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The Fanes' saga - The cultural background

Socio-economical Conditions


The whole legend offers very scarce hints at the everyday aspects of Fanes’ civilization, so that we are compelled to retrieve some information only from clues, and sometimes even from the lack of clues: a rather risky method.

Archaeology only provides precise indications in the Dolomites for the middle and recent Bronze Age, but not for the final period and for the early Iron Age. As an instance, the accurate excavations performed at the small walled hamlet of Sotciastel (which never numbered more than five or six families, i.e. from 15 to 30 residents) show well-developped farming, a diet comprising goats, sheep and cattle, but sometimes even pigs as well, and some abundance of metal objects. A bronze-casting stone die has also been found; this is not interpreted as a clue to a self-sufficient metalworking capability, but just as a trace of the passage of itinerant smelters (to these artisans the so-called “repositories” should also be ascribed, consisting of bronze articles, half-finished items and bronze lumps (aes rude) yet to be smelted, that can be occasionely found, buried in places with no specific features). Settlements like Sotciastel, that was destroyed about 1300 A.C., can be sporadically found up to the early final Bronze Age; the long period that follows shows almost no findings at all, until the middle Iron Age. We know close to nothing about living conditions in the meanwhile.

We can only find some help, therefore, in the clues offered by the legend itself.
As far as the Fanes are concerned, we already observed the absence of even the smallest sign that might indicate the practice of farming. We can find no hint at any agricultural tool, activity or need; moreover, there is also no indication about any belief, myth or ritual that might be related with it a way or another. Last, - and this clue might be a decisive one – we know that the plateaus of Fanes and Sennes were far from ideal for farming even in the best periods, when the climate was moderately warmer than today. Therefore, if the Fanes had been willing to increase their agricultural production capability, they would no doubt have occupied at least part of the fields at the valley bottoms, which we see as substantially unpopulated and freely available to them. On the contrary, the legend implicitly, but beyond any doubt, states that the Fanes never sought to claim them. We can conclude, therefore, that farming, even if not completely unknown, never represented a substantial factor for their survival and within their cultural schemes.
Hunting-gathering and stock raising remain. Hunting and gathering are the only economical activities somewhat documented by the legend, while about stock raising we only get a few doubtful hints, that might even be the result of very late interpolations, because they are of no structural importance in the story anyway. As in the case of farming, we only can venture some tentative deductions. We interpreted the sacred alliance of the Fanes people with marmots in the sense that they identified themselves with the marmots’ behaviour, i.e. the habit of disappearing into underground hideouts as soon as a foe was approaching. Such a strategy can only be adopted by a small number of people living as troglodytes on a karstic plateau, and owning virtually no economical resources that cannot be hastily concealed in a cave in case of need. This means that the Fanes at their origins could not have been shepherds: thence, we must conclude that they were hunters-gatherers, i.e. their culture was still essentially palaeolithic. On the other hand, we easily calculated that the spontaneous resources of the plateaus were insufficient to feed a number of people large enough to field any consistent army, not even according to the modest requirements of the period. Therefore, we are compelled to conclude that the Fanes, in the centuries that followed the legendary foundation of their kingdom, had become shepherds, presumably just goats-raisers (and sheep maybe), as they were well suited to the features of their territory. We must underline that this conclusion is a very reasonable presumption, yet still a presumption.

We can further state that absolutely nothing is said by the legend about other economical activities like pottery, weaving, basket making, etc., that we can only guess to be present among the Fanes, by comparison with other tribes of the same cultural level (see e.g. Ötzi ’s rich individual equipment, dated several centuries earlier, or the high-quality thick socks, of almost the same age as the Fanes’, that were found in a crevice of the Ries vedrette.

