Old Agostino was the yardman in my uncle’s building yard. He was a hunchback with a large bony face, sad grey eyes and unkempt grey hair. His hands were like shovels, strong and hard, and he walked with a heavy shambling gait like Alberich in the Northern saga. But to me, a lonely little girl in a world of grown ups, he was always of exquisite gentleness, and I soon discovered that he was a wonderful storyteller. His voice was deep and strong, in stark contrast to his misshapen body, and his words, broken Austrian-German interspersed with his native Ladinian, sounded like water murmuring, rippling and gushing over a stone-filled creek bed.
Agostino hailed from the Dolomite mountains, from the forgotten tribe of the Ladinians, and that was his pride and his sorrow. “Agostino, tell me of Dolasilla”, I begged, and waited for the radiant smile to light up his face.
“Ah, Dolasilla, the Princess of Fanes … she was so beautiful. Straight and slim she sat upon her charger, and the blue Rayeta Stone gleamed in her crown. She wore the white mantle of the marmots and she had the unfailing silver arrows in her quiver.”
This was a story that I did not find in my book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. A princess who fought in battle and who was an invincible warrior. But Agostino did not spare me the tragic end. Yes, Dolasilla wanted to stop fighting and conquering, but it was her father, the wicked king, who would not allow it. He banished her lover, handsome prince Ey-de-Net, and promised his daughter to the King of Aurona, the Great Goldmine. But Dolasilla would not be married against her will. When the King of the Aurona came to get her, she fought against him. But without her lover, who was also her shield bearer, she was vanquished. She was killed in battle and her kingdom, the Kingdom of Fanes, was destroyed.
Agostino had told me the story many times, and it never ceased to fascinate me.
“What happened to Ey-de-Net ?” I would ask.
“La Soreghina, the fairy child of the Sun, found him half dead in the mountains. She took him home with her and nursed him until he was well again. But he could never forget Dolasilla, and Soreghina died of love for him …”
” And what happened to the people and to the king ? ”
” The old Queen of Fanes took them all, all that survived the Last Battle, and led them into Mount Padon, where the marmots live. The marmots were the friends and helpers of the Fanes. They invited them into their caves and crevices and looked after them to this day. So they lived with the marmots. I think they must have changed into marmots themselves, you know.” (‘Murmelen’ he called the marmots, a word that sounds like water murmuring through cracks in the rocks.)
“Did the queen change into a marmot too ?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. But this I know: once every year, on a night of the new moon, the queen comes out of the secret gate in the mountain. She steps into a boat which is moored there on the Wildsee Lake. And she rows across the lake and waits and listens if she can hear the silver trumpets of the Fanes people sound again. Then Dolasilla and all her warriors will rise again and the promised time – el tiemp impermetu – will start, and Fanes will return to its former glory. But as to the wicked king, nobody could or would save him. Because his heart was made of stone he turned to stone too.”
“He turned to stone ?”
“Yes, that he did, as heartless people always must. When you grow up, I will take you to my village, across the mountain pass where the road leads from Toblach to Cortina d’Ampezzo. The pass is straight and narrow, and you can look down into the valley deep below. This is where the king watched how Dolasilla fought her last battle and how the land of Fanes was destroyed. And then he turned to stone, and you can still see him there – a great rock that was once a wicked king: el falzo rego. And that is why the pass is called to this day the Falzorego-Pass, the pass of the Treacherous King.”
I was lucky to have a Ladinian from Cortina tell me the story of the warrior princess Dolasilla and her father, the Treacherous King. The pass has still this name, but nowadays few people know why.
The Dolomites have since become invaded first by war and then by tourists, so that the locals have all but forgotten the old sagas in the rush of making money. Only recently have young women and men rediscovered the old stories of their people, the people of the Mountain Country. It started 10,000 years ago with the first settlement of the Alps by pastoralists, or even 30,000 years ago with the cave bear hunters. That was when the glaciers covered all the Alps further down than to-day’s tree line.
Linguists claim that the first settlers of the Alps came from Akkadia in Mesopotamia and that the first language spoken there was probably Old Semitic. Since then wave after wave of migrants and conquerors have passed through the Alpine passes. Few have stopped to stay. Etruscans, Illyrians, Celts, Raetians, Slavs and finally Germanic tribes such as Bavarians and Alemans have given the valleys their present day image. The original population withdrew to the highest and most inaccessible valleys, where they eke out a modest living from subsistence farming and transhumation. It is a hard life, and it can only be sustained by a deep love for the land and strict adherence to its harsh laws. Mountain people need big hearts and huge chests to cope with the thin mountain air. And their women folk need to be strong and brave to bear children in solitude.
The tourist who admires the chocolate box scenery, the well-kept churches and wayside shrines or the quaint folkloric customs, knows nothing of the backbreaking and often life-threatening toil, which has made the Alps habitable. In fact, nature still periodically threatens the very existence of those who call them their homeland. Ironically, to-day the beauty of the Alpine valleys is not threatened so much by nature than by those who pay hard cash for the privilege to enjoy it. Tourist roads, grand hotels, dams and hydro-electric power stations, ski lifts, ski pistes, snow making machines and glacier skiing are destroying the delicate balance that the mountain people have established over millennia. These people have never waged any wars of aggression, yet lately the lure of the tourist dollar has been too much of a temptation in their dismal poverty.
Anthropologists and folklorists are agreed that the Alpine population originally worshipped the Earth Mother. As everywhere else, She had many names and manifested under many forms, and as long as Her law was obeyed, the land prospered. As the stories of the Ladinians, the Raetians and other mountain tribes show, the early tribal organisation was matrilineal, matrifocal and gynocentric. Christianity, both in its Roman Catholic and in its Calvinistic form, disguises a strong Earth religion, a cult of the dead and a life directed by uncanny shamanistic wisdom.
The story of Dolasilla the warrior princess and her wicked father is the tragedy of a matriarchal people, a people that lost its freedom because of the patriarchal lure of gold. The Ladinian Dolasilla was not the only powerful woman in Alpine folklore. There were many others: the Countess Doleda, Donna Chenina, the Lady dalla Fratta and Donna Dindia, there was the legendary Queen Bongaya, the Countess de Priola in the Ladinian Valleys, and further to the East the Countess Hemma in Carinthia. Only a few of these ruling women have a historical existence. Their names and deeds reach us through the folkloric memories of local legends and sagas. It is thought that these folk memories reach back into pre-historic times, when the tribes were led by women. The historian E.H.Meyer writes:
Through their contact with patriarchal tribes the fibre of these matriarchal communities was corroded and they were finally exterminated. This seems to most plausible explanation for the cycle of the Kingdom of Fanes, for the warrior princess Dolasilla and for the tragedy of her people.
© Claire French 1998
REFERENCE FOR IMAGE: HorseDreams: The meaning of horses in women’s lives, edited by Jan Fook, Susan Hawthorne and Renate Klein, Spinifex Press, Melbourne, 2003.