The Place of Women
in the Proverbs of Finland and
Turning the pages of some exotic
collection of proverbs, for example the south-west African Ovambo Proverbs (Kuusi 1970b), one's first impression
is of otherness.
It is an otherness of language: for us
mother, mummy, mom, ma are 8 synonyms, with the same meaning
but different stylistic significances; in Ovamboland, meme is my mother, nyoko your mother and yina his or their mother.
It is partially an otherness of
stylistic features and structures: the commonest Finnish
Wellerisms are absent in Ovamboland, and Finland is lacking
in the world-aphorism type of the Bantu peoples:
The world is a
process of becoming-homeless, the world is a process of
becoming orphaned; if you have a goat-kid, eat it, and if
you have a chicken, wring its neck!
The world is a baby frog:
it goes to sleep, it dies, and in the morning its stomach
The otherness of Ovamboland is at its
most striking in the otherness of its environmental imagery.
'An ass's foal has long ears' in Africa means the same as Pienillä padoilla on korvat (Small saucepans
have ears; one should not speak in front of the children) in
Finland. With us, there is no room for two cockerels on the
same dung-heap, while in Ovamboland two elephants cannot fit
into the same bush's shadow.
Considerably more problematic is the
otherness of modes of seeing attitudes and norms that the
European encounters in some south-west African proverbs. Kalunga kee shi yinakulu ya gumwe (God is not only
one person's grandmother) or Omualikadi uakalunga oje
ohengana (God also had a wife who ran away) - such
proverbs would not, in their ideas or images, be unnatural
in a Finnish context, but it is puzzling to find God
characterised on the one hand as a grandmother, on the other
as the husband of a runaway wife. We see a logical conflict
here; the Ovambo do not.
In my search for black African
equivalents to Ovambo proverbs, I came across the proverbs
of the Fulani of Senegal. It was as if I had crossed an
ocean. The following aphorisms and precepts published by
Henri Gaden would he completely incomprehensible in
What a man earns, a
A woman is fire: it you
have to have some, take as little as possible.
A woman is glue: if she
loves you, she will glue herself to you, and if she hates
you, she will glue on to you things that you have not
said or done.
A woman is cold water
that kills, a woman is shallow water that
If you follow a woman's
advice, you will say: if only I had known!
If your mother offers you
food, eat! If your mother offers you a plan,
You should not entrust a
woman with anything precious.
The Fulani are orthodox Muslims, the
advance guard of the Arab-Islamic culture. To the Finn,
their point of view is familiar: Mitä mies
hevosellaan kotiin ajaa, sen akka esiliinassaan kylälle
vie (Whatever a man brings home with his horse, his wife
takes to the village in her apron); Niin vähän
pahaa kuin mahdollista, sanoi Kleinmanni kun pienen akan
otti (As little harm as possible, said Kleimanni when he
took a small wife).
The full text of this
article is published in De
Proverbio - Issue 7:1998 & Issue
electronic book, available from amazon.com and other leading Internet booksellers.
A. The value of a
tytär ensimmäinen: kaikki kankahat kutovi,
kaikki lapset liekuttavi (Fortunate the oldest
daughter: weaves all the clothes, looks after all the
Tyttölöistä saadaan ämmiä ja
imelistä mämmiä (Old women are made of
little girls and Easter pudding of sweetened malt).
Tyttäret on tyyrihiä (Girls are
Tottavissi flikan tissi on parempi kuin pojan pussi (Sure as sure, a girl's tit is better than a boy's
+- Flikkalapset ja
poikalapset on parahia lapsia (Girl children and boy
children are fine children). l922/5.
Kala se on kiiskikin (ahvenkin) , lapsi se on
tytärkin ( Even a ruff [perch] is a
fish, even a daughter is a child). 1844/15.
A girl is an olive tree, a boy is a frog. [Meaning: a
girl grows faster.] OP 1253/2.
- Onnen poika
ensimmäinen, (hyvä tyttökin tyhjiin
käsiin) (Fortunate the first-born boy [a
girl is good, too, if nothing else]). l904/5.
