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With this new Foreword, Wolff gives a summary picture of his intentions and of his difficulties in writing the “Dolomitensagen”, and gives a partial answer to his critics. He openly declares that, already at the end of th XIX century, most ancient legends had almost completely vanished. With a big effort, he was just able to collect a few fragments, from which he “understood” – at least partially in accordance to his personal conceptions – what the original plot and development of the legend must have been in the past. He candidly admits not having behaved like a professional ethnological researcher, mostly because, at least in the first years of his work, he had no idea about what this attitude would mean. Anyway, he states that, had he not operated as he did, the whole corpus of legends would have forever been lost.




“We, who became strangers to our own past, can only
awkwardly try to tie the old together with the new.”

(Jakob Grimm in Haupt’s “Journal of
German Antiquities
”, 1841, 1st vol., p.575)

“The knowledge of the ancient populations in the valleys of Isarco and Rienza has vanished.” So Karl Wohlhemut, an ethnological gatherer, was complaining in his autobiography. This is specially true for legends, fables and traditions; in our land, however, this happens to be even worse because some people feel ashamed and therefore sturdily deny all that they still might know. This is as manifest for Germans as it is for Ladinians. The Dolomites area (from Bolzano to Belluno, and from Brunico to the Sugana valley) is inhabited in the West and in the North by Germans, in the South and South-west mostly by Italians, but in its central part by Ladinians. They are the descendants (in a still much controversial way, both from the linguistic and from the historical-ethnological standpoint) of the ancient Rhaetians. These Ladinians, since Roman times, but mostly in the following centuries under the influence of the Church, have accepted Latin and correspondingly modified their ancient ways of speaking. This didn’t only happen in the Dolomitic valleys, but in almost all the Eastern Alps, as the collectivity speaking the same language, of which Ladinians represent the last remains, must (according to the latest researches) have been dominant from the Apennines to the Danube and from the Gotthard plain to Istria. With the advance of German populations from the North and of the Italian language from the South, the Ladinian language area fragmented into three subgroups: one in the Grisons, one in the Dolomites and one in Friuli. This “rhaeto-Romansch” is still today dominant, notwithstanding all contraptions and divisions, from inner Switzerland to the Hadriatic Sea, and is a peculiar neo-latin language. It is located closer to French and Spanish than to Italian, as it preserves the ending in –s, which is absent in Italian. The Ladinian, or Rhaeto-Romansch language, contains as many as 70 dialects, a dozen of which pertain to the Dolomitic Ladinian, although the population of Dolomitic Ladinians only numbers 22,000. Several evidences hint to the fact that once all the Rhaeto-Romansch area was pervaded by animated interrelations and cultural exchanges. In any case, the poetry of Dolomitic Ladinian legends and fables deals also with concepts that lay outside its intrinsic country; so it knows the icy peaks of the main Alpine chain, but also knows the Venetian plain (Splanedis)*) and the “big marginal water” (àyva Limidona), i.e. the sea. Further, it knows the towns of Aquileia (Algleya) and Venice (Anyezhia), as well as one of the great lakes of Upper Italy (Layadüra). Notice explicitly that quite stringent landscape and ethnic correspondances tie the Dolomites with the Carnic Alps; the latter, however, represent for the whole Friuli and its people the proper core of the area, a spring of youth from which the Friulian peculiarities ever and ever pour out anew.
A standardized and universally recognized Ladinian writing doesn’t still exist. In the following text, we must notice that “zh” is pronounced like the French “j” and “sh” is pronounced like the German “sch” [in English, plainly “sh”, Transl.’s note]. Ladinian “v” corresponds to the German “w” (in English it remains “v”, Transl.’s note]. All other phonemes used by Ladinian can be read like in German. “Gh” sounds somewhat different from “g”, but this goes totally unnoticed by an English reader; “h” is mute. (Those who would like getting closer informations about Rhaeto-Romansch can take advantage of the following works: P.J.Andeer: “Elementary Rhaeto-Romansch Grammar”, Füssli, Zürich; Theodor Gartner, 1883: “Rhaeto-Romansch Grammar”, Henninger, Heilbronn; Theodor Gartner, 1910: “Handbook of Rhaeto-Romansch Language and Literature”, Halle); the last one is specially recommendable. An overall glimpse can be found on the “Schlern” 1955, p.240 ff.)
