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The Fanes' saga - Analysis of the legend

The Fanes kingdom: 1 - The twinnings


I grouped under this title the first chapters of the saga which, under the appearance of a fable crowded by mysterious metamorphoses and talking animals, continue and develop the anthropological themes of totemism and matriarchate, that already had surfaced in the myth of the “Croda Rossa”. We are allowed to draw some interesting deductions about the evolution of the Fanes’ society, and even to take a look, from a completely new and surprising point of view, at the legend of Romulus and Remus, the myth of the origin of a society destined to much greater fortune.


The text in short

The Crown Princess of the Fanes’ dinasty marries a foreign prince, but she dares not reveal him, as she ought to, the “secret alliance” between the Fanes and the marmots.

We only know two Fanes’ queens, the first, i.e. Moltina, and the last one, who remains unnamed. How much time intervened between them? We shall see that, in the meanwhile, deep modifications have occurred in the Fanes’ society, therefore we are allowed to suppose that a few centuries must have elapsed.


The king meets a gold-taloned eagle who spits fire from his beak. He actually is the king of a remote island, inhabited by single-armed men; both kings agree upon a new secret alliance, that must be consecrated by an “exchange of twins”. The king keeps it secret to everyone, his wife included.

The eagle is the transposition (probably due to Wolff himself, who wished to convey to a modern audience the concept of “noble bird of prey”, even at the cost of committing a big mistake of folklore transcription) of the Ladinian “variul de la flüta”, i.e. the Flame Vulture (see > Essays > The Flame Vulture). The king’s wish to replace the traditional Fanes totemic animal, the peaceful marmot, with a large bird of prey, clearly shadows a change that is going to occur, or better has already occurred, in the Fanes’ socio-political balance, and must be reflected by a corresponding change in the tribe’s mythological apparatus.


The Fanes’ queen gives birth to a couple of twin girls, named Lujanta and Dolasilla. The next morning, however, Lujanta has disappeared, replaced by a white baby marmot. The king is left unaware of the exchange. A short time later, he orders a servant to bring the twins to the eagle, so that he can choose one of them. The queen is informed and makes it so that the servant can’t discover that one of the twins actually is a marmot. The eagle chooses the marmot, but she escapes and disappears in a crevice.

The rate of twin births in the human race is rather low (about one out of eighty). It is absurd entrusting the good result of a sacred alliance, that decides of the tribe’s destiny, to the hope that all queens give birth to a pair of twin girls at every generation. The original meaning of the myth must have been slightly but significantly different from the literal one. It was not mandatory, I mean, resorting to a couple of human twins, because the “twins” actually were the baby and the marmot. They were exchanged in a symbolic twinning, that perpetuated the myth of the ancient partnership between Moltina, the first queen, and the marmots, in sisterhood with whom she had grown up. The purpose of all this must have been that the sacrifice of the firstborne (see >Essays >Lujanta’s destiny) conveyed the “marmot’s spirit” to embody in the secondborne, thus bestowing upon her the sacredness required to ascend the throne. The similarities, not evident but deeply structural, with another “myth of twins”, are investigated in > Essays > The parallel with Romulus and Remus.


Some time later, the eagle brings to the Fanes’ king a young eagle, his son, in order to fulfil the second “exchange of twins”. The king loses him (in a road accident!), but when he comes back to his castle he finds that, all of a sudden, a single-armed baby prince has been delivered by the queen. The king is delighted and has the marmot, that was painted on the castle walls, replaced by an eagle.

While, until now, the cult of the marmot and that of the vulture have uneasily coexisted, at this point the cult of the vulture is imposed as “State religion”. Remark that this only takes place as soon as the prince destined to embody the bird-of-prey (the so-called Eagle--prince) is born. We can derive two important conclusions from this event::
- the peaceful society of hunters-gatherers that we saw at the origin of the Fanes people must have turned into a tribe of shepherds and raiders. The sacred protection offered by the old totem must be replaced by another, more consistent with the new life style;
- as a consequence, the ancient institution of matriarchate looks inadequate as well. The totemic twinning based on the exchange of sons is going to replace that of daughters; since this moment on, the sacred regality connected with the totem will be inherited by patrilinear heritage.
This thorny and complex socio-political-religious transformation is accounted of with great pain and by means of logic contortions. I even suspect that there must have been an important omission. To fulfil the correspondence of both totem twinnings perfectly, I mean, the twinning pledge given to the eagle originally ought to be no baby marmot, but a firstborn son of the royal couple, who isn’t even mentioned in the tale. It’s just obvious that this son “entrusted” to the vultures cannot but have been sacrificed to them. Sooner or later, the bloody and repugnant episode must have been completely removed from the narration, to be replaced by the mythological acrobacy of the eagle who chooses the baby marmot, but loses it shortly after.



