snakes in the lush spring of love

Do you fear a snake in the garden? You shouldn’t. Imagine a season of new life, an oasis in a parched land, a lush spring. A cleric-poet in medieval Europe wrote:

Desired spring returns
with joy,
decorated with crimson
flowers.
Birds are singing
so sweetly!
The woods turn green again,
the fields are delightful,
entirely.

{ Ver redit optatum
cum gaudio,
flore decoratum
purpureo.
Aves edunt cantus
quam dulciter!
Revirescit nemus,
campus est amoenus
totaliter. }[1]

In this lush spring, flowers and love go together:

Young men, so as to take
flowers
and with their fragrance
refresh themselves,
should quickly accept young women
and go into the fields
adorned with flowers
together.

{ Iuvenes, ut flores
accipiant
et se per odores
reficiant,
virgines assumant alacriter
et eant in prata
floribus ornata
communiter. }

For these men, women are like flowers. Who doesn’t know the rest about birds and bees, before male worker bees were disparaged as mere drones?

phoenix rising

Some medieval men regarded themselves as superior to animals such as dogs or pigs. The season didn’t determine their love. They loved in season and out of season:

Savagely the wind’s breath bites,
and the trees’
foliage waves deeply
from weight of frosts.
Songs in groves cease.
Love now sleeps among the herds,
fervent only in spring.
Always loving, I refuse to follow
new turns of season
as is animals’ custom.

How sweet are
the rewards
and happy
the joys
of the time
with my flower Flora!

{ Saevit aurae spiritus,
et arborum
comae fluunt penitus
vi frigorum.
Silent cantus nemorum.
Nunc torpescit vere solo
fervens, amor pecorum.
Semper amans sequi nolo
novas vices temporum
bestiali more.

Quam dulcia
stipendia
et gaudia
felicia
sunt haec horae
nostrae Flore! }[2]

What man lacks spring’s flowers when he has his own beloved woman Flora?

With their deep study of Genesis and classical disparagement of men’s penises, medieval clerics recognized the vital importance of redeeming snakes. One thus wrote of snakes in spring:

The time is already spring,
the land is green with fresh growth,
and the sun is newly radiant.
Trees spread branches,
lilies shine white,
everything flowers.

Now snakes abound
as the rivers overflow.
The gods’ mountain opens waterfalls,
and life-giving rain
irrigates the earth to its depths.
Balsam and cinnamon
emit their fragrances.
Violet, rose, and sage
vigorously sprout.
Animals are mating.

{ Iam vernali tempore
terra viret germine,
sol novo cum iubare.
Frondent nemora,
candent lilia,
florent omnia.

Nunc dracones fluminum
scatent emanantium;
imber saluberrimus
irrigat terram funditus;
cataractas reserat Olimpus.
redolent aromata,
cum cinnamomo balsama.
virent viola,
rosa et ambrosia.
coeunt animalia. }[3]

Humans can choose not to act like other animals. But when you think of humans mating, think of lilies and snakes in the life-creating joy of spring.

phoenix representing the salvation of Jesus Christ

* * * * *

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Notes:

[1] Carmina Burana 137, “Desired spring returns {Ver redit optatum},” stanza 1, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). The subsequent quote above is similarly stanza 2 (of 2) from “Ver redit optatum.” Here’s a recording of this song by Svend S. Schultz / Aarhus Koncertkor.

[2] Carmina Burana 83, Peter of Blois, “Savagely the wind’s breath bites {Saevit aurae spiritus / Sevit aure spiritus},” stanza 1 and refrain, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018).

[3] Carmina Burana 132, “The time is already spring {Iam vernali tempore},” stanzas 1a and 5b (ending with 5b), Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). This poem represents the sounds of sixty animals, most of which are birds. Then it declares that their melodies are surpassed by the phoenix. The poem significantly doesn’t represent the song of the phoenix:

These are the sounds of the flying animals
and of the four-legged ones too,
but their melodies are surpassed
by the phoenix, a unique bird,
whose resting place lies
within the confines of paradise.

{ Hae sunt voces volucrum
necnon quadrupedum,
quorum modulamina
vincit phoenix unica,
in cuius confinio
est paradisi mansio. }

“Iam vernali tempore,” stanza 4, sourced as previously.

In Christian thought, the phoenix was associated with Jesus Christ and eternal life. Possibly the earliest Christian poem about the phoenix is that of Lactantius (Lucius Caecilius Firmianus, lived about 250-325 GC), About the bird the phoenix {De ave phoenice}. For Latin text, English translation, and extensive commentary, Harris (1978). Here are Latin reading notes and an alternate translation of vv. 31-50. The ninth-century Old English poem The Phoenix translates and expands Lactantius’s poem. For a modern English translation, Cook & Tinker (1902) Ch. 6. Here are some notes on the poem and a verse interpretation of vv. 1-49.

While the phoenix is an exotic bird, Jesus in his humanity is like an ordinary man. In classical usage, the Latin word for snake, draco, used in “Iam vernali tempore” typically refers to a large, exotic snake / serpent. But this poem’s snakes, associated through chiasmus with animals’ mating, are ordinary snakes. The poem thus evokes the sense of male penises as being both ordinary and extraordinary.

[images] (1) Phoenix rising. Illumination on folio 56r of the twelfth-century Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library, Univ Lib. MS 24). Via Wikimedia Commons and Aberdeen University. (2) Phoenix and roses, perhaps representing Christ risen from the dead. Mosaic made in the second half of the third century GC near Antioch-on-the-Orontes in present-day Turkey. Preserved as accession # Ma 3462 (MND 1953) in the Louvre Museum (Paris, France). Image thanks to Clio20 and Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Cook, Albert S., and Chauncey Brewster Tinker. 1902. Select translations from Old English poetry, edited with prefatory notes and indexes. Boston, MA: Athenaeum Press, Ginn & Company.

Harris, Keith N. 1978. The De ave Phoenice of Lactantius: a commentary and introduction. M. A. Thesis, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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