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The Fanes' saga - Remarks on single Works

G.B. Alton, 1881: Proverbi, Tradizioni ed Anneddoti [sic] delle valli ladine orientali [Proverbs, Traditions and Anecdotes of the Eastern Ladinian Valleys], Innsbruck

Reprinted by Arnaldo Forni editore, Sala Bolognese, 1985

Note 1: Giovanni Battista Alton’s first name (in his surname the accent is on the last syllable) can be found written at least as follows: Giovanni, Giovanni Battista, Gian Battista, Johann, Johann Batista, Janbatista or Tita.
Note 2: Alton meant by “ladinian valleys” both the Swiss ones where the Rumantsch is spoken, and the Dolomitic valleys where the Ladinian proper is; today one would add the Friuli to them and so would indicate the Dolomites area as the “central Ladinian valleys”.


1. Life and Works


Remark: these notes are mainly taken from a text by Walter Belardi, Professor of Glossology at the “La Sapienza” university of Rome, available on the site:, and from a few other Ladinian sites.
A study on Alton’s life also exists: Franzl Pizzinini, Prof. Dut. Janbatista Alton, Balsan, Ferrari-Auer, 1962, 50 pgs, available for reading e.g. at the Istitut Ladin of S.Martino in Badia.


Tita Alton was born in 1845 in a poor peasants’ family at Pezzedi, a village above Colfosco. He studied at Bressanone and Trento and took his degree in classical and modern languages at the University of Innsbruck, after having spent two years in Paris to improve on his French. A professor in middle- and high schools, he taught in Trento, Prague and Wien; later on he was appointed Principal Professor at the high school at Rovereto. There, a few months later (1900), he was slaughtered by a thief, a Ladinian in his turn, who had entered his home.

Alton’s main scientific interest was the glottology of the Ladinian language. He authored an essay, nowadays still fundamental, Die ladinischen Idiome in Ladinien, Gröden, Fassa, Buchenstein, Ampezzo, Innsbruck, Wagner, 1879, 376 pgs.; reprinted by Arnaldo Forni editore, Sala Bolognese, 1990, that included a grammar, a glossary with ethymological remarks, and the comparative phonetics of the different Ladinian dialects.

Alton was not what today we would call an activist, nevertheless he was constantly and seriously engaged in the reappraisal and divulgation of all aspects of the Ladinian culture; he also published Rimes ladines in pért con traduzion taliana, 1885 and Stóries e chiánties ladines, 1895, both appeared at Innsbruck.

Apart from that, Alton was also a passionate alpinist: he first-climbed the Sass Pordoi and in 1872, together with his brother Josef, the Cima Pisciadù; in 1886 he founded the first alpinistic association of the Val Badia (“Sektion Ladinien” of the D.Ö.A.V.); three years later, on his impulse, the Puez Hut on the Gardenaccia was erected.

In 1895, when the first association of volunteering firemen (Stùdafùch) was constituted at Colfosco, Corvara and Pescosta, Alton, who at the time was a teacher in Wien, obtained for them the second-hand uniforms of that city’s firemen and cared for the first, hand-operated fire engine to be transported into Badia.

