Generation of Vipers
Generation of Vipers
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the Hamartigenia's description of vipers, which closely resembles that of the Physiologus, a compilation of materials that explain the Christian symbolism of elements drawn from nature writings, fables, fairy tales, and scripture. The Hamartigenia's female viper conceives by taking the head of her partner into her mouth, biting it off in the heat of her passion, and drinking in his saliva as he dies. This passage has obvious similarities to the description of the fall of Satan. He is either beheaded or strangled when his head, which takes the place of his sexual organ, is snapped by his mate's jaws—an action that combines decapitation and castration.
- … with sorrow infinite
- To me, for when they list into the womb
- That bred them they return, and howle and gnaw
- My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth
- A fresh with conscious terrours vex me round …
THE ALLEGORICAL FIGURES emerging from the poison Satan sows (serit, line 391) in our veins in the mini-Psychomachia of H. 517–34 (Lat. 390–405) gesture, as it were, to the devil’s appropriation of figural speech. His seminal role in creating them also associates Satan with the phenomenon of reproduction, a theme the poet takes up at length in lines 733–833 (Lat. 562–636). He begins his excursion on the generation of sin with the assertion that we give birth to sin from our own bodies. To illustrate this, he relates the story of David, whose son Absalom rebelled against his father:
- For we give birth to all our sins
- from our own bodies, just as David did,
- who was the best of fathers otherwise,
- though he produced as offspring Absalom,
- his only crime. The father of many righteous
- children, David also fathered one
- parricide, an evil son who dared
- to draw his sword against the author of
- his being, who came to battle with his standard
- set against his father and opposed
- his army, fighting his own flesh and blood.
- Alas for loyalty! In just the same
- way our hearts give birth to dreadful children,
- a painful generation, whose habit is
- to turn their teeth against us from the start
- and live by the pain of those that gave them life,
- for they destroy their parents’ all-too-fertile
- flesh and feed on the family’s dying stock.
- But that royal David, king of kings,
- (p.130) God’s prophet and a forefather of Mary,
- the virgin mother, had begot a mixed
- breed of children, the good and loyal with
- the bad.
(H. 733–55; Lat. 562–76)
The underlying meta phor in Prudentius’s account of the creation and propagation of sin is that of childbirth, and this brings us back to a linkage made early in the poem between sin and reproduction. In his opening attack on Marcion’s teachings, Prudentius compares sinful dualism to the stable, unified paternity that is for him the mark of the transcendent deity:
- And since there is no other God and Father,
- and Christ cannot be second to the Father,
- the One who has a single Son exists
- before all number, God, and rightly God,
- for He is first and One: first in power
- and first in whom He sired. But how does pure
- generation make a difference? Both
- begetter and the One begot from One
- before the darkness of primeval chaos,
- free of number and time, will always be
(H. 53–63; Lat. 37–44)
Here Prudentius frames the argument against dualism by emphasizing not the Trinitarian nature but rather the unity of God. Simplex generatio allows for the perfect relationship, a Father who is one with his Son, without a difference. As Nugent (2000, 16) has noted, “Presumably the nature of the opponent [Marcionism] dictates the form of Prudentius’s argument, since he chooses to elaborate on the unity of the godhead in terms which repeatedly emphasize not the trinity, but the transcendence of binary form.” While man is hopelessly divided from himself, God is unfathomably, mysteriously one. Simplicitas is impossible for us to attain; as Prudentius says in the Psychomachia, “And human nature, not single, rages with discordant weapons” [fremit et discordibus armis/non simplex natura hominis] (903–4). In the human and natural world, generation is never simplex: reproduction without difference is impossible. Our condition is defined by change and flux.1
In the Hamartigenia, Prudentius offers several different models of reproduction, all depressingly unable to achieve the imagined stable paternity of the divinity. The first, as we have seen, is the unit in the preface consisting of mother (p.131) Eve and sons Cain and Abel, with Adam conspicuously absent. (Sinful) mother gives birth to twin offspring. The fact that there are two sons necessarily means that neither is perfectly sufficient or powerful, and the two are different in character as well.2 Prudentius provides a different reproductive model in David, a father with multiple offspring. In this scenario, the mother is ignored, and the results are somewhat better, though hardly perfect: the vast majority of the children are good and only Absalom reveals a fatal difference from his father. This preponderance of good offspring is due to David’s extraordinary status as Mary’s forefather; the rest of us, with a less illustrious lineage, are more likely to breed evil offspring. And in fact, as he constructs his model of how the soul generates vice, Prudentius specifically states that the good model of generation represented by David’s fathering of the good son Solomon does not apply to us: “No Solomon/exists in us; we’re Absalom—corrupt,/we turn our knives against our family’s flesh (H. 758–60; Lat. 579–80).