As far as metalworking is concerned, we examined it in the previous chapter, and we know from archaeological data that in the period when the Fanes presumably lived it was drastically declining all over the area. The legend describes the Fanes being in so great need of metal objects, and specially of weapons, that they come to the point of combing the bottom of sacred lakes in their quest. When they are in need of a large shield (a rather difficult casting anyway), they are compelled to address some “dwarf” smiths who lived far away, at the border between the valleys of Fiemme and Fassa. Admittedly, the legend allows to guess (but there is no such explicit statement) that the artisans who manufacture Dolasilla’s weapons may be members of the Fanes tribe, but we saw that her "metal" bow is just the result of a misunderstanding and her armour may consist of iron platelets just found ready to be assembled. As for the famous trumpets, at that time their manufacture was beyond the reach of any smith workshop over the whole range of the Alps: therefore, they must have been imported items. The trade of metal objects in the future Ladinian Dolomites thence appears, if maybe not thriving, at least not completely extinct even in the final Bronze Age. The presence of both the Vögl delle Velme and the silvani at the silvery lake confirm that. Copper extraction was still going on, notwithstanding local episodes of mine depletion such as those that inspired the Aurona myth: at least, the mines connected with the smiths “of the Latemar” must have still been under exploitation. Certainly the Fanes had little chance to profit from the trade, and sure they never were traders themselves.

If we are told almost nothing about the Fanes’ economy, even less the legend tells us about the other neighbouring populations. We can desume from a few hints at the coalition’s army that metallic weapons were rather common. We may also presume that the inhabitants of the fields at the valley bottoms were farmers as well as stock raisers, and that the main reason why the Palaeo-venetics spread up the Dolomitic valleys was the search for minerals. But this is all.
We know from archaeological findings, anyway, that at that time the Palaeo-venetic civilization, however far from flourishing as it did during the second half of the millennium, already was relatively advanced and was able to manufacture a wide range of quality tools and weapons. This statement must be taken with special reference to the objects found in the plain, or in the val Belluna at most; on the contrary, we only have scant archaeological evidence of penetration into the valleys until a few centuries later. The legend only tells us that tribes like the Caiutes already were under Palaeo-venetic influence (and maybe were already controlled by a Palaeo-venetic aristocracy), but it states that quite unadvertently, therefore leaving no suspicion that the storyteller might have willfully distorted the facts or the situation he was hinting at.

About social structure archaeology can tell us something, even if not much. In the Bronze Age (as in some measure it already had happened during the Neolithic) we can find richer graves and poorer graves, a clear symptom that society had begun to differentiate vertically; diversified grave implements are found according to the business of the dead, and in particular a few graves appear to be much more magnificent than others, so that the presence of a monarch, presumably of a dinasty, is clearly evidenced. On the contrary, there is no evident inequality in the tomb implements of women and men of the same social layer, however differentiated according to sex: a clue to a probable substantial equality of status, yet in separate roles.

