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The Fanes' saga - Remarks on single Works


Legends from the Rocca Pietore area


I received, by A. Agostinelli’s courtesy (the Author of the essay “La Rocca di Pietore” (1999), describing the history of that village and its territory from a rich documental background), whom I thank sincerely, the volume “Leggende ladine delle Dolomiti” [Ladinian Legends from the Dolomites] (2007), a collection edited by Sandro De Bernardin and Patrizia Gabrieli, under the patronage of the Union di Ladins de Ròcia.
Rocca Pietore is comprised in an area, part of the province of Belluno, whose inhabitants feel Ladinian by origin and culture, but are not recognized as such by the “true” Ladinians of the Central Dolomites.
It is not up to me judging whether their feeling as Ladinians may or may not be considered well founded, and whether negating them this attribution has a good rationale. I analyzed this collection of legends, in the limits of my (quite modest) competence, both for their intrinsic interest and for comparing them with those of the nearby valleys, Ladinian under all aspects. Even if non-ladinian motives appear beyond any doubt (but one can find a few in any collection of Ladinian legends!), in most cases a rather exact match of motives, situations and characters can be retrieved, so that they can be surely located in the range of the legends of Ladinian origin.


King Ombro and Ombretta

Upstream of the narrow gorge known as Serrai di Sottoguda, a bronze gate marked the border of King Ombro’s dominion. The king, who had a beautiful daughter, Ombretta, had remarried with a woman who hated her. When Ombretta was asked in marriage by a prince, her stepmother called a witch to transform her into stone on the steep slopes of the Marmolada. Only a shepherd had the chance to hear her feeble desperate song.

This legend is the east-side counterpart of the Conturina one, alive on the Fassa valley slopes. The main character’s story is just identical, hated by a stepmother supplied with two uglier daughters (an echo of Cinderella’s tale, certainly well known at least in the Fassa valley and reported as such also by De Rossi, 1984), and eventually turned into a stone statue, located on the vertical south wall of the Marmolada. Identical is also the strophe that used to be sung on the subject.
The girl’s name is obviously different: Conturina comes from Contrin, the valley that climbs eastwards from Alba, Ombretta from the so-named valley, that climbs westwards from Malga Ciapela.
The version found in the Pettorina valley is enriched by the presence of this “king Ombro”, a name however clearly derived back from his daughter’s name (in the Fassa valley version, the character is completely ignored). The presence of a prosperous kingdom on the high mountains is a motive common to other legends (see e.g. in this collection “La damigella della Frata” or the tale of Albolina in the “Pale Mountains”, apart from the same “Kingdom of Fanes”).
Very probably, the legend has an etiological origin, i.e. it tries to “explain” by means of a myth the meaning of a stone formation on a cliff, bearing a vague resemblance to a woman’s figure. Whether either the Fassa or the Pettorina valley version came first, it is very difficult to tell; moreover, we may say that it doesn't really matter. The story of the bronze gate that closed the kingdom at the Sottoguda gorge might also have in its turn an etiological explanation: it might have arisen in order to “explain” the large bronze keys (of unknown origin) that hanged for a long time from the church door of the village.


Two brothers

Two brothers must share their inheritance: the sly one builds a new cowshed for his thick-headed brother, and keeps the old one for himself. Obviously, all cows enter the old cowshed. The thick-headed only keeps the two older and worse-fit cows. Then he goes to the market and gains some money with a trick. The sly brother tries to replicate, but now people have understood the trick and he gets beaten. The event repeats twice.

The moralistic tale about two brothers, one thick-headed and one sly, where the thick-headed guy becomes rich and the sly one – a trickster – gets crestfallen every time, shares some motives with other tales of the Dolomites, but shows some original elements. More often, as a matter of fact, we deal with a married couple (see in this same collection “Marito e moglie” [Husband and wife], and both take advantage of the results of the silly actions of the thick-headed one. The situations described in the tale are rather amusing, and I can’t find any direct correspondence in other Dolomitic legends that I know.


El tabiè da le zuce [the barn of the pumpkins]

The less-than-devout behaviour of several youngsters triggers an infernal sabbath that disappears only when a very pious old man exhibits some religious symbols. The sabbath, with its flashes and blasts, seems to foretell the events of the Great War.

Apart from this detail (a typical “backwards” prophecy), the motive of hellish powers unleashed against those who dare making fun of them is rather common and predictable; e.g., it recalls several other Ladinian tales about the Ogre or the Wild Chase.