The image of the son turning his sword against his father leads to a new and even worse reproductive model, the viper, a model antithetical in every way to God’s perfect conception of Christ, the son who is not different from his father. Prudentius has already told us that the robber Satan (who is also, of course, a serpent) sows vices into our marrow; now through an exemplum drawn either from natural history or from pagan writings (Prudentius goes out of his way in 761–62 (Lat. 581) to draw attention to his unnamed sources—ethicis and physicis), we learn exactly how the process of reptilian reproduction works:3
- No, when she’s in heat, inflamed by female
- lust, the obscene creature opens wide
- her gaping jaws, thirsting for her mate
- who’s soon to die. Into his spouse’s jaws
- he thrusts his three-tongued head; aflame with passion,
- he enters her mouth, injecting poisoned semen
- through oral sex. Amid the sweet accords
- and covenants of love, the bride, wounded
- by such violent delight, draws down
- her lover’s head into her mouth and snaps
- his neck between her teeth, drinking in
- the last ejaculation from her dying
- lover’s lips. These pleasures kill the father;
- the offspring in the womb destroy their mother:
- for when the seed matures, the little tiny
- bodies begin to crawl in their warm den,
- and lashing about they strike her shaken womb.
(H. 768–84; Lat. 586–96)
(p.132) Prudentius draws from numerous sources in his description of the vipers, but the closest seems to be the Physiologus, a compilation of materials that explain the Christian symbolism of elements drawn from nature writings, fables, fairy tales, and scripture. In it, the description of the vipers is linked to John the Baptist’s rebuke of the Pharisees:
Of the adder (or viper, echidna). Well spoke John the Baptist to the Pharisees: “You vipers’ brood! Who warned you to escape from the coming retribution?” [Matthew 3:7, Luke 3:7]. The “Physiologus” says of the adder that the male has the appearance of a man, the female the appearance of a woman. Down to the navel they have human form, but then the tail of a crocodile. In the groin the female animal does not have an entrance, but only the eye of a needle. And so when the male animal wants to impregnate the female, he drops the seed into her mouth. And as the female wants to swallow the seed, it bites off the male’s genitals, and the male dies. Now, as the young grow, they eat their mother’s belly and come out in that way; thus she also dies and only the young remain.
