Above: a 7-minute documentary project by Sanjay Newton, on male and female images and biases in Disney films
“Ne scride nan wif hiy mid waepmannes reafe, ne waepman mid wifmannes reafe.” [Deut. 22:5, in Old English, circa 900 CE, as translated by England’s King Alfred the Great and the academics within his Anglo-Saxon court]
( “Let no woman clothe herself with man’s clothing; let no man… with women’s clothing.” )
As the above example shows–for better or worse– our values, biases and history are built right into the language we use to communicate.
King Alfred wanted his regular rank-and-file citizens to be able to read the Christian “wisdom” books (the Torah, or Pentateuch) in their own language. But language is a living, breathing, ultimately tricky thing. So we end up with bad translations, despite the best intentions of those doing the translating. There’s no avoiding it, though most of us in the West are unaware of the history and subtext of the very words we use on a daily basis.
In the Old English example above, the violent and crudely sexual nature of our paternalistic past is present even in the single word meaning “man”: waepman. Literally translated, a man (to our primitive Germanic ancestors in Europe) is a “weapon-having human”, or –even more crudely– a “penis-having human“.
In other words, the conception of the penis as a weapon –for hunting or inflicting harm– appears to be woven into the very fabric of the European masculine identity and nomenclature.
Gee… What a surprise!
Meanwhile, the main word for woman was “wif”, as in wife, or “wifman“. In contrast to the destructive or aggressive origin of “weapman”, wif was probably derived from “wifan”, meaning weaver. A woman creates, or weaves and blends …a man destroys, or cuts and hunts.
Even before the English language existed, though, there were biases and politics bound up in our words and translations.
For as long as humans have had language, rules and culture, it seems we’ve been trying to outgrow this clumsy and wrong-headed concept of male identity as having to do with violence, strength and domination (we call them hunters)… while leaving the gentler creative or weaving roles to women (the gatherers).
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but the name we give something can hurt us, too. So from now on call me Mr. Weaver, for I have little interest in being a so-called “Real Man”.
The linguistic history information above is from _A History of English In Its Own Words_ by Craig M. Carver (HarperCollins, NY, 1991). However, the interpretation through a spiritual or anthropological lens is mostly my own– though I must credit Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr , along with Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, linguist Noam Chomsky and philosopher Jacques Derrida for this style of cultural and historical analysis.
My purpose in posting this? Simple: Education. Loving correction. Reflection on my own wounds, and what it will take to heal them. This of course is a key step in healing my relationships with the women in my life, and with other men.
My prayer: That we may finally overcome these primitive concepts of identity and gender, and move toward the more diverse and nuanced belief that a man can be both weaver and hunter, both gentle and powerful.
We owe it to our wifs.