Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hildegard's Unique Animosity Toward Eve

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. 



  1. I agree that Hildegard seemed particularly venomous towards Eve, but I felt as if there were another element of that antipathy. I found it interesting that you described the relationship between Eve and the serpent of Eden as resembling a courtship, because to me it brings to mind another parallel or comparison that can be drawn between Mary and Eve. Mary's pure, untainted humility gave birth to Jesus and salvation, as Eve's pride led to man's downfall. Could this contrast be pushed further? There is some emphasis placed on Mary's biological motherhood, as there generally is, but we haven't come across the same done for Eve. The symphony reads in number 20: "... The mother of us all miscarried. With ignorant hands she plucked at her womb and bore woe without bounds" and in 23: "The Holy One was her midwife: his birth broke the laws of flesh that Eve made." Eve's sexuality has not really been explored, so I thought it interesting to think more literally of the fall of man caused by Eve as Eve actually giving birth to sin, complete with serpent and "swollen" imagery.


  2. I like this comparison of Hildegard and the "New Eve" authors, and I think you're certainly on to something about the differences between these thinkers. I wish you had given us a little more theorizing about why this might be the case, is there any specifically theological reason why Eve might be so denigrated? anything in Hildegard's understanding of the New Eve that causes her to denigrate the old?

  3. Very nicely observed comparison between the early Christian authors' and Hildegard's depictions of Eve! I think you are definitely onto something here, but I wonder whether it is about Eve as a person in the sense of someone with personality. As we discussed, Hildegard tends to be somewhat cosmic in her imagery, not really giving us as much a sense of either Eve or Mary as characters. And yet, as you show, Hildegard is very particular in her language about the motivations out of which Eve acted, so perhaps she is a person in Hildegard's understanding, even though Hildegard does not tend to give us the kind of narrative settings that her contemporaries do. Worth thinking about! RLFB

  4. I agree with you that there's an interesting shift in tone between the early Christian authors' and St. Hildegard's treatment of Eve. Whether or not Hildegard ever received a formal education, it's clear from the Symphonia that she was familiar with a more learned sort of theology and rhetoric. Hildegard's use of the term "prima materia" alone (whose initial meaning is now overshadowed by its importance to the history of alchemy) suggests to me that she was at least familiar with Greek philosophy. Read with this in mind, Hildegard's work takes on a deliberately teleological tone; that is, Hildegard makes the explicit argument that the design of Creation is such that its end is the birth and resurrection of Christ, an argument that I believe is distinct from the argument that the Old Testament simply prophesied the New.

    This teleological argument supports the "therefore, because" (quia ergo) structure of Hildegard's antiphon on pp. 116-7. Within this scheme, a woman "constructing death" must logically be followed by a virgin "demolishing it". More generally, Mary is what Eve isn't because of Mary's role as one who delivers us from sin and death. Perhaps this explains why the drama of Eve and Mary is elevated to this "cosmic" theater. To Hildegard, Eve is the metaphysical opposite of Mary. Given Mary's status as model of humility and mirror of Christ, it's natural that Eve is seen as prideful and a "closed gate". It's also interesting that, for Hildegard, Mary's qualities prefigure those of Eve; Hildegard begins with the assumption that Mary is virtuous, humble, etc., and from there concludes that Eve must be the opposite. Given that Eve lived before Mary, this reversal of chronology might have something to say about how Hildegard and other theologians thought about biblical time in the Middle Ages.


  5. I think it is very interesting to consider the way Hildegard views Eve differently from previous writers as being influenced by her being female, especially in light of our discussion from the last day of class. If we look at this as a case of gendered animosity, it most logically would be coming out of some bitterness or resentment at Eve being the woman who brought condemnation upon mankind and in a sense, ruining the female gender as the one that brought on sin. This theory calls to mind for me the Daly reading from our last class, where Daly proposes that Mary being free from sin sets her apart from all other women and makes her an impossible model (82). In class we talked about the potential problems with this argument in that both men and women are bearers of original sin, so Mary becomes an impossible model for both men and women, not just women alone. If we parallel this to the case of Eve, doesn’t that provide the same complication to Hildegard’s animosity? Eve’s choice in the garden leads to the downfall of both men and women, so as a matter of fairness, is it right for Hildegard to have to shoulder that burden as woman in a way that other male writers don’t feel it? Do these differences in the way Eve is treated point to more underlying issues in the way gender is treated within a religious sphere as a whole?

  6. Your observations of the difference between the two depictions of Eve seem to boil down to one main distinction: the Eve of the older authors, Ireneus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, and Ephrem, is portrayed as more passive in causing the downfall of man, while Hildegarde's malicious Eve plays an active role in being cast out of the Garden of Eden. As you have shown, the "New Eve" authors illustrate an unwitting, unthinking Eve led astray by the serpent, in contrast with Hildegarde's description of a personally flawed Eve who actively "courted the serpent," "built a house for death," and "despised every joy." Ascribing distinctly active or passive qualities to Eve is paralleled in the "New Eve" authors' and Hildegarde's similarly different depictions of Mary. The earlier authors show Mary as more passive, important in her capacity as the vessel for Christ and her easy acceptance of what God asks of her. As Tertullian points out, "as Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel," making both women appear credulous and easily (mis)led by a more powerful being. Hildegarde, however, gives her Mary the same amount of power and agency as she does Eve. She "built" the house of life that Eve destroyed, "wrecked death forever/sculpturing life," and "plead[s] for all" in her instrumental capacity as intercessor (111, 113, 119). Though Hildegarde casts Eve in a much more negative light than do the earlier writers, by the same token, she writes about a more significantly powerful and essential Mary—perhaps giving the women in her work more character and agency because she herself is one.