The Fanes’ legend, as a matter of fact, very clearly states that a sovereign existed, both among the Fanes and all other populations we meet (with the exception of the Duranni, but this might just have occurred by chance). More accurately, the saga reminds both a king and a queen in the case of the Fanes; among the Bedoyeres the queen only is mentioned; the case of the Landrines is less clear, but we might suppose the queen to be indeed more important than the king.
Both Fanes’ queens mentioned by the legend (the first and the last: both might somehow “sum up” several generations of queens) marry a husband from abroad, out of their tribe; the first from the Landrines, the second (very likely) from the Caiutes. We started from this clue, among others, to state that the Fanes society is a matriarchate (where the woman is the chief of the household) and is matrilinear (where heritage is handed down from mother to daughter). Both conclusions are probably correct, standing the fact that matriarchate in primitive societies, what the Fanes undoubtedly are, must not be understood as a role inversion with respect to a patriarchate like (just as an example) the classic Roman society, deeply unbalanced in favour of men and where women count legally and effectively close to nothing, but as a basically egalitarian society. As a matter of fact, we can observe that the king is not at all removed from decision-making, and this happens as well at the beginning as at the end of the kingdom, when we undoubtedly assist to social tensions and turmoils. The transmission of the regal power along a matrilinear lineage is no unescapable consequence of the above, however the legend hints at it by talking of a “dinasty”, and there are no reasons to reject such a statement.
Much less certain appears the statement that in the Fanes’ society a taboo of compulsory exogamy, connected with the practice of totemism, was generally enforced. The fact that the Fanes identified themselves with marmots doesn’t mean that. This would have required the tribe to be divided into several clans, each in relationship with a different totem – what we don’t see happening at all. The fact remains, that the Fanes’ queens, obliged or not, did marry a foreigner. We know nothing about the enthronization details, i.e. if it occurred at the mother’s death, or when a given age was reached, or at the moment of marriage: nor we know anything about the destiny of the parents who might have survived. We understand, from the details of the “exchange of the twins”, that not the first-born girl but the second one obtained the crown, (what if there were three or more?): but we are freely interpreting topics which the legend tries to shroud, hinting at them only seldom and rather implicitly. It seems anyway that sons were excluded from succession, at least until the very last years of the kingdom. Notice that male lineage plays a key role in the late story of the prince-eagle (i.e., when the kingdom is, in effect, already destroyed); even from this detail alone, those chapters are clearly recognizable as a later interpolation, that occurred in an historical period when patrilinearity was considered as an obvious matter of fact.
According to what the saga tells us, the decision-making role of the queen looks as having been limited to the choice of her husband; later on, the king appears to have made all most important decisions, while the queen just expressed her opinion and grumbled when it was disregarded. Hard to say whether this was a general rule, or it was a specific and anomalous situation that arose between the last queen and her king, or better whether what was handed down to us has just been heavily distorted by almost three thousand years of storytellers who were accustomed to living in a full and absolute patriarchate. No doubt that, at least around the end of the kingdom, the queen’s role seems to have lost most of its practical, “political” component and to be limited to the religious aspect of guaranteeing the kingdom prosperity in her quality of custodian and warrant of the “sacred alliance” with her totemic animals.

At this point it is useful to discuss about “magic” and the meaning that the word “magic” must be given in the context of the Fanes’ saga.
There is a number of objects that are defined “magic” by themselves: Dolasilla’s unfailing arrows, the arrow that wounds her, Ey-de-Net’s shield, the Fanes’ trumpets and the Landrinestimpenes. All these objects are metallic. It seems sound to state, as we already did more than once, that in the context of the Fanes legend (and maybe in the general context of European proto-history) the word “magic” must be intended as “metallic”. It is not difficult to remind the concept of “magic of metals”, the reverence of the prophanes for the apparently exoterical capability of the smith to create objects, not only the shape of which, but the material itself, does not exist in nature and is prodigiously called into being by their maker. It seems then possible to suppose that the original concept of “magic” was just meaning “not present in nature”, and that only later, in different cultural horizons, in slowly changed to mean “endowed with supernatural virtues”.
It must be observed again that the metal which in the legend is everywhere defined as “silver” can be nothing else but bronze, and that Dolasilla’s armour, which we supposed to consist of raw iron platelets, shows in fact to be penetrable by metallic – i.e. “magic” – arrowheads. As far as the unfailing arrows are concerned, we observed that unfailability must be connected with the perfect straightness of the lake reeds used to build them, while the “magic” related with the arrows appears to descend from their high penetrating power, i.e. from the fact that they are provided with metallic arrowheads, retrieved from the treasure found in the caves near the silvery lake.
It must also be said the the only evenience of the whole story which a modern reader might perceive as “magic” is the darkening of Dolasilla’s armour, which can be traced back to a trivial phenomenon of iron corrosion (had it really occurred to the she-warrior, or were it a literary expedient of a later storyteller).
There are two characters to whom magic powers are explicitly attributed: Spina-de-Mul and Tsicuta. As a matter of fact, however, neither wizard accomplishes anything exoteric in the tale. We already widely analyzed Tsicuta’s behaviour, motivations and symbolysm. Spina-de-Mul appears in his double identity of at least culturally palaeolithic shaman and of the Lastoieres’ spiritual guide. His actions during the boy Ey-de-Net’s initiatic ceremony, a disguised mythological tale forcefully inserted into the Fanes’ saga, but pertaining to a much more ancient cultural environment, are continuously described as the boy himself could and should perceive them, i.e. as supernatural. We investigated the character of the “modern” Spina-de-Mul and concluded that it is plausible that he was a palaeo-venetic “missionary” among the Lastoieres. He appears to be a quite anomalous instance, at least according to the local tradition, of a male person acting as a mediator with the sphere of the sacred. There is quite nothing, anyway, authorizing us to credit Spina-de-Mul with the enchantments of a Merlin-the-Wizard ante litteram, as at times the late storytellers (if not Wolff himself) seem biased to do: on the contrary, it must be stressed that the concept itself of magic, in the sense of enchantment, i.e. exploiting secret supernatural powers on the purpose of modifying the natural world, appears to be completely extraneous to the Fanes’ cultural background.