La damigella della Frata [The Damsel of the Frata]

On holidays, the damsel of the Frata used to ride down from her castle among the high peaks. Foes invaded the region, captured the damsel and put the castle on fire. The woman prophecied that in the future a great treasure would be found in her lands, and died.

The tale of the lady, or ladies, who go to the Holy Mass and for whom all people must await before beginning the functions, is a rather recurrent motive (see e.g. the Dame di Palafavera or those of Col de Mas or those of Castelaz quoted in Perco e Zoldan, 2001). In De Rossi (1984) we can also find the legend of the Countess of Doleda, located in the Fassa valley, that shows several aspects parallel to those of the Frata (so much that they might be the same legend, in two local variants); e.g., the detail of the iron rings fastened in the stone, the only remains of the ancient fortified mansions. These rings (maybe the etiological trigger of the legends) can also be found elsewhere in the Alps; someone has even suggested that they might be the moorings of Noah’s Ark!
Notice anyway that, as well as in all other quoted cases, the keep is governed by a woman: as Wolff himself already observed, this circumstance might indicate the remembrance of a primeval matriarchal social organization in isolated communities in the high mountains.
The castle of Doleda, like that of the Frata, eventually gets destroyed, although not by enemies but by a revolt of the Fassans themselves; and both ladies, at their end, reveal the presence of great treasures buried underground.

La croce d’argento [The Silver Cross]

Two cunning mountain-dwellers travel to Venice to buy a silver cross for their church; with a trick, they succeed in bringing home an object much costlier than the sum they had available.

In Alton (1981) we can also find several anecdotes in which some Ladinians come to town (usually Venice) and cunningly fulfill their purposes, by simulating to be even coarser and naiver than townfolks believe country people to be. The motive had to be a rather recurrent one.


La Donaza e il Donazin

A woodcutter, taken by surprise by the witch named Donaza and her son Donazin, captures them by having their hands inserted into a log fissure, then he throws both into a ravine.

The “Donaza” or “Donaçia” appears twice in this collection of legends. In both cases she comes together with her offspring, here a single son, elsewhere (La Donacia) even by many children.
The term is clearly derived by the Italian “donnaccia” [bad woman] in the sense of “whore”, but the true meaning of the word must have been totally forgotten, otherwise her sons wouldn’t sure be named “donnaccini” [little donnacce].
The character “donnaccia” can be frequently found in the Belluno region (Perco e Zoldan, 2001), but she never appears together with an offspring. Anyway, her role is closely similar to that of the Bregostana in the Fassa valley.
The trick used by the woodcutter to get rid of the Donaza (he asks for help in splitting a log and locks her hands in the fissure by suddenly removing his axe) is a Ladinian classic, usually applied to a salvan, bregostano or bregostana (see e.g. De Rossi, “Le perfide bregostane”); the fact the man kills mother and son, by throwing both into a ravine, is on the contrary a quite atypical variant.


Marito e moglie [Husband and Wife]

A wife creates an incredible sequence of disasters to her husband for her naive foolishness, but eventually she recovers everything and both enjoy the results.

In this peculiar humorous tale, the wife’s role is that of the totally fool person and she messes everything up for her husband, but in the end her coarsely stupid actions turn into an advantage for the couple. The story, of a typically popular wit, can be compared with the patofje of the Fassa valley (Poppi, 1987), but has no connections with any other Ladinian tale, at least as far as I know.
On the contrary, I have been really surprised to find a structurally identical tale, alike in most details as well, in an essay over the village of Calco, in the Lecco area, in Lombardy (A.L. Brambilla, C.Ponzoni, 2004: Calco, un paese che si racconta, Cattaneo Paolo Grafiche, Oggiono). The distance is remarkable, and I know of no other examples in both areas, or in the regions in between. Either both tales are derived from a common origin (what? when? where?), or one of them is derived from the other, maybe through an itinerant artisan who also was a good storyteller. If the latter were the case, however, I cannot propose any guess about which tale was the original, and which one the derived one.

L’ultimo orso di Mont de S-ciuota [The Last Bear of Mont de S-ciuota]

A hunter, out of ammo, finishes a dreadful bear by shooting two nails from his own boots into its mouth.

An atypical tale, as it cannot be properly considered as a legend, but as an anecdote, although it may have been picked up just as it was slowly turning into a legend.

