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Dialect Proverbs
Goat Woman
From the Middle Ages to Sgarbi
Fémmene e ccrépe
Tènene una chépe

[Women and goats
Have the same head]
(Bari)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

Some readers will say, “Yet another misogynist proverb? There’s no end to them …”. It’s true: ironic, sarcastic, mean, cruel or defamatory sayings against women abound in collections of proverbs from all the regions of Italy (but I think, if they are counted, the distribution over the whole country is not homogeneous: the most shameful ones are concentrated in the areas where the male-chauvinist tradition is most deeply rooted). However, this one is particularly interesting because it compares, or rather identifies women with goats. This pairing is not only for reasons of rhyme: it has a very offensive message, the roots of which lie in folk traditions of all the peasant cultures of Italy (and not only).

The goat has for centuries been the epitome of the ‘negative’ animal. We have to think of the settings of ‘fearful’ stories, terrifying tales that used to be told on long winter nights in barns where people gathered to enjoy the animals’ warmth, or in summertime in the fields, where a group of children around the fire listened enthralled to the voice of an old woman who seemed to know all the secrets of life, both normal and paranormal. There was an atmosphere of tense silence, of creeping fear, of suspense, drawn out by skilled story-tellers. Now, in this atmosphere of suspense, the mystery often took the form of a witch, a woman with evil powers deriving from her relationship with the devil. And this character nearly always lived apart from the community, in a hovel, with only a goat for company. The goat reminded her (and was often identical to) her friend/lover: in fact, the wise old hag explained, the horns and hooves were the remaining traces of the devil’s transformation into a goat. It was typical of the devil to have the power to change into an animal: usually a goat, or a cat. In other words, witch, devil and goat, from the Middle Ages onwards, were a single clot of perversion and evil.

Why was it the goat, exactly? A historian would say that the discrimination even dates back to the Gospels, and would quote the passage from Matthew (25: 32-33) which says that Jesus, on Judgment day, “will separate one from the other, just as the shepherd separates the sheeps from the goats, and will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left”. The historian would also mention the witch-hunts (from the 14th century on) and the Counter-Reformation (mid-16th century), epoch-making events that in the collective imagination and also in records of trials, established the idea that the goat equals Satan. As a result, until the 1800s this correspondence was common in the world of folk legends. Among farmyard animals the goat is the only one to have hooves and horns, which have always been seen in folk iconography as typical features of the devil.  

One can also adduce more generally psychological motivations. The goat is not as docile as the other farmyard animals: towards men it has an almost uncooperative, if not mocking attitude; in the mountains it clambers up steep slopes that nobody else would be able to climb; it shows a desire for freedom and independence that almost leaves man in awe.

Aren’t challenging man ‘the dominator’ and yearning for freedom and independence also characteristics that our ‘alfa male’ criticizes in women, who try to escape from his control, who love a challenge and dare to rebel?

The identification between goat-enemy and woman-enemy (both surrounded by a sulfurous aura, indeed both close relatives of the Evil One) in a rigidly male-chauvinist society was therefore inevitable. The woman is identified with the goat; and since the goat is identified with the Devil, by the transitive property of inequality the woman is a devil. Especially from the Counter-reformation onwards, that is not exactly a compliment.

Notice that despising goats (and women) is not confined to proverbs, folk culture and past centuries: in the long centuries from the medieval period to our times, it has been alive and well, below the surface. In the 2000s for instance it reappeared in the mouth of a showman like Vittorio Sgarbi, who with the epithet “Goat! Goat!! Goat!!!” addressed to a woman he felt was ignorant, revived his television career, even going so far as to come onto the stage one day accompanied by the simulacrum of a goat. A proverb turned into a show. There is nothing new under the sun.

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