|Revisionary Mythmaking in Amelia Lanier’s “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women”
© Copyright 2020 by Natasha Rogers
silence of women reverberates through the tradition, distorting the
shape of narrative and skewing the content of the law . . . if we
refuse to recognize the painful truth about the extent of women’s
invisibility, we can never move forward.”
Judith Plaskow 205
Amelia Lanier, in her poem “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women,” relates a classic myth traditionally told from a male perspective for a male audience; however, Lanier revises the myth and narrates it from the perspective of a woman to a female audience. This poem is a vital work in recognizing the systemic patriarchal myths that define not only Lanier’s world of the seventeenth century but ours as well. In this paper, I will explore how Lanier uses an infamous biblical story, Pilate appeasing the crowd to crucify Jesus, as a platform to revise and review the Christian creation myth of Adam and Eve from a female’s perspective. “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women” from Lanier’s larger work, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, is an example of revisionary mythmaking created to include women in a strictly patriarchal narrative. Lanier’s poem written in 1611 is a dynamic example of the human need to claim identity, particularly for women, in a Christian culture where male-controlled myths define the origin and identity of not only men, but women as well. This paper will explore the importance of revisionary mythmaking particularly for Christian women, how Lanier uses an ancient and patriarchal myth to question women’s oppression, and, in conclusion, the paper will return to revisionary mythmaking and how it is vital for women even today.
By using revisionary mythmaking, Lanier uses the bible to defend women; she takes forgotten, overlooked, and condemned female characters written by men and reinvents the biblical women with voices of their own. This paper will argue that Lanier chooses to revise silent biblical women characters to give them voices and perspectives that question traditionally accepted patriarchal myths, and even condemns two men, Pilate and Adam, in her reinvention. Lanier’s choice to use the bible stories is interesting considering the bible is the same text traditionally used to oppress women. However, Adrienne Rich argues that “Re-vision, the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction, is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival” (599 qtd in Buschendorf) In other words, Rich recognizes Lanier’s “re-vision,” or reimagining, of the classic myths as a way of keeping women alive. According to history, the survival of the female sex in text is dependent on women; men tell their own stories. Additionally, Rich argues that “we need to know the writing of the past . . . not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us” (599). Lanier’s poem re-writes “writings of the past” to include, defend, and give voice to women traditionally ignored or condemned. This is amazing! She attempts to change patriarchy with revisionary mythmaking.
While this paper suggests that Lanier uses traditional Christian myth as a platform to defend women, it is also important to note that biblical myth might have been the only avenue available for a female writer to publicly express ideas at that time. Religious verse was an area more open to Renaissance women writers. Catherine Keohane admires Lanier’s radical retelling of traditional myth from a female perspective and suggests that her book, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, was probably only published because of Lanier’s religious/spiritual themes. Keohane uses Margaret Fell to support her claim. Margaret Fell is a female writer about 50 years after Lanier who quotes scripture but then exposes a loophole, “And whereas it is said, I permit not a Woman to speak, as saith the Law; but where Women are led by the Spirit of God, they are not under the Law” (Fell, quoted in Keohane). In short, Christian Law does not permit women to speak, however, there is an exception; if a woman is led by the Spirit of God she can speak about spiritual things. It seems that Lanier found this ambiguity in doctrine as well and uses it as a platform to become a revisionary mythmaker. So too, Elizabeth M. A. Hodgson agrees with Keohane and asserts that “In at least one respect Lanyer has a consistent goal and strategy throughout Salve Deus: to invoke a particular type of spiritual foremother in a quest to define and defend her own role as prophetic poet” (101). Moreover, in proving that she is a “prophetic poet,” Lanier uses the platform of spirituality. Lanier fills a gaping hole for women; she gives biblical female characters a voice. She creates a desperately needed spiritual foremother and by doing so she becomes a prophetess.
