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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. 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, mannish, amazonian and shrew to demean women who acted aggressively or like men.
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 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. Firmicus Maternus describes virago as women who take on a man's character and desire intercourse with women like men.
Standard modern dictionaries define virago as either, in order of definition, (1) a "loud overbearing woman"; a "shrew". or (2) a woman of "great stature, strength, and courage" Thus virago continues to be associated with both the naming of a woman who has either (1) a domineering, abrasive and spiteful manner, or (2) has risen above cultural and gender stereotypes to embody a virile heroism; for example, the British Royal Navy christened at least four warships Virago.
The Vulgate Bible, translated by Jerome and others in the 4th century C.E., was an early 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" (Ish and Ishah) that existed in the Hebrew text.
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."
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