morris 49). By picturing Errour's cave as the navel of an earth mother goddess, a submerged theme of wombs and childbirth enters the Legend of Holiness. Gimbutas interprets red-painted cavities in caves from the Paleolithic period as symbolic of the "Mother's regenerative organs" (151). In a provocative parallel, caves provide a sanctuary for many species of snakes when the shedding process begins. Secluded snakes begin rubbing against hard surfaces, pushing forward through the old skin to emerge renewed. For Errour, descendent of goddesses and snakes, the cave offers similar seclusion. Perhaps she also awaits regeneration, through the shedding of a despised form for the renewal of a more appealing incarnation.|
|Invading the Fertile Cave|
|Unfortunately, at least from Errour's perspective, Redcrosse Knight invades her secluded hideaway and finds a "darksome hole" (I.i.14) with "durtie ground" (I.i.15). Errour's homestead triggers associations with other monsters from the dark depths, such as the Leviathan, a seven-headed snake from Canaanite mythology who "represent[ed] primitive chaos" (Fourcade 184). The dirty cave floor hints at ancestry with the cursed snake of Genesis, forced to eat dust while crawling on its belly. Spenser explains that Errour hates the light, preferring in "desert darknesse to remaine, / Where plaine none might her see, nor she any plaine" (I.i.16). From a Christian Protestant tradition, this darkness equals evil. Yet Gimbutas describes a reversed color symbolism in neolithic Europe: "Black did not mean death or the underworld; it was the color of fertility, the color of damp caves and rich soil, of the womb of the Goddess where life begins" (xix). In the dark of her cave, Errour might preserve the generative potential of ancient matrifocal traditions, distorted by patriarchy into monstrous forms. And she might await regeneration in a new age, when the patriarchal error of banishing woman-centered divinity is avenged. Errour's desire to currently remain unseen connects her with the immortal serpent of Egyptian mythology, sometimes called the "'invisible One,' because it came into being before the sun." (Joines 19). This dark chaos, which pre-dates the Christian light of salvation, encompasses rampant sexual fertility and threatens the hierarchical order of patriarchal religions.|
| Despite the darkness, the shine of Redcrosse's
armor provides enough light to see the female monster: "Halfe like a serpent
horribly displaide, / But th'other halfe did womans shape retaine /
Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine" (I.i.14). These lines leave a mystery: Which half is serpent and which half is monster? Eventually the reader learns of Errour's coiling tail, but the poetic syntax presents ambiguity: Is the womanly half foul and filthy, or rather does the monstrous combination produce a loathsome appearance? And by placement of the word disdain, does Spenser refer to the scornful response of the beholder or to the aloof contempt expressed by Errour herself? I suspect the poet deliberately allows multiple interpretations of this passage.
Art historians Marilyn Nissenson and Susan Jonas explain that whereas "[m]any Renaissance artists in Catholic Italy, among them Masolino, Raphael, and Michelangelo, painted the snake [of Genesis] as a fair-haired beauty," the "Lutheran-influenced masters like Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach depicted their snakes as snakes" (52). For many medieval artists, however, painting snakes with limbs represented the extremes of evil, the serpent before the fall, before the curse of belly-crawling (Morris 60). I assume Errour has womanly arms, able to grasp and tempt, in this merging of Eve with the serpent itself.
|In addition, Spenser's portrait of Errour conjures Medusa, once the mother of all gods and later the Gorgon with snakes for hair. Annis Pratt observes that "the categorical classical mind" found hybrid creatures such as the hydra and Medusa "especially unwholesome mixtures of the chthonic or earthy with the human" (22). Spenser allows poetic undercurrents to connect female sexual parts with such unwholesome earthiness, with serpentine horror.|
|Author: Elizabeth Brunner
Main Web Site: www.calpoly.edu/~ebrunner