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Spenser, Seneca, and the Sibyl: Book V of The Faeirie Queene.

In the Proem to Book V of the Faerie Queene, Spenser relates the degeneration of mankind since antiquity to the changes that have taken place in the heavens over the same period.

For who so list into the heauens looke, And search the courses of the rowling spheares, Shall find that from the point, where they first tooke Their setting forth, in these few thousand yeares They all are wandred much; that plaine appeares. For that same golden fleecy Ram, which bore Phrixus and Helle from their stepdames feares, Hath now forgot, where he was plast of yore, And shouldred hath the Bull, which fayre Europa bore.

And eke the Bull hath with his bow-bent horne So hardly butted those two twinnes of Ioue, That they haue crusht the Crab, and quite him borne Into the great Nemaean lions groue. So now all range, and doe at random roue Out of their proper places farre away, And all this world with them amisse doe moue, And all his creatures from their course astray, Till they arriue at their last ruinous decay.(1)

As has often been pointed out, the movement that Spenser describes was the result of the precession of the equinoxes, which had caused the constellations to shift from the sign of the zodiac they had occupied in Ptolemaic astronomy into the adjacent sign.(2) This fact was well known in the sixteenth century, and Spenser could have derived the information from a variety of sources.(3) However, his presentation of it as a series of violent encounters between the heavenly protagonists suggests that he was also aware of the tradition found in Seneca and other ancient authors that a battle or conflagration of the stars would precede the end of the world.

There are several references to such a conflagration in Seneca, but the one on which Spenser draws is clearly that found in Thyestes, where the Chorus imagines the stars falling from heaven in response to Atreus' monstrous crime. Like Spenser, Seneca takes each sign of the zodiac in turn, beginning with Aries, to whose exploits with Helle and Phrixus he also refers:

Aries praeceps ibit in undas, per quas pavidam vexerat Hellen; hic qui nitido Taurus cornu praefert Hyadas, secum Geminos trahet et curvi bracchia Cancri.(4)

And he that first not yet with gentle spring, The temperate Gale doth geve to sayles, the Ramme Shall headlong fall adowne to Seas agayne, Through which he once with fearefull Hellen swam. Next him the Bull that doth with horne sustayne The systers seven with him shall overturne The twins and armes of croked Cancer all.(5)

Seneca goes on to describe the fall of all twelve signs of the zodiac and of other constellations as well, while Spenser, having established the pattern, stops at this point. However, Seneca's line describing the fall of Virgo:

cadet in terras Virgo relictas(6)

must have held particular significance for Spenser, for it provided a direct link to a passage in Octavia (then believed to be an authentic work of Seneca) which describes the Golden Age when Virgo/Astraea did live on earth - a topic to which Spenser turns only three stanzas later.

The passage in question is immediately preceded by the observation that the sky's decline into darkness may presage not just the end of the world (as in Thyestes) but the renewal of the human race to enjoy a period like that enjoyed in the reign of Saturn. Referring to the sky, Seneca reflects

qui si senescit, tantus in caecum chaos casurus iterum, tunc adest mundo dies supremus ille, qui premat genus impium caeli ruina, rursus ut stirpem novam generet renascens melior, ut quondam tulit iuvenis, tenente regna Saturno poli.(7)

Yet waxing old is like agayne to weare, And to be chaungde to an unwyldy lumpe. Now prest at hand this worldes last day doth jumpe, With boystrous fall, and tumbling rush of skye. To squease and make this cursed kynd abye. That springing once agayne, it may yeeld out An other straunge renued vertuous route, As once before it did, new sprong agayne, What tyme Saturnus held his golden raygne.(8)

The parallels with Spenser's concerns in the Proem are obvious, and it should therefore come as no surprise that Spenser's stanza:

For during Saturnes ancient raigne it's sayd, That all the world with goodnesse did abound: All loued vertue, no man was affrayd Of force, ne fraud in wight was to be found: No warre was knowne, no dreadfull trompets sound, Peace vniuersall rayn'd mongst men and beasts, And all things freely grew out of the ground: Iustice sate high ador'd with solemne feasts, And to all people did diuide her dred beheasts.(9)

follows Seneca quite closely, and is sometimes more faithful to the original than the translation in His Tenne Tragedies:

tunc ilia virgo, numinis magni dea, Iustitia, caelo missa cum sancta Fide terris regebat mitis humanum genus. non bella norant, non tubae fremitus truces, non arma gentes, cingere assuerant suas muris nec urbes: pervium cunctis iter, communis usus omnium rerum fuit; et ipsa Tellus laeta fecundos sinus pandebat ultro, tam piis felix parens et tuta alumnis.(10)