Time ago, open-air theaters played a considerable role in the public life of Ladinians. In the sunny winter days, shows several hours long were put on. They swept the snow away, laid planks on the ground, and the audience stood up, having the sun behind their shoulders. Actors played in full sunshine. During intervals (but not during the show) people ate something standing up. Specially moving scenes had to be repeated over and over. At sunset (kan soredl va florì, i.e. “when the sun blossoms”) they hurried home and just then they started cooking. The scenic art included also, and mainly, singing songs and narrating tales. The latter ones were performed in the spinning evenings. It would be quite wrong to suppose, as it might appear from the remaining fragments, that the narrated tales were short. In a spinning evening a single tale was mostly performed, a couple of hours long. There was of course a man who superintended the show and took care of cleverly splitting the tales and postpone their continuation to next evening. In Alpago, a mountain-surrounded area on the South-eastern brim of the Dolomites, at the end of the XIX century an old man was still alive, who used having his spinning tales last a whole week. Still in 1932, when I stayed in Alpago for the last time, people talked of this storytelleradmiredly, but nobody was able to emulate him. Among German South-Tyrolers, this type of storyteller was defined “a feiner Prechter” [a fine sayer]. According to Karl Staudacher (“Schlern”, 1933 p.320), in Pusteria this locution is remebered even today; it derives from the cymbric word “prechten”, i.e. “to speak”. At Louc, in the Valais, an old woman was able to sing a “cantique” 114 strophes long of eight verses each**).
Popular theaters have disappeared since long and also the art of narrating has declined. However, the worst is that a certain type of information, or better misinformation, make people consider as shameful and laughable all past traditions and the whole cultural structure of old. As instance, a man from Ampezzo sturdily refused to admit that once in that place tales about the anguane (the water fairies) were told; when put on the spot, he eventually remarked with a mocking shrug that it just was an old and silly superstition. Another man from Ampezzo, with whom I was talking about that, nodded in understanding and said: “i no vò pi savè pi de nuya de sta roba vetjes” (they dislike knowing anything about these old things). An old woman, who in her youth as a “britera” (alp shepherd) had heard many legends told, in all her goodwill was unable to give me but very incomplete informations, and she eventually remarked: “l’era ‘n vetjo, kel savea kontà duta sta robes, me l’è tanto ke l’è morto” (there was an old man who was able to tell everything, but he died long ago).
That several ancient indigenous words once existed in the Dolomites for the “enrosadira” (the pink colour taken by mountains at sunset), many people still know, but they can’t remember them any longer. “I te an dut desmintjà” (they forgot everything) writes the Friulian legend researcher Malattia della Vallata. About the great legendary cycle of the Fanes’ Kingdom, two women from the Badia valley, who were generally well informed, were only able to tell me as follows: “La ite te Fanis éle tsakan de gran veres anter ki de Fanis e i Lumbertsh” (there in Fanes there was a great war between the Fanes people and Lombards) [here Wolff makes a mistake: for Ladinians, “Lumbertsh” are not only Lombards of old, but (contemptuously) Italians in general, Transl.’s note]. About the sacred flame tended by an eagle on the Sass dla Crusc, they said as follows: “Sul Sass del la Kruzh valyade odòi na gran flama, ke zho ìa e kà e à l korù brum e kötjen” (on the Sass dla Crusc at times you can oberve a big flame wandering about, and its colour is red and blue). They had heard Dolasilla’s name and they thought she had been a princess of those Fanes. They even knew of an alliance of the Fanes with marmots. Finally, they had heard the name ““Ödl-de-Nöt” and they believed it to mean something ghostlike. A third woman from the same valley remarked “da nos kuntai tröp dla Dolasilla” (among ourselves, there were many tales about Dolasilla), and added: “Dolasilla aré la fia dla rezhina de’Fanes” (Dolasilla was the queen’s daughter), this she had heard as a child. An old woman from Gardena, who had worked long on the alps, anyway pretended knowing nothing. When, on my side, I started telling her this and that, she said: “Tel storyes éy audì dai tshentsh” (I heard hundreds of such tales). About the Kingdom of Fanes, she remarked: “De la mont de Fanes éy audì tropes storyes da temèy dai vedli da tzakan, ma n’è méy kerdù dut – i m’è desmintjà” (about the mountains of Fanes I heard from my old people several somber tales, but I never believed them, and now I forgot everything.”°)
At the beginning of the XIX century, Julius Fröbel completed an instruction trip in the Valais and wrote of it in a book. He described how people, at his question whether they knew old songs, had answered that such songs did still exist, but they didn’t contain but silly things (“des folies”) and were only sung by old drunkards. Hardly, Fröbel said, he had succeeded in hearing, first a passage, finally the whole ballad.°°) The song is really beautiful both in form and plot. Unfortunately we can deduce that a lot of wonderful popular traditions must have been lost because of the incomprehension and presumption of culture.
