Saturday, January 25, 2003

Woman's Secrets -- The Folk-Lore of Women -- by T.F. Thistelton-Dyer

"Search not to find what lies too deeply hid,
Nor to know things whose knowledge is forbid.:
"TO a woman and a magpie tell what you would speak in the market-place," runs the Spanish proverb--the reason being that "a woman only keeps a secret what she does not know;" and therefore an old Latin maxim solemnly enjoins us "not to trust a woman even when dead." Thus Hotspur tells his wife in "I Henry IV." (act ii. sc. 3):--

"Constant you are,
But yet a woman, and for secrecy
No lady closer; for I well believe
Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know,
And so far I will trust thee, gentle Kate;"
which, in other words, is equivalent to the well-known German adage, "A woman can't keep a secret, nor let any one else do it." But this maxim cannot be applied only to women, for, as it has been often remarked of secrets, both political and social, they are only too frequently made to be revealed, a truth illustrated by Bell Jonson's words in "The Case is Unaltered," wherein we find this passage:--

"A secret in his mouth
Is like a wild bird put into a cage,
Whose door no sooner opens but 'tis out."
But, whatever dependence is to be placed on a woman's reliability to keep to herself what is told in confidence, it has often been remarked that she can at least keep her own secret, a proof of which will be quickly found if any one question her on the subject of her age.

Apart from this exception, a secret in the keeping of a woman soon becomes what the Spanish are accustomed to call, "The Secret of Anchuelos," that is, one which is known to every one. The town of that name is situated in a gorge between two steep hills, on one of which a shepherd tended his flock, on the other a shepherdess. This pair kept up all amorous converse by bawling from hill to hill, but always with many mutual strict injunctions of secrecy.

The inability of a woman to keep silent what is told her in confidence--even where her husband be concerned--is exemplified in the once popular "He that tells his wife is but lately married"--her indiscretion in disclosing information entrusted to her only too frequently causing serious mischief; with which be compared the Tamil proverb, "Do not disclose your secret to your wife, nor trust your enemy at any time."

But "A wise woman hath a close mouth," which has its equivalent in the French saying, "Le plus sage se tait." According to another popular adage, "Discreet women have neither eyes nor ears," which also has its French parallel, "La femme de bien n'a ny yeux ny orelles."

A piece of proverbial lore which applies to each sex is this: "Tell your secret to your servant and you make him your master"--a maxim which may be traced to an early period when, says Kelly, "it was the policy of the Greek adventurers in Rome to worm out the secrets of the house, and so make themselves feared." Juvenal has referred to this practice:--

"Poor simple Corydon! do you suppose
Aught is kept secret that a rich man does?
If servants hold their tongues, the beasts will blab,
The dog, the door-posts, and the marble-slab."
Similarly, we find the same proverb on the Continent, "To whom you tell your secret you surrender your freedom;" or, according to another version, "Tell your friend your secret, and he will set his foot on your throat." And it may be remembered Dryden has introduced the same idea:--

"He who trusts a secret to his servant,
Makes his own man his master."
African folk-lore, too, introduces the same idea, and a popular proverb says, "If a man tells his secrets to his wife, she will bring him into the way of Satan," which, it has been remarked, is rather a strong contrast to the English proverb, "He who would thrive must ask his wife." And again, it is said, "Trust your dog to the end, a woman till the first opportunity."

As might be supposed, folk-lore, at one time or another, has made good use of the value attaching to secrets; and stories of the supernatural in romantic fiction have shown how the fair sex, under the influence of magical influences, have unknowingly revealed the most sacred secrets. But the moral of most of these tales is the same--and may be applied to either sex--the lesson conveyed being not to trust any one; for, as the French say, "the disclosure of a secret is the fault of him who first disclosed it"--a truth, indeed, which is only too constantly verified in daily life by mistaken trust in another.

Women, it is said, forget the important fact that as soon as a secret becomes the property of three persons it is all the world's, which is summed up in a common Spanish adage, "What three knows every creature knows;" whereas according to the French proverb, "The secret of two is God's secret." The same idea also exists in West Africa, where this proverb is current:" Trust not a woman; she will tell thee what she has just told her companion," and "Whatever be thy intimacy, never give thy heart to a woman."

Turning to some of the numerous folk-tales and legendary stories, in which "the secret" plays the important part, there is the famous one of Melusine, which has been told in many ways. Raymond, Count of Lusignan, was one day hunting the boar in the forest of Poitou, when, whilst wandering in the forest at nightfall through his boar having outstripped his train, he saw Melusine with her sisters, dancing by a fountain in the moonlight. Smitten with her beauty, he asked her to marry him, to which proposal she consented on condition that he would allow her to remain secret and unseen every Sunday. They were married, and her secret was kept until one of his friends suggested that she only desired privacy in order to indulge an adulterous passage.

Raymond thereupon burst into her secret chamber and discovered that she was doomed to have the lower part of her body transformed to that of a serpent every Saturday. The secret broken, she was compelled, henceforth, to leave her husband for ever, and to be totally transformed to a serpent. But her spirit continued to haunt the Castle of Lusignan before the death of any of the lords of that race.

Sometimes, on the other hand, the wife is the transgressor. In a North German story a wizard keeps a young girl by force as his wife. One day, accidentally, he lets out the secret that his soul resides in a bird, which is locked up in a church in a desert place, and that, until the bird is killed, he cannot die. The bird is killed by the girl's lover, and the wizard dies--a similar story being found in the "Arabian Nights."

Previous Index Next