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

Jessica Dell
McMaster University

Dell, Jessica.  "Divided They Fall: (De)constructing the Triple Hecate in Spenser's Cantos of Mutabilitie". EMLS 16.2 (2012): 1. URL: http://purl.org/emls/16-2/dellfaer.htm


  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.
    Her share is greater: Zeus is her advocate.[4]
    According to Hesiod, Hecate was initially conceived of as a powerful goddess, a “pre-Olympian Titan who later shared rule with Zeus”.[5] Hecate's magical influence extended from the heavens, to the earth, to the deep and mysterious ocean itself, making her a commanding figure whose legitimacy was above dispute. Hesiod's description of Hecate also makes it abundantly clear that she co-ruled with Zeus, neither his superior nor his subordinate. But perhaps the most shocking revelation that arises from this passage is that Hecate was not required to defend her station after the fall of her Titan brethren, despite their shared ancestry. Her power remained, according to this ancient source, absolute. By specifically negating Hecate's need to defend her rights, however, the text subtly implies that Hecate's position might have required defence if Zeus had not chosen to champion her cause. Hesiod’s narrative hints at the possibility of violence against Hecate even as it rejects it. Spenser, however, latches onto this potential for conflict and exploits it in his Mutabilitie Cantos.

  4. Spenser demonstrates that he is familiar with Hecate's ancient history and her connection to the triple Hecate when he provides a remarkably similar past for his fictional character Mutabilitie.[6] By the early modern period Hecate had already been, to her detriment, redefined as the infernal goddess of witchcraft alone.[7] In spite of this, Spenser's treatment of her demonstrates an awareness of her previous elevated standing. When introducing Mutabilitie in his poem Spenser provides his readers with a genealogical survey of her roots and the first name that appears on the page is none other than Hecate's own. What follows is a strangely familiar rendition of Hesiod's earlier description, as Spenser writes that after Jove overthrew the Titans
                ... many of them, afterwards obtain'd
    Great power of Iove, and high authority;
    As Hecate, in whose almighty hand
    He plac't all rule and principality,
    To be by her disposed diversely
    To Gods, and men, as she them list divide.[8]
    Spenser intentionally evokes Hecate in her most powerful form in this passage. In other earlier moments of The Faerie Queene, Spenser pigeonholes her as a mere goddess of witchcraft.[9] Here, however, Spenser provides his readers with an image of Hecate in her most exulted shape, as a supreme goddess who possessed immense power and privilege. Hecate's security becomes Mutabilitie's struggle, however, as Jove subsequently denies Mutabilitie the same rights he bestowed upon her ancestor. Instead of preserving Hecate's divinity, Spenser chooses to characterize Mutabilitie as the dregs of a faded lineage, heir to a diluted power. Supriya Chaudhuri has previously argued this same point, persuasively reminding her readers that despite Mutabilitie's grand genealogical connections she “is not a classical goddess but a metaphysical abstraction”.[10] Hecate does not legitimize Mutabilitie's inheritance claim, but instead helps highlight her dubious (and potentially deceitful) nature. Mutabilitie, whom Spenser has already characterized as being “cruell,” ambitious, and arrogant in her aspirations for power, becomes linked with figures that are meant to amplify her own villainy. Chaudhuri presses this idea even further, viewing Mutabilitie's rebellion “as an incursion of genealogical memory into the suppressed history of violence upon which the rule of Olympian gods is based”.[11] While Spenser does not completely dismiss or trivialize Hecate, therefore, he instead characterizes her as a threatening and demonic figure, one whose authority is not simply allowed to continue, as Hesiod suggests, but rather one who requires her power to be carefully “plac't” (to quote Spenser) and controlled by Jove after his violent overthrow of the Titans.

  5. While Spenser initially references Hecate in her singular form, his subsequent literary treatment of her more specifically addresses the historical connection she shares with the triple Hecate. Although there is a degree of uncertainty as to why Hecate began to be depicted as multi-faced or tri-dimensional, a number of scholars have presented convincing theories. Helen Ostovich, for one, suggests that Hecate's three faces were a “sign of her alliance with mysterious female power and magical transformation”.[12] Jeanne Addison Roberts alternatively postulates that her integration into a series of different cultures might have contributed to her physical alteration.[13] Whatever the reason, Carin Green summarizes Hecate's evolution concisely theorizing that perhaps “inevitably she had three faces because she was in the sky, on earth, and in the darkness with the dead”.[14] The previously singular Hecate, therefore, was eventually redefined as the tri-faced triple Hecate and numerous classical goddesses became associated with the values prescribed to each of her three faces. Early moderns sometimes envisioned her as Persephone (the wronged maid), Lucina (the wife), and Hecate (the fury), while at other times they configured her as “Selene, the moon-driver linked with menstruation and pregnancy; Artemis, patroness of untamed nature, fertility, and childbirth; and an Erinys or Fury, an avenging underworld spirit bent on punishing men”.[15] Yet, just as Christians symbolically conceive the holy trinity as being both one and three simultaneously, the triple Hecate can never entirely be understood as either a single figure or three separate entities. Artistic renderings of her capture this ambivalence by depicting her as three individuals whose backs and dresses merge into one another, as they stand together in an unbroken and interconnected circle.[16]

