It must have been around my twelfth year when I found the Saga of the Kingdom of Fanes in the local almanac of the South Tyrolean city of Bozen/Bolzano. It was illustrated by a pen-drawing of the legendary princess Dolasilla mounted on a black horse, wearing a blue Rayeta Stone in her tiara and glowering against her enemies.
It was this woman on horseback who never left my mind. In those moments of truth that decided my life she appeared to me again and again.
On my arrival in Melbourne, a young migrant without money or connections, I was ready to return to my Tyrolean mountains, when I suddenly found myself in front of the equestrian statue of the State Library: this image of my heroine Joan of Arc changed my mind. Many years later, the altar of Epona at the museum of Stuttgart (Stuttgart means Garden of the Mare!) touched me just as much as the image of Australian saint Blessed Mary McKillop, riding in nun’s garb through the endless solitudes of Australia to bring the blessings of literacy to lonely farmers’ children.
The image of the woman on horseback became for me the symbol of the liberated woman, the woman who is her own mistress, independent of masculine classifications. For me she became the symbol of the virginal woman who had won her freedom regardless of sexual relationships, the woman who knows how to use this freedom for the best of her community. As the Indian goddess Durga astride a tiger is vanquishing the demons of the Underworld, I visualised the Woman of Horseback the Female of the New Time.
Looking back I often asked myself: what has a legendary mountain princess got to do do with our own fractured time of cultural change? Objectively – nothing, subjectively – everything. In the Alpine saga Dolasilla is the woman who, like the Nordic Brunhilde, breaks her heart in a battle against the tyrannical father. Therefore she stands symbolically for millions of women of all times and all civilisations.
Whilst reading her story even as a schoolgirl, I felt a keen sense against all masculine authority. Whether it was Mussolini or Hitler, Stalin or the Pope, they were all united in the firm conviction that women ha to be silenced and made to obey. It is written in the Bible: Mulier taceat, let women be silent. Goethe had echoed this ancient command: “Foremost let women learn to obey!” And our Nazi teachers at high school loved to quote Nietzche’s Zarathustra: “Thou goest to a woman? Don’t forget the whip!” Everything within me rebelled against this abasement of my self.
When the war ended I clearly perceived where male megalomania and female compliance had brought my country, Europe and indeed the world. I needed no further proofs. I left Europe for Australia.
Here at the Antipodes, against whose existence the Saxon Boniface had protested so forcefully, I continued to learn. I realised that patriarchy subjugated men as well as women. I could see they all resembled Dolasilla’s shield bearer and lover Ey-de-Net, landless warriors, forever searching for a warlord who would lead them to rich booty. Only rich booty could be used as a ransom to gain their freedom, to win a woman and sire a son.
Such was the Ey-de-Net whom I found in Australia. And perhaps because our fathers had tragically fought against each other in the war, we felt that we were equal. We had learnt from the tragedy of our fathers and stood ready to defend ourselves against a world of prejudices. His friends called me his war prize. But he saw to it that I did not have to feel enslaved. He was proud of me and my potential and proud that in some things I could outdo him. With his own hands he built me a house and he encouraged my striving for achievemennts. Motherhood, academic studies, research and a profession, there was no field of activity that was closed to me. I sang my song and cultivated my garden.
I discovered the myths of the West, especially th myths of the preclassical world, the world of the Celts, Illyrians, Etruscans; all those nations who would never dream to sell their most precious goddess to uncouth giants as the Germans had done. Other mythologies revealed worse blasphemies: Demeter was raped by Poseidon, Hera was suspended by her hair, Tiamat was slaughtered by Marduk, Ashera was “an abomination unto the Lord”. The Arian warlords of India gambled their wives to their worst enemies and we all know it was Eve who lost humanity’s eternal bliss.
Not so the Celts. Taliesin, a prince among the Bards, tried desparately to disengage our Mother Eve from eternal blame. According to him it was not disobedience that caused her punishment, but lack of trust. She had secretly hidden some seed grain that Father God had sent her, to guard against a year of poor harvest. What a vindication against Paul and the church fathers!
In the 1970s I published an essay about the legend of Dolasilla, entitled The Kingdom of Fanes – a Tragedy of Mother Right? I was surprised at its success. Then I discovered Robert Graves, son of an Irish academic and a German mother, whose work had proved unacceptable to the British Establishment. Graves writes about the panEuropean Eurynome, “the Far Wandering”, and about a pre-patriarchal age, which Schliemann and Evan had just unearthed at Crete and Asia Minor. The Greek myths were only a distant echo of the gigantic battle which had taken place over millennia between the mother goddess and the father god. I realised what the learned world in England and France had known all along: Classical mythology and the Books of the Bible were nothing but a war bulletin about the war of genders, a war in which the fathers had remained the victors. Sadly, history is always written by the victors. And in this case the victors were the kings, their champions and their bards, in short the male elite of millennia.
But in my country, in the lonely valleys of the Dolomite Mountains and far away from the real world, the story about the end of the Queendom of the Raetians (or were they Etruscans?) had survived over several thousand years: a precious relic of the European past, which the dedicated collectors Hugo Wolff and de Rossi had been able to save from oblivion. The saga of Dolasilla is reminiscent of that of Camilla “of Volscian stock” which Virgil quotes in his Aeneis, or of Deidre of the Sorrows in Ireland, and Rhiannon and Branwen of Wales. Why was it not equally well known? Obviously because the Ladinians have always been a people without writing. But this has changed now. Ladnia has now been recognised as a minority language like Romantsch in nearby Switzerland.
In the meantime it behoves us to thank the collectors Wolff and de Rossi for their lifetime of dedicated research and the philologist Ulrike Kindl for her painstaking work of interpretation.
I have written a drama about the tragedy of Dolasilla in the hope that others too will find the way to the mythic heroine, because her battle is still relevant even today: it is the battle of women against the dictatorship of the fathers. Its outcome will decide over the destiny of humanity.
(c) Claire French