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The Fanes' saga - Analysis of the legend

The "myth of the origin": The "Croda Rossa"


The “Croda Rossa” (“Red Peak”) legend, that Wolff edited separately from the Fanes’ saga proper, although he recognized their close connection, might look like a classic example of a myth built to explain a natural phenomenon. However, apart from this aspect, it represents the Fanes people’s true “myth of the origin”, that confers a sacral significance to their society’s fundamental institutions.


The text in short
Once upon a time, an anguana used to live in a cave at the feet of the mountain today named “Croda Rossa

The anguane appear in several legends, widespread at least all over the Italian North-east. They can easily be related with similar figures present in Greek, Italic and Balkan mythologies.


Every morning, she greeted the rising sun, surrounded by marmots, from the shore of a small lake.

Many passages in the Dolomitic legends connect the adoration of the Sun with the cult of waters. As far as the marmots are concerned, we can understand that, whatever they are meant to be, they are assumed to recognize the anguana as a minister of the cult they participate in.


One day, a local woman called ‘Molta’, who had moved to a foreign country, comes back with a newborn girl, and dies at once.

This colourless character, inconsistent with its context and more suited to a moralistic tale of Christian age, looks like having been forcibly inserted, on the purpose to explain why the anguana is in the situation to raise a baby. We may suppose that, originally, the girl must have been her natural daughter. Later on, perhaps in the days of Counter-Reform, this circumstance was considered as highly scandalous, because it could easily be read as “the nun’s daughter”. Therefore it was carefully removed by the invention of the “fallen woman”.


The anguana adopts the girl, who grows up together with the marmots: Moltina. She learns the marmots’ customs and language, and eventually she even discovers being able to turn herself into one of them.


This passage is the fundament of the “twinning” between the marmots and the Fanes’ queen, that will be developped later, and stands as the keystone of their sacred alliance with these animals, an evident form of all-tribe totemism somewhat similar to that of other Italic peoples (Piceni – woodpecker, Latini – wolf, etc.).


One day, the Landrines' prince meets Moltina and falls in love with her. They decide to marry, against his family’s doubts.

The religious grounds of two other peculiar institutions of the Fanes begin being outlined, i.e. matrilinearity and the queen’s exogamy. Notice, however, that the first move (the prince taking his bride to his own castle) is in the direction of patrilocality, albeit opposed by the Landrines themselves: but it is doomed not to work, the bride shall go back to her mountains.


Moltina states that not only the marmots , but also the mountain itself is sharing her happiness.


Moltina’s spiritual consonance with the mountain, probably related to the next passage, will be used to explain the red hue that the mountain will take.


After her marriage, Moltina quietly lives at the castle. Every night, she lights a bonfire to greet her mountain.

This passage looks like hinting at a Brandopferplatz, a ritual bonfire typical of the late Bronze and Iron Ages, which is well documented by archaeology, specially in the Dolomites. One may suspect, therefore, that the bonfire actually was a ritual of adoration of the mountain ahead. The practice of lighting ritual bonfires on mountaintops on special occasions has persisted up to nowadays.


One day several queens meet together, and each is requested to narrate her ancestors’ story. Moltina has none, and gets terribly ashamed.

This “meeting of queens” denotes that matriarchate is widespread among all peoples around. Within such a social context, we can hardly believe that the reason of Moltina’s shame is the lack of noble ancestors (as it would, on the contrary, during the Middle Ages); we might better remark that Moltina is the only one who has given up matrilocality.


The situation is rescued by a prodigy: the mountain in front of them, sharing Moltina’s feelings, turns purple red like her face. Moltina takes advantage of the ensuing turmoil, turns herself into a marmot and flees to her mountains. Later on, her prince joins her and, since she refuses coming back to his castle, decides to remain with her.



And now the mountain blushes.
Moltina's turning into a marmot in front of a danger might hint at a general behaviour typical of the Fanes at the time of their origins, i.e. that of hiding in the caves of their karstic plateaus as soon as foes were approaching.
In any case, the final outcome is the definitive restoration of the infringed matrilocality: Moltina’s husband accepts settling at his wife’s home.


One night they hear noise of arms. The Fanes are drilling their troops, but they lack any skill. The prince accepts to train them and then leads them into battle; he carries off victory and is nominated King.