That blamelesse, chast, unspotted Virgin cleere A goddesse much of might clept Justice heere, With sacred sooth sent downe from heavenly space, At ease on earth did rule the mortal race. That people playne knew not of warlicke feates. Nor trembling trompets tunes that rendes and beates The souldiers eares: nor clashing armour bright, That warring wightes defend in field and fight. Nor wonted was with walles to rampyre round, Their open cityes set in any stound. To each man passage free lay open than: Nothing there private was to any man. And then the ground it selfe and fertil soyle, Hir fruitful bosome baard all voyd of toyle, Into such bounded barnes a Matrone good, And peaceable unto so just a broode.(11)

Ovid's description of the Golden Age includes many of the same features,(12) but there can be little doubt that Spenser, who at one point ('No warre was knowne, no dreadfull trompets sound') includes a line-for-line translation from Octavia, is using Seneca's more concise version of the myth.

Thyestes does not mention the reign of Saturn, and Octavia, despite describing the ageing of the heavens, omits the conflagration of the stars, so the chief link between the two passages would appear to be the line cadet in tetras Virgo relictas, which not only refers back to the Golden Age when Virgo was on earth, but, read in the light of Octavia, could also be taken to refer to its return. There is no mention of the constellation Virgo in the Proem, but the identification of Queen Elizabeth with Justice/Virgo/Astraea in the final stanza, and the direct references to the story of Astraea in the first canto, confirm the underlying significance of the theme. Even though it does not surface in the text, Spenser's motivation for turning directly from Thyestes to Octavia is easy to discern.

However, the identification of Spenser's Senecan sources raises further problems: not only are the passages conjoined on the basis of an Astraean eschatology that is nowhere made explicit, but Spenser has simultaneously redescribed the falling of the stars as an almost comic battle between the constellations, and reinterpreted it in astronomical terms as the precession of the equinoxes.

To understand Spenser's reworking of Seneca it is necessary to consider the intellectual context within which he was writing. Most sixteenth-century writers agreed that there were two parallel sources of evidence for the ageing and imminent ending of the world: nature, and inspired prophecy. Thus, in a sermon preached in 1594, John Dove cited the waywardness and dimming of the heavenly bodies as proof that 'In every leaf of that book [of nature] it is written, that y frame of the heavenly arche erected over our heads must very shortly lose and dissolve it selfe', before turning to the 'many prophesies concerning the last houre' found 'In the other booke, which is the holy Bible'.(13) Dove did not mention any prophecies specifically corresponding to the ageing of the heavens, but Sheltco a Geveren, writing some years earlier, had noted that:

The Lord among other things also hath gyven us certayne tokens, these to wyt: that before his commyng. . . the qualities of the heavens shal be troubled. By which woords no doubt he would signifie, that the whole firmament of Starres should be altered, and as it were threaten a destruction.(14)

Richard Harvey, the brother of Spenser's friend Gabriel Harvey, was therefore by no means unusual in coupling the natural and prophetic evidence:

All circumstances being weyed, and all Astrological likehoods together with prophetical predictions considered, what doubt is there, but we may, and ought to persuade our selves, that the foundation of the world is in a manner worne out.(15)

In this setting, it would be odd if Spenser's account of the ageing of the heavens were conceived within a purely naturalistic framework. There is no mention of a battle between the signs of the zodiac in the Bible, but there is a detailed account of the battle of the stars at the end of the fifth book of the Oracula Sibyllina.

Percussit iuvenis tauri neruum capricornus At reditum rapide capricorno taurus ademit, Orionque iugum summotum sede removit. Et virgo gemino mutavit in ariete sortem: Abdita pleias erat, zonamque draco ipse negavit. Pisces immersi cinctum subiere leonis. Cancer non mansit, namque Oriona timebat. Scorpius in caudam subiit, praestante leone, Elapsus canis est flammato solis ab igne.(16)

[Capricorn struck the tendon of the young Taurus, but Taurus swiftly deprived Capricorn of a return. Orion moved Libra remote from its place. Virgo changed the fortune of Gemini in Aries. The Pleiad was hidden and Draco rejected the belt. Pisces submerged itself, going under the girdle of Leo. Cancer did not remain, for it feared Orion. Scorpio got under its tail because of the dominance of Leo, and the dog star perished from the blazing fire of the sun.]

