Esoteric Elements in Spenser’s “Faerie Queen”

Elizabeth, the faerie queen, with her dress covered in eyes exemplifying her vast intelligence network

Tracing the Possible Influences for “Redcrosse Knight” and “Lucifera”

By: Jay

(c) Copyright

Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen represents a high point in British Renaissance literature. Intended to be a mythological epic modeled after the epics of Greece and Rome, Spenser’s allegory would give a historic pedigree to Britain as the successor to those empires, as well as securing Spenser’s place as an epic master along the lines of Homer and Vergil. This vast work of poetry, however, is a very complex piece that draws on numerous classical and religious traditions, as well as the thought of hermetic and occultic groups that were prominent in Spenser’s day. The purpose of this paper will be to analyze the curious character “Lucifer,” and what sources Spenser may be drawing from to form this imagery, as well as what the character means within the layers of symbolism.

Lucifera first appears in Book I, Cato IV as a female manifestation of Duessa. Spenser critic Elizabeth Heale explains of Duessa:

Where Una’s name points to the singleness of truth, Duessa’s signifies the doubleness of falsehood and deceit. The reader is alerted to her significance in the Argument to Canto ii, but like Una, she is most fully identified by her appearance. Redcrosse, separated now from Una, meeets Duessa accompanied by the Saracen Sansofoy and richly dressed in a manner which ought to be instantly recognizable:

A goodly Lady clad in scarlot red,
Purfled with gold and pearle of rich assay,
And like a Persian mitre on her head

She wore, with crownes and owches garnished,
The which her lauish louers to her gaue;
Her wanton palfrey all was ouerspred
With tinsell trappings, wouen like a waue,
Whose bridle rung with golden bels and bosses braue.

The imagery of scarlet, gold and jewels is from the description in Revelation (12:4) of the Whore of Babylon, commonly interpreted by the Protestants as the Papacy. The contrast to Una, Truth and the Reformed Church is developed point by point: the clothing, the mount, the companion.1

Duessa will be the true form of Lucifera, thus identifying her character bears exploration. Heale correctly notes the immediate historic import of Duessa as the Roman Catholic Church. Hitherto, Redcrosse Knight had been journeying towards holiness after encountering Una, the symbol of truth and righteousness as found in the reformed church. Immediately after this meeting, however, he had been sidetracked by Duessa, a counterfeit version of Una, and while resembling her, was yet chock full of pomp and trickery, being affiliated with a sorcerer named Archimago, or the arch mage.

Heale means text from Revelation 17:4 (not 12:4), which reads, “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and precious stones and pearls, having in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the filthiness of her fornication.”2 The designation of the Roman Church as a whore was common amongst reformers of various traditions, as well as the accusation of magic and sorcery as it applied to the Catholic Eucharistic celebration, wherein the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Accoridng to the Roman doctrine, the priest alone has the power to consecrate this divine reality, and the reformers were generally in agreement in rejecting this notion as sorcery and magic. Genevan reformer and contemporary of Spenser, John Calvin, writes in his his highly influential Institutes of the Christian Religion as follows:

The Mass itself, apart from its profanation, is sacrilege. What remains but that the blind may see, the deaf hear, and even children understand the abomination of the Mass? Offered in a golden cup, it has so inebriated all kings and peoples of the earth, from highest to lowest, and has so stricken them with drowsiness and dizziness, that, more stupid than brute beasts, they have steered the whole vessel of salvation into this one deadly whirlpool. Surely Satan never prepared a stronger engine to bseige and capture Christ’s Kingdom. This is the Helen for whom they so defile themselves in spiritual fornication, the most abominable of all.3

The language is unmistakably similar and certainly Calvin had the passage from the Revelation of John in mind when he critiqued the Catholic Mass. Spenser is working within this broad Calvinist tradition, though Anglicanism was (and has been) on the whole more tolerant of some of the high church externals.

When Duessa shows Redcrosse knight her palace, it becomes clearer that she is allied with the biblical Lucifer. Spenser writes:

Thither Duessa bad him bend his pace:
For she is wearie of the toilesome way,
And also nigh consumed is the lingring day.

A stately Pallace built of squared bricke,
Which cunningly was without morter laid,
Whose wals were high, but nothing strong, nor thick,
And golden foile all ouer them displaid,
That purest skye with brightnesse they dismaid:
High lifted vp were many loftie towres,
And goodly galleries farre ouer laid,
Full of faire windowes, and delightfull bowres;
And on the top a Diall told the timely howres.4

Duessa’s palace is the house of pride, we begin to see, and her pomp is known to all. She is contrasted with the “heavenly” church of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 4, instead preferring her glory to be earthly mammon. Her church has a clock tower and appears stately like all churches, yet hers is a deceitful ruse. She does not shine with the radiance of God Himself, but rather with her own wisdom and splendor. Hers is a derivative, parodied glory:

In glistring gold, and peerelesse pretious stone:
Yet her bright blazing beautie did assay
To dim the brightnesse of her glorious throne,
As enuying her selfe, that too exceeding shone.

