The negative aspects of Mars and Venus presented in the temple descriptions of The Knight's Tale infer the larger capriciousness of pagan fate and determinism on Palamon and Arcite as opposed to the divine providence of Theseus. The temples depict gods who govern the baser actions of man. By following these instincts, Palamon and Arcite are ruled by them and trapped by the fate which governs them. The influences of these gods can be seen in different parts of The Knight's Tale. This is contrasted with Theseus, who uses his wisdom to balance his passions with reason. Worshipping a more stable First Mover, Theseus is able to reconcile the conflicting passions which overwhelm Palamon and Arcite.
The first temple described in part three of The Knight's Tale is Venus' temple. Venus has, historically, been presented as representing two different forms of love (Tatebaum 649). She can either represent a heavenly love or a more earthly passion. Palamon appears to worship the more heavenly manifestation of the goddess early in The Knight's Tale. When Palamon first sees Emelye, he says that "I noot wher she be womman or goddesse" (Chaucer 1.1101). And yet this confusion over Emelye's identity does not explicitly state Palamon's interpretation of the goddess Venus. In his characterization of Emelye, he does not state that Venus' love is a celestial one. He could view Emelye with the same lustiness regardless of whether he sees her as a woman or a goddess. A goddess may be far more heavenly than a mortal creature, but they can both stir up the same passions when brought down to earth. While not completely focused on only earthly love, Palamon can view love as an earthly passion in his yearning for Emelye.
Palamon's interpretation of Venus can be seen clearly in the description of her temple, and the description is a negative one. Gaylord asserts that Theseus built the temples to serve the knights' visions of the gods, not his own (175). Therefore, the gods depicted in the temple descriptions are the gods as Palamon and Arcite thought of them. The Venus depicted in the description of her temple is not completely negative. Depicted on the wall are "Hope", "Beautee" and "Youthe" (Chaucer 3.1925-1926). The overwhelming emphasis, however, is on the negative aspects of Venus. The first lines describing the temple call the walls "ful pitous to beholde" (Chaucer 3.1919). Then the tears and lamenting of people who feel love's desire are described. Even the Hope, Beauty and Youth who are with Venus are qualified with further depictions of "Charmes and Force, Lesyngs, Flaterye, / Despense, Bisynesse, and Jalousye" (Chaucer 3.1926-1927). Even "Bauderie" (Chaucer 3.1926) is mentioned. Bauderie could mean Mirth, but it could also have more negative and risqué connotations. These companions to Venus are also portrayed with cuckoos in their hands and golden garlands. Cuckoos represent cuckoldry, where women cheat on their husbands out of service to Venus. The golden garlands can represent the general covetousness of love, much as a person would covet wealth.
Some descriptions of the temple detail the people who had been negatively affected by Venus' power. These people were in her thrall, so they could not escape their fates. Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection, and died pining away for his own picture, is depicted. Hercules is mentioned, and yet his great crime was the murder of his wife and children in a blind rage. Also shown are Medea and Circe, two classical sorceresses who did great evils out of jealousy and love. Medea betrayed her own father and killed and dismembered her brother in order to help her lover, Jason. She later killed Jason's wife and her own children with Jason out of jealousy of the new wife (Guirand 198). Circe was seen by some ancient people as a goddess of degrading love. (Guirand 143). Circe is sometimes depicted as turning a beautiful woman, Scylla, into a great sea-monster out of jealousy (Guirand 133). She also had kept Odysseus on her island for a year, making him forget his own wife (Guirand 143). Turnus is also depicted on the wall. Turnus was killed in a war against Aeneas for the hand of Lavinia. And yet Turnus and Aeneas fought more for the political gain that the marriage would bring instead of for genuine love. Indeed, this general cupidity is underscored in the next line with the mention of Croesus, a man well known in antiquity for his vast wealth. The people depicted on the walls represent the jealousy and the covetousness of people in Venus' thrall, and show the discordant nature of Venus.
A gentler Venus could have been depicted. In The Aenied, we have not only a picture of Venus causing Turnus' doom, but also a picture of Venus as caring wife and mother. In book eight of The Aenied, there is a touching scene of marital love between Venus and her husband, Vulcan. Vulcan is "bound to her by eternal love" (Virgil, 8.396). Venus is also striving throughout The Aenied to help her son, Aeneas, fulfill his task of founding a new country. This more gentle and heavenly Venus is presented throughout Greek and Roman myth, although it is presented less often than her more lusty and earthly aspect. The heavenly aspect of Venus is overwhelmed by the description of the earthly aspects of Venus.