La Madonna della Neve [Our Lady of the Snow]

An old woman refuses to respect the holiday of Our Lady of the Snow because her hay has to be brought into the barn. But an awesome snowstorm buries her and her barn under what will turn into the Marmolada glacier.

The tale of the woman buried under the snow as a punishment for having collected hay instead of respecting the holiday was well known also in the Fassa valley, obviously located in that area, precisely at Gries (as reported by both G. Alton and H. de Rossi). In both cases, it is underlined that this supernatural snowfall marked the beginning of the Marmolada glacier, which earlier had been an expanse of rich hay meadows.
The holiday of Our Lady of the Snow, according to Christian tradition, falls on August 5th. It is said that, in 352 A.D., a Roman nobleman desired to dedicate a church to Our Lady, and he dreamed that She indicated him the place where to build it. The pope had the same dream and, the following morning, he walked to the Esquilino hill and found it covered by snow, notwithstanding the season. From here comes the name of “Our Lady of the Snow”. The cult is rather widespread all through Italy, Sicily (!) included.


L’uomo di Colaz [The Man from Colaz]

A man dreams that he will meet his good luck on the bridge of Rialto, in Venice. He travels there and finds an old woman who had dreamed that in his own house, in the mountains, a large treasure was hidden.

This tale also finds a counterpart in Alton, who however locates it in Predazzo . Even in this case, the revelation of the treasure happens in Venice, on the Rialto bridge, and the concept of the story is quite identical.


La tentazione a Pian da le Ris-ce [Temptation at Pian da le Ris-ce]

A hunter happens by chance to witness a witches’sabbath and realizes being observed by a vixen, He shoots her and discovers she is his own wife, who had been convinced by a famous sorcerer to sell her soul for a puppet that can be used to cast several spells. The man forgives her, they burn the puppet together and his wife saves her soul.

With this legend, we fully enter into the tradition of the “Sabbath”, i.e. the gathering of witches and demons in a determined place where obscene rituals and carnal conjuctions with the Devil take place. Notice that the “witches” are no supernatural, or just partially human beings, but people from the village who conclude a covenant (usually in written form) with the Devil and acquire some evil powers, in exchange for their right/duty to attend the sabbath and – obviously – for the damnation of their soul.
We find here several motives, that usually recur in other Ladinian tales as well:
- The weekly night gathering of the witches; according to a XVII-century account reported by De Rossi, it could take place up to three times a week (monday, wednesday and thursday). It took place in specific places, hidden in the woods or on mountain tops (maybe a remembrance of ancient rituals that continued much later than the widespreading of Christendom?) and consisted of obscene or blasphemous practices, songs and dances, often at the presence of the Devil himself;
- The transformation of witches into animals: usually, the faculty to turn into an animal was an attribute of the infernal powers (Devil, Ogre, Katertempora…) but could also be transferred to witches and used by them to move to the sabbath. In most cases, however, witches greased themselves with a magic ointment that “made them light” and flew there through the chimneypot, or riding the classic broom;
- Every damage they suffered under non-human form, remained when they recovered their human semblance: it was a way to “recognize” witches; e.g., when they hid in the milk to prevent it from curdling, if one sank a red-hot iron into the milk, the witch got burned (De Rossi), and thence could be singled out among the women of the village;
-The sorcerer, named Piere dal Polver, is a probably historical character, about whom Alton tells a very interesting and detailed anecdote. He also appears in Simon de Giulio’s collection, but not in De Rossi, although he quotes the names of several other sorcerers;
- The magic puppet: the usage of a puppet to cast evil spells is rather widespread in witchcraft tales, but I’m not aware of any other instance in Ladinian tales.

La Donacia

On Epiphany’s eve, the Donaçia prepares the ravioli pastry for her many children (the donaçini). A farmer, coming back home late into the night with two oxen he has just bought, destroys in the darkness the dishes prepared for the donaçini in the meadows. He takes shelter in his cowshed, but the Donaçia chases him and asks the man whether she must kill either himself, or the ox. He chooses the ox, and the next day he finds one the oxen dead, and the scorched handprint of the Donaçia stamped on the door.

Here we find the character of the Donaçia together with not a single son, but several children, as it never happens in any other legend (see “La Donaza e il Donazin”). The just-bought animal that is found dead for no apparent reason (an incautious purchase?) had to be a not really unfrequent event, and evil powers must have been easily considered as involved. But the root of the legend stays probably in the scorched mark on the cowshed door, similar to a handprint and who knows how originated, to “explain” which the whole tale must have been constructed.