While flashing beames do daze his feeble eyen,
He leaues the welkin way most beaten plaine,
And rapt with whirling wheeles, inflames the skyen,
With fire not made to burne, but fairely for to shyne.

So proud she shyned in her Princely state,
Looking to heauen; for earth she did disdayne,
And sitting high; for lowly she did hate:
Lo vnderneath her scornefull feete, was layne
A dreadfull Dragon with an hideous trayne,
And in her hand she held a mirrhour bright,
Wherein her face she often vewed fayne,
And in her selfe-lou’d semblance tooke delight;
For she was wondrous faire, as any liuing wight.5

She is like royalty and shies with a secondary light like the moon. Her princely state indicates this woman had powerful royal ties. The dragon under her feet borrows from Revelation `12:1-4 where it does read that the true Church led into the wilderness to escape the wrath of the dragon, later emerging triumphant with the serpent or dragon under the feet of the woman. This, again, is most fitting in light of the contemporary religious and social tensions given the newly emerged Protestant Reformation.

Now Lucifera enters the picture, as a manifestation or title of Duessa. Spenser writes:

Of griesly Pluto she the daughter was,
And sad
Proserpina the Queene of hell;
Yet did she thinke her pearelesse wroth to pas
That parentage, with pride so did she swell,
And thundring
Ioue, that high in heauen doth dwell,
And wield the world, she claymed for her syre,
Or if that any else did
Ioue excell:
For to the highest she did still aspyre,
Or if ought higher were then that, did it desyre.

And proud Lucifera men did her call,
That made her selfe a Queene, and crownd to be,
Yet rightfull kingdome she had none at all,
Ne heritage of natiue soueraintie,
But did vsurpe with wrong and tyrannie
Vpon the scepter, which she now did hold:
Ne ruld her Realmes with lawes, but pollicie,
And strong aduizement of six wisards old,
That with their counsels bad her kingdome did vphold.6

The woman in question has become clearer. She is a female manifestation of Lucifer, the fallen angel of biblical tradition. However, the biblical tradition does not explicitly speak of a female consort or manifestation of Lucifer. There is mention of Lucifer who sinned through pride in wanting to be “like God” in Isaiah 14:12-13, which reads, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning…For you have said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God.”7 No gender is assigned there as feminine, and the “whore of Babylon” of Revelation 17 is never identified as Lucifer or a feminine manifestation thereof. Pluto, of course, was the Roman version of the Greek Hades, or god of death and the underworld. Revelation also utilizes Hades imagery in 20:14 when declaring that the angel of death will eventually be himself “cast into hell” (Rev. 20:14).8 Another clue is that Lucifera has no kingdom or sovereignty that she calls her own. This perfectly matched the papal claims of transcending national laws and jurisdictions. The papacy, the Roman Church taught, has full supremacy even in temporal matters, and cannot be bound by any higher authority.

However, there are other, deeper references and sources from which Spenser may have drawn in creating the Lucifera character. A note in Hamilton’s annotated Faerie Queen states, “She is the female counterpart of Lucifer.”9 But where is there basis for this? Linguist and literary critic John Hankins provides some insight on this question:

This [Natalis Comes’ Mythologia] is probably Spenser’s source for the name [Lucifera], but it provides only a few hints as to Lucifera….Comes lists it as a name for the moon. The reference to the “alien light” is echoed in stanzas 8 and 9, where we are told that Lucifera shines like the sun, or rather like Phaethon, who assumed the vesture and chariot of the sun, which did not properly belong to him….She is the offspring of Pluto and Proserpina. Since they were sometimes considered to preside over unformed matter, we have in them a correspondence to Comes’ “crasser matter.”10

With this in mind, is possible to examine the movements that surrounded Spenser that popularized lesser known, hermetic philosophies that borrowed more heavily from classical and pagan traditions, than from the Jewish or patristic traditions, such as the Order of the Garter and the Rosicrucians. Although there is no evidence Spenser was certainly a member of any noble or hermetic order, these movements were certainly part of the Elizabethan court milieu. For example, Elizabeth’s personal astrologer and “major Rosicrucian figure” was magician, alchemist and astrologer, Dr. John Dee, the original “007.”11 In fact, Dr. John Dee had become enamored of Neo-platonic magic—a trend during the Renaissance with figures such as Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino, both of whom were influences upon the Renaissance in general. Indeed, Dr. Dee was the primary influence upon the Rosicrucian movement.12

There is also a possible connection between “Redcrosse Knight” and the Brotherhood of the Rosy Cross, or the Rosicrucians. While Redcrosse Knight on one level represents historically the British nation and church against the papacy, it is also possible that Spenser intends a deeper allegorical significance to be found in Redcrosse. Yates writes:

