Household Stories from the Land of Hofer; or, Popular Myths of Tirol | Annotated Tale

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"Blessed are the people of whom history is silent; for history occupies itself more with the doings of fools than of the wise; with storms than with tranquil days: it immortalizes the butcher and the tyrant, and consigns to oblivion the innocent and peaceful."--Cibrario.

SOMETHING of the deep, strong attachment to their native mountains which is innate in the children of the Alps steals over me when I think of my pleasant journeyings in Tirol [1].

               Though it is a little, out-of-the-way country whose cry is seldom heard in the newspapers, though it exercises little influence in political complications, the character of its people is one which, next after that of our own, has a claim to our esteem and admiration. Hardy, patient, and persevering; patriotic and loyal to a fault; honest and hospitable to a proverb--they carry the observance of their religion into the minutest practice of every-day life; and there underlies all these more solid qualities a tender, poetical, romantic spirit which throws a soft halo round their ceaseless toil, and invests their heroic struggles for independence with a bright glow of chivalry.

               Surrounded from their earliest years with living pictures of Nature's choicest forms and colouring, they need no popular fiction to cultivate their imagination, no schools of design to educate their taste.

               Shut out from the world's ambitions by their pathless Alps, they have learned to see before them two aims alone,--to maintain the integrity and the sanctity of their humble homes on earth, and to obtain one day a place in that better Home above, to which the uplifted fingers of their sun-bathed mountain-peaks ever gloriously point.

               The paramount claims on their hearts' allegiance of the hearth and the altar are inseparably interwoven in their social code, and their creed scarcely knows of a distinction between Nature and Nature's God.

               At their mother's knee they have learnt, every one, to prattle of their Father in heaven with as complete a realization of His existence as of that of their father on earth. Just as they receive their toil-won food and raiment as an earnest of the paternal care of the one, the change of the seasons, the sunshine and the rain, betoken to them as certainly that of the Other. They scarcely trace any line of demarcation between the natural and the supernatural; and earth and sky are not for them the veil which hides Divinity, but the very temple and shrine of the Godhead dwelling among His creatures.

               Going forth in this simple faith through the pure, unfogged atmosphere which surrounds them, it is scarce to be wondered at if they can trace the guiding footprints and the unerring hand of Providence where for others are only chances and coincidences. Or that--like the faint outline of wished-for land revealing itself to the trained eye of the sailor, where the landsman sees but a hopeless expanse of sky and ocean--they should recognize a personal will and individuality in the powers which are the messengers to them of the good pleasure of Heaven, in the germination of fruit and grain, in the multiplication of their flocks and herds; or of the envious malice of the Evil One, in the wind and the lightning, the torrent and the avalanche, destroying the work of their hands.

               It is necessary to bear this well in mind, or we shall not appreciate the delights which their fantastic tales have in store for us. We must learn to realize that this way of viewing things has created a nomenclature, almost a language, of its own.

               When the boisterous blast sweeps through their valleys, scattering the scent of the wild game, and driving them far out of their reach, they say it is the Wilder Jäger [2], the Beatrìk [3], or the Nachtvolk [4], on his chase. Their restless energies, pent up within the shelter of their rattling walls and casements, invest him with a retinue of pitiless followers and fiery-eyed hounds--while the fate of some who have ventured out while he is said to be abroad, blown over precipices or lost in crevasses, is expressed by the fancy that his train is closed by a number of empty pairs of shoes, which run away with those who come within his influence.

               When the bright beams of sun and moon enliven their landscape, or fructify their seed, or guide their midnight way, they fable of them as beautiful maidens with all sorts of fanciful names derived from associations as old as the world: Perahta, brightness, daughter of Dagha, the daylight--hence, also, Perchtl and Berchtl. In other localities, Holda or Hulda; in others again, they are known as Angane, and Enguane, the Saligen Fraüelein, Nornen, Zarger Fraüelein, and Weissen Fraüelein. They say they smile on the overburdened peasant, beguile his labour by singing to him, show him visions of beautiful landscapes, bestow wonderful gifts--loaves which never diminish, bowls and skittles, charcoal and corn of pure gold; to the husbandman they give counsels in his farming; to the good housewife an unfailing store--bobbins of linen thread which all her weaving never exhausts; they help the youth or the maiden to obtain the return of the love they have longed for, and have some succour in store for every weary soul.