  6. Where, however, might Spenser have gained an appreciation of the triple Hecate's physical complexity? As a protestant nation, England resisted visual imagery and embraced iconographic tendencies. While continental Europe was more lenient on this issue than England, modern Spenser biographers question whether Spenser ever actually travelled outside of the English Isles, despite the grand claims he makes in his Letters, published in 1580. In these public correspondences, Spenser writes that he is about to set sail for France and Italy (“mox in Gallias navigaturi”).[17] When critiquing this statement, Jon A. Quitslund persuasively argues that the “the itinerary [Spenser] imagines describes ambitions – those of a poet and a would-be secretary to the earl of Leicester – rather than actual travel plans”.[18] If Quitslund is correct, then Spenser would have had to have gained his knowledge of the triple Hecate from literature, rather than art viewed on the continent. Besides Hesiod's descriptions of Hecate, Spenser most likely learned a great deal about her three forms from Natale Conti's Mythologiae. As a scholar of Italian literature, Spenser would have most likely been familiar with the Mythologiae, an opinion John Mulryan shares when he writes that Spenser is “so close to Conti in selecting and arranging details of numerous myths that the Mythologiae is unquestionably his chief source”.[19] The Mythologiae provides detailed descriptions of the triple Hecate, not only outlining the numerous goddesses who became symbolically associated with her person, but also discussing her role as the “three-fold Hecate”.[20] In addition, the Mythologiae catalogues numerous other classical writers who discuss the triple Hecate's appearance and powers, including Vergil, Hesiod, and Sophocles, all of whom provided Spenser with a wealth of useful information.[21]

  7. Part of the transformative process that Hecate underwent also involved the creation of emblematic tools that helped to visually highlight the magical concepts now attributed to each face. These objects not only underscore her unruliness, but help to “signify attributes of masculine authority” which the triple Hecate “appropriates” for her own use.[22] The moon goddess typically holds a flaming torch in her hand, thereby symbolizing her role as a guide who illuminates the way for travellers.[23] The torch also symbolically conveys her role as the provider of heavenly direction.[24] The second face of the triple Hecate, who is commonly linked with the natural world, normally holds an old fashioned lock with a buckle in one hand and a strap in the other.[25] Although Diana is more popularly known as the goddess of virgins and the hunt, married women would also pray to her when they wanted to conceive a child or when they wanted to ensure an easy delivery. The lock, therefore, could symbolically represent the natural unlocking process of the pregnant female body at the moment of childbirth. Alternatively, it was not uncommon during the early modern period for the windows of a house to be locked up so that the lying-in chamber could be as secure and womb-like as possible. Jennifer Hellwarth and Merry Wiesner have both separately argued that early modern doors and windows were typically locked and covered during childbirth.[26] The lock, therefore, can either be interpreted as a tribute to soon-to-be mothers or reflect this cultural custom of latching windows in order to protect and insulate the lying-in chamber. The final face of the trinity, the fury portion of the triple Hecate, traditionally carries a dismembered phallus in one hand and a snake in the other. While the first of these objects represents a reclaiming of active sexuality by women, the snake alternatively signifies medicinal knowledge.[27] Combined, however, each of these symbols graphically reinforces the intrinsic power of the triple Hecate herself. She is a defender of women and a sign of righteous female anger and authority. The tools she possesses are visual warnings to those who mistreat the female sex, as they can be used as defensive weapons against any acts of masculine aggression.

