Nearly everyone conflates the zodiac sign of Virgo with Virgin, specifically the winsome maiden holding the sheaf of corn. But there are rogue etymologists who say Virgo comes from Virago and I concur. If you think it means ‘loathsome shrew’ or tyrannical tart, wait up!
Virago means brave woman, with additional connotations of impeccable judgment and heroism. It comes from vigorous or ‘virile’ because saying a female had male qualities was high praise or patriarchally, the only compliment you could really offer.
Still, it went from a positive word in Latin to a slur in other cultures. Alexander the Great’s mother – Olympias – was routinely derided as a virago. The first woman known to openly enter politics, she evidently bumped off rival politicians and the sort of people that today we’d call stakeholders.
But that was considered normal in those days. Olympias earned her ‘virago’ title by being an unconventional mother and flat-out refusing her allotted role of ‘virtuous matron.’ She got into hot debates with everyone, strode around wearing a battle helmet, and alienated her husband by insisting she’d slept with Zeus/Jupiter. A worshipper of Dionysus, she also liked to sleep with her companion snakes.
Over the subsequent centuries, militant women who self-identified as viragos became a quietly persistent phenom. Think ‘Ayra Stark from Game of Thrones.’ They learned to fight early and like the Amazonians (also viragos, apparently) remained single on purpose. That was the original meaning of ‘virgin’ – to not be bound to a partner or the then onerous obligations of the wife/mother role.
Years later, Queen Elizabeth 1 of England – who was Virgo – was referred to as “that dread virago.” Cleverly, she ran with it, having herself depicted as a warrior queen and refusing to marry. In fact, her successful rule meant that the term basically rebranded and returned to its original positive meaning.
Shortly after Elizabeth’s rule, Queen Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba (modern day Angola) was described admiringly as “a cunning and prudent virago, so much addicted to arms that she hardly uses any other exercise and so generously valiant that she never hurt a Portugese after quarter was given and commanded all her servants and soldiers alike.”
Then it flipped back to being an insult/thing men feared their wives would become. Everyone from the Suffragettes to Margaret Thatcher copped it. In 1973, when Virago publishing began, the author Anthony Burgess insisted that “virago” was “a shrew, an ill-tempered female scold.” Then, apparently oblivious to his shrewish tendencies, he called the founders ‘chauvinist sows.’
Monks and missionaries painstakingly rewrote history to remove or radically mute the dragons, snakes, priestesses, and infinite wealth of womanly deities. Confused by females who did not seem to ‘fit in’ – they had no husband or obvious father – they sidelined or demonized them. Part of that process saw the Virgo duality split into a singularity. Naturally, they retained the virgin, turning her into a morality icon in the process. Read the extraordinary ancient poem-prayer-spell Thunder, Perfect Mind for a sense of the original:
I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
But virgin meant self-contained and referred to the sort of person who regardless of their sexual activity or lack of it, could be completely fulfilled by a spiritual and/or intellectual life. Additionally, conceiving and birthing children without needing to have sex was a goddess power, along with going to hell and back. It’s called parthenogenesis.
A whole lot of surmisals sprang up about Virgo because, in some old mosaics, she is depicted as holding something that art historians and archeologists surmised as “probably a distaff for spinning.” Sure but maybe it was a dagger or a measuring rod, a la Seshat, the Ancient Egyptian female counterpart to Thoth.
A measurer, scribe, and timekeeper goddess, she knew everything. Her rituals involved wheat cakes and bowls of flame, symbolizing the fire of knowledge. She was the patron of female writers and librarians as well as the keeper of the keys to the back entrances of the underworld.
The “distaff” could also be the rod and ring (of leadership) held by Ishtar, the biblical ‘whore of Babylon,’ a goddess whose legend encompassed sacred harlotry, warrior power, the pursuit of her rapist, and grain. The original virago, a hymn to her praises her “wild, ferocious and virile antics. She dances around gods and kings in her manliness.”
Like Demeter and Isis, she represented fertile crops but no way were their stories boiled down to a simple virginal symbol of virtue holding a wheat-stalk. FYI: In the oldest stories, Persephone – another Virgo-associated goddess didn’t get attacked and taken to hell. She ran it.
All this considered, is it time to start referring to Virgo as symbolized by the Virago, thus invoking all of the archetype’s depth and complexity?