Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Divided They Fall: (De)constructing the Triple Hecate in Spenser's Cantos of Mutabilitie

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Divided They Fall: (De)constructing the Triple Hecate in Spenser's Cantos of Mutabilitie

Article excerpt

1. The triple Hecate, also known as the triple Diana, is an ancient symbol of female divinity and power. While she does possess three faces she is paradoxically understood as being neither three separate goddesses nor a single amalgamated individual.[1] Worshipped for centuries by a variety of different cultures, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, the triple Hecate struck a chord in the cultural imagination of many sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English writers. Her multifaceted nature, which has been graphically preserved in the surviving historical art record, along with her supposed magical talents, allowed both the ancients who initially conceived of her and the early moderns who later studied her to allegorically associate her with a number of different cyclical trinities, including: the moon, earth, and underworld; the crescent moon, full moon, and dark moon; and the mother, maid, and crone. Given the expansive nature of her powers, in that she occupies so many different symbolic locations, a variety of different classical goddesses became associated with each of her three sides, creating an all-powerful community of women who stand back-to-back, shoulder-to-shoulder, in an image of unified solidarity. This depiction of both female divinity and female community, however, stands at complete odds with the patriarchal gender hierarchy and religious monotheism that predominantly defined early modern English culture. Consequently, early modern literary treatments of the triple Hecate tend to be heavily divided, conveying everything from admiration to fear.[2]

2. Edmund Spenser is one of many early modern writers who struggled with the idea of female rule in the face of Elizabeth I's reign. Throughout The Faerie Queene Spenser experiments with depictions of tyrannous female rulers, from Malecasta, whose vanity leads her to require the licentiousness of her subjects, to Mercilla, whose overzealous censorship prompts her to nail the tongues of offending poets to her walls. In his Cantos of Mutabilitie, however, Spenser offers one of his harshest critiques of female leadership by first creating and then divesting his literary version of the triple Hecate not of her clothes per se, as he stripped Duessa of her dress earlier in The Faerie Queene, but of her very divinity. In the Mutabilitie Cantos the characters of Cynthia, Diana, and Mutabilitie create a trinity that, I argue, mirrors the three faces of the triple Hecate. Cynthia (as the moon goddess), Diana (as the earthly huntress), and Mutabilitie (as the bringer of death) create three distinct centers of power which perfectly reflect the locations of power occupied by this ancient goddess figure. Spenser's treatment of the triple Hecate, however, is perhaps unique in that rather than depicting her as powerful, unified, and virtuous, he makes his triple Hecate impotent, divided, and ineffectual. By evoking the idea of the triple Hecate in the Mutabilitie Cantos, Spenser dismantles and disempowers her to make way for a more standard model of patriarchal authority. Further, by aligning Elizabeth I with Nature as the judge who presides over the warring masculine, monotheistic God and the feminine, polytheistic Goddess, Spenser brazenly implies that female power is only truly legitimate when used to reaffirm masculine authority.

3. Before we can turn to Spenser's Mutabilitie Cantos we must first consider the triple Hecate in a little more detail. One of the first surviving literary references we have to Hecate is found in Hesiod's Theogony, written at some point during the eighth century B.C.[3] When discussing the goddess Hecate, in her singular form, Hesiod writes that she "above all ... was honoured by ... Zeus" and that:

The son of Kronus never did her harm

Nor did he snatch away the rights she had

Under the Titan gods of old: she keeps

Her privilege in earth, sea, and heaven

As it was positioned to her from the start.

Nor did she get a lesser share because

She had no brothers to defend her rights. …

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