Vuohi vaivaisen eläin, likka lapsi onnettoman (The goat is a poor man's animal, a girl an unlucky
man's child). 1785/20.
Huora tyttären tekee, piika pojan potkaisee (A whore gives birth to a daughter, a maid
[respectable woman] to a boy). 1885/5.
Ei luulo ole tiedon väärtti eikä piika
pojan väärtti (Belief is not as good as
knowledge, or a girl as good as a boy). 1785/3.
Tytär ei ole lapsi eikä akka ihminen (A
daughter is not a child nor a woman a person).
Tytär kun syntyy niin sata menee, poika kun
syntyy niin tuhat tulee (When a daugher is born you
lose a hundred, when a son is born you gain a thousand).
Poika syntyi, polvi muuttui, lapsi sai, laji paheni (A boy was born, the generation changed, a girl was
born, the race worsened). 1844/4.
Tytär syntyi, tyhjä syntyi, poika syntyi,
kaski kaatui (A daughter was born, nothing was born;
a son was born, he will become a woodland clearer). l
Tyhjä turva tyttärestä,
vävystä vähän varaa (There is
slight provision from a son-in-law, hollow insurance from
a daughter FFC 236:87) 1702/50.
Tyttäret on talon varkaat
(hävittäjät) (There is no thief like a
family of five daughters. S 489:4). 1812/4.
Likkalapset ja hevoset ne hävittävät
talon, mutta pojat ja härat ne nostaa talon (Girl-children and horses ruin a house, but boys and
cattle they improve it). 1937/2.
Tyttären työ ja kanan sonta
hyödyttävät yhtä paljon (There's
as much use in chicken shit as in a daughter's work).
(Finland 20-20-114. Ovamboland: 0-2-0.)
B . The value of the
+ Praise your
grandmother; if she did not exist, your mother would not
have been born. OP 767/6.
The family does not come from the penis. OP 1600.
Giving birth is not like letting out a whistling fart; a
whistling fart goes up in the air. OP 1497/4.
A dog does not bite a badger with young. (Children defend
their parents.) OP 1209/4.
She who has given birth can free herself from wandering.
(Her children will help her.) OP 2398/5.
There is no woman out of whom a councilman may not come.
A palm bush gave birth to a palm tree. OP 2392/7.
A pumpkin seed turns into a calabash. (A shitila pumpkin
gave birth to a ladle.) OP 1693, 2397/9.
A fly gives birth to a honey bee. OP 2393.
A honey bee gives birth to a queen bee. OP
The mother of a big mouse is a small mouse. OP
+- Hepo (tamma) paljon
varsoja tekee, vaan länkikaulaan kuolee (A horse
[mare] gives birth to many foals but dies in
Yksi äiti ruokkii kymmenen lasta, mutta kymmenen
lasta ei ruoki yhtä äitiä (One mother
feeds ten children, but ten children do not feed one
- I gave birth to hunger.
(Children do not care for their mother.) OP 1635/ 2.
A honey bee gives birth to a fly. OP 2395/3.
(Finland: 0-95-0. Ovamboland: 41-0-5.)
C. The value of a mother to her children
F . Human value
+ Ihminen se
piikakin on (Even a maid is a person). 1891/3.
Piikaparvi siikaparvi, poikaparvi koiraparvi (A
group of maids is a shoal of fish, a group of boys is a
pack of dogs). 1854/5.
Tytön virka on kuin papin virka (A girl's
calling is like a priest's calling).1935/2.
Emäntä on perheen sielu (isäntä
talon tuki) (A woman is the soul of the family [a
man the support of the house]). 1883/3.
Vaimo on miehen kunnia (ja kodin kaunistus) [A
wife is her husband's treasure [and an ornament to
the home]). 1912/10.
A wife is a house. OP 94/3.
Your grandmother was before you, you will not reach
her. OP 769.
Your grandmother is not placed ahead of another (is not treated impolitely). OP 768/2.
