Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature

By Margaret Hallissy | Go to book overview

2
Mother Eve and Other Death-Dealers

Tell me, what kind of people inspire the most horror? Whom do judges and magistrates strike down? Those who drink the fatal poisons, or those who prepare the draught and concoct the envenomed potions? ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM1

By vigilancie and industrie meanes may be had to resist, or evite the most violent beast that ever nature bred, but from false and treacherous hartes, from poysoning murtherers what wit or wisedome can defend? GEORGE EGLISHAM ( 1626) 2

The ultimate primal scene is this one: a woman giving a man something dangerous to eat. Blaming Eve for the entrance of sin and death into the world is a tradition as old as the Genesis story, as is the proclivity of Eve's daughters to cause the Fall to be repeated in the life of the individual man. The essential selfishness of Eve's sin is stressed in the iconographic tradition, which depicts the serpent tempting Eve as having a woman's face, often Eve's own face, as in Raphael The Fall. 3 This tradition, which began in the twelfth century4 and flourished in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, 5 is related to the serpent-woman motif, which we will examine later. Eve's selfish motive in eating the fruit is the specific achievement of gaining special knowledge, which she immediately uses in a devious and manipulative way to gain power over Adam, who in consequence suffers a loss. Underlying the image of every venomous woman is the image of her mother, Eve. As the woman who brought death into the world, she is a symbolic murderess. Since murder is the most obvious use of poison, it must be explored in some detail because the conceptions surrounding it influence every other use of a poison or potion.

The rebelliousness of Eve, her desire to achieve superiority over Adam, is undoubtedly a carryover from the tradition of Lilith, Adam's insubordinate first wife, cast out from Paradise in a leadership dispute. Lilith was

-15-

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Venomous Woman: Fear of the Female in Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Copyright Acknowledgments v
  • Contents ix
  • Preface: Secret Weapon xi
  • 1 - Introduction: Archetypes and Stereotypes 1
  • 2 - Mother Eve and Other Death-Dealers 15
  • 3 - Venefica: Healer and Witch 59
  • 4 - Woman and the Serpent 89
  • 5 - Conclusion: Beatrice Rappaccini 133
  • Notes 143
  • Selected Bibliography 157
  • Index 161
  • About the Author 169
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