Ludwig Steub reports in his “Three summers in Tyrol” (Munich 1846, p.219 ff.) that sometimes questioning about popular legends can be considered as an insult. As a foreigner had published a few legends of the Ötztal, the oldest men of the valley went to the district court of justice to file a lawsuit against the writer, as he had mocked their country with old fables, the interpretation of which had been lost since long. The court explained them, however, that there had been no disrespect, and then one of these Ötztal people took up his pen to complain on the “Tiroler Boten” that the foreign writer had represented the valley inhabitants “as if they had come out of the woods the day before yesterday and were still obfuscated by the lowest superstitions”. He had to admit, anyway, that the subject tales were still narrated in the long winter spinning evenings.
The cup-carved boulders, the place names and the legends on the upper Valais valleys, described by Reber at the end of the XIX century in Swiss literature, about year 1936 where only known by local people as relics of fantasy, so explicitly revealing how much traditions had declined (See Yearly Report of the Swiss Society of Prehistory, 1936, p.93 ff).
The already mentioned wish to deny everything takes sometimes incredibly sturdy forms. In 1932 the oldest woman of Livinallongo refused to admit that once on mount Pore there had been a mine, and when I made a hint to the several legends which quote that mine (e.g. the tale of the “Flowers of Iron”), she explained that these would-be legends only were ridiculous inventions, and ten other people said she was right. I might have believed her, had I not got with me the notes I had registered 24 years earlier. At that time, a shepherd from Andràz not only told me the legend of the “Flowers of Iron” and other mining stories, but also showed me the path along the mountain slope that had been used to carry the ore down, and named that path “Tryol de la vana”[Path of the Vein].
When I was eight or nine, an old farm worker from Primiero told me that there, in 1809, there had been bitter fights with the Frenchmen. Even women had taken part in the fightings, and a girl had marched at the head of the Schützen [Tyrolean local militia, Transl.’s note]. His father, who had been her comrade in arms, had often described him those facts. In 1907 I made my first trip to Primiero and tried to hear the story in more detail, as I supposed that the tradition had to be quite lively. However, not only I didn’t find anybody who knew anything about that, but I was assured that no doubt a swap must have happened with the girl of Spinga [a village in the Isarco valley, Transl.’s note]: presumably, the old worker had heard something of the girl from Spinga and upon this he had weaved his nice plot; in any case, no such heroin had ever existed in Primiero. I was going to believe these statements, when I happened by chance to read an old Italian book of history, that was dealing with the events that had happened in Primiero in 1809. It claimed that several bitter fightings had taken place, and that a noble girl named Giuseppina Negrelli de’Zorzi had taken command of the militia “injecting courage into her men and giving several demonstrations of valour and bravery”. What the old worker had told me was therefore the sheer truth.
In the winter 1887/1888 I was long sick, and my mother procured me a nurse. She was an old lady from the Fiemme valley, and she was only referred to as “la vetja Lena” (old Lena). To her – whom I never saw again – I owe my deepest thanks, as she decisively contributed to my spiritual development, by telling me my first legends. Incomplete as they may have been, my impression was such that it never left me. When, later on in 1909, I visited the Fiemme valley, I supposed that every single person should know those tales. However, it took me a lot of time to find a shepherd who still remembered something. Then, at first I had to be very patient in asking my questions, in order to understand somewhat better how the stories developped, as that old lady had told me. In these stories from Fiemme, a fundamental role was played by the wooded mountain of Lagorai, together with the lake by the same name. Several years later, when the Fiemme electric-traction railway was ceremoniously inaugurated, I had the chance to talk with several people and ask them informations about tales and legends of their valley. They unanimously explained me never to have heard the slightest hint at a lake on the Lagorai, as well as at any saga or tale related to it. They even doubted that such a lake could exist. However, it is marked on all best maps and is 600 meters long. Admittedly, it occupies a rather hidden location and only woodcutters and hunters are acquainted with it.