Do not argue with a pregnant woman. OP
+- Miesväki ja
vaimoväki on parasta väkeä (Menfolk
and women folk are the best folk). 1886/10.
Poikaparvi koiraparvi, tyttöparvi harakkaparvi (A group of boys is a pack of dogs, a group of girls
is a flock of magpies). 1888/2.
Akka ei ole kantele naulasa (A woman isn't a
kantele to hang on the wall; FFC 236:719).
- Harakka ei ole lintu
eikä piika ihminen (Tamma ei ole hevonen eikä
akka ihminen) (A magpie is not a bird, or a
maid a person [A mare is not a horse or a woman a
person; FFC 236:60). 1785/150.
Nainen on sitkein eläin luomakunnassa (viisain
kotieläimistä) (A woman is the stubbornest
creature in creation [the cleverest domestic
Mies on Jumalan luoma (ämmät tehtiin koiran
hännästä) (A man is God's creation
[women were made from dogs' tails]). 1785/2.
Nainen miehetön, veräjä
pieletön (A woman without husband, a gate
without post). 1702/30.
Akka oletaan ja mies saadaan (A woman is taken, a
man is got). 1944/2.
Susilla ja akoilla on maailma pilattu (The world
is spoiled by wolves and women). 1883/5.
Likoilla ja ketuilla on yhdenlainen mieli (Girls
and foxes think the same). 1888/3.
Vaimon kieli, käärmeen kieh (Wife's tongue, snake's tongue). 1907/2.
Ei tyttöjä saa uskoa kuin hampaisiin asti (Don't believe a girl further than her teeth).
Kolmea ei saa uskoa: hevosta, naista ja venettä (Don't believe these three: a horse, a woman and a
Naisen mieli, koiran pieru (A woman's wits,
a dog's fart). 1909/3.
Hevon paskaa naisen mieli: konsa miehelään,
konsa miehelästä pois (Horseshit a woman's
mind: whether getting married or leaving the house).
Navan alla naisten nauru (Under the belly a
woman's laugh). 1775/5.
Vaiväki ja persläpi (Womenfolk and
Akan pää, lampaanpää (A
woman's head, a sheep's head). 1885/5.
Naisilla on pitkä tukka ja lyhyt mieli (Long
hair, short wit). 1785/30.
Lapsen tieto, vaimon muisti, ei urohon partasuisen (The knowledge of a child, the wit of a wife, not
that of a bearded man). 1782/4.
Yksi älli ämmän päässä
(äijän päässä yhdeksän) (One wit in a woman's head [nine in a
Vaaksa vaimoa, peukalo urosta (Measure a woman by
spans, a man by thumbs). 1702/25.
Ei niin huonoa pukinnahkaa, joka ei kilinnahkaa vastaa (No goatskin so bad that it is not the equal of
Ei niin huonoja housuja, jottei hametta vastaa (No
trousers so bad that they are not the equal of a skirt).
If you do not have a husband you are naked. OP
Pilework crosspiece, thank the binding bark. You, with a
strong leather ribbon to your beaded skirt, thank your
husband. (The bark is bound with a crosspiece as is a
husband to his wives.) OP 967/10.
(Finland: 23-17-333. Ovamholand: 7-0-13.)
The publication of the criteria I
have, with my advisers, used to classify the various
proverbs would demand a great deal of space and would deny
my readers half their fun. If humorous examples had been
more rigorously weeded out, the Finnish + and +- material
of, for example, the A, E and F categories would almost have
disappeared; Finns hardly have the capacity to recognise
Ovambo playfulness. An Ovambo expert would perhaps comment
that 'Do not disparage your wife, she is your home' and 'If
you do not have a husband your are naked' both emphasise the
mutual dependence of the marriage partners and that only the
contradictory world view of a European can make him see in
them pro- and anti-feminine tendencies. Women are praised
and disparaged on many different grounds and with different
emphases, and in the proverbs classified as ambivalent, too,
some are closer to the plus, some the minus, group. An
important analytical problem is the frame of meaning of
pejorative words meaning 'woman'. Piika ei ole ihminen (A maid is not a person), which has a frequential
dominance, could be excluded from the material on the
grounds that the modern meaning of 'maid' is serving girl.
