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V is for Virgin (Alphabet b-sides and rarities)

2013 June 3

Hodge-note: This rather special item from the archives was originally #22 in the Alphabet series, and got mostly written (and illustrated) before I heard the siren song of vitriol instead, with its rich murder and rage connotations. Vitriol was duly inducted into the Alphabet official rankings and Virgin languished like a vestal until we thought maybe she should see the light of day…

Here she is:



And your quaint honour turn to dust
And into ashes all my lust…

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress c.1640s

Virgin has a comparatively straightforward etymology: it derives from the Latin virgo (= ‘maiden’), whence the star-sign Virgo (apparently the sign of the shy, modest and meticulous, with a dash of perfectionism and anxiety). Its first sense (c.1200) is an ecclesiastical one: ‘an unmarried or chaste maiden or women, distinguished for piety or steadfastness in religion, and regarded as having a special place among the members of the Christian church on account of these merits.’

Like a virgin

Saint Lucy, with her eyes, as depicted in 1521

Saint Lucy, with her eyes, as depicted in 1521

There are innumerable such virgins in Christian hagiography: Saint Ursula had an army of 11,000 virgin handmaids who all had their heads chopped off (in a bit of a pun-fail); Saint Cecilia (patron saint of music) managed not only to persuade her husband to forbear on their wedding night, but also to join the Christian cause along with his brother, and suffer death in consequence.

Saint Lucy consecrated her virginity to God, and, supposedly, tore her own eyes out and gave them to her husband (who had admired them) as a kind of macabre substitute for the marital debt. (Lesson: never admire your girlfriend’s essential organs).

And, of course, there is the arch-virgin much mentioned in these posts – the eponymous Mary, who gets a definition all to herself as virgin‘s fourth meaning.

Mary’s particular achievement – the Virgin Birth – is also considered of some importance in these definitions for virgin. It presumably lies behind the gloss ‘a female insect producing fertile eggs by pathenogenesis [without the input of a male insect]’ (1883), as well as virgin‘s simple equivalence with ‘pathenogenesis’ itself (1849) – a word with its origin in the Greek parthenos, also meaning ‘virgin’ and ‘genesis’ (= ‘creation’).

This – reproduction without fertilisation – though clearly associated with Mary in Christian tradition, is also arguably the origin of Adam, so it doesn’t have to be have an explicit cultural gender-association. Indeed, there is a Middle English citation for virgin that defines it as ‘a youth or man who has remained in a state of chastity’. But this is admittedly an unusual example among the definitions as a whole. 

A woman’s touch

Roman depiction of a vestal virgin

A Vestal Virgin

If we go back to ancient Rome, we meet another sense the religious meaning of virgin can have: the very non-Christian Vestal Virgins, a group of highly respected women whose job it was to guard the ‘sacred fire’ and take care of the rituals and responsibilities that could not be dealt with by male priests.

They were so named because their duties were primarily to Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth and family, and, in consequence, the Vestal Virgins took on a role as kind of symbolic housewives to the whole of Rome.

Though they would be obliged to remain virginal throughout their time as priestesses, in the word’s second sense ‘a woman who is or remains in a state of inviolate chastity’, the vow only lasted thirty years, at the end of which they were free to marry (though most of them seem not to have been all that bothered).

This all said, while these saints and priestesses are all very much virgins in the most common sense of the word, the ecclesiastical meaning does not have to imply the sexual inexperience they normally connote, since ‘chastity’ simply means ‘clean, pure’ (from the Latin castus), and has no intrinsic connection with physical ‘intactness’, though it is frequently used as a synonym. In fact, the fourth definition for the second primary meaning of the word (where it can be used to describe things other than women) highlights ‘purity or freedom from stain’ and being ‘unsullied’.

If you cast your mind back to ‘M is for Marriage‘, you may remember that adultery means ‘pollution of the marriage bed’, suggesting by association that the marriage bed was a sacred – or indeed ‘pure’ – space. And indeed, marriage was widely considered invalid without consummation – something Henry VIII made much use of in his royal divorces – and, in consequence, the virtuous wife who dexterously trod the balance of Pure Marital Sex and Pollution of the Marriage Bed (whether by adultery as we conceive it, or by lusting after her husband) could be as much feted as the unmarried virgin (indeed, more so, if she proved herself skilled in housewifery and produced equally virtuous children).