2. The Proverbs

The Proverbs are noteworthy at first glance for being written in Ladinian with an Italian translation aside, what makes them overly interesting for the Italian speakers who wish to feel the sound and structure of Ladinian, but don’t intend undergoing a thorough study of the language itself.
The content of the book, after a long and interesting prefation, is divided into three sections. The first one (Raccolta di proverbi ladini [A collection of Ladinian Proverbs]) is a long list of proverbs and of ways of saying, that can be quite interesting for the experts of language and folklore, but not as much so for the students of legends. The second (Idioma ladino: tradizioni e racconti [Ladinian Language: Tales and Traditions]) and the third one (the “Anneddoti” [Anecdotes]) are not very different in their contents; the Anecdotes may look, generally speaking, somewhat more modern than the Traditions, but even this doesn’t hold true every time. It is remarkable, on the contrary, that Alton distinguishes among tales and anecdotes in the Ladinian language strictly speaking, and those in the other Ladinian dialects, respectively from Gardena, Fassa and Livinallongo (or “Fodom”). On this subject, I’m quoting here from Belardi (see above), who is commenting on Alton’s work Die ladinischen Idiome in Ladinien, Gröden, Fassa, Buchenstein, Ampezzo:
“If we remain in the central Dolomitic area (since the word ladin can also be found in Engadina (Switzerland) and in Spain), in a very restricted sense related to glossological naming, ladin in the local usage indicates – as widely known – the speech of San Martin de Tor (San Martino) and surroundings in the lower Badia valley (or Northern Badia), since the inhabitants themselves by baié ladin meant, and still mean, the expression of their own speech, which they feel different from the other speeches, however alike, of the villages all around (badiot strictly speaking applies to the upper Badia valley). Less strictly speaking, ladin means ladin + badiot, and even less strictly speaking it means ladin + badiot + mareo (from the Marebbe valley, an affluent of the Gadera, from San Vigilio to Longega). The geographical name Ladinien that appears in the title of Alton’s book refers to this last and less restricted range of applicability and includes, therefore, the whole Badia valley (from Pera Forada up to Colfosco, this last village excluded, if you like, since Colfosco for centuries gravitated in the orbit of Selva in the Gardena valley, and pertained since very remote times to the parish of Laion) and the Marebbe valley (in German usually Enneberg, although this name is applicable to a wider area, as it also included the part of the Badia valley located right of the Gadera river). The adjective ladinisch, also present in the title of the book, has on the contrary a wider sense (as it also has in Italian), to the point of including the linguistic set of the so-called “sellane” valleys (Badia, Gardena, Livinallongo and Fassa), in the same order as they are listed in the title, where Marebbe should be added to Badia), and in an even broader sense it even includes the ampezzano dialect, spoken in the valley of Cortina (since Ascoli onwards, a broadest meaning also exists, which embraces the Grigioni dialect, the Dolomitic Ladinian, Comelico variant included, and the Friulian).”

If we leave aside the complex linguistical aspects, we find in Alton’s work several absolutely enjoyable tales and all sorts of informations about life in the ancient Ladinian valleys; among the most curious we can quote:

- in older times, people who needed to move from the Badia to the Fassa valley used to cross the Sella massif along the val Mezdì (a shorter and straighter path, but much harder and more dangerous than those around it). However, since when the small glacier that occupied the valley bottom gave back a human hand, nobody had the guts to take that route any longer;

- the ancient sanctuary-hospice of the Holy Cross, above Pedraces, was closed by Emperor Josef II (1741-1790) because villagers often frequented it for not exactly lithurgical purposes; it was later re-opened only in 1840;

- the people from the Tux valley (Zillertal, Austria) used to move into Ladinia during summertime in order to distill (“burn”) gentian brandy;

- two Ladinians visiting Venice (second half of the XVIII century?) wondered as there was no livestock within the town “with the exception of goats in the morning in S.Marco’s square… ladies came to milk them with copper and silver pots”;

- in 1792 at Corvara there was a custom officer with two soldiers, one of whom was a Turk. At first he got along with local people, but later on he felt deeply hurt at not having been invited to the first holy mass kept in the village, and he started insulting Christendom. Eventually he was treacherously and powerfully clubbed in his head, and left half-alive; he never was able to know who his clubber had been.

Back to the collection of legendary elements, the first obvious remark is that Alton had no knowledge at all of the Fanes (otherwise he sure would have mentioned them). But Alton says nothing about almost all other Ladinian legends as well. We can suppose, therefore, that either at Colfosco the so-called “tradition-handling community” must have always been rather isolated, or that in 1850 it already was at least heavily damaged. Alton, however, had a number of informants in all Ladinian valleys, in several of which the tradition-handling community must on the contrary have been still alive and well; yet he missed getting acquainted with a lot of themes that were collected later both by de Rossi and, specially, by Wolff. We cannot but conclude that, be it for bad luck, or lack of intuition, or sheer lack of time, be it because he couldn't obtain being trusted by the storytellers, or be it because times were not yet ready for them to resolve opening their mind to a stranger, Alton never established an active contact with the “right” people, so far that he eventually wrote: “this notwithstanding, the sentence “The student of traditions and the historian would find here plenty of themes to meditate about” cannot be admitted unless with the greatest caution”.