Lanier boldly claims the right to testify of “faultless Jesus” (2) in the very first lines of “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women.” The narrator of the poem, Pilate’s “most worthy wife” (7) pleads with her husband to spare “her Saviour’s life” (8). From the first stanza the narrator positions herself on the side of suffering, innocent Jesus “in woeful bands” (4) and her husband is positioned as the “judge” (1) who holds the power. The narrator is bold, but she recognizes that her husband has the power to ignore her pleas and the power to crucify “her Saviour.” The readers of the poem all know the story of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. There is an already established hero: the Savior of the world. However, Pilate’s wife, who receives only one sentence in the biblical version of this story, instead of Matthew, becomes the story teller. This does two things, first, Pilate becomes more callous, more condemned, in this poem because instead of a quick, one lined letter from his wife, his wife is personified, begging to be heard, bearing testimony of the innocence of Jesus, and condemning him for his ignorance and cruelty. The biblical version allows room for Pilot to be somewhat innocent, sympathetic, and unknowing of what he does. However, in this poem the reader cannot ignore the indifference of Pilate towards not only Jesus, but also his wife. She explains who Christ is, how innocent he is, and essentially has a one-sided conversation with a murderer. The second thing that happens with this unnamed female narration is that the narrator aligns herself with Jesus. She is loving, kind, spiritual, gentle, and never offends “prince, nor laws” (3). She stands before her husband in “woeful bands,” or constrained by cultural laws that oppress women, completely at the mercy of Pilot. Like Christ, a wife is innocent but still oppressed, enslaved, and at the mercy of her husband.
In stanza three, the narrator starts to establish how much culture has relied on the origin myth to establish gender identity, particularly the oppression of women and the glorifying of men. The narrator is speaking to her husband but she uses plural pronouns, which signifies that this poem is about women, not just one woman - Pilate’s wife is speaking for all women. For example, she says that what Pilate is about to do “makes our former fault much less appear” (18). The “former fault” she is referring to is when Eve partakes of the fruit of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. This statement also acknowledges that tragic repercussions on women of the origin story. Women are being condemned for a “fault” written in a myth; so much so that the narrator admits the fault as her own. The bible is used to condemn women for this fault, and this poem re-visions the myth by boldly defending Eve’s “former fault” which in comparison to what men have done appears much less of a fault. Keohane also acknowledges “Lanyer’s boldness in rewriting Scripture and reactivating Catholic associations” and observes that it “is evident in her position of her speaker” (367). The position of Lanier’s speaker is next to Christ in innocence, oppression, and condemnation and with Eve who is misunderstood and a “poor soul” (29); for the first time, a woman is telling the story her way and suddenly the enemy is no longer women. She is establishing what Hodgson calls a “fore-mother.”
The revisionary mythmaking of the defense of Eve in this poem happens in two parts; first through redefining Eve as a woman, and second through discrediting Adam. The narrator insists that “no hurt therein [Eve’s] harmless heart intended” (30). This line not only portrays Eve as “harmless,” but more importantly, her feminine intentions are being voiced. Eve didn’t intend any harm by eating the fruit. The narrator continually sympathizes with Eve and women through her language: “poor women” (50), “poor Eve” (40), “poor souls” (29, 89) to remind the reader that she herself is a woman who has been brutally defined and condemned by the origin myth. Oppression and silence are the burden of all women, supposedly because of the myth. Another defense of Eve in the poem focuses on is her desire to be wise and acquire knowledge. The narrator defends Eve, “If Eve did err, it was for knowledge sake” (58). The traditional myth condemns Eve for the “fall of man,” but Lanier’s poem suggests that Eve’s desire for wisdom and knowledge were her motivations. Essentially, the narrator is suggesting that Eve, or women, risked everything for knowledge. Eve and, consequently, all women are defended in the poem; however, there is an underlying reality that women are incapable of controlling their own lives while men are in control. Eve desires knowledge and risks everything for it in the poem, but, “poor Eve,” “poor women,” “poor souls” they have no power to keep it.
