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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Snakes Ancient and Immortal
      This complicated snake mythos enters The Faerie Queene early in the first canto, as Spenser describes Redcrosse Knight's mission: "To prove his puissance in battell brave / Upon his foe, and his new force to learne; / Upon his foe, a dragon horrible and stearne" (I.i.3).  Redcrosse seeks membership in a distinctive pantheon.  Ancient rulers, both mortal and immortal -- Indra, Thor, Marduk, Ra, Baal, and Zeus -- conquered enormous serpents.  Arising from these myths, as Ramona and Desmond Morris state, "new heroes stepped into the shoes of the old pagan serpent-slayers"  (64).  Christianity converted the ancient dragon into "the adversary of the transcendental God, the dragon of outer darkness, who has barred off this world from above, so that it can be redeemed only by being annihilated" (Leisegang 26).  The Old Testament God defeated Rahab's dragon, representative of Egypt and other Near Eastern cultures.  And then, in the Book of Revelations, St. Michael defended New Testament Christianity against "that serpent of old, the Devil or Satan"  (20:2-3).  Consistently through history, various incarnations of the snake have provoked deities and their crusade-leading warriors to battle.  Now Redcrosse tackles yet another descendent of that same ancient foe on behalf of Protestant Christianity. 
      To understand the serpent's role in this series of holy battles, we must excavate deeper into history.  Archaeological discoveries appear to date Paleolithic goddesses -- with powers over both cosmos and earth -- back twenty thousand years; some of the earliest figurines include serpentine markings.  Controversial archaeologist Marija Gimbutas argues that Neolithic Snake Goddesses "must have been guardians of the springs of life in prehistory," shaping both "fertility" and "the regeneration of dying life energy" (121).  Although mythologists in the early 1900s speculated about pre-patriarchal Mother Goddess religions, mainstream scholars now concur that a polytheistic sharing between male and female deities existed during the prehistoric age.  However, during the era of early Babylonian mythology, circa 2000 BC, the broad-ranging powers of the goddess declined.  Anne Baring and Jules Cashfold, authors of The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, explain that "the Goddess became almost exclusively associated with 'Nature' as the chaotic force to be mastered, and the God took the role of conquering or ordering nature from his counterpole of 'Spirit'" (xii).  In this same transitional period, the Babylonians believed in draco caelestis, characterized by mythologist Hans Leisegang as "the great celestial serpent" who "dominated the heavens and encompassed all the spheres of the cosmos" (26). 
      Mythological history reveals an ongoing territorial dispute, between male, female, and snake for control over the material and the spiritual dimensions.  Invading northern tribes increasingly imposed their patriarchal gods over the older goddess religions, sometimes splitting the Goddess' scope of influence among many lesser deities.  Eventually, patriarchal monotheists subsumed the roles of goddesses and priestesses, as well as the realm of snakes.  For example, as Barbara Walker documents, Cretan kings claimed "the title of serpent" for themselves to end their subordination to the priestesses of local cults (903).  Gender wars and religious wars intersected -- while an open-eyed snake waited ominously at that intersection point. 
      Edmund Spenser inherited a dense playground for his literary imagination within the religious, cultural, and linguistic connotations of snakes.  The archaic Greek word for serpent literally means the seeing one, and the Semitic word for serpent derives from the root form life (Joines 18).  Thus even reptilian names hint at omniscience.  The Latin draco and the Greek drakon translate into either dragon, serpent, or snake, which perhaps explains why the Old Testament incorporates nine different words for physical serpents and three words for metaphoric serpents (Joines 2).  Since linguistics allows the very word snake such mutability, such possibility, how appropriate that semantic transformation parallels religious transformation.  As theologian George Buttrick describes, the dragon of Revelations -- a model for Spenser --  is a "composite creature" drawing on "the serpents of the primeval cosmic struggle, of the Garden of Eden, and of the ancient fertility cult" united with the "Jewish Satan" (290).  Whereas the corporeal snake, from viper to rattler, sheds layers of skin, the symbolic snake adds layers of meaning. 
Author: Elizabeth Howell Brunner
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