  8. While the above information only constitutes a very brief introduction and examination of the triple Hecate, it does reveal a number of provocative parallels between this ancient goddess and Spenser's own Cynthia, Diana, and Mutabilitie. Instead of depicting his three goddesses in a state of harmonious union, Spenser deprives his three female characters of their own independent sovereignty, leaving them impotent and divided. Of these three figures, Cynthia as the moon goddess is given the most cautious treatment, a difference that is in no small part due, no doubt, to the possible connections his readers could draw between Cynthia and Elizabeth herself. In his now famous letter to Ralegh, Spenser writes that he will fashion Elizabeth's name in Ralegh's “owne excellent conceipt of Cynthia (Pheobe and Cynthia both being names of Diana)”.[28] Spenser admits in this letter that he plans to incorporate pieces of Elizabeth herself into The Faerie Queene and by having Cynthia appear directly in his Cantos of Mutabilitie Spenser cunningly associates Elizabeth with his subsequently unflattering depiction of female divinity. Given that by the 1590s the Virgin Queen was already inspiring the adoration and worship of some of her people and was being used almost as a surrogate figure for the Virgin Mary herself, Spenser's decision to link Elizabeth with the divine is hardly unique. When studying the work of Richard Topcliffe, “a government agent notorious for his pursuit and persecution of Catholics”, Helen Hackett notes that Topcliff's less than flattering critique of Virgin Mary iconography highlights his desire to have Queen Elizabeth supplant the Virgin Mary as England's spiritual figurehead.[29] According to Hackett, the “Virgin Mary is set up against the Virgin Queen Elizabeth; the 'false' virgin is destroyed, thereby reinforcing the authority of the 'true' virgin”.[30] Elizabeth becomes the provincial overseer of the protestant faith, as she guides her own flock away from false images while being used (according to Hackett) “as an idol in much the same way”.[31] Spenser's decision to critique this growing cultural idolization of Elizabeth, therefore, is not unprecedented. Nor, however, is his decision to force Elizabeth to reject this association and distance herself from it through Nature's final judgment.

  9. What we have in this moment, therefore, is an image of Cynthia as one side of a trinity of goddesses and, on the other, an allegorical representation of England's ruling monarch. Yet, on both levels, Spenser proceeds to critique and contain Cynthia's potential power in at least three noteworthy ways. First, just as literary descriptions and artistic renditions of the Luna-side of the triple Hecate most commonly depict her as holding a torch, Spenser deliberately chooses to characterize his Cynthia in relation to a similar object. He writes that Vesper, the evening star and Cynthia's attendant,
    That duly her attended day and night;
    .... with his Torche, still twinkling like twylight,
    Her lightened all the way where she should wend,
    And joy to weary wandering travailers did lend.[32]
    While this passage initially seems to reaffirm Cynthia's lunar power and strengthen her association with the torch-bearing face of the triple Hecate, Spenser's choice of words reveal a very subtle shift in meaning. Unlike artistic renderings of Luna, which depict a woman who is more than capable of holding her own torch and lighting her own way, Spenser's Cynthia is a passive figure who meekly sits on her royal throne while blindly following Vesper along her celestial path. Spenser's careful wording also makes the torch, rather than Cynthia, the object that supplies “joy to weary wandering travailers”. While Spenser does characterize Cynthia as a regal sovereign in her own right, he limits her true power by transforming her into an ornamental ruler alone. The brief glimpses we receive of Cynthia's two male advisors, Vesper and Tyme, reveal where the real power lies, as we respectively witness Vesper dictate Cynthia's movements and Tyme arrange her schedule. Spenser's Cynthia meekly submits herself to masculine authority, a fact further attested to by her loyal support of Jove. She might be the goddess of the moon and night-time sky, but according to the power hierarchy Spenser creates in the Mutabilitie Cantos, she can only ever be the paler lunar shadow to the absolute power of the male sun God, Jove.

  10. Cynthia's unquestioning submission to male governance leads to the second way in which Spenser disempowers and critiques Cynthia's own divinity. Whereas Luna, as a representative of one face of the triple Hecate, was not hampered by any limitations on her ability to lead travellers and provide heavenly direction to those in need, Spenser's Cynthia occupies a very set path, with Vesper lighting which way she “should wend” in the heavens.[33] Spenser builds on this first instance by finding additional covert ways to regulate and control Cynthia's power within his work, stressing that while Cynthia may reign “in euerlasting glory”, she does so only because Jove permits it: “But shee that has to her that soueraigne seat / By highest Iove assign'd”.[34] Spenser takes the symbolic meaning attributed to the triple Hecate's torch and transforms it into a very literal object that has a very precise purpose. Instead of acknowledging any spiritual connotations the torch might have initially signified when held by the triple Hecate, Vesper's torch instead helps to confine the moon (i.e. Cynthia) to a very specific path in the heavens. The heavenly light cast by the torch, therefore, ends up leading Cynthia as much as it does the weary travellers who look to her for guidance. Cynthia's realm of influence, therefore, only extends to the “circle of the Moone” itself and not a step beyond.[35]

