Italian Fairies (Continued)

by Raffaella Benvenuto

Both in folk and literary fairy tales, fate often have the task of acting as guardian angels, usually of children or young men and women to whom they dispense their benefits (called by Giambattista Basile fatagioni, or "enchantments"). Therefore they often go by thename of comari (a dialectal word from southern Italy meaning "godmother") who look after the welfare of their godchildren. In some instances, it is the parents themselves who commit their child to the protection of a fairy; in others, the fata herself decides to take someone under her wing in exchange for some kindness received when in disguise, usually as a beggar or old woman.Unlike witches, fairies are born with their powers: the former can only acquire magical powers through study or other means, such as consorting with the Devil. On the other hand, the distinction between fate and witches is not always very clear–cut, since in the Italian fairy–tale tradition there are evil fairies who cast curses and evil spells, and kind–hearted witcheswho are ready to aid humans.

Fate are very long–lived, to all intents and purposes immortal. When their lives come to an end, they do not actually die as human beings do, but rather retire to their palaces and remain there until the end of days. In a number of fairy tales, such as Basile’s La mortella ("The Myrtle"), fate are subjected to a gruesome death, but eventually resurrected. No one really knows where they come from, although there aremany hypotheses as to their origin — such as that they may be spontaneously generated by nature, or that they may have a common mother, like a kind of queen bee. According to various literary sources, such as Calvino or Basile, they often live in underground palaces, only accessible by carefully chosen people and provided with every possible luxury. Though sometimes fate end up marrying humans, their children rarely inherit their magic powers, which include theability to choose any appearance — human, animal or even vegetable — in which to show themselves to humans. As a matter of fact, the ability to transform is one of the most important features of fate. Fairies who are strongly characterized as nature spirits can easily turn into animals such as otters or water snakes, or into various kinds of trees and plants.

There are still a number of Italian place–names that contain references to fate, thus bearing witness to the importance of folklore in the naming of various features of the landscape. A mountain lake in the western Alps, near the Monte Rosa, is called Lago delle Fate ("Fairy Lake"). A hill in the Abruzzi region of central Italy bears the name of Colle delle Fate ("Fairy Hill"), while a cave in the same region is called Grotta delle Fate ("Fairy Cave").In the Monti Ausoni range of southern Lazio there is a peak called Monte delle Fate ("Fairy Mountain"). According to legend, in some areas of northern Tuscany, during the winter season fairies retire in order to spin and weave in underground caves called buche delle fate ("fairy holes"). Another mainly southern Italian tradition associates fate with ordinary human dwellings: in fact, every house possesses its own fata, who can manifest herself in various ways, usuallyprotecting or even helping the members of the family according to their merits.

Lakes, streams and waterfalls are often associated with fairies and other magical creatures, and this clearly bears out the connection between fate and the nymphs of Greco–Roman mythology. In mountain regions, which are undoubtedly one of the most remarkable features of the Italian territory, such legends seem to be particularly plentiful — as it is undoubtedly the case of the area around the Dolomites, a spectacularly beautiful, rose–hued mountain range found in north–eastern Italy, in the easternmost part of the Alps,and locally called monti pallidi ("the pale mountains"). In this densely wooded region, full of streams and scenic lakes, the Germanic influence merged with the beliefs of the Rhaeto–Romanic–speaking (2) native population to produce an intriguing number of supernatural beings, some of them peculiar to specific areas.

The legendary creatures of the Dolomites region can at times be reminiscent of pagan deities, like the Samblana, the Winter Queen, who lives on various mountain peaks; at other times, instead, they take the appearance of sinister beings such as the sorcerer Spina de Mul ("Mule’s Skeleton"), or the incubus–like Trude. The woods, meadows and high peaks of the Dolomites are also inhabited by wild, hairy, man–like creatures called Salvani (a local variation on the widespread Wild Man theme),whose female counterparts are called Bregostane, the latter being sometimes characterized as ogre–like, man–eating and child–stealing. Lakes and streams house beautiful, alluring, nymph–like female spirits called vivene or anguane, common to other regions of northern Italy. These are sort of freshwater mermaids (the name anguana is a corruption of aquana, derived from the Italian word acqua, "water"), who are sometimes said to be goat–footed as well — thisbeing another frequent feature of fate which suggests a connection with pagan beliefs, or even with the Devil. In folktales and legends, anguane often marry mortals who are obliged to respect their prescriptions, any breach of promise resulting in the anguana leaving her husband and children forever.