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The Fanes' saga - Remarks on single Works

H. BIRKHAN, 2000: Tradition und Deutung der Sagen vom Volk der Fanes [Tradition and interpretation of the saga about the Fanes people]


in AD GREDINE FORESTUM, 999 - 1999

A symposium organized by the Istitut Cultural Ladin “Micurá de Rü”, San Martin de Tor

I "discovered" the existence of Helmut Birkhan's paper about the Fanes in 2006 only. While reading it, I felt both frustrated and happy, because I was realizing, several years late, that another person - much more competent and authoritative than me - had published the core of the arguments discussed in this site, more or less at the same time as I was first collecting my ideas on the subject. I cannot, therefore, but respectfully bow to the great Austrian scholar, but I also feel relieved, because the substance of my views is supported by the conclusions of an universally esteemed specialist. Indeed, I also can - just for myself - claim having independently reached very similar results, using a method that shows significant analogies to his own. More so, I'm not aware (further surprises excepted!) that prof. Birkhan devoted any more studies to the Fanes' saga, and I can thence remain hopeful of having added, to the research he started, at least a few original contributions of some significance.



The Symposium “Ad Gredine forestum

Organized by the Istitut Ladin “Micurà de Rü”, the symposium was held at the Palazzo dei congressi at Ortisei (Gardena valley) in september, 1999 to celebrate one thousand years since the first documented usage of the name “Gardena” (in a donation act where the sentence “Ad Gredine forestum” can be found).
The speeches, followed by a broad discussion, were hold in Italian, Ladinian and (prevailing) German, over a wide range of topics:

  • Moroder L., (Ladinian): Introductory speech;
  • Alinei M. (Italian): Ladinian ethnogenesis in sight of the new theories about the origin of Indo-european populations;
  • Riedmann J. (German): The documental structure around year 1000 “ad Gredine forestum”;
  • Prinoth-Fornwagner R. (German): Gardena in sight of archaeology;
  • Moroder C. (Italian): Parishes in the Gardena valley;
  • Goebl H. (German): The Gardena valley and its language;
  • Siller-Runggaldier H (German): The Gardena language between idiom and valley variant, in sight of the project for a Dolomitic Ladinian;
  • Loose R. (German): Middle-Age early Gardena in sight of the settlement genesis (relationships with the Badia valley included);
  • Bundi M. (German): About the peopling of the upper part of the Vorder Rhine valley (val Tujetsch compared with val Gardena);
  • Vicario F. (Italian): First documents for a language history of the Friulian;
  • Paci F.R. (Italian): Short history of Irish Gaelic;
  • Kindl U. (German): Charmed nightingales and flying mouses: the queer world of the Gardena legends;
  • Birkhan H. (German): Tradition and interpretation of the saga about the Fanes people;
  • Chiocchetti F. (Italian): Ladinian ethnogenesis: a comparison between the Gardena and Fassa valleys.

The Acts of the Symposium can be obtained from the ’Istitut Ladin “Micurà de Rü”, San Martin de Tor (BZ). It is my intention to publish on this site a critical abstract of a few further papers that appeared in that occasion.

Helmut Birkhan

Born in Vienna in 1938, Helmut Birkhan took his degree in old-age Germanistics; since 1972 he teaches ancient German language and literature at the University of Vienna. Since 1997 he also is emeritus professor of Celtology. His broad interests also include Neerlandistics and Arthurian legends. He applies a comparative method to all these subjects, therefore he is working on a very wide cultural front, in contrast with today's tendency to overspecialize in quite narrow, self-contained small boxes. He is the Author of several books, generally on topics connected with Germanistics or Celtology.



The interpretation of the saga according to Helmut Birkhan

Birkhan begins by stating that the story of Moltina, the marmot-bride, closely resembles two great themes of the European legends, that of the "swan's children" and Melusina's one. The former saga, that appears in the German literature since the late XII century, narrates of a man who captures (many versions tell how in different ways) a swan-woman. She is subjected to many bitter humiliations, but generates him seven children, who have the capability of turning into swans. One of them loses the ability to turn back into a man, but leads them all by means of his prophetic virtues. On this subject, Birkhan remarks that, both in the German-Celtic cultural environment and in India, the figures of women-waterbirds usually take definitely erotic features and occupy a place of some importance in mythology.
Melusina, on the other hand, is a woman-looking fairy, who develops a fish/serpent/dragon-like tail every saturday. The ancestor of the house of Lusignan marries her, accepting her prohibition to look at her in her bathroom on saturdays. The fairy generates him several children but, when he violates her taboo and discovers his wife in her semi-animal aspect, she disappears forever, although she always keeps her supernatural blessing over her descendants and her husband's house.
The analogy between Moltina's and Melusina's tradition cannot be considered as a valid parallel anyway, because in ancient Europe neither snake-goddesses nor marmot-goddesses are known (with the exception, maybe, of Echidna, the half-animal woman, ancestor of the Scythians).