  11. The final noteworthy way in which Spenser critiques Cynthia, as both a symbolic member of the triple Hecate and as an allegorical representation of Elizabeth herself, is by associating her with a community of ineffectual and bickering goddesses who are constantly striving for supremacy over one another. Just as the triple Hecate is paradoxically understood as being neither a single goddess nor an amalgamation of many, Cynthia's own singular identity becomes confused through Spenser's tendency to constantly conflate her with other goddess figures, such as Pheobe and Diana. Her identity as a moon goddess becomes entangled with a string of other female deities, all of whom possess equally legitimate mythological claims to the sovereignty of the moon. Whereas this moment of feminine community could be symbolically empowering, it instead becomes a source of contention and rivalry. The triple Hecate is an unmistakable symbol of shared authority, yet Spenser cynically refuses to accept this model of feminine cooperation. Instead, Spenser chooses to dramatically illustrate the inevitability of feminine conflict by highlighting the inherent violence of the changing phases of the moon as it shifts from full, to half, to dark. When Mutabilitie first beholds Cynthia's realm, Spenser describes her as being consumed by jealousy:
    That when the hardy Titanesse beheld
    The goodly building of her Palace bright,
    Shee gan to burne in her ambitious spright,
    And t'envie her that in such glorie raigned.
    Eftsoones she cast by force and tortuous might,
    Her to displace, and to her selfe have gained
    The kingdome of the Night, and waters by her wained.[36]
    As her resentment builds Mutabilitie becomes increasingly violent and unreasonable. She attacks Cynthia and, as the two goddesses struggle with one another, the earth below becomes “darkened quite”.[37] Spenser chooses to have Mutabilitie's physical proximity to Cynthia result in the cyclical change of the moon as it shifts from full moon (Cynthia) to dark moon (Mutabilitie). In this moment of the poem, therefore, Spenser depicts the cycle of change symbolically embodied by the triple Hecate as a violent transition, rather than a peaceful and cooperative changeover:
    Yet nathemore the Giantesse forbare:
    But boldly preacing-on, raught forth her hand
    To pluck [Cynthia] downe perforce from off her chaire;
    And there-with lifting up her golden wand
    Threatned to strike her if she did with-stand.
    ......................... the Titanesse
    Was striving with faire Cynthia for her seat.[38]
    The shift from one face of the triple Hecate to the other becomes a physically violent contest of strength between Cynthia and Mutabilitie, a catfight that eventually requires a male godhead to intervene in order for harmony to be restored.

  12. Spenser's critique of the triple Hecate's model of joint feminine divinity continues with his literary representation of the second face of the triple Hecate, that of Diana the virginal and earthly huntress. While the poem transitions more peacefully from the story of Cynthia to the tale of Diana, this does not suggest that Spenser does not find equally effective means of belittling not only this face of the trinity, but also the relationship she shares with her two opposing sides. Spenser attacks Diana primarily through a comic retelling of Ovid's mythological story involving Diana and Acteon, whom Diana transforms into a deer to be torn apart by his own hunting dogs after he accidentally sees her naked body while she baths in a stream.[39] Instead of simply re-telling this ancient story of male emasculation and feminine retribution, Spenser instead chooses to parody it by writing a similar story featuring Diana and Faunus. During this ridiculous spoof, the God Faunus, whose very name means “foolish one”, laughs while looking upon Diana's naked form as she (once again) baths in a stream.[40] Faunus's voyeuristic, male gaze reduces Diana's naked body to a mere joke:
    There Faunus saw that pleased much his eye,
    And made his hart to tickle in his brest,
    That for great ioy of some-what he did spy,
    He could him not containe in silent rest;
    But breaking forth in laughter, loud profest
    His foolish thought.[41]
    Her divinity, dignity, and symbolic import become, quite literally in this episode, stripped from her as Faunus's wandering eyes make Diana's private self publicly accessible to Spenser's readers. Throughout The Faerie Queene Spenser uses the removal of clothing as a literary motif to reveal larger truths to his readers (for example, in the stripping of Duessa earlier in the poem). In this episode, however, the truth that Spenser discloses erases and defaces Diana's larger symbolic meaning, rather than reveals it. Faunus observes no significant truth in Diana's naked flesh and, upon discovering this, the peeping Tom is left with nothing else to do but laugh at the uncovered goddess.

  13. As though the physical exposure of Diana alone was not sufficient enough, Spenser decides to also remove her ability to punish Faunus's transgression, a direct change to the violent warning embodied by both the triple Hecate and the original myth involving Acteon. The triple Hecate is meant to be a symbol of righteous female anger, as previously outlined, but Spenser's Diana ultimately miscarries in her own hunt and the foolish Faunus manages to successfully elude her. After failing in her pursuit of Faunus, as she previously succeeded in her hunt for Acteon, Diana reluctantly concedes defeat and returns home “weary” and empty handed from her chase.[42] Faunus escapes punishment and instead of tearing apart her male offender, Spenser only permits Diana to stone Molanna, the sprite who initially betrayed her location to Faunus. While Spenser's narrative strictly prevents Diana from prosecuting a man, it does allow continued and escalating acts of violence to occur between his female characters.

