Virago

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For other uses, see Virago (disambiguation).
Bronze of a young female warrior in Lombard costume. Francesco Porzio, Monumento alla difesa di Casale, 1897

A virago is a woman who demonstrates exemplary and heroic qualities. The word comes from the Latin word vir, meaning 'man' (cf. virile) to which the suffix -ago is added, a suffix that effectively re-genders the word to be female.

The word virago has almost always had an association with cultural gender transgression. A virago, of whatever excellence, was still identified by her gender. There are recorded instances of viragos (such as Joan of Arc) fighting battles, wearing men's clothing, or receiving the tonsure.[1] The word virago could also be used disparagingly, to imply that a virago was not excellent or heroic, but was instead violating cultural norms. Thus virago joined pejoratives such as termagant,[2] mannish, amazonian and shrew to demean women who acted aggressively or like men.

History[edit]

Historically, the concept of a virago reaches back into antiquity where Hellenistic philosophy asserted that elite and exceptionally heroic men had virtus. Virtus (once again linked to vir, the brave man abiding by society's highest values and ethics as opposed to homo, human being) defined the traits of excellence for a man in ancient Rome (and Greece), including valor and heroism, but also morality and physical strength. Women and non-elite or unheroic men (slaves, servants, craftsmen, merchants) were considered a lesser category, and believed to be less excellent in Roman morality. A woman, however, if exceptional enough could earn the title virago. In doing so, she surpassed the expectations for what was believed possible for her gender, and embodied masculine-like aggression[3] and/or excellence. Virago, then, was a title of respect and admiration. In Christianity, a nun or holy woman who had become equal in divinity to male monks through practiced celibacy, exemplary religious practice and devotion, and intact virginity, was considered to have surpassed the limitations of her femaleness and was called virago.[4][5]

Standard modern dictionaries define virago as both a woman who has aggressive male characteristics, such as being noisy or domineering, as well as a woman of "great stature, strength, and courage".[6][7] Thus virago continues to be associated with the naming of a woman who has risen above cultural and gender stereotypes to embody a virile heroism. For example, the British Royal Navy christened at least four warships Virago.

Vulgate Bible[edit]

The Vulgate Bible, translated by Jerome and others in the 4th century C.E., was the first Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible Old Testament. In Genesis 2:23, Jerome uses the words Vir for man and Virago for "woman" attempting to reproduce a pun on "male" and "female" (Is and Issah) that existed in the Hebrew text.[8][9]

The Vulgate reads:

Dixitque Adam hoc nunc os ex ossibus meis et caro de carne mea haec vocabitur virago quoniam de viro sumpta est.
"And Adam said: This now is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man."

The Middle English poem Cursor Mundi retains the Latin name for the woman in its otherwise Middle English account of the creation:

Quen sco was broght be-for adam, Virago he gaf her to nam; þar for hight sco virago, ffor maked of the man was sco. (lines 631–34)
"When she was brought before Adam, Virago was the name he gave to her; Therefore she is called Virago, For she was made out of the man."

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg. Forgetful of their sex: female sanctity and society, ca. 500-1100. University Of Chicago Press, 2001. Page 50. ISBN 978-0-226-74054-6.
  2. ^ "Virago". Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved 2011-11-25. 
  3. ^ Virginia Blanton. Signs of devotion: the cult of St. Æthelthryth in medieval England, 695-1615 Pennsylvania State Univ Pr (Trd) (April 30, 2007). Page 168. ISBN 978-0-271-02984-9.
  4. ^ Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. Page 5. ISBN 978-0-8122-1545-8.
  5. ^ Laurence Lux-Sterritt. Redefining Female Religious Life: French Ursulines And English Ladies in Seventeenth-Century Catholicism. Ashgate Pub Co (January 30, 2006). Page 61. ISBN 978-0-7546-3716-5.
  6. ^ "Virago". Merriam-Webster Online. Retrieved 2011-11-25. 
  7. ^ http://www.answers.com/topic/virago
  8. ^ Saint Jerome, Robert Hayward. Saint Jerome's Hebrew questions on Genesis. Oxford University Press, USA (August 10, 1995) Page 113. ISBN 978-0-19-826350-0
  9. ^ Helen Kraus. Gender Issues in Ancient and Reformation Translations of Genesis 1-4. Oxford University Press, USA (December 17, 2011). Page 182. ISBN 978-0-19-960078-6

Bibliography[edit]

  • Ernst Breisach, Caterina Sforza ; A Renaissance virago, Chicago [usw.]: University Press 1967
  • Elizabeth D. Carney,"Olympias and the Image of the Virago" in: Phoenix, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring, 1993), pp. 29–55
  • Morris, Richard. Cursor Mundi: A Northunbrian Poem of the XIV Century. London: Oxford UP, 1874. Republished 1961.
  • Barbara Newman. From virile woman to womanChrist: studies in medieval religion and literature. University of Pennsylvania Press (January 1, 1995)
  • Jane Tibbetts Schulenburg. Forgetful of their sex: female sanctity and society, ca. 500-1100. University Of Chicago Press (January 1, 2001)
  • Yenna Wu, The Chinese virago : a literary theme, Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.] : Harvard Univ. Press, 1995