‘Gods that faine to be’: Political Euhemerism in Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos

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By referring to an elder brother of Saturn named “Titan,” Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos diverge from the Hesiodic account of the war between the Titans and the Olympians, to follow a lesser-known version originating in Euhemerus’ Sacred History and preserved because of the pivotal role it plays in Lactantius’ Divine Institutes. Spenser places his own sequel to the Titanomachy myth in the euhemerist tradition, which presents the Greek and Roman gods as mortal kings and queens, worshipped by their subjects, in order to satirize Hellenistic and imperial ruler-cults. Identifying Jupiter’s self-deification as the moment when the inseparable twins idolatry and tyranny were born, the Divine Institutes expound a Christianized version of Cicero’s law of nature to convict the Roman Empire of both impiety and inhumanity. Inspired by Lactantius, Spenser stages a trial in which the absolutist tendencies of Elizabeth and her probable successor are judged by the law of nature, embodied in the God-like Dame Nature. Holding the conflation of politics and theology up to skeptical scrutiny, Spenser uses Euhemerism to critique civil idolatry, in a way which counters the Eusebian currents in Elizabethan literature and influences Milton’s Paradise Lost. [S.P.]
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-73
Number of pages46
JournalEnglish Literary Renaissance
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2019


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