               Such helpers the people recognize of the masculine gender, also, in the so-called Nörgl, Pechmannl, Pützl, Wiehtmännlein, Käsermännlein, and Salvanel; for possibly, they say, not all the angels who rebelled with Lucifer may have been cast into the outer darkness. There may have been some not so evilly disposed themselves, but talked over and led astray by others; and such, arrested in their descent by a merciful reprieve, may have been only banished to the desolate and stony places of the earth, to tops of barren mountains and fruitless trees. Such as these might be expected to entertain a friendly feeling for the human beings who inhabit the regions which gave them shelter, and to be ready to do them a good turn when it lay in their way--lift weights, and carry burdens for them up the steep heights, and protect their wild game. And, also, it is not inconsistent with their nature to love to play them a mischievous trick full oft--make off with the provision of loaves prepared for the mowers; sit, while remaining invisible, on their sledges and increase their difficulty and confusion in crossing the mountain-paths lost in snow; entice them into the woods with beseeching voices, and then leave them to wander in perplexity; overturn the farm-maids' creaming-pans; roll the Senner's cheeses down the mountain sides.

               Worse tricks than these are those of the Wilder Mann. When the soil is sterile and ungrateful; when any of the wonted promises of nature are unfulfilled; when the axe of the lonely woodman rebounds from the stubborn trunk and wounds him; when the foot of the practised mountain-climber fails him on the crisp snow, or the treacherously sun-parched heather; when a wild and lawless wight (for such there are even in Tirol, though fewer, perhaps, than elsewhere) illtreats the girl who has gone forth to tend her father's flock upon the mountains, trusting in her own innocence and Heaven's help for her protection--it is always the Wilder Mann--in some places called the Wilder Jörgel, in others, the Lorg, the Salvang or Gannes, the Klaubaut or Rastalmann, in Vorarlberg, Fengg, Schrättlig, Doggi, and Habergâss--to whose account the misfortune or the misdeed is laid. His female counterpart is called Trude and Stampa, and the Langtüttin.

               The mineral riches of the country, and the miners occupied in searching for them, are told of as of hidden treasure sought after or revealed, as the case may be, by the Bergweib and the Bergmannlein, or Erdmannlein, the Venedigermannlein and the Hahnenkekerle, the stories of whose strength and generosity, cupidity and spite, are endless; while the mountain echoes are the voices of sprites playfully imitating the sounds of human life.

               If the mountains and the forests are thus treated, neither are the lakes and torrents without their share of personification, and many are the legends in which the uses and beauties of the beneficent element are interpreted to be the smiles and the helpful acts of the Wasserfraülein, while the mischances which occur at the water's edge are ascribed to the Stromkarl and the Brückengeist.

               The sudden convulsions of nature to which their soil has been subject from age to age are all charged with retribution for the sins of the people, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities of the plain. Castles and forest possessions of wicked rich men are sunk beneath the waters of lakes so that their foundations may never again be set up, and their place be no more found; while a curse pursues those who attempt to dig out the ill-gotten treasure. Villages are recorded to have been swallowed by the earth or buried by the snow-storms when their people have neglected the commandments of God.

               This literal adaptation of the admonitions of Holy Writ receives among this people another development in traditions of instances where good deeds done to the poor have been believed to have been actually done to visions of our Lord and of His Saints. Then again, their devout belief in both the irresistible justice and the ineffable love of God convinces them that there must be a place on earth where souls too soiled for heaven, yet not given over to utter reprobation, may wander till the final day of rest. And thus every shepherd, as he keeps his lonely watch upon the Alpine pastures, expects that he may meet the feurige Sennin who broke the Sunday rest; or the Tscheier Friedl who was cruel to the cattle in his charge; or the büssender Hirt who stole the widow's kine; or the Markegger who removed his neighbour's landmark; or the Pungga-Mannl who swore a false oath; or the feuriger Verräther who betrayed the mountain pass to the Roman legions.

