Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

The notion of female virginity as special and magical has spun off a variety of Myths and Superstitions, duly incorporated into fantasy. Virginity supposedly preserves and enhances an inner power which is peculiarly female. Britomart in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590-1596) taps this power in her career as woman Knight, perhaps echoing the real-world figure of Joan of Arc as well as Elizabeth I. Thus, too, virgins are notoriously able to capture Unicorns; frustrated adolescent girls are believed to be the power-source for Poltergeists; and Witches' abilities often depend on virginity. In both history and fiction, princes and kings have been reluctant to marry other than virgins in case a bastard might inherit; the most famous fictional case is probably that in Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623), where the importance of the virginity of Prospero's daughter Miranda is spelt out – if not a virgin, she may not marry Frederick. Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos (1971) suggests that the Three traditional phases of womanhood, Maiden, Mother and Crone, each have their own mode of Magic: loss of virginity means temporary incapacity while Mother-style magic is learned. Virgin status tends to be less significant for men, though it is required of one Wizard in John Brunner's The Traveler in Black (1971) and is the saving of a lad in E H Visiak's Medusa (1929). Christianity generally insists on the perpetual virginity not only of the Madonna (> Goddess) but of Christ: hence the extreme outrage occasioned by portrayals of Christ figures who engage in Sex in Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) (> Nikos Kazantzakis).

"Unspoilt" virgins are thought to enhance the magical effect of Human Sacrifice, and are the favoured tribute to Dragons, as in the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda and its numerous fantasy progeny – e.g., Dragonslayer (1981). Math in the Mabinogion may rest his feet only in a virgin's lap. The passing of virginity is of course a significant Rite of Passage; that it should occur unwillingly, under conditions of Debasement, is the central Wrongness of the Black Mass. In Fletcher Pratt's The Blue Star (1952) the transition is the woman's Initiation into Witchcraft and also forms a permanent bond, the "great marriage", with her sexual partner. A virgin's first sexual arousal initiates her cycle of Shapeshifting in Cat People (1942 and 1982).

Virginity and chastity are generally regarded as pleasing to Gods as well as men – hence celibate priests, vestal virgins, and the use of "maid" as an honorific (could Maid Marian's long association with Robin Hood really have been sexless?). As usual, double standards tend to apply. According to Sir James Frazer, a Year King is expected to provide sexual satisfaction to numerous wives. Queens, however, are enjoined to chastity; Guinevere's adultery is seen as centrally damaging to the Land. Michael Moorcock provides a Revisionist-Fantasy reworking of this theme in Gloriana, or the Unfulfill'd Queen (1978), whose eponymous queen experiences much joyless sex before she and her Land of Albion are healed when at last she achieves orgasm.

One tradition has it that the blood of virgins is of special quality. They are the preferred prey of Vampires in many tales. Although the historical details are murky, Elisabeth de Bathóry – a vampire in a different sense – is believed to have had her servants murder some 600 virgins so that she could bathe in their blood and thus gain eternal youth (> Transylvania). [DRL]

see also: Feminism; Gender; Snow White; The Wicker Man (1973).

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.