Le ondine del Lèch dai Giai [The nymphs of the lake of the Capercaillies]

A young man watches the nymphs bathing and gets turned into a spring.

It is said that the punishment comes for not having thrown into the lake a blessed medal, to shorten Purgatory to the souls who are serving there for their sins; but it is evident that this is just the spurious Christianization of a much more ancient punishment, for having disturbed the bath, maybe sacred, of the nymphs (in the Ladinian version: eivane, i.e. anguane). See e.g. the myth of Diana and Atteone (the motive of metamorphosis is also present, although in a completely different way).


L’ora passa e l’uomo non arriva [Time has come but the man is not here]

In the mountains, a dismal voice can be heard saying “Time has come, but the man is not here”. A man gets more and more restless, until when he follows the voice to a steep wall of rock, from which a large stone falls to his death.

This motive is not a Ladinian one and can be traced back to the (universal?) motive of a destiny that cannot be averted.


Le popace di Lasta [The twins of Lasta]

Time ago, a couple of Siamese twins, who had the habit of uttering prophecies, lived in the village of Lasta.

The Siamese twins of Lasta, one body and two heads, are also quoted by Alton, and can presumably be traced back to an historical event. Alton also provides a definite datation, “roughly 180 years ago”, therefore at the beginning of the XVIII century. He informs that they lived “several years” and foretold the future of that area. However, he hints at predictions that are completely different from those reported in this tale. Obviously, the story has evolved in parallel with the realization of the prophecied events.

Ei buu! Ci èsto buu? [I got it! What did you get?]

A salvan [wildman] insistently courts a girl who doesn’t like him. She takes shelter in a barn but he presses forward. Then she suggests him to insert his hand in the keyhole, but then hacks it off with her hay cutter. He gets away crying “I got it!”, and when his comrades ask him what did he get, he answers “My own harm!”, and they leave him alone.

This motive has a Fassan origin, but it is narrated with inverted roles and a fundamental detail is left out.
Originally, as a matter of fact, the story (De Rossi) dealt with a mower persued by a wicked bregostana (in this version, the punishment for the poor salvan in love looks rather cruel), and the cunning trick of the man, who declares his name to be “Myself”, is completely missing; this detail would have explained much better why do his comrades walk away.
Anyway, we have again the motive of the salvan (or bregostena) who can be cunningly tricked. The trick is one of the two that recur with almost no variants (the other is that of the hands inserted into a log fissure, as we examined in the tale “La Donaza e il Donazin”), and has a literary root in Ulysses’ deception of Polypheme.

L’ebreo errante [The wandering Jew]

A very old man walks to the village of Savinèr; invited to stop and have rest, he answers he can’t do that till doomsday, as he refused Jesus a moment of rest on the Golgotha. He rewards the offer with a prophecy.

The Christian legend of the wandering Jew, cursed by Christ while he was climbing the Golgotha, and damned to wait for his return deprived of any rest, can already be found in XIIIth century texts and is shared by several Italian (not only!) towns and villages, specially in the Alpine area. Generally, those who help the eternal wanderer are rewarded with a prophecy, that allows to avert a disaster; those who don’t, are stricken by a curse. In our case, we observe a curious mix with a theme of a different origin.
The Jew, in fact, narrates of having already visited the valley twice and having found once a large extension of water, the second time mountains and woodlands with no trace of human inhabitants. By the way, in our case geological upheavals of this kind are clearly anachronystical , as the wanderer can’t have started his way before Christ’s death. Anyway, the motive can be found in other Ladinian legends, and is connected with the tale of the demon who can get unmasked by means of the enigm of the eggshells; see e.g. “Sete volte la montagna l’ei stada pra, sete volte l’ei stada montagna [seven times the mountain has been a meadow, seven times it has been a mountain]…” in G. Šebesta, 1973: Fiaba-leggenda dell’alta valle del Fersina, S.Michele all’Adige, quoted by S. de Rachewiltz in “Gli «Infantes suppositi» e l’enigma dei gusci [The exchanged children and the enigma of the eggshells]”, Mondo Ladino IX(1985) n.3-4 pp.85-99).
In any case, the wandering Jew adds a new prophecy here too, i.e. that the valley will one day be invaded again by waters. Unless this can be considered as allusive to the lake of Alleghe (?), it is a rare case of a “true” prophecy, as it describes an event that still has to happen.