  14. After depriving Diana of her dignity, Spenser proceeds to use her ineffectiveness to further strengthen his attack against the larger concepts embodied by the triple Hecate, particularly the cooperative model of feminine divinity it promotes. As was the case with Cynthia, Spenser also continues to subtly associate Elizabeth herself with this model. Just as Cynthia's name becomes strangely inseparable from Elizabeth's own, Diana's name becomes nearly indistinguishable from Cynthia's. Spenser chooses to make Diana and Cynthia virtually inseparable from one another, a decision that deliberately strengthens his literary allusion to the triple Hecate. During the Diana episode, Spenser refers to the virginal huntress at least twice by the name Cynthia, rather than by her proper name. In Book VII, canto thirty-eight, for example, after introducing Diana as the primary inhabitant of the woods surrounding Ireland, Spenser continues his introduction of her by writing that “Cynthia,” instead of Diana, is the “soueraine Queene profest / Of woods and forests”.[43] Similarly, near the end of the Faunus encounter, Spenser continues to refer intermittently to Diana as Cynthia by writing that “Cynthia” returns to her forest glade “more angry then the rest.”[44] As names become less and less reliable within the Mutabilitie Cantos, what remains is a faceless concept of female divinity linked by Spenser to the monarch herself.

  15. While Spenser uses Diana to blur the names and identities of the goddesses who principally occupy his Mutabilitie Cantos, he also uses her to further his critique of Elizabeth's own person. As the connections between Spenser's community of goddesses and Elizabeth I continue to grow, Spenser's satire becomes increasingly political. After being humiliated both by Faunus's trespass and her own inability to punish his transgression, Diana abandons Kilcolmen, Arlo, and the forests of Ireland in general:[45]
    Nath'lesse, Diana full of indignation,
    Thence-forth abandoned her delicious brooke;
    In whose sweet streame, before that bad occasion,
    So much delight to bathe her limbes she tooke:
    Ne onely her, but also quite forsook
    All those faire forests about Arlo hid,
    And all the Mountaine, which doth over-looke
    The richest champion that may else be rid
    And the faire Shure, in which are thousand Salmons bred.[46]
    While this abandonment characterizes Ireland as a forsaken land, a depiction that aptly applies to Spenser's own political views, it simultaneously undermines Elizabeth's royal authority.[47] As Elizabeth's identity becomes increasingly intertwined with Spenser's Diana, his decision to have Faunus effectively laugh both women out of Ireland borders on treasonous. Both Diana and Elizabeth flee Ireland out of shame and completely abandon their royal responsibilities there. In Spenser's eyes, this abandonment constitutes a failure, as he fervently believed that Elizabeth should take a more active and aggressive role in the colonization and civilization of Ireland. Quite dangerously, Spenser aligns Elizabeth with an image of female divinity only to highlight its failures.

  16. Spenser brings this double critique to a climax through his characterization of Mutabilitie, who represents death, the underworld, and the third side of the triple Hecate. Spenser's choice to use the goddess of death, disorder, and change as the designated spokesperson for the rights of female divinity is ironically fitting, given the lengths he goes to in this poem to undermine and belittle this very same concept. Mutabilitie, who is once again linked with a series of goddesses who help create a collective divinity rather than personal identity around her person, is really the most inappropriate figure Spenser could call on, given her dubious characterization. Genealogically, as Spenser emphasizes, she is descended from both Hecate and Bellona, the goddesses of witchcraft and war respectively, but Spenser also compares Mutabilitie to the “infernall” goddess Proserpina, through their shared association with the death and the demonic. [48] By linking Mutabilitie with both Hecate and Proserpina so specifically, however, Spenser strengthens his depiction of Mutabilitie as the third face of the triple Hecate. Just as we witness Spenser transform both Cynthia and Diana into faceless concepts of female divinity, we see him characterize Mutabilitie as an ambivalent figure with multiple presences. Her appearance seems to constantly shift, not only as a result of the community of goddesses she becomes representative of, but also through the series of descriptions and impressions Spenser provides us with. Richard Berleth, for example, notes that in humanity's eyes Mutabilitie is a “monster of ruin and decay,” in Cynthia's an “upstart rival”, in Mercury's a “hellish force”, and in Jove's “a fraile woman”.[49] Mutabilitie's physicality mirrors the very meaning of her name: change. While Spenser specifically charges Mutabilitie with the crime of inconstancy, his characterization of all of the female goddesses in his poem highlights their shared guilt, emphasizing their taint by association. The triple Hecate is a symbol of female divinity, but also an emblem of change and transformation. Spenser uses the intrinsic meaning of the triple Hecate as proof of its own unfitness and unworthiness. Spenser uses Mutabilitie's very nature as the evidence he requires to subsequently dismiss her.

