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The Fanes' saga - The cultural background

Cults and Myths

The Fanes’ cycle of legends contains plenty of information concerning their beliefs, that can be compared with the rituals that have been evidenced by archaeological findings, providing us with data which are of the utmost importance for a correct interpretation of the story.

We must notice in first place that in the Fanes’ saga we find no single reference to any personified divinity, either mono- or polytheistic. All cult actions appear to be addressed to natural pluralistic entities that are defined as “spirits” (of waters, of mountains…), apparently not on the purpose of obtaining their favours, and maybe not even to thank them, perhaps because they seem not to be supposed capable of any supernatural intervention in the world. One could better say that the believer’s wish is basically to maintain a relationship of harmony and respect with them, and that at most we observe rituals aiming at obtaining that these spirits incarnate into the believer (a supreme form of harmony?), thus conferring their key faculties upon him: only natural faculties, but somehow superior to the human ones. I’m obviously talking about the marmot and vulture cults, with their related “exchange of twins”. There’s no trace of a religion understood as “do ut des”, so frequent in almost all ages and civilizations, with special reference to the western ones.
How does all this reconcile with the metal objects laid down in lakes, that are usually interpreted today as offerings? A chance is that the religious meaning of that rite was different from that of a propitiatory sacrifice, that takes shape immediately in our minds for inconscious conditionment; another, that the Fanes didn’t share this cult form (indeed, we see them plunder the sacred lakes.
We already noticed that there is no hint to rituals or myths connected with agriculture, nor with death–and– resurrection cycles related to it. Nor the legend by any means hints to a faith in a life after death or to a distinction between perishable body and everlasting soul; maybe, to undefined “vital spirits” that after death seem to ”reflow” into nature under a symbolic form of flowers or birds.
The concept of ethics, which surfaces at times, seems not to have any supernatural root as well, and to be based on a correctness of human behaviour: one must keep his word; collective interest must take priority over the individual’s.

Let’s analyze now each single cult in more detail:

· Passages where we find references to the cult of waters:

- the anguane;
- the silvery lake;
- the mjanines’ oracle;
- the jarines;
- Merisana’s myth;
- the sacred lake in the "Flowers of Lagorai".

The anguane appear in the Fanes’ saga (or better, in their “mith of origin”) as mortal women performing undisputably sacral functions and strictly related both with waters, particularly with small lakes, and with the cult of the Sun. They look directly connected with the ministry of the cult of waters, that we know having been reserved to women even in later periods. The features of the anguane have been analyzed in some more depth in >Essays> anguane”.

The cult of waters appears both in the form of “offerings” (i.e., the treasure on the lake bottom), as a matter of fact regarded as a custom of the past, of no other value at present than that of a “bronze mine”, and in the form of the oracular lake, which people address for having the present revealed and the future foretold. The therapeutical aspect of the cult, important and even prevailing in the Iron Age, specially at Lagole, doesn’t show at all, perhaps by chance only; unless something related to it may be seen in the “dwarfs” who swim in Elba’s silvery lake. Indeed, the sulphureous waters of Lagole did have a curative effect, specially on wounds, and display a somewhat milky appearance. We can observe, in accordance with the above mentioned general principle, that no personified water deity (like the three-faced Trumusjatis at Lagole) appears in the saga, but instead we have a multitude of benign “spirits of the water”, the jarines or mjanines, who are described as having a human (feminine, while the "spirits of the mountains" appear to be masculine) shape, but display the ethereal features of “natural spirits”, and inspire a feeling of love and respect much more than a sacred awe or a transcendental veneration.

· Passages where we find references to the cult of the Sun:

- the marmots at the feet of the Croda Rossa:
- Mount Amariana;
- Elba and Soreghina;
- Merisana.

The cult of the Sun, which isn’t directly demonstrated by any archaeological evidence in the area, seems to be strictly connected with that of waters. The anguana acting as Moltina’s mother greets sunrise every morning, and marmots (= the Fanes?) croud around her; an indication that they share her cult and give her credit as its minister. Two myths, apart from the Fanes’ saga and maybe even older, give futher support to this relationship between both cults. The sun myth of Elba suggests a possible clue to interpret the connection between Sun and water (the lake as image and mirror of the sky? the only way to look at the Sun? then the cult of waters subordinated to the cult of the Sun?) which by itself might only be a mirage. Another strong connection is Merisana’s myth, the queen of the “Undines” of val Costeana, whose name (=Merijana =Meridiana, i.e. “midday girl”) is significant by itself. She marries – at midday – the “king of rays”. These “Undines” appear here to be a mix of anguane and jarines, a variant of which they probably are (however, see also what we have observed about the anguane).

Specially interesting is Ey-de-Net’s climb on top of mount Amariana, that we have tentatively identified with todays’ cima Ambrizzola (Croda da Lago), which is directly involved in Merisana’s sun myth and is located in the right place for Ey-de-Net to climb on it in that specific circumstance. At least partially apart from the correct location of the summit involved, we are facing here a new element of the cult, because the mountain climbed by the Duranno couldn’t be an easy walk, otherwise his performance would have gone unnoticed: therefore, the mountain sacred to the cult of the Sun was not expected to be climbed for normal cult ceremonies, but ought to be observed from a specific place (a sanctuary?) in relation with a specific position of the Sun. Notice that Merisana’s wedding is celebrated at high noon on a grassy hilltop “facing the Croda da Lago”. The wedding consists then in the Sun crossing the perpendicular above the mountain top? Merisana, however, is a water creature. The phenomenon had to be observed reflected by the waters of the (lake of) Ru de ras Vergines (i.e. “brook of the Virgins”)? Is this the link that connects the cult of waters with the cult of the Sun and with that of the mountains? We must notice, however, that Ey-de-Net climbs the mountain to greet the rising sun, a much more usual form of cult, documented also in Moltina’s story.

