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The Fanes' saga - Short essays

The Flame Vulture


The vulture is told to be living on the walls of the Croda Vanna (Sass dla Crusc) and to be related with the flüta, i.e. a flame, usually described as bluish, that can be seen somewhere on the wall every now and then. It seems that analogous occurrences have also been observed on the Piz da Peres (a mountain east of Marebbe, m 2507).
This apparently mysterious phenomenon may find a very simple explanation.
A self-lighting flame (far from human activities) is generally related with the spontaneous self-combustion of some natural gas, often derived from carrion rotting (will o’ the wisps).
We must remark, now, that both the Sass dla Crusc and the Piz da Peres display an abrupt drop on one face, while the other side only shows a mild slope, so that the edge of the precipice can be attained quite easily. Therefore, it is possible that animals, either surprised by thick fog, or chased by a predator, occasionally fell down from the cliff. Had this happened, the carrion would stop on the first ledge that could retain it and there, on one hand it would attract vultures, on the other, once in a while, a will o’the wisp would appear. This might well explain why a link (actually an indirect one) was observed between vultures and the mid-wall flame. Notice that the phenomenon is told as being observable “once per year”: a frequency (to be intended as average) fully compatible with the proposed mechanism, i.e. a relatively rare occurrence, albeit not an exceptional one at all.

It is quite plausible that the variul, i.e. the vulture, that feeds on corpses, therefore “takes them away”, has been considered as ideally taking possession of the dead’s “vital spirit” as well. This type of association is present in almost all cultures. More so, as the Fanes area lacks both wood to burn corpses and earth to bury them, it is probable that the first funeral rites simply consisted of exposing the dead to carrion-eating birds, like vultures and crows. Therefore, it is quite probable that the cult of the vulture, which we can perceive at the root of the story of the “variul de la flüta” was, at least at its origin, a form of cult of the dead.

In this perspective, we can also read the fact that the pseudo-eagle is described as “the king of a far away island”: this island indeed is but the world of the dead, with which the vulture is strictly connected. Much more complex is the interpretation of the “one-armed men”, a concept that will come back several times over the legend. To this regard, I may only advance an hypothesis, to be taken just as such.
These “one-armed men”, who at the end will actually enter battle on the Fanes’ side, are described as gallant warriors “armed with a sword”. What is missing to a warrior, wearing a sword, but one-armed? Obviously, he can wear no shield. We may guess, therefore, that the “one-armed men” were a sect of “vulture-men” who vowed fighting shieldless, “as if they were one-armed”. We can be supported by anthropological comparisons, one one hand with sects like the “jaguar-men” or the “eagle-men” of the Aztecs, on the other with the Norwegian berserkers. These entered battle in full nudity or only covered by wolf- or bear skins, convinced to be “invulnerable”, or better that their blind aggressive furor and the fame that preceeded them represented their best defense (and invigorated in their warlike virtues by the use of hallucinogen substances, maybe Amanita muscaria, that brought them to lose their reason). The berserkers also were a sect (sacred to Odin) and possessed a totem animal (bear and/or wolf) that they believed to embody in battle. Like the Fanes’ vulture-men, by the way, the berserkers also ended up representing a cause of grave social upsetting, so that king Erik of Norway was compelled to banish their society in 1015, although they represented the élite corps of his army.
We must finally remark that the existence among the Fanes of a sect of warriors consecrated to the vulture, within a society still devoted to marmots, might have represented an intermediate stage, a fundamental step towards the transition to a vulture-dominated social order.