  17. Yet, as was the case with both his treatment of Cynthia and Diana respectively, Spenser finds additional ways of associating Mutabilitie with the concept of the triple Hecate in order to further attack this model of female divinity and authority. He accomplishes this by once again manipulating the symbolic tools commonly associated with the triple Hecate. The Hecate / Fury side of the triple Hecate, we may recall, was traditionally depicted as holding a dismembered phallus in one hand. As Mutabilitie approaches the throne of Jove, in an attempt to directly appeal her case and demand justice, Spenser writes that the watching Gods “stood all astonished, like a sort of Steeres”.[50] A. C. Hamilton's annotation of this passage notes that the word “steeres” in this instance “implies impotence”.[51] In her own state of righteous anger, Mutabilitie can emasculate her opponents. Yet even this potentially threatening and disruptive power has its limitations within Spenser's narrative. In fact, Jove's condescendence and imperious anger ends up first dominating and then smothering Mutabilitie's own. While the nameless gods who watch this encounter might be temporarily struck dumb, Jove's own gaze conversely becomes over-sexed. Jove begins his address to Mutabilitie with a series of warnings of how he dispatches political opponents. He brags and flaunts the punishments he has bestowed upon figures such as Procrustes, Typhon, and Prometheus as deliberate warnings and scare tactics. Upon further reflection, however, Jove ultimately denies Mutabilitie the same treatment he has given these other political rivals. While Jove expresses no qualms about brutally punishing those who challenge him, his reaction to Mutabilitie is notably different. Mutabilitie's impassioned speech and righteous conviction have little impact on Jove, but her “lovely face,” “faire beames of beauty”, and “grace” more meaningfully catch his notice.[52] As was the case in the Diana/Faunus episode, the male gaze objectifies Mutabilitie. Instead of reclaiming her sexuality (or depriving her opponent of his) she instead becomes hyper-sexualized and gendered simultaneously, a fact that is repeatedly heightened by Jove's patronizingly casual dismissals of Mutabilitie as a “foolish gerle” and “fraile woman”.[53] Jove does not show Mutabilitie leniency because he has a grudging respect for her eloquence or ability to debate, but as a result of her sensual physical form. Ironically, Mutabilitie does not end up emasculating her opponent, but rather only succeeds in enflaming his passion.

  18. Regardless of how captivatingly eloquent Mutabilitie is, Spenser does not want his readers to identify with (or feel sympathy for) her. In addition to describing her on numerous occasions as cruel, proud, and arrogant, Spenser repeatedly demonstrates how her political venture fails. Throughout Spenser's narrative villainous figures, such as Duessa and Archimago, are repeatedly foiled in their various schemes and, like them, Mutabilitie seems destined to endure repeated failures. Mutabilitie is able to gain power neither through the use of physical force with Cynthia nor through the use of persuasive rhetoric with Nature and, as was the case with Diana, these repeated defeats seriously diminish her authority.  Perhaps the most shocking revelation that arises out of these numerous failures, however, is that Mutabilitie always meets defeat at the hands of another female character. Even when she challenges Jove directly she ultimately dismisses him because he refuses to see her as an equal. Instead, Mutabilitie turns to other powerful women, such as Cynthia and Nature, to be her judge: “To weet, the God of Nature, I appeale”.[54] Sadly, the female community to which Mutabilitie turns in an attempt to seek solace fail her as spectacularly as Jove himself does.

  19. The trial scene at the end of the Mutabilitie Cantos takes on a whole new possible reading once we accept that Spenser intimately connects Elizabeth with his trinity of goddesses. As the judicial overseer of the trial, Nature (as the ruler of the natural world) holds one of the only truly legitimizing positions for a woman to occupy in the Mutabilitie Cantos and, yet, Spenser deliberately clouds her gender in mystery, claiming that no one present at the trials is “certes by her face and physnomy, / Whether she man or woman inly were, / That could not any creature well descry”.[55] While Nature's exterior warrants the use of clearly gendered pronouns, such as “her” and “she”, Spenser is less certain about what gendered language to apply to Nature's interior self. Spenser makes it clear that neither he himself nor those present at the trial know if Nature “man or woman inly were”. This ambiguity of gender is something that Elizabeth also repeatedly encouraged when speaking of herself. In several of Elizabeth's surviving speeches we see her carefully differentiate between her outer, feminine body and her inner, kingly body politic. In her “Armada Speech” to the troops at Tilbury on 9 August 1588, for example, she reportedly announced: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king and a king of England too”.[56] While acknowledging her outer physical form, Elizabeth proscribes a masculine identity to her inner determination and spirit. Following in this vein, Spenser combines Nature's physical femininity with her masculine authority in order to justify his decision to have her act as the legal arbitrator in Mutabilitie's and Jove's dispute.