Venus herself is depicted in her earthly form, naked except for water which covers her lower half. She is surrounded by natural elements. The water is green, suggesting the green earth and nature. She has a rose garland and birds flying above her head. The emphasis on the smells of the roses focuses on the earthly senses such as smell. Tatebaum argues that the presence of a citole in Venus' hand shows that the heavenly aspect of Venus is being portrayed. Her argument lies in the fact that musical notes represented harmony in classical and medieval times (653). A stringed instrument such as the citole represents this idea better than the more traditional concha that Venus is usually depicted with. This harmony is opposed to the discordant or destructive Venus. Venus' possession of a citole, however, could have numerous meanings. Twycross argues that one source for the addition of the citole would be Bersuire, who described Venus as having a cithera. Bersuire then made an analogy between this Venus and a reference by Isaiah to a courtesan ( Twycross 8). A cithera is a stringed instrument much like the citole. St. Augustine also associates the cithera with an instrument representing the flesh, while reserving the psalterium for more heavenly music (Twycross 48). Twycross argues, however, that the exact meaning of the instrument is less important than how it is used (49). Twycross then shows how the citole could have been an astrological addition to Venus, since she was often presented playing a stringed instrument in astrological depictions. There is ambiguity in the meaning behind Venus' citole, and so this one object alone cannot provide a definitive picture of Venus. However, Venus is situated on the earthly plane given the body imagery present.
Palamon's prayer at the temple shows his devotion to the passionate and destructive Venus. In Palamon's prayer to Venus, he calls her the daughter of Jove and the spouse of Vulcan, evoking the more pure version of the goddess at first. He then details the woes that he experiences, asking Venus to "Have pitee of my bittre teeris smert" (Chaucer 3.2225). This is similar to the pictures of the lovers depicted on the temple's wall who are piteously ruined by love. Palamon then proclaims himself Venus' true servant, who will always make war against chastity. This places Venus firmly on the earthly side of her powers. Palamon is so fully in Venus' service that he renounces any claim to victory or glory if he is able to serve Venus. He is so in Venus' thrall that he would prefer death to losing his love. Instead of calling upon a nurturing Venus, he asks that Venus satisfy his desires for Emelye.
Venus, as depicted in the temple, is a goddess of sensual and earthly love which ruins men. The destructive capacity of Venus is amplified by the mention of " a thousand mo" (Chaucer 3.1954) examples of people ruled by love besides the stories depicted in the tale. The passion of love can rule a person and lead to their destruction. Gaylord sees a logical extension of this destructive passion to the destructive passion characterized by Mars (181). Both temples depict the harmful aspects of the deities, and both passions can be destructive to the followers of the deities.
The depictions on Mars' temple are more obviously destructive than the ones on Venus' temple. Mars' temple is "gastly for to see" (Chaucer 3.1984). "Felonye" (Chaucer 3.1996) "Ire" (Chaucer 3.1997), "Drede", or fear, (Chaucer 3.1998), "Contek", or strife (Chaucer 3.2003), "Woodnesse", or madness (Chaucer 3.2011), and "Armed Complaint, Outhees and fierse Outrage", or discontent, outcry and excessive cruelty (Chaucer 3.2012) are all depicted on the temple's walls. Various cruelties, not only of war, cover the walls. Mars is depicted with bloodthirsty wolves at his feet "With eyen rede, and of a man he eet" (Chaucer 3.2048). Unlike with Venus, there are no ambiguities over the character of Mars.
The noble aspects of war are entirely absent from the descriptions. The only possible good done by Mars is only slightly alluded to, with the slaughter of Julius and Nero. Some in the Roman republic considered Julius Caesar a would-be king and tyrant, so he was killed before he could dismantle the republic. Many people in the Roman Empire considered Nero a tyrant, and Nero committed suicide before he could be murdered. But the deaths of these two are likened to "slaughter" (Chaucer 3.2031) rather than the more noble goals that could be associated with their deaths. Also, just wars are left out of the description. A just war can be seen in Theseus' own war against Creon. Theseus waged war not out of bloodthirsty vengeance, but to do justice for the inhabitants of Thebes who were killed and not allowed a decent burial. War normally depicted as cruel, but the idea of a just war would not have been unknown.
Arcite shows himself to be under the influence of a consuming passion for conquest that was Mars' domain in his prayer to Mars. He views love in simple carnal terms, reminding Mars of when he "usedest the beautee / Of faire, younge, fresshe Venus Free" (Chaucer 3.2385-2386). He sees love in terms of Martian conquest. Arcite wants to win Emelye with his strength using Mars' help. Arcite pledges himself to be Mars' servant, and asks for victory above all else in the battle. Arcite doe not yearn for anything beyond the immediate conquest.
