Word of the Day: Termagant

Posted by sepoy on March 30, 2005 · 6 mins read

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.


sharon | March 30, 2005

Do you really need to look for anything authentic? It's surely just something made up by Europeans, re-using one of those many, many options for something pagan, sinister, dark & nasty, etc (Thor-Wotan sounds a good candidate to me - lump the Greek and Norse all in together with them infidel Moors and stir vigorously). Mind you, the absence of Allah *is* odd.

Anand | March 30, 2005

fascinating. and brilliant. almost completely unrelated - what do you think of maria rosa menocal's book, and the parts about the translators/translations... that world view would make this sort of fuck-up highly unlikely, no?

Abdul-Walid | March 31, 2005

This is as brilliant a blog post as I've read all week. Nicely done dude.

sepoy | March 31, 2005

Anand and Abdul-Walid: I blush. Anand: I haven't read Menocal's book - just a few reviews. But, yes, that Andalusi world would make this sort of translation unlikely.

Sin | March 31, 2005

I wrote a short paper in a class I was taking on (of all things) Tolkien in my senior year of college, on the Song of Roland. It dealt with Saracens as Muslim doppelgangers, and about the manner in which the Muslims would have had to have a religious trinity that mirrored Christianity. I was always under the impression that the reason a mention of "God" was avoided was because the poet was doing his best to mirror but distance "Mohammadans" from Christians; by acknowledging the existence of a deity, rather than a mortal granted divine stature, he'd have failed in his task. Just my half-assed theory :)

Ben Brumfield | April 01, 2005

I've been reading the Karlamagnus saga lately, and have been amused by a misunderstanding as outlandish as a Muslim "trinity: All the pagan Saxons that Charlemagne fights worship Muhammad! Or rather, they claim to serve the same deity that the Saracens do later in the book.

dgm | April 04, 2005

Interesting - especially as the word termagant was until very recently (mid 20th Century) in use in Scots to describe an overly dominant or assertive woman

John | May 12, 2005

It makes sense to me that the trinity of Saracen gods would be a mirror of the Christian trinity. I always assumed that Apollyon was just "Apollo" (which is Apollon in French), although apparently there is a New Testament character - a demon named "Apollyon" as well. As far as Tervagan, my curiosity has been intensified by this fascinating post! I'm not an Arabist, but I'll send the ones I know here to quibble...

The Elfin Ethicist | April 01, 2005

History Carnival V The fifth history carnival is up at ClioWeb. Since I've been thinking about literature quite a bit lately, here are some entries that relate to the proper care and feeding of texts: The Little Professor...

Cat | October 22, 2006

About Le Chanson de Roldan, you must remember the Juglar who used to create those histories used to be very partialized about his religion (catholicism) so he adds stuff, disguised data, that reveals his fanatism about his religion. You must take a look at the historic events that were happening on that time so, you would realize the Juglar is just showing his ignorance about other religions, so it doesn't really matter who is it; the only thing he wants to make clear is their gods (suposedly sarracens) are not as good as his own god. Congrats for your blog and excuse me if there is any error, im not very used to write in english.