  20. Yet, the trial and its verdict go beyond a simple debate of the merits of Mutabilitie's legal case. Instead, the trial becomes an intensely personal decision for Elizabeth herself. The question the trial poses for Spenser's Nature/Elizabeth is whether or not she wants to continue to co-exist with a pack of squabbling and ineffectual goddesses, and be subject to Mutabilitie's whims and changes or whether or not she wants to submit herself to the rational and commanding authority of Jove alone? To whom will Nature yield – to the changeability of Mutabilitie or to the permanence of a singular male godhead? After associating her with a community of goddesses throughout the Mutabilitie Cantos, Spenser now acknowledges Elizabeth as the ruler of the natural world, but at the same time also forces her to choose where her ultimate spiritual allegiance will lie. The legal merits of Mutabilitie's and Jove's cases become inconsequential and instead Spenser encourages Nature to make a personal decision as to which master she will submit herself. Mutabilitie concludes her argument with a very direct personal appeal to Nature. “Who can deny,” she asks, whether “this lower world ... be subject still to Mutabilitie”?[57] After parading out a series of pageant-like displays in which she demonstrates how the natural world is bound to the cycles of change allegorically embodied by the triple Hecate, such as the changing of the seasons, Mutabilitie suggests that her kinship with Nature is part of the natural order and something that Nature must acknowledge. Alternatively, Jove counters by questioning whether or not Nature believes that he “doth move and still compel” Time and changes?[58] While Mutabilitie appeals to Nature's womanly exterior, Jove more specifically speaks to her ambivalently gendered interior. Jove does not deny that Nature's exterior is subject to change. Instead he argues that Nature must acknowledge that Jove's higher purpose “moves them all, and makes them changed be ... So them we gods doe rule, and in them also thee”.[59] In this regard, Jove exploits English notions of Elizabeth's two bodies. Both Nature and Elizabeth are “at once a frail earthly being, subject to death and disease, and an immortal being, the incarnation of a sacred principle of kingship”.[60] After specifically associating her with the feminine power Mutabilitie represents in this episode, Spenser uses the trial to now provide Nature/Elizabeth with an opportunity to re-align herself with the more enduring masculine tradition that he deems to be the more respectable position.

  21. The religious implications behind both arguments further complicate Nature/Elizabeth's choice. Louis Montrose has previously suggested that “Elizabethan discourse of sedition often combines religious heterodoxy and a sceptical and materialist attitude toward authorizing fictions of power with a venerable tradition of misogyny”, and Spenser certainly uses these tactics in an attempt to disprove an alternative power model.[61] Not only does Spenser force Elizabeth to choose between traditional notions of male and female divinity, but she also has to choose between the ancient religious significance of the triple Hecate and the singular authority of an all-powerful male God. Spenser ultimately denies Elizabeth the possibility of aligning herself with a strong, female tradition of cooperative power. Even as he grants her legal power in his narrative, he deprives her of any real choice in the trail. During the course of the two Mutabilitie Cantos Spenser succeeds in demonizing and disempowering the goddess tradition Mutabilitie represents in the final episode. Given his unflattering portrayal of Mutabilitie and her fellow goddesses, Spenser's fictional Nature/Elizabeth figure is left with no logical choice but to distance herself from this community, instead choosing the only apparently empowering choice left available to her. Nature's verdict, to quote Chaudhuri, “in effect both confirms and denies her authority”.[62] By submitting herself to the timeless authority of the monotheistic Jove, Nature restores what Spenser perceives as being both the proper religious order and the proper gender hierarchy simultaneously. Not only does Nature legitimize Jove's singular authority, but she meekly returns the judicial powers she has been given to a supreme male figurehead. With order restored, Spenser ends a work initially dedicated to Elizabeth with the far more comforting praise of “Him that is the God of Sabbaoth hight”.[63]



[1]  C. M. C. Green, Roman Religion and the Cult of Diana at Aricia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 134.

[2] For a further discussion of early modern literary treatments of the Triple Hecate see Jeanne Addison Roberts, “The Crone in English Renaissance Drama”, in John Pitcher and Susan Cerasano, eds., Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, vol. 15 (London: Rosemont Publishing, 2003), 116-137 or Janet S. Wolf, “'Like an Old Tale Still': Paulina, 'Triple Hecate,' and the Persephone Myth in The Winter's Tale,” in Elizabeth T. Hayes, ed., Images of Persephone: Feminist Readings in Western Literature (Gainesvilles: University of Florida Press, 1994), 32-44. For additional primary sources, refer to Lyly's Endymion, Jonson's Cynthia's Revels, or Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

[3] Dorothea Wender, “Introduction” in Hesiod and Theognis, 11-22 (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 11.

[4] Hesiod, Theogony in Hesiod and Theognis, edited by Dorthea Wender, 23-57 (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 36-37.

[5] Jeanne Addison Roberts, The Shakespearean Wild: Geography, Genus, and Gender (Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 1991), 172.

[6] For a concise discussion of Spenser's familiarity with and use of Hesiod, including The Theogony, see Stella P. Revard, “Hesiod”, in A. C. Hamilton, ed., The Spenser Encyclopedia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 369.