Elizabeth I - sieve portrait

The ‘sieve portrait’ of Elizabeth I, 1583

That said, a curious and related term first cited in 1644 was virgin widow, meaning a woman whose husband had died before the marriage could be consummated, and whose status was therefore ambiguously poised between virginity (in the sense of being unmarried) and widowhood (being left behind after the death of a husband).

This was Catherine of Aragon‘s position, as argued at her divorce hearing, during the painful period  after Prince Arthur’s death – languishing in a political and social limbo, waiting for something to happen, steadily running out of money and losing points on the marriage market.

Purity is a virtue of the soul

An excellent, though somewhat horrific, example of the noble wife trope is Lucretia, the virtuous spouse of Collatine, whose rape by the royal prince Tarquin so outraged Rome that it led directly to the establishment of the Roman republic. As a wife, Lucretia is not a technical virgin, but she is (as Shakespeare puts it in the oft-forgotten early poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594)) ‘Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste‘.

Saint Augustine posits that ‘purity is a virtue of the soul‘, and since body and soul are (in this reading) distinct, Lucrece can consummate her marriage while still retaining her essential ‘bodily sanctity’ because she is free of polluting lust in the process.

Unfortunately, Collatine spends so much time bragging about his wife’s chastity to the bros in the camp that he invites trouble:

Haply that name of “chaste” unhapp’ly set
The bateless edge on [Tarquin’s] appetite

Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

Lucretia is so traumatised by Tarquin’s subsequent rape that she stabs herself rather than ‘live impure’, widely considered by the (male) world to be a Noble Decision. This led to her immortalisation in literature and philosophy as a perfect wife, but also prompted Augustine to engage in some terrible rape apologism in the service of his broader argument (‘If she was adulterous, why praise her? if chaste, why slay her?’).

Saints and sieves

It is presumably a version of this chastity-of-the-soul idea so beloved by Augustine that lies behind the story of Tuccia, the Vestal Virgin who proves her virginity by carrying water from the Tiber in a sieve without spilling a drop (here she is depicted in 1555 with the sieve itself, and wearing an outfit that leaves little to the imagination, chaste or otherwise).

I suppose the idea behind the sieve story is that something that would normally flow through the porous surface is maintained ‘intact’, perhaps representing the pure soul within a porous body. At any rate, it became a key symbol of virginity, most notably in the ‘Sieve Portrait’ of the ‘Virgin Queen‘ Elizabeth I, who is also cited in the Dictionary as a definition of virgin in herself.

The last citation given in the dictionary for virgin, with which we will end, is from 1780, as ‘a fortress or city that has never been taken or subdued’. This has an obvious resonance with Lucrece, and the ultimately martial tale her story becomes – another link between feminine ‘closedness’ and men’s military convenience.

It’s hard to find a way to re-appropriate any of these ideas in a positive way. But maybe this transferred definition or fortresses and cities should make us think about Elizabeth I, who at least made them work to her own military and political advantage.

A virgin on a pedestal

2 Responses leave one →
  1. June 14, 2013

    It may be easier to take a positive view of a virgin forest (a phrase I’ve definitely encountered, although I can’t cite a reference) than virgin fortresses or cities. And a virgin forest seems the very place for the virgin huntress Artemis.

    Perhaps more interestingly, ‘virgin’ is a word used by a number of writers seeking to explore feminine spirituality. This is an example:
    Miranda Gray divides the menstrual cycle into four phases which she terms virgin, mother, enchantress and hag. (Virgin, in this context, refers to the period between bleeding and ovulation.) Part of her intent, perhaps, is to rehabilitate the word ‘hag’ which usually has strongly negative connotations. Much the same may apply to ‘crone’ in the feminist Daughters of the Moon tarot, which uses (with similar meaning) the words maiden, mother and crone for its court cards.

  2. June 14, 2013

    A current example of virgin = pure, it occurs to me, is in olive oil. The purest form available (as far as I know) is ‘extra virgin’. This seems to imply that it’s possible to have degrees of virginity. Perhaps some of the saints you mention were extra virgin humans.

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