The pattern of this heavenly battle diverges from Spenser's in that different stars are involved and that they move freely rather than confining their aggression to adjacent constellations. But in both cases the signs of the zodiac are pictured as physically driving one another from their accustomed places, and, as Spenser points out, the shouldering and butting of neighbours he describes is merely a prelude to a time when 'all range, and doe at randon roue | Out of their proper places farre away'. Furthermore, the eschatological battle of the stars is accompanied by the final and irreversible setting of the sun, an event referred to by Seneca, but given greater prominence in Spenser and the Sibyl. According to the Sibyl,

Innumerum vero flebit gens dura sub orbis Occidui finem, ne rursum ascendere possit, Oceani remanens ut perfundatur ab undis. Nam multorum hominum vidit commissa nefanda.(17)

[Truly, the shameless people will weep copiously at the end as the sun sets so that it cannot rise again, remaining to be plunged in the waters of the ocean, because it saw the monstrous crimes of many men.]

For Spenser, the prospect of the sun's disappearance is confirmed by changes in its course:

Ne is that same great glorious lampe of light, That doth enlumine all these lesser fyres, In better case

For since the terme of fourteene hundred yeres, That learned Ptolomaee his hight did take, He is declyned from that marke of theirs, Nigh thirtie minutes to the Southerne lake; That makes me feare in time he will vs quite forsake.(18)

The influence of the Sibylline Oracles on Renaissance literature has not been extensively investigated, but there is every reason to suppose that Spenser would have been familiar with the text. Sebastian Castellione's Latin edition had brought the Oracles to the attention of a wide circle of readers, and they were quoted at length by Protestant writers such as John Foxe and John Napier.(19) According to Edward Topsell, writing about the fashionable interest in prophecy in 1599: 'Many of the learneder sort are much affected with the prophesies of the Sibilles, Methodius and others . . . but above all the simple and vulgar people imagine that there is no Scripture like to Merlins prophesie.'(20) In this environment, Spenser, who has Merlin prophesy in Book III and whose apocalyptic concerns in Book V of the Faerie Queene and elsewhere are well documented,(21) could hardly have remained uninterested in the Sibyls. Indeed, Book V may contain further traces of the fifth book of the Oracles. The account of Isis' Church in canto VII (where Spenser interprets the worship of Osiris and Isis as the worship of Justice and Equity, and describes Britomart's visit to a temple where worship is conducted by linen-clad priests) could be inspired by the Sibyl's prediction that the cult of Isis and Sarapis (i.e. Osiris) would, at the instigation of one of their linen-clad priests, be transformed into the worship of the true God for whom a great temple would be built.(22)

The importance of the Sibylline texts lay not in their value as a literary source but in their reputation as prophecies whose inspiration and accuracy were surpassed only by the Bible. Napier, who quoted passages from the Sibylline Oracles at the end of his commentary on Revelation, said that he did so 'because of the famous antiquitie, approved veritie, and harmonicall consentment thereof with the Scriptures of God'.(23) Many other authors also treated the Sibyls as authoritative. Both Dove and Geveren cited Sibylline prophecies, and even Henry Howard, whose book, A defensative against the poyson of supposed Prophesies, attacked the vogue for prophetical and astrological speculation exemplified by the writings of Richard Harvey and others, grudgingly acknowledged the patristic testimony in the Sibyls' favour and concluded that on this account, if no other, 'we should admitte them . . . into the formost rancke'.(24) Natural signs like earthquakes and the movements of the stars might be susceptible to various interpretations, but most people agreed that inspired prophecies like those of the Sibyls would be fulfilled.

There was an obvious reason for Spenser to turn to the Sibylline prophecies. While Seneca merely implies that the renewal of the age of Saturn will be associated with Virgo, Virgil's fourth Eclogue explicitly states that the Cumaean Sibyl predicted a new age of Saturn in which Virgo/Astraea would return to earth - I am redit et virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna - an event interpreted by many contemporary writers as the reign of Queen Elizabeth.(25) The surviving Sibylline texts contain no straightforward prediction of this event, but the connection between the fourth Eclogue and the Sibylline Oracles was strong enough for the Eclogue to be printed after the Oracles in Castellione's edition. And in the fifth book of the Oracles, it is stated that it is when the wheel of heaven revolves, and Virgo rises up, that the battle of the stars will take place:

Et virgo ascendans, et zonae tectus amictu Sol frontem ductor totum peragrabit olympum, Ardore ingenti flagrabit ab aethere tellus.(26)

[And with Virgo ascending, the sun, concealing its forehead with the belt, as leader will wander the whole heaven, the earth will burn from the huge heavenly blaze.]

For anyone familiar with Elizabethan iconography, the words virgo ascendans would have had an immediate resonance.(27) (According to William Camden, at the start of Elizabeth's reign an impresa was made showing 'an half of the Zodiack, with Virgo, rising' to which were added the words 'IAM REDIT ET VIRGO'.(28)) For Spenser, who moved between two Senecan passages on the slender bridge of a single reference to Virgo, they would surely have been enough to link the battle of the stars with the Sibylline prophecy in Virgil's fourth Eclogue.

