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The Fanes' saga - Short essays


The Aurona


The image of a people who lives segregated underground might make us suppose that the Aurona initially represented the world of the dead. However, eventually everybody succeeds in getting away: this fact alone discards the idea that the Aurona was intended as an Otherworld.

As a matter of fact, there are several clues directly aiming at the minerary world:

- the high probability that its name (probably from auramen, late Latin for “copper”; see Palmieri) indicated a copper mine, not a gold one;
- the hint at the usage of lamps (see aso the myth of the Delibana); in pre-historic mines small oil-lamps were generally used, fed by animal fat;
- the rumour, reported by Wolff in his “Excursion in the Dolomites”, that the Padon had become black “because of the smoke of the ovens of Aurona”. It is well known, in effect, that in pre-history not only the ore smelting ovens were always built aside the mine places, but also the mine excavation itself was mainly performed by cracking the rock with repeated cycles of strong heating and sudden cooling. Remark that this is another attempt (anyway, extraneous to the Fanes’ saga as such) to “explain” a totally natural geologic peculiarity by means of a legendary occurrence;
- the insistence with which the Aurona is quoted in the Fanes’ saga, although originally the mine legend had to be completely apart from it. Right or wrong, it appears at least three times (in connection with the treasure of the lake at Canazei, with the Vögl delle Velme and with the king’s treason). This represents at least a heavy clue that the Aurona even pre-dates the Fanes’ saga itself;
- the myth of the Aurona shows significant similarities with the legend of the Delibana. In the latter, the Delibana is a virgin who must remain buried within the mine to grant the fertility of the ore vein; she might be freed by a prince but, since this doesn’t happen, the mine flourishes until she dies. Sommavida, on the contrary gets freed by “the king of Contrin”, and as soon as this event occurs, the mine declines beyond remedy.

I’m convinced, therefore, that the legend of the Aurona was originally referred to the archetype of a copper mine in the Bronze Age, and that it took its shape in the same period as a myth that covertly described a obscure religious practice of miners, whose purpose was to engrace the “spirits of the mountain”; or better, it showed the consequences of neglecting it.

It may be interesting, anyway, to analyze deeper the geographical position that can be attributed to the Aurona. Its location in the Padon chain is repeatedly confirmed; the existence of a “Ru d’Aurona”, a stream descending from the Padon into the plain of Arabba seems to support it. However, we cannot rule out that the stream took its name from the legend at a later period (maybe through the “Vögl delle Velme”, and on the purpose to “explain” the dark colour of the cliffs by means of the “smokes” of the Aurona). The geology of the area is not such as to discard beyond any doubt the chance that a copper mine may really have existed there, although today there is no ore vein at the surface and until now he have no solid evidence that one may actually have existed there even in the past.
There are, on the contrary, several clues that the legend of the Aurona may be connected with the area of Auronzo:
- the same name of Auronzo seems to be linked with the Aurona (Auronzo is quoted as Auruncium in a document dated 1188; it is quite possible that its etymology may be similar to that of Lorenzago (Laurentiacum), i.e. that it derives by the name of a man who lived in the Romans’ times, yet it seems more probable that it actually had an origin connected with mines. As a matter of fact, around Auronzo, a village whose existence in Roman times has been demonstrated by recent excavations, we can find the openings of several mines exploited since at least the Middle-Ages (they are mentioned in a document by king Berengario in the X century), although the metals that have been mined there are lead, zinc and a little of silver, no copper nor more so gold (but it is very probable that in the Middle-Ages populace imagined that any mine yielded an immense wealth of gold and gemstones);
- even today, at Auronzo there seems to remain the echo of a legend about the Aurona, seen as an underground river that crossed the mines of the jeweliers gnomes and surfaced out between Auronzo and Misurina;
- as we said, there is a clear assonance between Sommavida, the princess of Aurona, and Sommadida, the name of a forest near Auronzo;
- Wolff himself explicitly states having heard of the Aurona for the first time just in the Auronzo area, while the version (from Fassa) of the saga provided by de Rossi doesn’t mention it at all (U.Kindl),

We must remark in any case that Aurona is clearly a Latin or Neo-latin appellative (the lombard princess by that name would induce to date it even to the early Middle-Ages); this fact, together with the lack of gold or copper in the Ansiei valley, induces me to suspect that the name “Aurona” is really connected with a minerary legend from Auronzo which initially was independent, but had a quite conventional content and must be dated to the Middle-Ages. Here, perhaps, both the confusion about the metals actually extracted from the mine, and the chtonious shades of story take their origin; story that must not have had much to share with the archaic myth. The latter, connected with that of the Delibana, which Wolff collected in the Livinallongo, must on the contrary be referred to the other minerary area of the Cordevole valley (where, albeit south of Agordo, the large copper mines of Valle Imperina are located, active until 1962). From here the echo of the tale may well have crossed to the Fassa valley; unless this may not even be a myth shared by all southern Dolomites, where during Bronze and Iron Ages the extraction of copper, as demonstrated by archaeological findings, ought to be a rather widespread activity. The cease of such a lucrative source of income, as a consequence of the vein being exhausted, must have been a hardly resented event by the miners’ population. Hence both the wish to exorcize its occurrence by practicing magic-religious rites, and the convenience of handing down the concepts underlying these rites with the creation of a myth.
If this holds true, I think that it seems rather plausible that, in the establishment of a pre-historic legend around the so-called Aurona, a role has also been played by some remote occurrence that really happened in a remote past, although the location of these events is completely shrouded in the mist of time. Presumably, therefore, the original tale, connected with the Delibana and thence, as we said, not with the area of Auronzo but with the Cordevole valley, cannot be directly referred to the specific episode of the closure of a single mine, but idealizes and condenses in the form of a myth the layered remembrance of several real events that occurred in different places and over a long time span.