This said, by no means we can deny that the folkloric material collected by Alton is anyway conspicuous. It sure gives an impression of uncompleteness and, worse, of fading away, of incipient confusion, of old tales collected in a hurry and unperfectly remembered and even not completely understood. We must remark, as an example, the “cèst de éves” wrongly interpreted as a “beehive” instead of a “basket of eggs”, as it should have been obvious from the very context of the legend (Primi principi della val di Fassa [Early beginning of the Fassa valley]; informant’s mistake, or misunderstanding between both?); about the eggs, see the same legend collected by de Rossi, and see also M.Maticetov’s and S. de Rachewiltz’s remarks in Mondo Ladino, IX(1985), n.3-4. It must be stated, anyway, that Alton transcribed with absolute intellectual trustworthyness everything he was told, and nothing more, and that he didn’t allow himself the slightest poetical license, which Wolff – sometimes unrestrainedly – often indulged in.
Let us now enter into the most important folkloric themes reported by Alton, leaving aside others like witches and wizards, that would take us into directions not pertaining to the purposes of this site:

a. Gannes and salvans

Alton deals with “gannes” and “salvans” in four places: in his prefation, in the para. “Le Ganne ed i Silvani”, in the “Primi principi della val di Fassa” and then in “Tarata e Taraton”.
He states that the gannes are the women of the salvans. Good-tempered and harmless people, if offended they can however retaliate awfully. Rather hairy, of ordinary human size but as strong as giants, they dwell in caves or among cliffs. They feed on wild game, but they are always horribly hungry. Covered by animal hides, wolves, bears or wild oxen, in wintertime they suffer much from the cold and willingly mix with people, to warm up aside fires. They accept presents, food specially, but they never ask for it; they speak sparely, and learn a few words of Ladinian with difficulty. They are exceedingly afraid of thunder and they carefully watch people doing things, to imitate them when at home. They are specially fond of sheep, and at times they open the sheepfold gates and bring them to pasture at night. The gannes, who indeed can be seen much more frequently than their males and are of a kindlier and more sociable temper, are also clever at houseworking, and they often help Ladinian housewives at that.

Alton must have learned these notions within his own family, who must have been specially acquainted with the topic, as they lived in Pezzedi, one of the places where gannes and salvans had been around more frequently. Indeed they lived (they were extinct since long however) specially on mount Puez and the surrounding meadows, and therefore in wintertime, compelled by cold and lack of food, they climbed down to Longiarù (people said that the inhabitants of Longiarù even descended from the salvans) and to Pezzedi. Moreover, once a man from Pezzedi had married a nice-looking ganna, who had proven herself as a good wife and mother; but when the man had, by sheer chance, violated the taboo of never touching her with the back of his hand, she had disappeared at once, weeping sadly, never to come back.

In the Fassa valley, in place of gannes and salvans they have vivenes and vivans. They share most attributions with the former ones, but they are destined to live down to the end of this world (whence their name, from vivere = to live) and they have the power to make themselves invisible. The vivenes are unable to weave and at times may steal napkins or clothes.

In Fassa, however, bregostans and bregostenes can also be encountered. On their temper there are rather contrasting informations. It seems, as an example, that the bregostenes may steal children, or better they swap them with their own; but they don’t harm them, and at certain conditions they may be willing to give them back. Their personal name appears to be every time Taraton, for the males, and Tarata or Taratona for the females; names that Alton inclines to believe being derived from Wotan. He remarks that originally the bregostans must have been as good-tempered as the salvans, and he thinks that people mixed up vivenes and bregostenes together; he concludes by supposing that they are the same and identical characters, whose good- and respectively evil side have ended up being called different names by the people. Alton proposes that the name bregostan may derive from breogo or bregostol, words that can be found e.g. in the Beowulf, and mean “chief, king” (perhaps from praepositus).

At La Valle, gannes and salvans were named pantegannes and pantegans. It seems that nobody, neither the villagers nor Alton himself, ever realized that, at the origin of this funny distortion of the old Ladinian name by assonance with an exotic word, (pantegana means “big rat” and comes from the dialect of Venice; the name derives from Greek pontykòs, i.e. “coming from the Pontus” and therefore has been imported into Venice by ships trading with the Black Sea, presumably not before the Crusades) there must have been a hoax of some kind, whose effect is now going to last forever.
Anyway the features of these oddly-named salvans are rather the same as those of their counterparts in Badia or in Fassa. They garbled Ladinian, asking peasants for “Puca latta, puco pan” [a little of milk, a little of bread]. At la Valle a tale was also widely known, about a “pantegan” whose hands a peasant treacherously trapped in a stump, after telling him being named “Istesso” [myself] to avoid his comrades’ vengeance, according to a variant of Ulysses' and Polyphemus' myth.
General remarks about anguane (gannes) and salvans appear elsewhere in this site. I’m only adding here a few specific notes:

