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“diabolical carriers of perdition” La fimmena tene quatte pannère
carcere, malatì, forche e galère
[Women have four banners / jail, sickness, the gallows and prison]
(Known all over Puglia) by Alberto Sobrero
Bruno Maggio. China
Women, in popular culture, are almost always the quintessence of all ills. In only ten words, this proverb makes a full sweep of the horizon taking in all the evil produced by these infernal creatures, at man’s expense. Let’s try to enter into the mentality that has produced proverbs like this and to reason in the same way. There are four gifts a woman can give:
Jail. The misdeeds that can lead to a man doing time in jail are many and varied, but they all derive from women’s wicked ways. The most probable causes: the woman reduces you to penury and makes you carry out thefts, robberies and fraud to satisfy her greed for comfort and wealth; if she is beautiful and virtuous, you, if you are a real man, must defend any slights against her, or even take revenge for any insults she has received, and this will almost certainly mean you end up in jail or on the run; if she is beautiful and flirts with other men, you, naturally, if you are a real man, must vindicate your own offended honor: you lock her in the house and you beat on her (and the law will close an eye to this) but if you have to go so far as commit an honor killing some judge might send you down for a few months. In any case, you are in jail, and it’s the woman’s fault.
Sickness. Women are so voluble and wicked that they cause endless grief. It is impossible to avoid illnesses: if they are too enterprising they tire you out; if they don’t satisfy you your health weakens and you fall sick; if they are avid and never happy – a very common defect in the female – you wear yourself out for her, working day and night to enable her to look good in society and you, worn out, will fade away until you die of starvation. In any case, if you fall ill it’s the woman’s fault.
The gallows. And if, for a woman’s sake, and by behaving like a real man, you become a murderer? There’s the death penalty and the gallows awaiting you. In this case like the others, if you are condemned to death, it’s the woman’s fault.
There is a crescendo in the order of these three penalties: jail (a relatively minor price to pay), sickness (a more serious penalty), and hanging (the maximum penalty). The list therefore could have stopped there at three: but it goes on to a fourth penalty, that strangely repeats the first: prison, or jail. Why?
There are two possible explanations, and neither regard the content of the proverb. They are both a long way from our way of thinking but they concern factors that are very important and central to the nature and history of proverbs.
The first is the importance of the rhyme. Proverbs were passed down from one generation to the next like short poems, with their metric, generally a simple one, and an easily memorized weave of accents and rhymes. Most of them were made up of rhyming couplets: in this case two hendecasyllables. The addition of a fourth ‘banner’ can be explained by the need for eleven syllable in the second line, and for a rhyme. The problem was solved by adding “prison” (galere in Italian), which rhymes with “banner” (pannère in Italian).
The second explanation lies in the importance of the number four. There are recurrent ‘magic’ numbers in proverbs: one, three, seven, thirteen… But of all of them, four is traditionally considered ‘the most perfect’. It is the first mathematical power, it is the sum of One and Three, and therefore the symbol of the Eternal. In ancient philosophy there were four elements (Fire, Water, Air and Earth); for the Jews there are four letters that make up the name of God (JHWH); for Christians there were four apostles and four horsemen of the Apocalypse; in the mediaeval school tradition there were four arts in the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music); in the time dimension there are four seasons and four phases of the moon; in the spatial dimension there are four cardinal points, and so on. In traditional culture the number of components in a list is never random: and even less so in a popular, ancient composition like a proverb. If there are four items on the list then the list is perfect, and confirms the truth of what is asserted.
The misogynistic philosophy of the content is thus brought together in a geometrically perfect shape. The proverb becomes, in its shape and in its content, a message of an indisputable Truth, carved in marble for eternity: women are, unquestionably, a sentence to illness, jail and death.
And then they say they we are the ones who invented efficacious communication…