It is worthwhile, on the contrary, to examine the concept of totemism, against the now obsolete opinion by Lévi-Strauss, who deemed it little more than "an erudite prejudice". Today totemism, i.e., the belief that certain animals, plants, objects or abstract elements, are one's own "relatives", which it is forbidden to "consume", is considered as "a moral institution which humanity possessed over thousands of years". It can be demonstrated that totemism has been widely diffused in Europe also. One of the most conclusive evidences of this fact is the high number of tribes whose name can be traced back to animals, like the Celts Brannovices “Raven fighters ”, Epidii (People of the horses), Cornavii/Cornovii (The horned ones), or the middle-Irish Osraige (Co. Ossory) < *Ukso-rigiom “Kingdom of Deers”, or respectively the German Ylfingar, Hundingar, Myrgingas “People of the mares”, Cherusci “People of the Deer”, Lemovii “The barking ones”. Indeed, this can be traced back to a heroic warlike attitude, or to the ecstatic state of a warrior, animal-like in a metaphorical sense. Totemism can more safely be accepted when the animals-relatives have no heroic features, like the Britons Bibroci “people of the beavers”, or middle-Irish Bibraige, “kingdom, people of the beavers”, who are clearly corresponding to the hispanic and bithinian Bebrukes. This way we can also explain, maybe, the Celtic tendency to derive people and person names from botanical entities: gallic Eburones, “people of the yew”, Betulius “son of a birch-tree", etc. We only find a few instances, anyway, of people names derived from "swan". Moltina's saga appears therefore to be connected with totemistic concepts (Moltina's daughters are "marmots" as well), although her husband behaves exemplarly, in comparison with later franco-german instances, and is therefore rewarded with the kingdom. The later breach of the totem will bring to the Fanes' destruction.

Birkhan agrees with Ulrike Kindl in stating that Dolasilla's warlike character has presumably been exaggerated by Wolff for the sake of German heroic sagas, and that both Dolasilla and Lujanta are marmot-persons. However, Birkhan sharply disagrees from Kindl when the latter considers Dolasilla as a huntress instead of a warrior, and therefore turns her into a lunar goddess. He also heavily criticizes Kindl's attitude to interpret most of the legend "on the guidelines of an astral mythology".

The paper shortly examines, at this point, the meaning of the "low-mythology" figures, anguane and salvani, with reference to Kindl's opinion, who sees them as a personification of the local primigenious powers, water and wood, and to M.Alinei's one, who interprets them as a wife-husband couple in a structural opposition. But Birkhan introduces the hypothesis that in these characters the remembrance of ancestral forms of social aggregation may survive, "the mythical and ritual roots of which are dispersed in legends of this type". In popular traditions, myths survive better than rites, as there are many myths on which no rite has ever been founded, while practically all rites are backed by a myth, i.e. they represent the repetition of a primigenious action. However, it is often impossible to determine whether a popular legend was derived from a myth or from a rite. The trace of a rite, in the Dolomites, can better be found in Spina-de-Mul, who clearly is the result of a masquerade for ritual purposes.
“That legends founded on a myth can convey historical remembrances over a span of several centuries in the frame of an ancient oral culture, is seldom historically demonstrated, but surely at least occasionally". Birkhan quotes some examples of legends based on historical tales and demonstrated by archaeological findings, and guesses whether the salvans can be the remembrance of a historical population, as it happened to the Nordic giants and to the Finns, seen as a people of wizards.
Birkhan therefore tries to propose, as a counterpart to Kindl's "meditations", a historical interpretation of the Fanes' saga. He also takes into account a "political" interpretation of both totems, marmot and eagle, supposing that the "eagles' party" were a pro-Roman party. He however rejects this idea, because the oldest tradition spoke of vultures, not of eagles. The Ladinian word variöl has the proper meaning of "piebald animal". The “one-armed men” can be considered as a demonization. Therefore, we may be dealing with a "clan of the vultures". Birkhan sharply criticizes Kindl when she proposes that the Fanes' legend came from the East with the barbarian migrations. There is no reason why the myth cannot be autochtonous, and we cannot understand why an imported myth should have been so carefully preserved, if we suppose that an ancestral myth might not! The modest and anti-heroic character of the marmot directly speaks in favour of the antiquity of the myth. He concludes: "I see no reason to doubt about the transmission of the totem along a matriarchal lineage, because in totemism this is just normal and is thence an evidence of the antiquity and authenticity of the totemistic tradition", which should be traced back to "the deep of prehistory of ancient Europe". The survival of such ancestral concepts "in the myth, and then in the legend, is the primary source that feeds the currents of tradition".