Palamon and Arcite are also strongly connected to Venus and Mars, respectively, through their homeland, Thebes. McCall describes Thebes as having "a history of Mars unleashed and of Venus unrestrained" (90). Theban history is full of passion's destructive powers. Palamon and Arcite are true sons of Thebes as they let their passions cause them to fight against one another (McCall 91). The discordant nature of their homeland rules them. While they are not just the products of their birth, they allow the discordant nature of their country's natural passions rule them.
The conflict between Palamon and Arcite is moved into the heavenly realm, where the passionate Venus and Mars argue over who shall have victory. The god who comes between Mars and Venus in their argument is Saturn. Gaylord argues, however, that Saturn cannot offer a fulfilling solution to the problems presented by these embodiments of passion (183). Saturn is a powerful god, and tells Venus that "My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne, / Hath moore power than woot any man" (Chaucer 3.2454-2455). Saturn then goes on to describe his works, but all of the works he describes are bad ones. Saturn says "And myne be the maladyes colde, / The dark tresons, and the castes olde; / My lookyng is the fader of pestilece" (Chaucer 3.2467-2469). With these lines, he places himself firmly as an agent of maladies, treason and pestilence. He also associates himself with fate with his mention of "castes". Saturn represents on old order characterized by pagan determinism (Gaylord 174). The effects of Saturn amplify the effects of Venus and Mars. The heavenly realm represented by Venus, Mars and Saturn is not able to bring about harmony any more than Palamon and Arcite are in their quest for a war to solve their problem of passions.
Palamon and Arcite are ruled by the passions exemplified by the gods, which leads them to be controlled by their fate. Tatabaum describes passion as "a self-centered circle which can never break away from itself" (649-650). This characterization of passion is reminiscent of the wheel of fortune, where men always circle through gladness and woe. McCall also places Palamon and Arcite under the influence of fate. They won't take control of their own destinies, but view themselves as victims of the gods, fate, Theseus, and their history (90). Gaylord emphasizes that the two knights abandon themselves to their passions (181). By worshipping at the temples, the two put themselves under the power of the gods and their destructive passions (Gaylord 182). The savage destiny represented by the gods Venus, Mars and Saturn cannot be withstood by the two because they have given themselves over to their passions and chose not to rise above them (Gaylord 184-185).
The gods themselves are not necessarily always cruel, however, but they themselves are subject to fate. Many references are made to their astrological aspects. Palamon and Arcite visit the temples at times which, although there is little classical precedent, suggest astrological significance (Manzalaoui 246). Twycross shows how Venus' citole suggests that Venus is presented as an astrological planet (51). Mars is depicted with geomantic figures of Puella and Rubeus, tying him to astrology. The gods, in this respect, are not so much malicious as they are capricious. The gods are themselves amoral, representing a full range of passions. Their worshippers decide how to use these powers, either for good or for evil (Manzalaoui 246). And yet the worshippers, in following these astronomical gods, are trapped by the ever-changing fate that governs even the gods themselves. Mars and Venus are arational (McCall 71). They follow their passions as fate dictates. The compromise between the two is reached by another arational force, Saturn. Saturn is characterized in an astrological sense by his own words, "My cours, that hath so wyde for to turne" (Chaucer 3.2454), which show him as a planetary figure. Astrological disorders documented by ancient astronomers characterize Saturn as a producer of bad works (Gaylord 175). Astrological Saturn is therefore aligned with the astrological Venus and Mars. So while these deities are not malicious, they are also not benign. They follow the pull of fate much like a planet must follow its path in the sky, and they can lead to ruin and destruction as often as they can lead to harmony and happiness. Any follower of the gods must then be pulled into the fate that these gods offer, and the depictions of the gods suggest misfortune over good fortune.
The forces of Venus and Mars as represented by Palamon and Arcite are contrasted with Jupiter and Theseus. For Palamon and Arcite, "[d]estiny is savage because men sacrifice their chance to rise above it" (Gaylord 184-185). But Theseus is able to rise above the destiny offered by the gods. Theseus has the wisdom to view a more unmovable God who is not subject to the "one-trackedness of planetary beings" (Manzalaoui 247). Divine love and empathy produce a less capricious God. (Manzalaoui 247). This God is Theseus' "Firste Moevere". The First Mover is "parfit and stable" (Chaucer 4.3009). He made a "faire cheyne of love" (Chaucer 4.2988). With this chain he can connect all things and creates a harmony in the world. Theseus connects this First Mover with Jupiter, who is beyond the pull of fate with controls the other gods. By existing beyond the other gods, Jupiter is allowed to represent a fixed point for Theseus to look to for wisdom and guidance.