Lanier’s mythmaking condemns Adam for the “sin” Eve is traditionally condemned for. The narrator again defends Eve: “Her fault though great, yet he was most to blame” (34). This poem completely inverts the traditional message of the myth. Lanier’s poem declares that Adam blames Eve for his choice but then takes the benefits from her; “Yet men will boast of knowledge, which he took from Eve’s fair hand” (63-64). This tragic poem portrays the unequal treatment of the sexes. There is a great paradox here; Eve and Pilate’s wife are both stripped of their desires and liberties while men continually gain power. Pilate and Adam abuse and destroy the knowledge and life they “took from Eve’s fair hand.” The narrator re-visions the myth by positioning Eve as the giver of knowledge and life and Adam as the one “who had power given to overrule us all” (16). The paradox is between goodness and power. While Lanier gives women a voice in her poem, she also recognizes the strict patriarchal system gives power to men. The myths protect men and give them power causing Pilate’s wife to lament that men’s power is “bringing us all in danger and disgrace” (58).
Iranaeus, a Greek bishop in 130 AD who established Christian theology, and whose work is translated by Jean M. Higgins, wrote, “But Adam partook of the fruit given by the woman, without even beginning to make a fight, without a word of contradiction - a perfect demonstration of consummate weakness and a cowardly soul. The woman, moreover, can be excused; she wrestled with a demon and was thrown” (74). That is, Lanier is not alone in her interpretation that Adam was a “weak and cowardly soul” and that woman have carried the “fault” and “must endure it all” simply because Eve “wrestled with a demon and was thrown.” It seems important that in 130 AD a bishop excuses Eve, and therefore women from fault, but in 1611 Lanier is having to defend her and all women again. This discrepancy signifies the overpowering patriarchal reading during those centuries between these two works and the vital importance of the continued act of revisionary mythmaking. Lanier’s poem questions the power rewarded to men even though they continually destroy with it. Lanier also seems to be pointing out that men have not suffered for Adam’s sins, only benefitted from Eve’s. Pilate’s wife, recognizing the “stain upon our sex” (67) brought about by Eve’s indiscretion, asks Pilate, “What will so foul a fault amongst you all?” (70) Or what stain will the choice to crucify Jesus bring upon your sex? To clarify, if Eve’s choice to eat the fruit has brought so much pain and destruction on the female sex, what will happen to the male sex because of Pilate’s choice to murder the Savior of the world?
The answer to Lanier’s question seems to be tragic and ironic: nothing. Lanier, revising the perspectives in the myth, already knows the ending to the story; Pilate silences his wife, kills the savior, and washes his hands of it all. The poem strikingly highlights that Pilate’s story has never been used as a tool to abuse or oppress the male sex. After presenting Adam’s guilt and cowardice, the narrator returns to Pilate’s choice and declares, “Her sin was small to what you do commit” (74). Eve’s choice, a myth used to condemn all women, is nothing compared to the murder of the Son of God. “This sin of yours surmounts them all” (79) his wife affirms. She seems to be trying to make sense of why women have been punished for an excusable crime of Eve’s but the horrors committed by men only give men more power. “Then let us have our liberty again” (81) she begs, and then asks, “why should you disdain Our being your equals, free from tyranny?” (85, 86) These lines are personal and desperate. The narrator previously frees Eve from sin but realizes that her liberty is still in the hands of her husband. It’s not Eve’s “fault” that women are oppressed – it is men’s. “Why should you disdain our being your equals?” This poignant question sums up the poem. This question is not about the sins committed in myth; this is a question about the reality of men’s tyranny that uses a myth to condemn women. The poem ends with the shedding of innocent and “dearest blood” (96). The narrator knows that Pilate ignores her dream and her “message sent” (91) and that he abuses his power and crucifies her Savior while being free from consequences. However, this poem is not about changing history, it’s about changing the myth that defines the future.