Similarly, in the Hamartigenia the female viper conceives by taking the head of her partner into her mouth (moriturum obscena maritum/ore sitit patulo, 586–87), biting it off in the heat of her passion (frangit amatoris blanda inter foedera guttur), and drinking in his saliva as he dies (infusasque bibit caro pereunte salivas, 591). The male thus suffers a combination of decapitation and castration, since his head is the sexual organ by which he sows his seed in the female. She, however, benefits little from her oral transgression, for the offspring of this deadly union, enclosed in her alvus (belly or womb) and unable to find a birth passage, gnaw their way through her loins (viam lacerata per ilia pandit, 602) and kill her as they emerge. The ungrateful little viper cubs (Prudentius calls them catuli) even creep around licking the recumbent body of their mother after they emerge, an unpleasant reversal of the standard image of a mother bear licking her cubs into shape after birth.5
This passage has obvious similarities to the description of the fall of Satan earlier in the poem. Like the male viper, Satan has a triple tongue (trisulco). The male viper is either beheaded or strangled when his head, which takes the place of his sexual organ, is snapped by his mate’s jaws, an action that combines decapitation and castration. Satan too undergoes a symbolic loss of phallic rigor or vigor when he exchanges his original erect state for limp coils. Like the male viper, whose head (caput) injects genitale venenum, “fertile poison,” into the female’s gaping maw, Satan too is a head/source that produces offspring: as the text puts it, once his tongue has split he becomes the natale caput vitiorum. But Satan resembles the female viper in some respects as well. Like her, he is swollen and possesses an alvus, a womb or belly. Like her, he is destroyed from within, for it (p.133) is by his own bitter marrow (deque acidis vim traxit acerba medullis) that he is poisoned and turns away from God. He even shares grammatical gender with the female viper: he is repeatedly called bestia and modified with feminine adjectives in the lines that describe his metamorphosis into a serpent (bestia … acerba, bestia … recta, 196–97).6 Like the deviant crowd of semiviri, Satan incorporates a monstrous femininity closely allied to his ability to deceive and to reproduce, whether he is reproducing offspring or deceptive imitations (if there is a difference). The female viper’s generative act has obvious similarities to the crime of Eve, the act so systematically repressed in the Hamartigenia. Like the viper, Eve commits a specifically oral transgression, inappropriately devouring the forbidden fruit and then persuading her husband to do the same. Through this improper act of eating, she condemns Adam to death, just as the viper bites off the head (or breaks the neck) of her amorous spouse. Inappropriate consumption of food, sexual transgression, and persuasive speech are all associated with the mouth, the orifice through which language is produced.7
Milton struggled with the issues of reproduction, division, and difference as well. His personified Sin, with her serpent shape and her offspring all too active in her womb, shares important characteristics with Prudentius’s viper (female gender, serpent form, multiple offspring):8
- The one seem’d Woman to the waste, and fair,
- But ended foul in many a scaly fould
- Voluminous and vast, a Serpent arm’d
- With mortal sting: about her middle round
- A cry of Hell Hounds never ceasing bark’d
- With wide Cerberian mouths full loud, and rung
- A hideous Peal: yet, when they list, would creep,
- If aught disturb’d thir noyse, into her woomb,
- And kennel there, yet there still bark’d and howl’d
- Within unseen.
Like Prudentius’s exemplary viper, Milton’s Sin is associated with a deviant form of reproduction. In a parody of the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, and of the creation of Eve from the rib of Adam, Milton’s Satan generates a daughter, Sin, from his own head. In PL 2, Sin, who has been hideously changed after Satan’s rebellion, confronts her father, who no longer recognizes her, and reminds him of the circumstances of her birth:
- Hast thou forgot me then, and do I seem
- Now in thine eye so foul, once deemd so fair
- In Heav’n, when at th’ Assembly, and in sight
- (p.134) Of all the Seraphim with thee combin’d
- In bold conspiracy against Heav’n’s King,
- All on a sudden miserable pain
- Surprisd thee, dim thine eyes, and dizzie swumm
- In darkness, while thy head flames thick and fast
- Threw forth, till on the left side op’ning wide,
- Likest to thee in shape and count’nance bright,
- Then shining Heav’nly fair, a Goddess arm’d
- Out of thy head I sprung: amazement seis’d
- All th’ Host of Heav’n; back they recoil’d affraid
- At first, and called me Sin, and for a Sign
- Portentous held me.…
The narcissistic Satan, captivated by his own likeness, conceives Death in an incestuous union with his daughter. Her monstrous child then rapes his mother, generating the vicious brood. Like the viper’s brood in the Hamartigenia, Sin’s offspring are born by gnawing their way through their mother’s womb:
- I fled, but he pursu’d (though more, it seems,
- Inflam’d with lust than rage) and swifter far
- Mee overtook his mother all dismaid,
- And in embraces forcible and foule
- Ingend’ring with me, of that rape begot
- These yelling Monsters that with ceaseless cry
- Surround me, as thou sawst, hourly conceiv’d
- And hourly born, with sorrow infinite
- To me, for when they list into the womb
- That bred them they return, and howle and gnaw
- My Bowels, thir repast; then bursting forth
- Afresh with conscious terrours vex me round,
- That rest or intermission none I find.