Jupiter is Saturn's son, so Theseus' to description of Jupiter as the First Mover appears anachronistic. Jupiter, however, did depose his father and install a new order. This can be seen metaphorically as the new age, characterized by Jupiter's benevolence, overthrowing the old age, characterized by Saturn's savageness. Seen astrologically, the planet Jupiter does mitigate the harmful effects of Saturn (Gaylord 183). The new age is one that is characterized by Providence and divine love, while the old age was characterized by determinism and fate (Gaylord 183). This old age includes the Venus and Mars that Palamon and Arcite prayed to. So Jupiter is the First Mover in the age of Providence.
Theseus worships Jupiter above all. He can be seen as the god who represents the balance and harmony that Theseus wishes to achieve. Astrologically, Jupiter is seen as a positive influence, with his planet presiding over prosperity, peace, health and magnanimous rulers (Gaylord 183). Theseus cannot perfectly emulate the ideal, (McCall 73), but he is able to create a more just harmony with his benevolence. Jupiter could not help Venus and Mars with their quarrel, however, because Palamon and Arcite could not temper their passions in the way which Theseus could. Theseus forgave their trespasses, "he hem both excused" (Chaucer 2.1766), so there was no reason, besides their overwhelming passions, for them to fight. Gaylord argues that both knights lose by engaging in battle, and that Palamon loses more when his friend dies than he gains by marrying Emelye (184). So while Theseus is able to emulate a benevolent Jupiter, Palamon and Arcite are not influenced by the harmony associated with the deity.
The Providence of Jupiter and the Fate of Mars and Venus cannot, however, be totally separated. According to Boethian philosophy, which has a large presence in the tale, Fate and Providence are linked as if in a circle. Providence is the stable center of the circle, and Fate is the movable outside of the circle. Love is the essence that keeps order and harmony in the universe (Tatebaum 662). This description of Providence can be seen in Theseus' description of the First mover who is stable and who creates a chain of love that connects all things.
Just as Fate cannot be completely separated from Providence, Theseus is not completely separated from his passion, although Theseus knows how to moderate his passions. When he happens across Palamon and Arcite fighting, he invokes Mars and threatens to kill the two knights. But he listened to his wife's and Emelye's pleas, and "pitee renneth soon in gentil herte" (Chaucer 2.1761). He allowed his bellicosity to be tempered by his pitious heart. He then thought over the trespass of both of the knights. In his deliberations, he used his reasoning and wisdom to think over the matter, and "in his resoun he hem both excused" (Chaucer 2.1766). He then invokes the power of love, and Mars is tempered by Venus. This tempering of passions can also be seen very well in Theseus' insignia. "Red Mars on a shining white Venusian flag; and on it a pennon of gold (wisdom) to memorialize his conquest of bestiality" (McCall 67). The conquest of bestiality can also be seen as a conquest of overwhelming passion. He is able to employ his reasoning to overcome more earthly passions.
This balanced approach to his passions can be seen in Theseus' ordering of the temples. He creates a "noble theatre" (Chaucer 3.1885) in the shape of a circle. Each passion, therefore, is connected to the other. Indeed, a third temple is in the theater besides Venus' and Mars' temples. This temple is Diana's, the chaste goddess that Emelye prays to. As a goddess of chastity, Diana attempts to deny human passions. By linking her to the other two, there is a strong abstaining force linked to two passionate forces. This creates a balance between the passions embodied in Venus and Mars (McCall 72). Theseus, by building the temple, shows his desire for balance (McCall 73). The temples alone my represent destructive passion, but together they can achieve a balance. This balance, tempered by reason and wisdom, controls the passions so that one cannot rule.
Chaucer shows the capriciousness of the pagan gods and highlights the discord created by the deities. The temple descriptions depict the negative influence that these gods have. The gods themselves are controlled by fate, and cannot offer a better outcome for Palamon and Arcite. Theseus, however, is able to come up with just rulings. He is able to balance his passions by using a fixed source as his guiding principle and his reasoning and wisdom based on that fixed source. Theseus uses his worship of the First Mover, Jupiter, in his deliberations. In this way, Fate and Providence are contrasted, and the benevolence of Providence is shown as less destructive than capricious Fate.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 37-66.
Gaylord, Alan T. "The Role Of Saturn In The Knight's Tale." The Chaucer Review 8 (1974): 172-190.
Guirand, Felix, ed. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology. Trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames. London: Prometheus Press, 1968.
Manzalaoui, Mahmoud. "Chaucer And Science" Writers And Their Background: Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. Derek Brewer. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1974. 224-261.
McCall, John P. Chaucer Among The Gods. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979.
Tatebaum, Linda. "Venus' Citole And The Restoration Of Harmony In Chaucer's Knight's Tale" Neuphilologische Mitteilungen. 74(1973): 649-664.
Twycross, Meg. The Medieval Anadyomene: A Study in Chaucer's Mythography. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1972.
Virgil, Publius. The Aeneid. Trans. David West. New York: Penguin Classics, 1991.