But if 'maid' is used to mean 'daughter', the proverb
belongs in class A.
In his book Perinneaineiston
kvantitatiivisesta tutkimuksesta (Quantitative analysis
of the folk tradition), Matti Sarmela characterised the
difficulties in which the folklorist finds himself in
attempting to adapt quantitative content analysis to, for
example, Ovambo-Finnish proverbs (Sarmela 1970). The
anthology of quotations I have presented above, with its
frequency statistics, is more 'real and comprehensive'
material in the spirit of Kaarle Krohn than representative,
trustworthy and valid in the sense demanded by content
analysts: it includes a good deal of material that is open
to interpretation and, from the point of view of the
problem, perhaps irrelevant, but it is likely that few
important proverbs are missing. In any case, there is good
reason not to put too much trust in the percentages of the
The material base and classification
structure could hardly be changed so radically that the
following general observations would not be
Finnish proverbs in general
refer to women negatively, Ovambo proverbs
The main objects of Finnish proverbs are the wife-social
agent (DE 65.5%), while those of the Ovambo proverbs are
the mother-birthgiver (BC 68.7% of the material as a
Finnish and Ovambo proverbs agree in placing a positive
value on a mother's importance to her children and a
negative one on a 'crowing hen' (E).
The question of whether a boy or a
girl is better is actual only in Finland, as is that of
whether the man or woman decides. One of the basic motifs of
Ovambo proverbs is he na yina, father and mother. In
Finland, man contra woman is dominant.
After introducing the misogynist
proverb tradition of Morocco, Edward Westermarck felt it
necessary to warn his readers against the supposition that
the men of Morocco had no tender feelings toward women: the
proverbs were a question of the norms of the public use of
language. It is undoubtedly best not to compare the value of
women in Finland and Ovamboland through proverbs. But is the
use of language merely the surface of culture? When the
Bible was translated into the language of the Eskimos, the
lamb of God became the sealpup of God, for there was nothing
like a lamb in the experience of the Eskimos. I once asked a
Finnish missionary if it was necessary to get the Ovambo to
believe in God the Father, since from the perspective of the
matriarchal Bantu tribes God was more likely to be a
grandmother. My question was treated like a daring joke. I
believe that the comparative success of the Roman Catholic
church in black Africa can be partly explained by the
inclusion of the great mother-god, the Virgin Mary, while
the surprising halt of Islamic expansion before the Bantu
jungle may derive, among other things, from its extreme
patriarchalism. Africa is not a spiritual vacuum; its
otherness is not mere primitiveness. The task of cultural
anthropologists is not to place the norms and attitudes of
other continents in an order of value, but even a cool
knowledge of the primary differences in perspective and the
pot-holes that bedevil communication may be of use to the
max jacobsons of the end of the century.
1. These works include, in principle, all the proverb material
collected or published in Ovamboland or Finland between 1544
and 1826; their weakness lies in the effect of the
collectors' Christianity and moral attitudes on the
frequency of selected proverbs. The half-million entries in
the Folklore Archive gives a considerably more trustworthy
general picture of Finnish proverbs after 1826. I shall omit
special female categories that are usually compared with
normal women (e.g. whore, old maid, widow, daughter-in-law,
wicked woman, good hostess, the omundhike or runaway wife),
as well as general observations of women's garrulousness,
tendency to cry, over-praise their children, prefer their
own relatives; hunger during pregnancy or breast-feeding,
irritabiiity during periods of hard work, collecting of
shiny objects etc. Similarly, I shall avoid proverbs that
are generally used to evaluate subjects other than women (Ei kauha varretta kelpaa [A ladle is no
good without a handle]) or whose positive or negative
valuation is open to interpretation (Hauku minua mutta
älä minun vaimoani [Criticise me but not