Fanes’ last fundamental institution now appears: the role of the king as a mere army chief (dux bellorum). Probably, the legend is also stressing that the Fanes over time did acquire the military skills they initially were completely lacking (= the “marmots”).


The prince builds a stronghold upon the Cunturines, and has a marmot painted as an emblem on its walls. The Fanes’ royal dinasty will descend from Moltina and himself; the anguana foretells their glory and greatness. But the Croda Rossa will remain red forever.
From their original area of Sennes/Fosses, where we first found them, the Fanes spread over time onto the Alpe di Fanes proper, “from the wall of the Vanna to the indented peaks of the Bedoyeres and Landrines”: a group of karstic plateaus less than 150 km² wide, at altitudes mostly comprised between 1900 and 2500 meters a.s.l.
When the legend states that the stronghold is the work of Moltina’s husband, it probably condenses the labour of generations into the hands of a single man. But the myth requires the Fanes’ “town” to be personally founded by the dinasty founder’s husband.



This actually is the Fanes’ “myth of the origin”, that outlines with full coherence a social and religious ordering based on animistic concepts (totemism; exogamic matriarchate), that are well known to anthropologists for having been observed and studied in several different populations. Its presence in (almost) mediterranean Europe allows us to sustain its antiquity, although in the relative isolation of the Alps we cannot rule out the persistance of some archaisms even in relatively late periods. What we just said, however, can hardly live together with the theme of the blushing mountain.

Almost every culture used (and sometimes uses) myth to give an “explanation” of any unusual natural phenomenon that could not be accounted for otherwise. Remaining within Wolff’s collection, this type of myth is central to several other well known ladinian legends, from the “Pale Mountains” themselves to king Laurin’s Enrosadüra ("pink alpenglow"), from the icy heart of mount Antelao to the lake of the Rainbow: all legends that have little or nothing to share with the Fanes.
On the contrary, in the Fanes’ saga this form of myth will reappear just once, and again with all features of a late interpolation, unrelated to its context and demonstrably attached fictitiously (i.e., the king turned into stone). We can safely propose, therefore, that myths of this type pertain to different cultural layers, which are later than the first composition of the Fanes’ saga. A case very similar to the “Croda Rossa” can be observed in “Merisana’s wedding”, where the fable about the origin of the larch is forcibly appended to a myth of much greater depth and antiquity.

We can conclude, therefore, that the original version of the myth credibly contained no reference to the colour of the mountain; Moltina’s story, in any case, “holds” even if that theme is completely removed. It may be however interesting to remark that, in order to “explain” the origin of the red hue of the peak, the author of the interpolation made no reference to a blood shedding, e.g. a battle, as we might have expected, but to a blushing face. The theme of “Moltina’s shame” must therefore have already been well known and precisely localized: we can reasonably presume that it was an established part of the original legend, although not related at all to the lack of quarters of nobility, as the version that was handed down to us says, but rather to the violated matrilocality.

As a conclusion, the antiquity of the story is supported by several details that directly refer to proto-historical times and that in a later epoch would have been just unthinkable (e.g. the matriarchate, the cult of waters and of the Sun, the totemism, the Brandopferplatz); details whose real meaning has been forgotten for centuries and can only be understood again nowadays, in the light of relatively recent archaeological and anthropological researches.
The myth about the colour of the Red Peak (that closely resembles the “Pale Mountains” structure) was only later overlapped on the “myth of the origin”; at the same time, its protagonist was given a name, by the way a god’s name; much later still, perhaps during the Middle Ages, both the reason of Moltina’s shame and her mother’s identity were radically changed.
We can also retrieve, scattered all over the story, several references to medieval court and military daily life; but these are just facade details and may have been added as embellishments by quite recent storytellers, if not by Wolff himself.
Having cleaned them out, the story appears, in its description of the environment (of course not in its plot!) a rich source of original data, almost certainly trustworthy.

We must also notice that the sheer existence of this “myth of origin” represents by itself a significant clue to the fact that a “Fanes people” may have existed for real. It is hard to believe, as a matter of fact, that posterity may have conceived such an archaic socio-cultural structure, had not its memory been explicitly preserved; furthermore, the act of condensing all this into a myth of origin may only have been meaningful in the eyes of the actual possessors of that culture.