In 1905 I heard for the first time, in the Badia valley, of the wood “Amarida”, located to the East. Later on, Lacedelli, a man from Ampezzo, told me that this forest stretches from the Costeana valley up to the Croda da Lago. After Lacedelli died, however, nobody would admit that in the Ampezzo area any wood named “Amarida” had ever existed. However, a document (dated July, 25th, 1608) did exist, according to which the same municipality of Ampezzo had granted the licence to cut trees in the Amarida wood and sell the timber tax-free. (“di poter tagliare e vendere franco di dazio il bosco di Amarida”). The tradition, which was known just to a few single persons, had been right in this case also (see p.324, top).
Several of my critics have sturdily maintained that in the Gardena valley no traditions existed, referring to an ancient troubadour. But the best expert of local Gardena poetry, Maria Veronica Rubatscher, in her “Stories of the Gardena of old” tells us that she well knows the legend of the “iron-handed knight”, although in a very modified form. Ms. Rubatscher also knows Soreghina’s legend and provides us with several details about the “Kingdom of Fanes”.
My “Queen of the Croderes”, that surely received strong influences from Friuli, has been refused by the experts of the Ampezzo and Cadore areas with the remark that they never had heard anything like that, and specially that no legend about the Marmarole does exist; in detail, the clearly matriarchal concept of a “queen” of these mountains would totally be airy-fairy. Now, the Italian writer Marte Zeni (on the Monthly Newsletter of the Alpine Club, april 1934, p.196 ff.) tells a story – however with a completely different plot – about a “little Queen of the Marmarole”. Although because of this he attacked me in several ways, I don’t resent that. Better, the striking diversity of our versions of the tale proves the existence of a common base deep down in the mists of time. It isn’t mandatory, anyway, that this base had arisen on the place; it may also have migrated there.
Since ever, I stated that the poetry which is peculiar to the inhabitants of the Dolomites can’t just be localized in the Dolomitic mountains, but once pertained to a wider area, from which it has gradually been restricted to the Dolomites only, its last sacred grove, its refuge, its “garden of roses”. I strongly endorse what Max Haushofer maintained when, in his excellent evaluation of the Upper Bavarian legends, he wrote: “We must thank God because that population, recently immigrated into the Alps, brought along its castle of concepts and mythical forms, and for these forms it adopted the wildest and least accessible places in the high peaks as naturally created settling areas.”^) Horse-mounted warriors, as an instance, who cannot be a concept originated in mountainous areas, have a relevant role in old legends (and they still have today, in wedding feasts in Gardena and Ampezzo); this means that, once, warlike clans, whose noblemen rode on horseback, must have come into the Dolomites from the great plains. Everywhere, from the lagoon swamps and the blue Hadriatic upwards, we can retrieve traces of a poetry that later on found its main seat in the Dolomites mountains. Passages of tales, that clearly pertain to the Gardena or the Badia valley, can be found dispersed down to Alpago and among the lagoon sailors. I never saved myself in taking this material just wherever I found it, and putting it together again so that it made sense. Myself, too, I tried to integrate and improve more and more my picture of the legends, decade over decade. Someone says I shouldn’t do it, that I should write down everything, word by word, exactly as it had been narrated to me. This I often tried to do, and sometimes I just did, but those who know Ladinians, their dialects and their substantial variants, and wrote something in one of them, can appreciate its difficulty. Mostly one can be happy transcribing it in one’s own language, or preserving its sense in one’s mind, to use it later, in more suitable conditions. The same Wilhelm Grimm explicitly admits that, in the compilation of his tale collection “in the words, in the order of presentation, in similarities and comparisons one cannot preserve a strict severity” and I behaved as he did, “for sake of the general picture” (letter to Arnim, Jan. 28th, 1813). Now we know that he had “shaped” the tales in pursuing “the goal of stylistic unity”. This means that he took his source from the people’s soul and gave his tales the form that was better representing that soul. As Albert Wesselski underlines in the Introduction to his “German Tales before the Grimms” (Brno, Rohrer, 1938, p.XXV), if the Grimm Brothers had forced themselves to be absolutely faithful to traditions, “they would write down tales the way a simple storyteller would have liked to be able to write them down”.
Obviously, I also have Ladinian texts that have been carefully transcribed; they pertain to several dialects. I published some of these. Many, however, have been lost to me during the war years 1916 and 1917, as I composed them on the field or brought them along on the field.