· Passages where we find a reference to ritual bonfires (Brandopferplatz):

- the bonfires lit by Moltina;
- the bonfire lit by Lujanta when the eagle carries back the young Lidsanel.

These are the only explicit references to bonfires, and their ritual purpose is evidenced by their context. It is clear that the site of the former bonfire is chosen because the Croda Rossa is well visible from there, while the latter is probably lit at the feet of the sacred Croda Vanna. The ritual bonfires appear thence as being connected with a form of “cult of the mountains”, that has already surfaced with reference to mount Amariana. Basically all sites where we find archaeological evidences of a ritual bonfire enjoy a wide panorama and are on full sight of some important mountaintop; in the Dolomites, admittedly, you can’t find any high-altitude prominence that does not enjoy a wonderful panorama, and is on full sight of no mountaintop. One might even suspect the the cult was addressed not to the mountains, but to the sky itself; but Moltina’s legend hints at a ritual of veneration of the mountain as such.
The Fanes’ legend, however, doesn’t explicitly mention the presentation of offerings , either connected with ritual bonfires, or with any other form of cult.
Somewhat related with bonfires (according with the latter mentioned passage) may appear to be the supposed cult of vultures, a trace of which can only be found in the legends.

· Passages where we find a reference to the cult of vultures:

- the Croda Vanna;
- the Piz da Peres and Plan de Corones;
- the bregostene and the Filadressa;
- the exchange of the twins.

The “cult” of vultures is one of the most delicate and controversial ritual aspects of the whole legend, both because the hints at it are not always explicit, and because its presence is not (as it hardly could) be supported by archaeological evidences, while we feel that its interpretation may be of paramount importance to understand the true meaning of the social upsettings that the legend outlines.
The vulture (variul in Ladinian) has been flying around the Dolomitic walls up to very recent times. According to Wolff, still in the early XX century people connected the majestic bird of prey with a flickering bluish flame (the flüta) that appeared at random on the walls of Sass dla Crusc (Croda Vanna). We observed that both the will-o'-the wisp and the vultures’ concern can be connected with the casual presence of carrions on the wall ledges. It is quite reasonable to suppose that in the Bronze Age the phenomenon was observed with reverent wonder, and it is probable that both the site of the Dlija dla Santa Crusc and Plan de Corones derive from it a good share of their traditional sacrality.
We saw in the preceeding paragraph that the legend provides some clues that the cult of the vulture might be connected with ritual bonfires. There is no evidence that these bonfires may have played the role of funeral piles as well, even if this may be suspected at least at a few sites (and it would have been quite reasonable).
An interesting theory about the original significance of this cult may thence be proposed by observing the role of the bregostene that appear in Albolina’s legend. They are women having claws instead of human hands, but notwithstanding this fearsome aspect they are expert healers and basically benevolent to humans (the turning of the bregostene into wicked beings, as documented by several legends of the Fassa valley transcribed by de Rossi, appears to be a late occurrence, almost certainly later then Christendom diffusion; see also the legend of the Filadressa, certainly belonging to the Middle Ages, where the claws are explicitly vulture talons. We have proposed, therefore, that the bregostene might originally have been priestesses of fire, i.e. of ancient funeral rituals, inspired by the image of the big bird of prey that takes the spirit away as well as it takes the body; the bregostene might then have been a counterpart of the anguane, priestesses of waters.

For an analysis of the rituals and the meaning that the cult of vultures may have assumed later on among the Fanes, including the possible ritual implications of the “exchange of the twins”, on which the legend frequently returns, please refer to >Analysis >twinnings.

Finally, as far as funeral customs are concerned, Dolasilla’s pyre is essential, because it clarifies that cremation actually was the standard funeral ritual among the Fanes. The hint at the body of Moltina’s mother, that “marmots” hide away in a crevice of the ground, may suggest an archaic ritual of cave burial, but appears however more doubtful.

· Passages where the cult of marmots is described:

- Moltina’s legend;
- The exchange of the twins.

In the Fanes’ saga a central role is played by the myth of the “alliance with marmots” (later on replaced by vultures), associated with the practice of “exchanging the twins”.
The alliance with marmots, that can be defined as a totemistic cult beyond any doubt, was certainly connected with a matriarchally structured society: the religious relationship with the totemic animal was entrusted to the queen and her daughters, while the sheer fact that the queen chose a foreign husband at every generation clarifies that the regal power was handed down through feminine lineage. On the contrary, the alliance with vultures (a bird of prey in place of a bashful grass-eater), which is said having been supported by the last king together with his sons, appears to mean not only the switching to an aggressive foreign policy, based on raids and plunderings, but also, at home, an attempt to put an end to the ancient matriarchate, replacing it with a clearly patriarchal regime. All this has been thoroughly analyzed in >Analysis>twinnings and Themes>Lujanta’s destiny.

Themes like these are rather frequent in ethnology, but is there anything similar in ancient Europe? There is, and much closer than one might believe at first glance. The myth of the foundation of Rome by Romulus and Remus shares with the Fanes’ one almost all its basic structures, while the exterior features are so different as to make unbelievable that the similarities may be attributed to a backwards cultural transplant that took place at a later time.


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