Can a kingdom ever have existed on the Fanes’ plateaus?
If for “kingdom” we mean a more or less modern state, with towns, castles and extents of farmland, the answer is obviously “no”.
Some people have even alleged that the Dolomites “could not” be inhabited earlier than the Middle Ages, because they were totally unfit for human settlement. Several archaeological findings, dated to different periods, have definitely demonstrated this assertion to be false. As a matter of fact, if it were true, men could never have been able to colonize permanently, by primitive means, environments much more hostile than this one, like deserts or the Arctic; nor would they be able to emerge from the Ice Ages. Today the climatic conditions on the Fanes’ plateaus (about 150 km² at altitudes between 1800 and 2200 m a.s.l.) are certainly less severe than in the European far North, and in some periods of the past they have even been more favourable than today (see > Essays > Climatic variations). The area represented an echological niche, admittedly a poor one, but where man could survive permanently. Every niche sooner or later finds its occupants, and we should be highly surprised to discover, reversely, that this one never did. The correct question to ask is not if, but how many people could find food on the Fanes’ plateau, and what food? All along the legend, we are never shown the Fanes performing any other economical activity than hunting and gathering. There are isolated and doubtful hints to stock raising, but they are completely unrelevant for the story and might very well be spurious, maybe just fictional embellishments by Wolff himself. We can also exclude that farming was important for the Fanes. Farming is never quoted, nor can we find any symbolism that may be directly or indirectly related to agriculture. The legend implicitly but definitely denies that the Fanes ever claimed any lower-altitude area, better suited to cultivation than their own. At most, the Fanes might have developped some semi-spontaneous cultivation for integrating their diet.
On the other hand, even if we admit that they lived in the most favourable climatic period, in the final Bronze the woodland limit in the Alps never rose higher than two hundred meters above today’s level. Therefore, the area of the now arid and desolated plateaus never was really suitable for farming, rather it represented a good high-altitude grazing land (probably for goats and sheep: at Sotciastel (middle Bronze) cattle bones have been found as well, but historical sources document no other animals being raised in the Dolomites even much later than that).
We have seen the Fanes’ territory to span over about 150 km², not all first-class. If its inhabitants had been pure hunters-gatherers, we can estimate that a territory of this type might feed about one person per square kilometer; accordingly, the Fanes tribe could have numbered up to one hundred – one hundred fifty people. A tribe this size could field not more than a few dozen warriors. But a people of shepherds (or better, who raised livestock in addition to hunting and gathering) might significantly increase their density, and so be able to field those one-two hundred warriors who appear to be an absolute minimum for the Fanes’ warring enterprises.
We can conclude, therefore, that in the time elapsed from Moltina to Dolasilla the Fanes’ society had gradually transformed from a pure hunting-gathering to a prevailingly stock-raising economy, maybe also because of cultural contributions coming from abroad (condensed or symbolized by the legend as foreign kings). But a people of shepherds is no longer a people who has nothing to lose by taking shelter within caves every time a foe appears at the horizon; they must learn how to defend their flocks. So the “marmot-like strategy” is no longer applicable.
According to the events described later in the course of the saga, the Fanes warriors didn’t stop with learning how to defend themselves, they gradually pushed as fas as committing themselves to happy and successful plundering, and considering perpetual warfare as an appraisable and profitable lifestyle. Given this economical and social transformation, the shame for the ancient marmot-like behaviour was just obvious. But, in a vital society, socio-economical ordering and mythological apparatus must support each other. The legend states that the champions of this new lifestyle found in the vulture, the largest bird of prey, that was already present among the Fanes’ range of symbols, although with a much different meaning, the new icon to be opposed to the ancient marmot.
At the same time, connecting matriarchate with marmots, the warriors wished to overthrow this institution also, therefore conferring on the army commander the full royal power. The queen’s husband, in order to play the sacred role of a sovereign at all effects, was then in need of proposing himself as minister and warden of the new cult that was being instituted. From here the conflict – that probably never ended up, however, in real acts of force – that the legend condenses in the ambiguous relationship between an individual queen and her individual husband.