A professional research on legends requires – apart from transcribing texts without introducing modifications – identifying their source as well, i.e. the person to whom we owe the data. This concept, in the first years of my job, was totally missing to me. On the contrary: at that time, I was still liking the charm of the unknown source, that I almost saw as a blessing. Therefore, initially sometimes I disliked specially caring those given people, that I believed were to keep in great consideration – no, I much better liked coming upon a stranger, somewhere on the edge of a wood, a woodcutter or a shepherd from whom I could learn something. These strangers looked to me as carrying the soul of the land. I didn’t wish to know who they were: I would feel that as decreasing the value of their witness. It’s sure that in those encounters, fully unhoped for, I collected my most valuable informations – sometimes in a very short talk. My eye became more and more reliable in recognizing the persons who would be able to say something useful. Obviously, sometimes I made mistakes. As an instance, an old woodwatcher whom I had asked local place names, the same evening walked a long way to the nearest police station to inform that I was roaming in the woods and appeared quite suspect. This happened in 1911 in the Fiemme valley. In another occasion I saw, in a fir grove just out of the Duron valley, an old woman gathering wood. I approached her and got the impression that she was a well-informed people who might come useful to me. After maybe ten steps I turned to her and tried to start a talk. She just looked at me suspiciously, picked up her wood bundle and walked away in a hurry. Anyway, the same day I met two other people who sat with me on the path for a long time and were able to tell me a lot.
What my informants gave me certainly were but fragments. This didn’t scare me, because, while examining them, I told myself that every tale at the beginning must have been whole, and I struggled to rebuild it as if I had listened to it that way. These researches and interpretations, perceptions and restructuring, weren’t always fruitless, as I succeeded in obtaining the result that old people, to whom I narrated the reconstructed tales, happily agreed with me and said that the tale had just been such; they had forgotten the greatest part, but now everything came back clear to their minds. It’s understandable that such a job requires a lot of confidence with the land and people and material, and it also takes a long time to purify it from personal wishes. I tried to get rid of them, but have barely succeeded.
My friends and literary critics split into two groups when evaluating the results of my work. Those of the first group say: Wolff has invented this all, therefore it has no value! Those of the other group, however, state that I did nothing but just transcribe everything, thence out of any rule; because of this strange notion, they feel free to extract a few passages here and there and use them as they like better. They are overlooking that popular legends only represent a common heritage when they are coming from the people themselves.
Facing this two-fronted attack, I offer my work to my respected readers, so that they take it as it is intended to be: an attempt to recover in its full structure something that had gone lost. The art of storytelling among the inhabitants of the Dolomites had reached its top around the time of the Crusades; since then, it started to decline and soon it will be completely vanished. The task I was determined to perform has been that of extracting from its last traces how shining it might have been at the time of its best splendour. This task is like the restoration of a building, the remains of which are just rubble. “Anyway”, says Overbeck, “for a researcher, the ruins and rubble of tradition not only are nothing to be afraid of, they even are the highest, most creative, prophetic part of his task^^)”. This requires patience, and stylistic quality. It may have been that other people possessed these qualities bettere than me; but there was no time to waste, as the curtain was just going to drop. In a few years, in the land of the Dolomites we would exclaim with Hölderlin:

“Like from a funeral pyre, then, high
  just a golden smoke raises,
  The legend is going under,
  And now it dissolves from our skeptical minds,
  And nobody knows how this may have happened!”^^^)


Bolzano, Jan. 1944 Karl Felix Wolff




*)My intuition that “Splanedis” meant the Venetian plain (see Essays: Populations of the Dolomites) is therefore corroborated by Wolff himself, who presumably got the notion from the Alpago (Transl.’s note).

**)See Paul de Chastonay, “In the Anniviers valley, Luzern 1939, p.85.

°)See the Chapter “The Ladinians’ Festival”.

°°)Julius Fröbel, “A trip into the least known valleys of the northern side of the Pennine Alps”, Berlino 1840, p.145

^)Max Haushofer, “Alpine landscape and alpine legends in the mountains of Bavaria”, Bamberg, Buchner, 1890, p.20.

Johannes Overbeck, “Pompeii in its Buildings, its Antiquities and its Works of Art”, 2nd Issue, Leipzig 1866, v.1, p.2

^^^) Please pardon my shameful translation. My German is very scarce, and my English not much better (Transl.’s note).