Like Prudentius in the Hamartigenia, Milton in Paradise Lost lays out various models of creativity. God the Father creates a Son who is a reflection of his father; the Son creates the world and man, made in his own image; Adam and Eve reflect praise back to God, as does the poet, whose poem reflects God’s creation. As Maggie Kilgour puts it:
The creativity of divine narcissism comes full circle.… In its linking of the natural, human, and divine realms, creativity appears as a unifying (p.135) energy that works against the forces of division and dissonance that emerge in the Fall. As critics have noticed, however, Milton’s creation also involves separation and divorce; when Christ sets out to make the world, he begins by dividing chaos. The chain of divine creativity in fact requires a balance of individuation and identification: it begins with God’s self-division, which makes one into two who then further multiply God’s image. However, the ultimate goal of creative division is the restoration of unity.9
But with differentiation, division, and replication comes the possibility of perversion, and God’s creative multiplication is parodied by Satan’s generation of his “perfect image” Sin (whom Milton punningly links with “sign”), with whom he incestuously mates to produce Death, and by his intention to remake Adam and Eve in his own image. Sin exemplifies the negative aspects of perverted creativity: she is a copy not only of her father but of numerous literary predecessors, especially Spenser’s Errour and Ovid’s Scylla—including, perhaps, Prudentius’s mother viper. Colin Burrow calls her “the most wearisomely derivative figure in Paradise Lost.”10 Kilgour shows how Milton is beset with anxiety about his own poetic creativity, particularly in his invocation to the Muse Urania in book 7, at the beginning of the second half of his poem, as he prepares to relate the creation of the world:
- Upled by thee
- Into the Heav’n of Heav’ns I have presumed,
- An Earthlie Guest, and drawn Empyreal Aire,
- Thy tempring; with like safetie guided down
- Return me to my Native Element:
- Lest from this flying Steed unrein’d, (as once
- Bellerophon, though from a lower Clime),
- Dismounted, on th’ Aleian field I fall,
- Erroneus, there to wander and forlorne.
- . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
- … though fall’n on evil dayes,
- On evil dayes though fall’n, and evil tongues;
- In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
- And solitude …
At the moment when he is about to rival God’s Creation in his retelling of the Creation from Genesis, Milton invites us in his invocation to the Muse to compare him to Satan’s daughter, Sin. Kilgour notes that Milton’s anxiety here is focused on his creative powers:
(p.136) The unusual foregrounding of the poet’s voice has its own narcissistic edge to it, and the speaker, who describes himself as “fall’n on evil dayes.… In darkness, and with dangers compast round,” (7.25, 27) sounds strikingly like his infernal creatures. While “fall’n” links the narrator with Satan, the language echoes Sin’s earlier description of her own situation, “With terrors and with clamors compasst round” (2.862).… The parallel between her situation and that of the narrator suggests his fears lest his own creations, born of a narcissistic energy that originates not in God but his own ego, turn upon him.11
Prudentius, too, expresses his anxieties about the creative process, and his own work, in terms of reproduction. In particular, we can link the anxieties about reproduction expressed in the exemplum of the mother viper with an anxiety about the process of reading, for serpents in late antiquity were associated with a particular technology of reproduction: reading. Catherine Conybeare (2007) cites a number of passages where this association is explicitly made, including a vision in which a serpent binds Caesarius of Arles to the book he is reading and gnaws at his arm and shoulder (he is reading a book of “worldly wisdom,” sapientia mundi), and a passage from Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis where Dialectica appears holding a snake in her hand (unambiguously interpreted centuries later by Eriugena: per serpentem sophisticas subtilitates intellige, “by the snake, understand the logic chopping of the sophists”).12 Like the viper’s brood, interpretations can be produced and reproduced, and turn murderous against the mind that conceived them. As Conybeare (2007, 238) says, “Sometimes the result is not the generation of sin as such, but the generation of sinful meanings; the mind, ‘pregnant with lethal offspring, bears the conceptions of a malign disposition from the seed of the tortuous snake.’ And such interpretations kill the mind, or soul, that generates them.” Hence it is not surprising to find that after the lurid exemplum of the vipers, the narrator steps in to ensure that the reader will interpret the figure correctly. But the apostrophe to the reader itself raises interpretive issues even as it makes a rare, explicit appeal to biblical authority:
- Hence that just rebuke of Christ when He
- accused, “Is your father not a demon, sinners?