               On the other hand, the heroes and types of the Christian faith are thought of as taking a perpetual interest in the welfare of their struggling brethren: St. Nothburga and St. Isidore watch over the husbandman, and St. Urban over the vinedresser; St. Martin over the mower; St. Martha, St. Sebastian, and St. Rocchus, the drei Pestschutzheiligen [5], are expected to be as potent in their intercession now as when at their prayers, when on earth, plagues were stayed. St. Anthony and St. Florian similarly protect against fire. St. Vigilius, the evangelizer of the country and martyr to his zeal, is still believed to guard its jealously-preserved unity of faith. In return, they receive special veneration: the ordinary dealings of life are regulated by the recurrence of their festivals, and the memory of sacred mysteries is kept in perpetual honour by setting up their tokens in every homestead and every house, in every vineyard and in every field, on every bridge and by every wayside.

               It is not surprising that a people so minded have tales to tell of wonderful events which seem to have befallen them, and which take the record of their lives out of the prosaic monotony which rules our own,--tales always bearing a wholesome moral lesson, always showing trust in Providence and faith in the World Unseen, and always told with the charming simplicity which only a logically grounded expectation that events should turn out even so--and no invention or imagination--can give.

               A selection of these tales I have put into English dress in the following pages. Though some few of them may be found to bear analogy with similar tales of other German nations, the distinctive qualities of the Tirolese, and the peculiar nature of the scenery amid which they have been conceived, will be found to have stamped them with a character entirely their own.

               I think that what I have said is sufficient to give, to such of my readers as did not possess it already, the key to their application, and I need not now append to each a tedious interpretation of the fantastic personages and scenes I shall have to introduce.

               It remains only to say a word as to their distribution. The present principality of Tirol is composed of four provinces. North Tirol, South Tirol, Wälsch or Italian Tirol, and Vorarlberg. North and South Tirol have been for long so closely united that, like their language and customs, their mythology has become so intimately intermingled that it scarcely comes within the scope of a work like the present to point out their few divergences or local peculiarities. But those of Wälsch Tirol and Vorarlberg each maintain a much more distinctive character, and I have accordingly marked with a separate heading those which I have gathered thence.

               "The Rose-garden of King Lareyn," however, is not the peculiar property of any one province. Though the three places which claim to occupy its site are all placed in South Tirol, this pretty myth is the common property of the whole country--its chief popular epic--and has even passed into the folklore of other parts of Germany also. It is beside the purpose of the present little work to enter into the controversy which has been raised concerning the authorship. There can be little doubt, however, that it was originally the utterance of some unknown minstrel putting into rough-and-ready rhyme one of the floating myths which symbolized the conflict of the heroes with the powers of evil, so popular in the middle ages. Then poets of more pretensions wrote out, and, as they wrote out, improved the song. Thus there are several different manuscripts of it extant, of between two and three thousand lines each, but not of equal value, for later scribes, in trying to improve, overlaid the simple energy of its diction with a feeble attempt at ornament which only served to damage its force. The name of the Norg-king who is the subject of it, is in these spelt variously, as Lareyn, Luarin, Luarine, &c.; the modern orthography is Laurin. The spelling I have adopted is that of the Chronicon of Aventinus.

               I have thought it well to precede the story by some account of the Norg folk and some samples of their legends, that the reader may not come wholly unacquainted with their traditional character to the tale of the discomfiture of the last Norg-king.



[1] It is common in England to speak of Tirol as "the Tyrol;" I have used the name according to the custom of the country itself.

[2] The name for "the wild huntsman" in North and South Tirol.

[3] The Beatrìk of the Italian Tirol is, however, a milder spirit than the Wilder Jäger of the northern provinces. He is also called il cacciatore della pia caccia, because he is supposed only to hunt evil spirits.

[4] The name in Vorarlberg.

[5] The three helpers against the plague. There are many churches so called in Tirol.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Introduction
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Household Stories from the Land of Hofer; or, Popular Myths of Tirol
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1871
Country of Origin: Austria & Italy
Classification: Introduction

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