Eivana pié di capra [Eivana the goat-footed]

A man takes home (with a magical trick) a goat-footed anguana (Eivana) and asks her in marriage. She accepts, provided the man will never call her “goat-footed Eivana” and never slap her face with the back of his hand. They manage happily and she shows an excellent wife and mother. One day, back home, the man tells having heard a voice in the woods saying “Come back, Taratina, that Taraton has died!”. His wife turns pale and declares that she must abandon his home. So it happens; from time to time she comes back in hidden form, to take care of their children, but when he tries to take her by surprise she vanishes forever.

This is a variant of the well-known tale about an anguana marrying a man. We have a mix of motives, because the nuptial pact is stipulated, but not violated: the anguana must relinquish her family not for this reason, but in obedience to a mysterious “call from the wild” (which we can also find both in Alton and in De Rossi).
Her coming back unknown to tend her children is a part of the classical Ladinian tradition, as well as the “advices” of popular wisdom that she gives her husband before leaving him.
Remarkable, on the contrary, the trick that an old woman suggests to the man in order to take the anguana home: his cows were unable to advance with the cart, because an anguana (invisible) had jumped aboard. Giving both cows a broad bean of their respective colour and uttering a simple formula, the cart moves forward and, arrived at home, the anguana has turned visible. A variant of the cart motive is also present in a legend collected by Foches (2007) at Bedollo (Pinè area); the magical power assigned to broad beans is also reported by De Rossi.


Il salvan dal luoster [The wild man with a sledge runner]

A salvan, armed with a sledge runner, appears at a remote, isolated house in the mountains in a cold winter night. The householder gives him food, but denies him hospice for the night. The salvan declares he is going to stay anyway. Then the man apparently agrees, but sends him for water with a wicker basket and a pot pierced by holes; then he bars the door. The salvan goes wild, but is eventually compelled to go away. Next spring, he is found dead, buried by an avalanche.

The tale as such is not very different from several other legends about the salvan; a wild hairy man, who lives in caves in the woods or on the highest peaks; not wicked in temper, he can easily go wild and is ready to use his great strength if annoyed or mocked; he is however very naïve and so quite easy to be outwitted (examples in De Rossi, Alton, Wolff, Perco, Foches, Poppi etc.). The way this salvan gets deceived is different by the classical Ladinian motives, but is also a traditional one.
A very peculiar detail is the luoster, or sledge runner, that this salvan carries along. The motive is absent in any other legends I know, and is important because it is totally incongruous (an object of “culture” in the hands of a wild man!) and hasn’t the slightest function in the tale: it is stated that the salvan carried it along, and full stop. It seems to me rather difficult to clutch at straws to guess any symbolic meaning for it, or imagine that a storyteller has invented this salvan with a sledge runner just out of his phantasy. We cannot but suppose that, at any time in the past, a wood man (maybe dead, under an avalanche) has really been observed with a “luoster” in his hands, be it a real sledge runner he got into possession of, be it a club derived from a curve-shaped branch, that could look like a runner.


L’uccellino dell’Infron [The Birdie of the Infron]

A mother asks her two sons to take her the birdie of the Infron. The younger succeeds in catching it, but the elder kills him and brings the birdie to his mother himself. A shepherd makes a whistle out of a cane grown over the killed brother’s grave, but the whistle sings with the dead man’s voice and accuses the elder brother of the homicide.

A short tale structured like a fable. As a matter of fact, this is just a simplified version of an Italian fable, of Tuscan origin, but widespread all over the Boot and elsewhere. Italo Calvino (Fiabe Italiane, n.180) reports it under the name “La penna di hu [The feather of Hu]” and remarks that tales with similar motives can also be found in the Grimm brothers. The hint to the “forest of Siena”, present in the Ladinian variant, sends back to a Tuscany environment, however undetailed.
In the version reported by Calvino, the brothers are three instead of two, according to the best tradition, and the mysterious “birdie of the Infron”, that the Ladinian mother requests for not less mysterious reasons, is a peacock (“Hu” mocks the call of the mentioned bird), of which a feather is desired in order to cure a king from his blindness (the “eyes” on the peacock tail are connected by sympathetic magic with the eyes as organs of sight).
The main structure of the story is however absolutely the same: the cane grown from the grave of the slain brother sings with his voice and denounces treason and homicide. Calvino tells us that, in the original version, the whistle was not built out of a cane, but of a bone of the corpse itself, and that, on the contrary, even more mitigated versions exist, where the brother eventually resuscitates.