- Were you not begotten when he joined
- with flesh that thirsted for his evil seed?”
- Reader, go through the holy book: you’ll see
- that as I said, the Lord brought true indictments
- against iniquitous men: “Holiness
- itself, or works of holiness, would prove
- that you were truly offspring of my Father.”
(H. 815–23; Lat. 621–28)
(p.137) Conybeare notes several peculiar features in this passage, including the confusion among the various participants in the reading process, and remarks that “the passage is subtly manipulative. Who, for example, is the ‘you’ at different stages? Who are the peccatores, and does every instance of ‘you’ refer to them? What about the address to the reader in the middle? Who is that?” (Conybeare 2007, 233). Up to this point in the poem, all other singular imperatives have been addressed to Prudentius’s imagined interlocutor, Marcion; the reader may well be shocked to find himself thus suddenly accused. Further, as written, without the punctuation introduced by later editors, it is not at all clear who is speaking: Is it Prudentius or Christ who apostrophizes the reader? “Prudentius is conflating his own voice with that of Christ, blurring the boundaries between their two speaking/writing voices.… Prudentius is, in fact, manipulating the reading of the sanctum volumen and blurring the boundaries between his own literary production and the Scriptures.… There is a remarkable displacement of authority going on here” (Conybeare 2007, 233–34).
What Prudentius presents here as the actual words of Christ are not an exact quotation but rather an allusion to Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees and the Jews over the meaning of their descent from Abraham in the Gospel of John: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do” (John 8:44). As Conybeare points out, Prudentius has entirely elided the context of the allusion, so that the peccatores Christ upbraids in his text seem to exist in the realm of meta phor and represent the soul or mind.13 This passage, then, whose purpose seems to be to provide an unambiguous interpretation of the fable of the vipers, actually exemplifies the hermeneutic crisis that the vipers represent: it confuses internal and external audience, alters scripture, and conflates the voices of Prudentius and Christ through the device of scriptural paraphrase. Indeed, the biblical citation itself raises the issue of interpretation and misunderstanding: the reader who turns to the biblical passage Prudentius alludes to will find that at John 8:43, the verse immediately before the one Prudentius “quotes,” Jesus says: “Why do you not understand my speech? Because you are not able to listen to my word.”
The chain of associations we have traced in the viper passage is certainly not unprecedented in the discourse of his Christian contemporaries. Virginia Burrus has examined the construction of paternity in several patristic authors, and finds in them a number of the themes that are prominent in the Hamartigenia. Athanasius, for example, in his attack on Arianism, links together the heretic Arius, the serpent Satan, femininity, illegitimate reproduction, and effeminacy.14 Ambrose similarly associates Arianism with a serpentine and monstrous femininity:
Ambrose compares heresy to “some hydra of fable,” the two-headed serpent that ever survives its own decapitation; for heresy—as Ambrose explains—”hath waxed great from its wounds and, being ofttimes lopped (p.138) short, hath grown afresh, being appointed to find meet destruction in flames of fire.” Heterodoxy is also likened to “some dread and monstrous Scylla,” whose many-headed form seems to suggest to Ambrose the multiplicity, as well as the fanged threat, of heresy’s deceptive guise; her lower body is “girded with beastly monsters,” and her cavern, “thick laid with hidden lairs” and resounding with the howling of her black dogs, is a place of danger that can only barely be avoided by the prudent pi lot who sails, with stopped ears, close along “the coasts of the scriptures.” There is a subtle blurring of genders in these hideous figures, in which femininity embraces the serpentine, a monstrosity gathering all disavowed carnality into itself.15
Ambrose, however, does not restrict his depiction of the feminine to the monstrously carnal. He also deploys language that associates femininity with asceticism and the transcendent. As Burrus argues, “What is striking is the flexibility of the gendering of Ambrose’s discourse, represented as both transcendently masculine in relation to a monstrously carnal femininity and ascetically feminized in relation to a grotesquely carnal masculinity.”16 In the Hamartigenia, by contrast, the gender blurring in the fallen world leads to contamination rather than transcendence, and the feminine is consistently linked not only with the carnal but also with human language and its inherently deceptive nature.