- today it can be rather easily demonstrated that the anguane are by no means the salvans’ wives (just consider the totally different areas where each character is present – neither is indigenous to the Dolomites – and their quite different function in legends);

- it is however obvious that, in the Badia valley, people were convinced they were. We can remark that their connection with water and with sacred, nowadays still alive in Veneto, is quite clear in several Ladinian legends – Fanes’ saga included – and is retraceable within the same Fassan traditions collected by Alton (immortality, invisibility; in the tale of the Snigolà donna Quelina herself is said being a vivena!) but can by no means be found in the Badia valley. It seems therefore quite likely that, there, the primeval meaning of the gannes had been completely lost, and that they had been grossly confused with the salvarie (no mention is made by Alton about them): these being the salvans’ wives in their own right.

- the hint at the salvans covering themselves with hides of wild oxen (among others) gives us a clue for a very approximate datation of Alton’s informations: as a matter of fact the aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius) had completely disappeared from Western Europe in the XIII century. Obviously this fact is not enough to determine when the aurochs faded away from the Dolomites (this might have happened both much earlier, or somewhat later), less so it is not enough to define when the salvans did (they might have survived long in the furs of other animals), it clarifies however that the traditional informations available in Badia about gannes and salvans go back at least to the XIII century;

- the picture provided by the informations about the salvans, as they were known at Pezzedi, appears compact, congruent and absolutely realistic. We are allowed to positively state that, if the salvans existed, they sure would leave a track of themselves in the villagers’ memory really not different from what we are actually shown. This is not enough, of course, to affirm that they surely existed, but at least constitutes a heavy clue they did; for further remarks, please again consult the page where they are discussed in more detail.

b. The Orco
The Orco [Ogre] is a demon who can take whichever shape he likes. He may look like a horse, and lure an uncautious man into mounting on his back, then he becomes bigger and bigger, and drives him into a wild gallop throughout the sky; eventually he brings him back, exhausted, torn and wounded, to the starting point. Or he may take the aspect of a little ball; as soon as a traveller overpasses him, he starts rolling after him, becoming bigger and bigger, and follows him very close, faster and faster, until he collapses to the ground out of his senses. Or he may cause a man to lose his way, and waste hours and hours to extract himself from difficult and dangerous passages, just to find himself back at his start. It seems, therefore, that his specialty is playing hoaxes - rather nasty hoaxes indeed; as a matter of fact he is also known for making poultry disappear, or laundry, or milk; and he expresses his pleasure for a successful trick with a loud laughter or satanic shouts. Better avoid mocking him, however, or replying his shouting; in this case his fury is unrestrained, and the temerary may get into real danger, unless he timely enters a house: because houses for the Orco are taboo. Apart from this, he may appear anywhere, although he is specially fond of wild places, large stretches of woodland or mountain passes. He also looks being related to weather, since he can raise thunderstorms and gales, and icy cold in the heart of summertime. Some of his victims have been lifted into the air and blown far away by sudden gusts of wind. When he eventually goes away, he leaves behind himself an unbearable stink, thence the way of saying “to stink like an Orco”.
The Orco is, anyway, one of the beings who have left a widest footprint in the val Badia people’s fantasy, and several of the anecdotes collected by Alton are concerned with him.

c. The Bào
If the Orco is a nasty prankster, the Bào is much worse. Alton connects him with Wotan who masters the “wild chase” of Nordic people; he appears in the shape of a sharp-nailed, black-dressed giant who takes away his unlucky victims, drags them through the sky and throws them directly into hell. His folkloric importance is however much smaller then the Orco’s; as his victims usually are but disobedient boys, we can easily guess that he was “invented”, or at least preserved, for the only purpose to keep order by terrorizing them. He might therefore be a relative to the Austrian Wauwau or the Italian babau. However, a ghost haunting a house at Corvara is also defined as "a Bào".

