The word is also used in modern English to mean a violent, overbearing, turbulent, brawling, quarrelsome woman; a virago, shrew, vixen. In the past the word could be applied to any person or thing personified, not just a woman.
Origin of the concept
European literature from the Middle Ages often referred to Muslims as pagans, with sobriquets such as the paynim foe. These depictions represent Muslims worshipping Muhammad (Mahomet, Mahound) as a god and depict them worshiping various deities in the form of idols (cult images), ranging from Apollo to Lucifer, but their chief deity was typically named Termagant. In some writings, such as the eleventh-century Song of Roland, this was combined to create an "unholy Trinity" of sorts composed of Muhammad, Apollo, and Termagant.
The origin of the name Termagant is unknown, and does not seem to derive from any actual aspect of Muslim belief or practice, however wildly distorted. W. W. Skeat in the 19th century, speculated that the name was originally "Trivagante", meaning 'thrice wandering', a reference to the moon, because of the Islamic use of crescent moon imagery. An Old English origin has also been suggested, from tiw mihtig r ("very mighty"), referring to the Germanic god Tiw. Another possibility is that it derives from a confusion between Muslims and the Zoroastrian Magi of ancient Iran: thus tyr-magian, or "Magian god".
Termagant in literature
Whatever its origins, "Termagant" became established in the West as the name of the principal Muslim god, being regularly mentioned in metrical romances and chansons de geste. In the 15th-century Middle English romance Syr Guy of Warwick, a Sultan swears an oath:
- So help me, Mahoune, of might,
- And Termagant, my god so bright.
- E Tervagan tolent sun escarbuncle, / E Mahumet enz en un fosset butent,
- (They strip the fire-red gem off Termagant / And throw Mohammed down into a ditch...)
- Of Babiloyne the riche Sowdon,
- Moost myghty man he was of moolde;
- He made a vowe to Termagaunte:
- Whan Rome were distroied and hade myschaunce,
- He woolde turne ayen erraunte
- And distroye Charles, the Kinge of Fraunce.
In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the Tale of Sir Thopas (supposed to be told by Chaucer himself on the pilgrimage) is a parody of these chivalric romances. In the tale, a giant knight named "Sir Oliphaunt" is made to swear an oath by Termagant.
In Occitan literature the name Muhammed was corrupted as "Bafomet", forming the basis for the legendary Baphomet, at different times an idol, a "sabbatic goat", and key link in conspiracy theories. The troubadour Austorc d'Aorlhac refers to Bafomet and Termaganat (Tervagan) side-by-side in one sirventes, referring also to the latter's "companions".
Termagant also became a stock character in a number of medieval mystery plays. On the stage, Termagant was usually depicted as a turbanned creature who wore a long, Eastern style gown. As a stage-villain, he would rant at and threaten the lesser villains who were his servants and worshippers.
"Termagant" as a ranting bully and a shrewish woman
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As a result of the theatrical tradition, by Shakespeare's day the term had come to refer to a bullying person. Henry IV contains a reference to "that hot termagant Scot". In Hamlet, the hero says of ham actors that "I would have such a fellow whipped for o'er-doing Termagant, it out-Herods Herod". Herod, like Termagant, was also a character from medieval drama who was famous for ranting.
Mainly because of Termagant's depiction in long gowns, and given that female roles were routinely played by male actors in Shakespearean times, English audiences got the mistaken notion that the character was female, or at least that he resembled a mannish woman. As a result, the name "termagant" came increasingly to be applied to a woman with a quarrelsome, scolding quality, a sense that it retains today. An example of this usage is in Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle", in which Dame Van Winkle is described as a "termagant wife". "Virago", "fishwife" and "shrew" are near synonyms for "termagant" in this sense. Nevertheless, the term is still sometimes used of men. The Australian politician Kim Beazley labelled a male opponent a termagant.
- HMS Termagant is a longstanding ship's name in the British Royal Navy.
- In Jack Vance's book The Dragon Masters, a subspecies of "dragon" is the man-sized termagant.
- In the microgame Chitin: 1 The Harvest Wars, published by Metagaming in the late 1970s, Termagant was a type of ground unit.
- In the fictional Warhammer 40,000 universe, Termagants are a subspecies of Tyranids, hostile alien creatures that resemble dinosaurs or insects.
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, "Termagant"
- Mohja Kahf, 1999. Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque (Austin:University of Texas Press)