Augustine too, in the thirteenth book of the Confessions, provides an interesting contrast to Prudentius’s association of language with the devil and the monstrous in his exegesis of the divine command to be fruitful and multiply. He also describes language in terms of the reproductive processes of animals (both land and sea creatures), but although he employs similar imagery of animal mating and spectacular fertility to describe signification, the multiplicity of signs is for him an indication of the bounteous excess of truth:
But it is only in the case of signs outwardly given that we find increase and multiplication in the sense that a single truth can be expressed by several different means; and it is only in the case of concepts apprehended by the mind that we can find increase and multiplication in the sense that a single expression can be interpreted in several different ways. I therefore understand the reproduction and multiplication of marine creatures to refer to physical signs and manifestations, of which we have need because the flesh which envelops us is like a deep sea; and I take the reproduction of human kind to refer to the thoughts which our minds conceive, because reason is fertile and productive.… This explains how the fish and the whales fill the waters of the sea [Gen. 1:22], because mankind, which is represented by the sea, is impressed only by signs of various kinds; and it explains how the offspring of men fill the earth [Gen. 1:28], because the (p.139) dry land appears when men are eager to learn and reason prevails.
In Augustine’s metaphysics of language, the word is as fertile as Prudentius’s vipers, but as Geoffrey Harpham has argued, “The metaphysical Logos both grounds language in transcendence and anchors transcendence in the world,” and a truly converted Christian practice of reading brings bounty and fertility.17 In the Hamartigenia, the focus is not on the divine Logos, but rather on the problems that are generated by our limited abilities to read and interpret properly. The reproductive process, whether sexual or linguistic, is associated not with the transcendent divine Logos, but with the fallibilities of human language, epitomized by Satan and his split tongue, and by the viper and her endless brood of vicious offspring. Even holy scripture is at risk of misinterpretation.
(1.) Athanasius, in his Orations against the Arians, makes this point at some length: “For brutes and men, after a Creator has begun them, are begotten by succession; and the son, having been (p.206) begotten of a father who was a son, becomes accordingly in his turn a father to a son, in inheriting from his father that by which he himself has come to be. Hence in such instances there is not, properly speaking, either father or son, nor do the father and the son stay in their respective characters, for the son himself becomes a father, being son of his father, but father of his son. But it is not so in the Godhead; for not as man is God: for the father is not from a father; therefore doth He not beget one who shall become a father: nor is the Son from effluence of the Father, nor is He begotten from a father that was begotten; therefore neither is He begotten so as to beget. Thus it belongs to the Godhead alone, that the Father is properly father, and the Son properly son, and in Them, and Them only, does it hold that the Father is ever Father and the Son ever Son” (Athanasius, Ar. 1.21).
(2.) Cf. Prudentius’s argument against the possibility of two Gods: “Either God/is one and holds the highest power, or/the two that now exist are both diminished:/both cannot have supremacy. It’s clear/that nothing is supreme if it’s not one,/omnipotent, since separate things claim power/each for itself, rejecting the other’s rule,/and so are not supreme and not almighty./Dispersed authority is not complete:/one cannot have a thing another has” (H. 28–37).