[7] For a further discussion of early modern definitions of Hecate see Helen Ostovich, “The Appropriation of Pleasure in The Magnetic Lady,” in Susan Frye and Karen Robertson, eds, Maids and Mistresses, Cousins and Queens: Women's Alliances in Early Modern England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 99 or Jeanne Addison Roberts, The Shakespearean Wild, 175.

[8] Edmund Spenser, Two Cantos of Mutabilitie, in A. C. Hamilton, ed, The Faerie Queene (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), VII.i.3.1-6.

[9] In I.i.43, for example, Archimago calls on the evil powers of Hecate to deceive and trick Red Cross Knight into abandoning Una. A. C. Hamilton suggests that as the goddess of witches, Hecate was associated with “magic, dreams, and apparitions (41). Hecate, therefore, is associated with demonic magic and deception early on in Spenser's writing.

[10] Supriya Chaudhuri, “Mutability, metamorphosis and the nature of power,” in Jane Grogan, ed., Celebrating Mutability (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 179.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ostovich 99.

[13] Jeanne Addison Roberts, The Shakespearean Wild, 172.

[14] Carin M. C. Green, Roman Religion, 135.

[15] Ostovich 99.

[16] For an artistic rendering see Ostovich 100.

[17] Jon A. Quitslund, “Questionable Evidence in the Letters of 1850,” Spenser's Life and the Subject of Biography, edited by Judith H. Anderson, Donald Cheney, David A. Richardson (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 82.

[18] Ibid.

[19] John Mulryan, “Mythographers”, in A. C. Hamilton, ed., The Spenser Encyclopedia (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 494.

[20] Natale Conti's Mythologiae, 2 vols., translated and annotated by John Mulryan and Stephen Brown (Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006), 1.200.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid 99.

[23] Patricia Turner and Charles Russell Coulter, eds., Dictionary of Ancient Deities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 208.

[24] Rudolf Steiner, Wonders of the World, Ordeals of the Soul, Revelations of the Spirit, translated by Dorothy Lenn and Owen Barfield (Munich: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1983), 42.

[25] Ostovich, “Appropriation of Pleasure,” 99.

[26] Jennifer Wynne Hellwarth, The Reproductive Unconscious in Medieval and Early Modern England (New York: Routledge, 2002), 8; Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 81.

[27] Steiner, 42.

[28] Spenser, 716.

[29] Helen Hackett, Virgin Mother, Maiden Queen (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), 1.

[30] Ibid, 2-3.

[31] Ibid, 3.

[32] Spenser, VII.vi.9, 4; 7-9.

[33] Ibid 9, 9, my emphasis added.

[34] Ibid 8, 2; 12, 1-2.

[35] Ibid 8, 1-2.

[36] Ibid 10, 1-9.

[37] Ibid 14, 2.

[38] Ibid 13, 5; 17, 2-3.

[39] For Diana/Actaeon myth see Ovid, Metamorphoses, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 198.

[40] A. C. Hamilton, “Annotations” in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2001), 698.

[41] Spenser, VII.vi.46, 1-6.

[42] Ibid 53, 1.

[43] Ibid 38, 7-8.

[44] Ibid 51, 1.

[45] Elizabeth Fowler, “Architectonic Character and Dominion in Two Cantos of Mutabilitie,” in Literary Character: The Human Figure in Early Modern English Writing (New York: Cornell University Press, 2003), 228.

[46] Spenser, VII.vi.54, 1-9.

[47] For additional information concerning Spenser's political views of Ireland see Andrew Hadfield, Shakespeare, Spenser and the Matter of Britain (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) or David J. Baker, Between Nations: Shakespeare, Spenser, Marvell, and the Question of Britain (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[48] Spenser, VII.vii.3, 6.

[49] Richard J. Berleth, “Fraile Woman, Foolish Gerle: Misogyny in Spenser's Mutabilitie Cantos,” Modern Philology 93.1 (August 1995), 37-53.

[50] Spenser, VII.vi.28, 6.

[51] Hamilton, 696.

[52] Spenser, VII.vi.31, 1-2.

[53] Ibid 43, 1; 25, 8.

[54] Ibid 35, 6.

[55] Ibid VII.vii.5, 5-7.

[56] Elizabeth I, “Armada Speech” in Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds., Elizabeth I: Collected Works (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 326.

[57] Spenser, VII.vii.47, 8-9.

[58] Ibid 48, 5.

[59] Ibid 48, 8-9.

[60] Leah S. Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 54.

[61] Louis Adrian Montrose, “The Elizabethan Subject and the Spenserian Text,” in Patricia Parker and David Quint, eds., Literary Theory / Renaissance Texts (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1986), 312.

[62] Chaudhuri, 183.

[63] Spenser, VII.viii.2, 9.



Works Cited:



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© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).