d. The Pavarò
The Pavarò is a dog-headed demon of horrific semblance who guards the fields, specially those of broad beans; he owns a golden sickle, which he is always busy whetting, with which he cuts their legs to the boys who trespass the limit of his field, being helped in this task by his exceedingly long, extendable arms. He looks therefore like a virtual and man-aimed counterpart of a scarecrow; and indeed, in the dialect of Badia, the scarecrow is exactly named pavarò (pargarò in the dialect of Marebbe). According to de Rossi, in the Fassa valley a figure, absolutely identical in aspect and functions, is called pavarùk (but there this word doesn't mean "scarecrow"). The same character, called Ganbarétol, may be met at Falcade (D.Perco, C.Zoldan: Leggende e credenze di tradizione orale della montagna bellunese, Seravella 2001). The Pavarò’s name seams unmistakably to derive from the latin pavor, (fear) (from which the Italian paura [fear], but also spavento [fright], pavido [fearful], spauracchio [bugaboo], etc.). Anyway, in the Russian (!) folklore we meet another quite similar character who guards crops, whose name is polevìk (from polje = field); a word not really very different from pavarùk. A coincidence? As a trait-d’union we can mention (from M. Maticetov, see above) a Slovenian conjuration to drive fog away “because granpa’ stays in the field and he’s going to cut your legs”!

e. Dragons
Dragons aren’t quite frequent in the Dolomites; the best known of them is related to the Gran Bracun’s legend – a knight who actually lived in the XVI century! Alton quotes a dragon nailed underneath the Col di Lana, whose jerks would be the cause of landslides and avalanches. More interesting are those that should dwell in the depths of a few mountain lakes (Boè, Crespeina and Puez); in these places one can hear, usually before thunderstorms, noises like strong detonations (elsewhere they are described as “alike to distant thundering”). Alton also quotes the belief that dragons can snatch the tail of cattle grazing too close to the lakesides and drag them into the water, and he remarks that Ladinian dragons are exceptional in that they are never guarding any treasure. People say that, at times, they can be seen flying from a lake to another; in October, 1813 a very big one, emitting an awful fire-like glow, flew all over the Gardenaccia and disappeared towards Bayern.
While a bolide can be easily assumed to be responsible for this last sighting (and maybe many earlier ones), the cause of the frightening noises might be, since all the above mentioned lakes are located on karstic plateaus and are provided with in- and outgoing underground streams, the sudden opening or closing of a siphon as a consequence of a variation of the atmospheric pressure and/or of the inner waterflow of the system.

f. El Vènt e el Snigolá
The tale of the Snigolá is again the same fable (present both in Germany and in Italy, and so presumably not autochtonous) that Wolff inserted into the cycle of the “Sun’s sons” as the second part of Cian Bolpin’s story, and that we find also in de Rossi, but autonomous and unrelated to the above mentioned cycle (U.Kindl’s remarks to de Rossi’s text in Fiabe e leggende della val di Fassa are quite useful). In Alton’s version several details are omitted, and even Cian Bolpin’s name does not appear.
Noteworthy details are:

- The female protagonist is said being named Donna Chelina instead of Chenina as in both de Rossi and in Wolff; together with the totemic name Cian (Dog), even its echo in the otherworld woman’s name is here missing. Ulrike Kindl recognizes in Chelina a modifications of Aquilina (< Eagle), that appears in the Italian version of the fable. Chenina should therefore be but a spurious derivation from the latter, maybe just helped by the presence of the totemic animal;

- Donna Chelina is defined as a vivena, thus conferring this folkloric type a connection which sacred which perhaps is even stricter than it should;

- The unnamed shepherd who is the male protagonist of the story is said to become a vivan after his marriage. I’m inclined to believe this interpretation of the vivan to be fundamentally correct: i.e. the vivans are no male counterparts of the vivenes, but the mortals who -exceptionally – marry a vivena and move into her world (according to Morgan’s and not Melusina’s model). This also happens to other characters of the Dolomitic legends and justifies the wide dissimmetry between vivan and vivena, as well as the statement of an informant of de Rossi’s that “about the vivan we know little or nothing at all”;

- when he gets in possession (stealing it from some thieves!) of the magic flying cloak (the Snigolá, meaning “Cloudy”), the protagonist becomes the Snigolá himself, as if this were a title, or a function, belonging to the owner of that grey fur cloak; and so he acquires control over weather, in detail the capability of generating fog, clouds and rain;

- the master of the winds is defined as a “bregostan”, although it has nothing to do with the stupid and bloody bregostans of later legends. In this acception, an ethymological derivation from “praepositus” looks much easier to admit. Is it possible that the name migrated from a primeval character into the very different later ones?

- The Snigolá fights with the master of the winds (the former produces clouds, the latter tries to blow them away); eventually the Cloudy prevails, and the result is a torrential shower. We seem to be hearing the echo of a myth, half animistic and half polytheistic, nothing else of which has been handed down to us.


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