Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Anthropology and Anthropophagy in the Faerie Queene

Academic journal article Spenser Studies

Anthropology and Anthropophagy in the Faerie Queene

Article excerpt

Six years before Spenser conjured a visionary dance on Mount Acidale, a folio volume dedicated to Sir Walter Ralegh portrayed a festive rite strangely like the one invoked by Colin Clout. Colorfully attired men and women gather on a broad plain. Arranging themselves in a ring, they begin to sing and dance. At the center of the ring are three maidens, "the fayrest Virgins of the companie." These women are dancers too. Their arms interlocked, they form a closed circle with their bodies. Together they rotate in a graceful helix pattern, and "imbrassinge one another doe as yt wear turne abowt in their dancing." This account of an Algonquian harvest festival in Thomas Hariot's Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was illustrated by Theodor de Bry.1 He based his engraving on a watercolor drawing by John White, who had joined Hariot at Roanoke in 1585 to settle the first English colony in America.2 If we view the watercolor and the engraving side by side, we notice that De Bry has made subtle changes to White's portrayal of the Algonquian virgins. They have lost most of their garments; the arrangement of their bodies has become more symmetrical, gracefully poised in contrapposto; their hair is now neatly braided, their features more European. They recall the explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano's claim that the inhabitants of Rhode Island had a delicate appearance "very like the manner of the ancients."3

De Bry's model for this Acidalian vision is clearly the classical Graces, whose triadic dance had been depicted in this way since late antiquity. Like many Europeans, De Bry filtered his knowledge of the New World through Greco-Roman mythology, with its shadowy fictions of a lost golden age at the dawn of history. Sixteenth-century commentators from Peter Martyr to Michel de Montaigne had likened the indigenous peoples of the Americas to the legendary pastoralists of Arcadia. Arthur Barlowe, another of Ralegh's companions at Roanoke, found the Algonquian people to be "most gentle, loving, and faithfull, void of all guile, and treason, and such as lived after the manner of the golden age. The earth bringeth foorth all things in aboundance, as in the first creation, without toile or labour."4 Stephen Parmenius wondered if the native Virginians might "boast an ancient ancestry / Derived from Pan," somehow preserving the "early times / In Italy" when Saturn reigned.5 Such allusions are more than rhetorical décor. Falling somewhere between descriptive analogies and theories of origin, they are early, tentative efforts to situate the peoples of the New World within historical time. For many of Spenser's contemporaries, to study cultural difference across geographical space was also to reach back into Europe's own primeval past.

A generation before Hariot, the Huguenot Jean de Léry had witnessed a darker Acidalian vision among the Tupinamba people of Brazil. Warned to stay away from a Tupi religious festival, Léry found the natives' songs and howlings so enthralling that, like Faunus or Calidore, he snuck into the dwelling where the festival was taking place. There he saw dancers forming themselves into rings:

All that whole multitude made three such round Circles, in the middle whereof were three or foure Caraibes [i.e., priests], attired with Caps, Garments, and Bracelets of feathers. Each of them in either hand carried Maraca, that is, that rattle of a fruit exceeding the bignesse of an Estridges egge, . . . for that use, as they said, that the Spirit might speake out of them. . . . And their tunable singing was so sweet, that to the unskilfull it is scarce credible, how excellently well that harmonie agreed, especially, seeing the Barbarians are utterly ignorant of the Art of Musike. And surely, although in the beginning I was stricken with a certain feare . . . yet contrarily I was then so much ouer-ioyed, that I was not only rauished out of my selfe: but also now, as often as I remember the tunable agreement of many voices, both my minde reioyceth, also mine eares seeme continually to ring therewith. …

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