Patriarchal myths define our patriarchal present but it has been through revisionary mythmaking that women have forced themselves into history and given themselves a voice. The bible is still a main component of patriarchal myth in the western world. Depending on the translation there are over 1,000 male characters named with barely over 100 female characters named in the bible. Most of the female characters are only named in reference to a male character and all female stories are written by male prophets. Aloo Osotsi Mojola asserts that “biblical perspective is still androcentric; it unconsciously promotes the idea that males have primacy in the social order” (4). In other words, Mojola observes that Christianity is focused on men and obliviously promotes male dominance and power in religion and origin myths. Elizabeth Johnson agrees and states that “inherited Christian speech about God has developed with a framework that does not prize the unique and equal humanity of women, and bears the marks of this partiality and dominance” (4 qtd. in Mojola). Moreover, in a male focused world where even language is limited to male pronouns, women are largely silenced and ignored. Additionally, Christian texts which do support female equality, The Gnostic Gospels for example, are either ignored or suppressed, as demonstrated by the erasure of Iranaeus’s theological ideas about Adam and Eve for the more accepted and canonized versions that diminish female experience and perspective.
Lanier’s confident and unapologetic female narrative is vital in realizing the desire that all humans have to identify themselves through inherited myth. Consequently, biblical myths are the stories Christians have to identify themselves with and they are painfully androcentric.
In a modern example of revisionist mythic tales AnnLouise Keating explores Audre Lorde’s poetry and suggests that Lorde “insists that only those women who can speak for themselves have the authority to control their own lives” (20). Lanier, like Lorde, speaks for herself, however, in her time, the remarkable fear of speaking for herself does not give her authority or control over her own life because of the systemic oppression of women and tyranny of men. Through her poem, “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women,” we see Lanier’s desperation for women to be free and equal in liberty with men. Lanier’s poem is a recognition of women’s pain and men’s cruelty in a patriarchal system built on Christian myth. Keating goes on to say that “because the traditional male-identified stories silence women by denying their existence . . . they must reject the patriarchal names and define reality for themselves” (20). Lanier revises the “traditional male-identified stories” that deny a female existence and then rejects and defines reality for herself and for her female audience. This is revisionary mythmaking. “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women” reclaims the goodness and value of women through myths that historically destroy them. Judith Plaskow, a Jewish theologian, recognizes that “the silence of women reverberates through the tradition, distorting the shape of narrative and skewing the content of the law.” (205) Ultimately, the silence of women distorts and skews tradition, narrative, and myths that define out culture. Revisionary mythmaking is just as vital for Christians today because of the distorted traditions and narratives that define us. “We need to know the writing of the past . . . not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.”
Buschendorf, Christa. “Gods and Heroes Revised: Mythological Concepts of Masculinity in Contemporary Women's Poetry.” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 43, no. 4, 1998, pp. 599–617. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41157420.
Harridon, Nonna Verna. “Eve, The Mother Of God, And Other Women.” The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 60, No. 1/2, January/Aprä200.
Hodgson, Elizabeth M. A. “Prophecy and Gendered Mourning in Lanyer's ‘Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum.’” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 43, no. 1, 2003, pp. 101–116. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4625059.
Keating, AnnLouise. “Making ‘Our Shattered Faces Whole’: The Black Goddess and Audre Lorde's Revision of Patriarchal Myth.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, 1992, pp. 20–33. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3346940.
Keohane, Catherine. “‘That Blindest Weakenesse Be Not Over-Bold’: Aemilia Lanyer's Radical Unfolding of the Passion.” ELH, vol. 64, no. 2, 1997, pp. 359–389. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30030141.
Lanier, Amelia. “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women.” Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edition, pp. 36-38.
Mojola, Aloo Osotsi. “The Power of Bible Translation.” Priscilla Papers, Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring 2019.
I am a new, never published writer and am grateful for the opportunity you have given me to submit an essay to the General Non-Fiction Contest. I am passionate about women's voices throughout history. I am particularly moved and fascinated with reading, writing about, and analyzing women in literature. This essay demonstrates the vital importance of revisionary myth-making in histroy and how Amelia Lanier uses this fascinating re-visioning in her poem, "Eve's Apology in Defense of Women."