Very little we are told about the Fanes’ socio-political structure. We saw that their economy must initially have been based on hunting and gathering only, but later on must have evolved to stock raising. Neither of these economic activities brings to the development of marked social differences, as well as of the individual property: both rather arise within and characterize a society of farmers. We have no indication of an artisan caste among the Fanes, nor of a priesthood as such, even if we cannot rule out the some anguane may have been women who ethnically were Fanes. We can then suppose, in parallel with other social structures (but only suppose, because in the legend we can find no hint to demonstrate or negate it) that the Fanes’ collectivity was basically a society of equals, within which the queen distinguished herself as endowed with the regal power and as warrant of the alliance with marmots, and the king as the head of the army.

The Fanes’ military organization appears to have been rather rudimentary and corresponding to their social structure: an undifferentiated and badly armed band, to which normally all men who liked fighting concurred (and maybe women as well), and in case of need all those who were able to do it. The hint at the “splutes” (from Ladinian “splöt”, i.e. a lanky fellow), a term apparently denoting a “regular” militia composed by youngsters, allows to presume, more than a core of regular warriors, the existence of a sort of compulsory enlistment, or at least of a corvée for the surveillance of the borders. The supposed “society of the vulture” might have represented an élite corps, a better armed royal guard endowed with a high fighting spirit.

We must spend a few words to evaluate the possibility of servant or even slave labour, specially in case of prisoners of war (compare, e.g., with the Iliad). We may have seen a vague hint at it in the “liberation from the enchantment” of the Silvani near the sillvery lake, which may be an allusion to the ransom from a basically forced labour in the service of an itinerant merchant/smelter, if not from slavery imposed by the Fanes’ king himself.
Of course, the later storytellers accurately cleaned up the story from each and every element which might be interpreted negatively, and therefore nothing is reported about the prisoners’ destiny, as well as of massacres, rapes and whatever else, which would be no suprise as the consequence of the Fanes’ depredatory raids. Therefore we cannot but suppose that the Fanes’ behaviour was the same as that of any other population at their times - i.e., seen with the eyes of today, shameful.
As far as slave labour in itself is concerned, however, we must observe that their economic structure didn’t really need it, and at most we may imagine a few servants or maids at work in the royal household.
Finally, we can add a few words about the place occupied by arts in the Fanes’ society. The only hint to figurative arts is the marmot “painted white on the castle walls”. Apart from the question whether the castle really was a castle, and whether it had walls at all (both circumstances almost certainly false), it remains however that this details implies a will and a capability of symbolic representation, that seem to be a part of the ancient legend core, and as a matter of fact would correctly match a largely pre-agricultural way of life.
There are ample hints at the Fanes using and appreciating their famous silvery trumpets, whatever they were; the Landrines also are positively mentioned as lovers of songs and music; of the anguane it is said that their melodic songs were highly appreciated.
Last, we must stress that, if the Fanes’ saga arrived down to us, this is a direct consequence of the last survivors of that people composing a long, complicated tale out of their own tragedy and handing it down from one generation to the next. We can therefore conclude that the tradition of storytelling was already alive among the Fanes themselves; and it is legitimate to wonder how many, and which, among the other Dolomitic legends that Wolff collected one century ago, were already narrated aside the fire in the remote winter nights of the final Bronze Age.


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