My first impression upon reading Hildegard’s songs was that she seemed to harbor a marked animosity toward Eve. This seems to be in contrast to the writers we read for the “New Eve” class (October 6th) who, while recognizing Eve’s role in the fall of mankind, did not convey the same animosity. Perhaps this lends credence to the argument that Hildegard, as a woman, views Mary as a unique example of how to live because Mary helps remedy Eve’s sin, which uniquely affects Hildegard as a woman. But perhaps it does not. I just found this animosity I sensed to be striking, and I wish to provide examples supporting this observation.
The writers we read for the “New Eve” class – Ireneus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, and Ephrem (for simplicity, I will refer to this group of four writers as the “New Eve authors”) – recognize and highlight Eve’s role in introducing sin and death to mankind by means of her disobedience; however, their descriptions of Eve are slightly sympathetic and tend to view Eve as a victim of the serpent. For example, in describing the serpent and Eve’s interaction, Ireneus notes the serpent’s “deception” and describes Eve as being “unhappily misled” and “led astray.” (Ireneus, Book V, Chapter XIX). These phrases suggest that, while “Eve was disobedient” and marked by “unbelief” (Ireneus, Book III, Chapter XXII), she was also a victim of the serpent. It was the serpent who actively led Eve astray by his deception, and Eve was at least “unhappy” about this.
Tertullian states that Eve “believed the serpent,” but not before the serpent’s “ensnarling word had crept into [Eve’s] ear.” (Tertullian, Chapter XVII). Again, this seems to ascribe blame more to the serpent and less to Eve. The word “crept” implies that the serpent did this sneakily and without Eve knowing until it was too late. The word “ensnarling” recognizes the difficulty Eve must have faced when deciding whether to believe the serpent or not; Eve believed, partly because the serpent was convincing.
Epiphanius also attributes more blame to the serpent, recognizing that Eve was “influenced by the voice of the serpent,” and “incited by the voice … of the snake.” (Epiphanius 627, 628). Additionally, Epiphanius states that Eve “must repent of her folly.” (Epiphanius 628). The word “folly” implies that Epiphanius views Eve as merely foolish. Instead of being evil or malicious, she simply lacked good sense. Because of this folly, she “strayed from God’s injunction.” (Epiphanius). The word “stray” implies that Eve slowly and aimlessly wandered off God’s path, rather than outright rejecting it.
Lastly, Ephrem provides an interesting contrast to the image of Mary as the temple, tabernacle, and dwelling place of God. He states that “Eve became a cave and grave of the accursed serpent, for his evil counsel entered and dwelt in her.” These are strong words, but like the words of the other authors, they ascribe more blame to the serpent than to Eve. Eve passively became a dwelling place for the serpent because the serpent’s words actively entered her.
These descriptions by the New Eve authors are in direct contrast to the descriptions of Eve employed by Hildegard, which paint Eve as a more malicious figure and not one who was passively led astray by a sly serpent.
For example, in her “Responsory for the Virgin” (number 8), Hildegard states, “Stiff-necked Eve, / swollen with her own / importance, / courted the serpent.” (Hildegard 111). The literal translation of that passage talks of the “… the serpent / toward whom Eve stretched forth, / her neck outstretched / with the swelling of pride.” (Hildegard III). This passage is in contrast to the descriptions provided by the New Eve authors in two ways. First, instead of describing Eve as being marked by a folly that caused her to stray, Hildegard describes her as swelling with pride. Nobody can doubt that pride caused Eve to sin, but Hildegard plays pride up as the cause, stating that Eve was so full of it that she was swelling; this in turn plays down the possibility of folly or a more innocent mistake as being the cause of Eve’s sin. Second, instead of describing Eve as a victim of the serpent’s active advances, Hildegard describes Eve as actively courting the serpent. To Hildegard, Eve was not unhappily misled; Eve sought out the serpent and the chance to sin.
Another striking verse from Hildegard is in her “Antiphon for the Virgin” (number 12). Hildegard begins the antiphon stating, “Because it was a woman / who built a house for death / a shining girl tore it down.” (Hildegard 117). The literal translation states, “Therefore because a woman constructed death / a bright virgin has demolished it.” (Hildegard 117). This passage, again, paints a picture of Eve actively building death. Using the more artistic translation, Eve actively constructed the house in which evil dwelt; this image is in direct contrast to Ephrem’s image of Eve passively becoming a dwelling place after the serpent’s words actively entered her. Admittedly, dwelling-place imagery is added by the translator, but Hildegard’s words of “constructed” and “demolished” strongly evoke the image of a house or dwelling.
Perhaps the strongest example of Hildegard’s animosity toward Eve is found in her “Song to the Virgin” (number 19). Hildegard states, “But Eve? / She despised every joy.” (Hildegard 127). The literal translation states, “Hence, O sweet Virgin [Mary], / in you no joy is lacking. … Eve despised all these things.” (Hildegard 129). This passage all but erases any possibility that Hildegard views Eve as having unwittingly fallen into the serpent’s ensnarling trap. No, to Hildegard, Eve despised joy and sinned because she loathed the happiness God offered. Hildegard suggests this in another passage where she states that “malice flowed from woman.” (Hildegard 121). To Hildegard, Eve was malicious, not a victim of malice.
In conclusion, the imagery Hildegard uses to depict Eve paints Eve as a bad person who actively sought sin because she hates joy. The imagery is also intense, and to an initial reader as myself, seems to convey a sort of animosity. These sorts of images and feelings toward Eve were not present in the writings of Ireneus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, or Ephrem. Each of these writers took a more sympathetic view of Eve as a careless victim of a devious and more blameworthy serpent.