Although Seneca was Spenser's literary source, the references to Virgo and the battle of the stars in the Sibylline Oracles suggest that he may also have had a prophetic source. Unlike what was said by the protagonists in Seneca's tragedies, what was prophesied by the Sibyls was thought to be revealed in history. So when Spenser recast the ancient idea of a battle of the stars in terms of contemporary astronomical observations, it may have been read not just as evidence of the decline of the world taken from the book of nature, but also as a fulfilment of the Sibylline prophecy. And if the precession of the equinoxes meant that the battle of the stars predicted by the Sibyl was actually taking place, it also provided confirmation that Virgo would reign. Indeed, she was already doing so, as Spenser makes clear in the final stanza of the Proem where he addresses Elizabeth as a combination of Astraea and eschatological judge:

Dread Souerayne Goddesse, that doest highest sit In seate of iudgement, in th'Almighties stead, And with magnificke might and wondrous wit Doest to thy people righteous doome aread(29)

Astraea's appearance at the end of a series of astronomical disasters has puzzled many commentators, but it is the natural culmination of Spenser's fusion of the Senecan and Sibylline texts.

Wolffon College Oxford

1 Faerie Queene, V, Proem, 5-6. I am indebted to Mr J. B. Lethbridge for drawing my attention to this passage.

2 E. B. Knobel, 'Astronomy and Astrology', in Shakespeare's England (Oxford, 1916), 444 ff.; A. Fowler, Spenser and the Numbers of Time (London, 1964), 192-7. J. C. Eade, 'Astronomy, Astrology', in A. C. Hamilton et al. (edd.), The Spenser Encyclopedia (Toronto, 1990), 72-4, suggests that trepidation may account for the more random motions to which Spenser refers.

3 Loys Le Roy, Of the Interchangeable Course or Variety of Things (London, 1594), 3, cites similar astronomical changes as evidence of the world's decline. See J. L. Lievesay, 'An Immediate Source for The Faerie Queene, Book V, Proem', MLN 59 (1944), 469-72.

4 Seneca, Thyestes, 850-5.

5 Seneca, His Tenne Tragedies, trans. Thomas Newton (first pub. 1581, repr. Bloomington, Ind., 1964), I. 84.

6 Thyestes, 857.

7 Seneca, Octavia, 391-6.

8 His Tenne Tragedies, OO. 163-4.

9 Faerie Queene, V, Proem, 9.

10 Octavia, 397-406.

11 His Tenne Tragedies, II. 164.

12 Ovid, Metamorphoses, I. 89 ff.

13 John Dove, A Sermon preached at Pauls Crosse the 3. of November 1594. . . (London, 15947), sig. B[8.sup.r].

14 Sheltco a Geveren, Of the ende of this worlde. . . , trans. Thomas Rogers (London, 1578), fo. 18'. He is presumably referring to Jesus' prediction that the sun and moon would be darkened, the stars fall, and the powers of heaven be shaken (Mark 13: 24-5).

15 Richard Harvey, An Astrological Discourse upon the great and notable Conjunction of the two superior planets, Saturne and Jupiter. . . (London, 1583), 42 (misprinted as 44). Gabriel, to whom the book is addressed, was rather sceptical about his brother's faith in astrology.

16 Oracula Sibyllina, ed. S. Castellione (Basel, 1546), 82. The English translations from Castellione's edition are my own.

17 Ibid. 81.

18 Proem, 7.

19 R. Bauckham, Tudor Apocalypse (Appleford, 1978), 169-70. I owe several of the references that follow to Bauckham's work.

20 E. Topsell, Times lamentation. . . (London, 1599), 63.

21 See R. Mallette, 'Book Five of The Faerie Queene: An Elizabethan Apocalypse', Spenser Studies 1990 (1994), 129-59, and K. Borris, Spenser's Poetics of Prophecy in The Faerie Queene V (University of Victoria, BC, 1991).

22 Oracula Sibyllina, 81.

23 J. Napier, A Plaine Discovery of the whole Revelation of Saint John (Edinburgh, 1593), sig. T[1.sup.r].

24 H. Howard, A defensative against the poyson of supposed Prophesies (London, 1583), sig. Oo [i.sup.v].

25 See F. Yates, Astraea (London, 1975), 59 ff.

26 Oracula Sibyllina, 71.

27 Even a later commentator on this passage immediately noted that Virgo was popularly identified with Astraea and Justice: S. Gallaeus, Oracula Sibyllina (Amsterdam, 1689), 591.

28 W. Camden, Remains (London, 1674), 466.

29 Faerie Queene, V, Proem, 11.
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Author:Bull, Malcolm
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Date:Nov 1, 1998
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