There very special significance attached to the Order of the Garter was again an Elizabethan tradition. There had been a great revival of the Order, its ceremonies, processions, and ethos, during the reign of Elizabeth, who had used it as a means of drawing the noblemen together in common service to the crown. When the Palsgrave became a garter Knight he enlisted under the banner of the Red Cross of St. George in defense of the causes for which the Order stood, the fighting the Dragon of Wrong and the defense of the Monarch. The story of St. George and the Dragon and of his romantic adventures in attacking wrongs and defending the oppressed was blazoned in the fire of the fireworks…A queen, imprisoned by a necromancer was delivered by the great champion of the world, St. George….Readers of Spenser’s Faerie Queen, if there were any amongst the [fireworks] show might have been reminded of Redcrosse Knight who championed Una in the virgin allegory in honor of Virgin Elizabeth.13

One notes, then, a clear parallel in symbolic imagery between the two groups. But the connection is not just tangential or circumstantial. Several members of the Order of the Garter also had close connections the Rosicrucian Brotherhood. For example, occultist and alechemist Duke Frederick I of Wittemburg admitted by Elizabeth to the Garter in 1597. Yates details the influence at length later, making clear that “Spenser’s Redcrosse Knight is inspired by the Order of the Garter.”14 Renaissance literary critic John Demaray also makes this same argument, noting that the Order of the Garter and its usage of St. George and similar symbolic usages between both John Dee and Spenser:

The Glastonbury, popularly believed to mean “city of glass”…was associated with legends about islands and the sea. Among the Saxon, Norman and Celtic kings buried there was King Edgar, founder of the first powerful British navy and the favorite of 16th century navigational theorist John Dee….Avalon, the Isle of Glass, was depicted in the chronicles and romances as the antique font of British Christianity and the supposed site of the greatest tales of knightly chivalry. In the Faerie Queen, the ancient isle becomes by analogy a thematic center, corresponding to the earthly and heavenly new Jerusalem, the faerieland city of Cleopolis.15

Dee and Spenser certainly ran in the same circles and had many similar interests. Dee was the intelligence agent of the Elizabethan empire, while Spenser was to be its poetic voice.

As mentioned earlier, Renaissance Neo-platonic magic was also very popular at this time, and included a mixture of philosophy, alchemy, science, religious traditions, classical ideas, as well as the arts. Colorful characters like Marsilio Ficino and Cornelius Agrippa produced lengthy treatises attempting to reconcile Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism, Christian theism and “natural magic.”16 Agrippa’s Three Books of Occcult Philosophy published in Germany in 1531 is a great example, and would have been popular in scientific, noble, hermetic and Rosicrucian circles.17 This is relevant because it provides a possible source for the many places in the Faerie Queen where Spenser appears to depart from the normative biblical and Christian tradition. It is here that one can find a context within which to place Lucifera, the female consort or manifestation of the masculine Lucifer.

Renowned Kabbalist scholar Gershom Scholem’s treatise The Kabbalah has an insightful section on the mystical Jewish oral tradition of the feminine demonness and consort of Satan or Sammael. Scholem elucidates this Kabbalistic tradition as follows: “Lilith is a female demon assigned a central position in Jewish demonology. The figure may be traced to Babylonian (possibly even Sumerian) demonology, which identifies similar male and female spirits—Lilu and Lilitu, respectively….In Scripture there is only one reference to Lilith (Is. 34:14)….[In the Talmud] Lilith appears as a female demon who assumes many guises….Wholly new in the kabbalistic concept is the idea that she is the permanent consort of Samael, queen of the realm of evil.”18

In conclusion, it is thus entirely possible that given the circles that Spenser sought to join himself too, such as the nobles of the Elizabethan court, as well as Elizabeth herself, Spenser would have wanted to speak their language and be on the inside, so to speak. If was trendy to attempt to reconcile various traditions and philosophies with methods such as Neo-platonism and Renaissance magic theories that relied on Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism and esoterism, it is entirely likely that Spenser would have so crafted his works so as to appeal to such a crowd, which was unquestionable enamored with such topics. One can see, then, in characters like Redcrosse Knight and Lucifera imagery that appears to find provenance in older hermetic and occultic traditions which also explains why Spenser seems at times to depart from what would have been normative Anglicanism in his day.

1 Heale, Elizabeth. The Faerie Queen: A Reader’s Guide (Cambridge: University Press, 1999), 30.

2 The New Geneva Study Bible Ed. Sproul, R.C. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 2027.

3 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. II (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 1445.

4Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queen Ed. A.C. Hamilton (New York: Longman1977), 64.

5 Ibid., 65.

6 Ibid., 66.

7New Geneva Study Bible, Isaiah 14:12-13, 1048.

8Ibid., 2031.

9Spenser, Faerie Queen, 66.

10Hankins, John E. “Spenser’s Lucifera and Philtome” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 59, No. 6 (Johns Hopkins University, 1944), 413-4.

11Yates, Dame Frances. The Rosicrucian Enlightenment (New York: Routledge, 1972), xii-xiii.

12Ibid., 44-57.

13Ibid., 6.

14Ibid., 93.

15Demaray John G. Cosmos and Epic Representation (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1991), 109.

16Hale, John. The Civilization of Europe in the Renaissance (New York: Atheneum, 1994), 206-8.

17Yates, 104, 132.

18Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah (New York: Dorset Press, 1974), 357-8.

2 thoughts on “Esoteric Elements in Spenser’s “Faerie Queen”

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