Word of the Day: Termagant

in optical character recognition

Just as I had convinced myself that I knew everything, The Week proved me wrong. I like to read the “what to watch” column since I rarely watch television. In it, was the description of an upcoming A&E mystery wherein “a fed up husband finally plans to get rid of his termagant wife”. termagant? A dictionary definition was summoned. “A quarrelsome, scolding woman; a shrew. From Middle English Termagaunt, imaginary Muslim deity portrayed as a violent and overbearing character in medieval mystery plays”. That made me get out of the bath. What Muslim deity’s name could be bastardized as termagant? As far as I knew, Allah and al-Rahman were the only names to have cropped over into medieval European imagination. I was obviously very uninformed.

OED had more info:

1. (with capital T.) Name of an imaginary deity held in mediÊval Christendom to be worshipped by Muslims: in the mystery plays represented as a violent overbearing personage. (Cf. MAHOUND 1.) Obs. or arch.

In Lay. applied to gods of the Romans and heathen Saxons.

c1205 LAY. 5353 For {ygh}if hit wulled Teruagant {th}e us [is] oure god of {th}isse lond [Rome]. Ibid. 16427 {Th}e he{edh}ene..cleopeden ëUre godd Teruagant! whi trukest {th}u us an hond?í c1290 S. Eng. Leg. I. 468/205 Ne bilieuez nou{ygh}ht opon Mahun, ne on teruagaunt, [h]is fere. 1303 R. BRUNNE Handl. Synne 197 {Th}e sarysyne to hys god {ygh}ede, And askede cunseyl… {Th}an answered hys termagaunt. a1400 Octouian 919 The Sowdan, that left [= believed] yn Teruagaunt. 1570 FOXE A. & M. (ed. 2) 680/2 If he had made hym [Ld. Cobham] some Termagant or Mahounde out of Babilonia. 1597 BP. HALL Sat. I. i. 4 Nor fright the Reader with the Pagan vaunt Of mightie Mahound, and great Termagaunt. 1602 SHAKES. Ham. III. ii. 15, I could haue such a Fellow whipt for o’redoing Termagant: it out-Herod’s Herod. 1637 HEYWOOD Royall King II. ii, I’le march where my Captaine leads, wer’t into the Presence of the great Termagaunt. 1825 SCOTT Talism. iii, Down with Mahound, Termagaunt, and all their adherents.

Now, Mahound made sense, but Termagant is still way weird. I turned next to the internets. More detail, but unsatisfactory. Tir-magian is just not feasable as an etymology. But, there was the clue that I had been looking for. Chanson de Roland.

It’s been a while since I read it. Luckily, the full text is all over the internets. The epic was composed in early 12th century about Charlemagne’s victory against the Saracens. In it, the Muslims are given a trinity to worship: Mahom, Tervagan and Apollin. The first and last are, clearly, Muhammad and Apollo. But Tervagan is not clear at all. The text reads: La Lei I Fut Mahum E Tervagan. James Bellamy’s Arabic Names in the Chanson de Roland has a list of possiblities for Tervagan: “from Diana Trivia, the sister of Apollo, Tarvos Trigaranus (Bull with three cranes, a Celtic deity), Tarvos Ogam (more Celtic gods), Trismegistus (Hermes), Atargatis, Triglav (a Saxon god), Thor-Wotan, terra vagans, ter vagari, Tarbaqan (Turco-Mongolian evil being)” etc. Except, none of these are, as Bellamy points out, coming from Arabic roots.

Bellamy writes that very few scholars have looked to Arabic to find this etymology. The leading possibilities were: P. Cassanova’s ta-rabbi-l-ka’bati [by the Lord of Ka'aba. umm. no.] and Ch. Pellat’s ar-ragim [the stoned. def. no.]. In his own reading, Bellamy starts with the hypothesis that Tervagan and Apollo are:

distorted names of persons closely associated with the prophet. It is surely reasonable to assume that Saracen gods ought to have Saracen names, and that since Mahom was one of the ‘trinity,’ the others could well be men who had some close connection with him.1

By swapping the T for a B, the r for a n and the v for a ‘ayn: BnAffan i.e. ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan. Similarly, Apollo is Abu Bakr. Bellamy says that the two early Caliphs would have been familiar to the early Medieval scribes and normal scribal foolishness occured.

I almost buy it. But not quite. Bellamy transliterates TRVGAN into arabic BRWFAN. Orthographically, I may pick some bones about the r/n and g/f. But, I don’t really have a clear alternative to offer. More broadly, why would companions who, in whatever rendition comes to Europe, were clearly followers of Muhammad be raised up as deities? Al-lah is significantly missing. The main issue is Bellamy’s contention that the ‘trinity’ would have to be Muhammad’s companions. If Muhammad was a deity, it seems odd that the obvious deity is not part of the trinity.

Any Arabists want to jump in?


1. James A. Bellamy. “Arabic Names in the Chanson De Roland: Saracen Gods, Frankish Swords, Roland’s Horse, and the Olifant” in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 107, No. 2. (Apr. – Jun., 1987), pp. 267-277.

unrelated:Laura K. Krishna is a Plagiarist: You seriously need to read the post. And, I URGE you to wade through the comments.

{ 9 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment

Next post:

Previous post:


Search CM