(3.) As Salvatore 1958, 16–24 has noted, this passage is a tour de force of textual contaminatio: Prudentius draws from a number of models from classical poetry and prose, though he acknowledges no specific sources, only the ethici and physici. His sources include Herodotus 3.109; Pliny, HN 10.62.169–70; Petronius poem 32; Lucretius’s description of physical love in De rerum natura 4; and Horace, Odes 1.37.26–28 (on the death of Cleopatra). See Palla 1981, 254–61 for more parallels. There is also a passage in Horace’s Satire 2.8 (42–44) where diners are presented with a pregnant lamprey to eat; commentators have noted that in antiquity it was believed that lampreys mated with vipers. Miller 1998, 274–75 discusses the satirical implications of the lamprey pregnant with the viper’s brood, and compares it to Prudentius’s pregnant viper.
(5.) Aulus Gellius uses the figure of the mother bear to describe Vergil’s painstaking process of composition: “Ut illa bestia fetum ederet ineffigiatum informemque lambendoque id postea quod ita edidisset conformaret et fingeret, proinde ingenii quoque sui partus recentes rudi esse facie et inperfecta, sed deinceps tractando colendoque reddere iis se oris et vultus lineamenta” (Noctes Atticae 17.10). Cf. Aeneid 8.634 and Georgics 2.407.
(6.) Gender confusion is a hallmark of Prudentius’s poetry. See Malamud 1990 on Prudentius’s violent masculine virgin martyrs, and Nugent 2000, 16 on the transsexual nature of the Virtues and Vices in the Psychomachia.
(7.) Confusion or conflation of the mouth and the vagina is long-standing in ancient medicine. “The view that a female’s speech was influenced by and in turn indicative of her sexual experience is enshrined in the linguistic double meaning of the Greek word stoma, meaning both oral and genital mouth or lips.… Galen, for example, compared the clitoris to the uvula, for the clitoris protects the uterus from the cold in the same way that the uvula protects the trachea; the logic runs that a female who opens one of her mouths is thought to open the other” (Morales 1999, 50). On the conflation of throat and vagina, see Sissa 1990, 52–67; Hanson and Armstrong 1986. Nugent 2000 insightfully links this conflation to the striking fact that all but one of the Vices in the Psychomachia die from wounds to the mouth or throat.
(8.) Of course, Sin and her offspring in Milton have many forerunners in the literary tradition; see Fowler 1998 ad loc. Spenser’s Errour is one of the most exuberant: “Her scattred brood, soone as their Parent deare/They saw so rudely falling to the ground,/Groning full deadly, all with troublous feare,/Gathred themselves about her body round,/Weening their wonted entrance to have found/At her wide mouth: but being there withstood/They flocked all about her bleeding wound,/And sucked up their dying mothers blood,/Making her death their life, and eke her hurt their good” (FQ bk. 1, canto 1, st. 25).
(14.) Arius associated with Eve and the serpent (Athanasius, Ar. 1.7). As Burrus puts it, “A writhing effeminacy of the word is the shifty mark of the illegitimacy by which he, Arius—motherless like all the sons of this work—is unmasked as the offspring not of God the Father but of Satan the anti-father, disseminator of the ‘mania’ of heresy” (Burrus 2000, 54).
(16.) Ibid., 469. It is worth noting that the contamination of the mouth, or more precisely, confusion of the oral and genital areas, is also a figure in Ambrose’s rhetoric against Arian, in particular as it applies to language, as Burrus points out (ibid.): “It is a small step from the monstrous to the more graphically grotesque, a step that Ambrose seems to take easily as he recounts the death of the arch-heretic Arius: ‘For Arius’ bowels gushed out … and so he burst asunder in the midst, falling headlong and besmirching those foul lips wherewith he had denied Christ.’ Ambrose invites contrast between the grotesque figure of Arius and the sublimated eroticism of the following representation of the evangelist John: ‘Whom, then, are we to believe?—St. John, who lay on Christ’s bosom, or Arius, wallowing amid the outgush of his very bowels?’ he asks. In John, not heresy but the male body of orthodoxy is feminized in an asceticizing rejection of grotesque masculinity.” Easterling and Miles (1999, 101) cite an anecdote from Eunapius of Sardis (Historici graeci minores, fr. 54, Blockley 1981–83) that contains similar imagery associating language with gushing bowels, about an unnamed tragoidos in the time of Nero whose acting powers had an unfortunate effect on a population unfamiliar with tragic performances.