What are the origins of mountains? In particular, how were the Dolomites formed? Is the geological narrative the only way to explain the orogenesis of these mountains? A comprehensive, truly ecocritical approach to these questions does contemplate the most current scientific answers and a reconsideration of the legends and myths that over time have accompanied the narrative habitation of the mountainous territory and the invention of the places within it.
The following legend, The Mirror of Misurina, explains imaginatively and creatively the fantastic creation of Mount Sorapìs (the mountain that still stands before Mount Cristallo), and of the beautiful Lake Misurina, in the Italian Dolomites, northeast of Cortina d’Ampezzo, in the province of Belluno, Veneto, northern Italy.
The legend provides an anthropomorphic explanation of orogenesis. However, at the basis of the tale remains the myth of the perennial metamorphosis of matter. This aspect introduces in the legend a more than human dimension.
Richard Buxton, a scholar of the human etiology of landscape, writes “it is too simple to say that a geological narrative in terms of plate tectonics and vulcanology is just “true’, and that the tale of a doting giant and his capricious daughter is just ‘false'” (194). In other words, we have to admit that there are different ways of perceiving our relationship with the landscape’s past and its presence in our time.
As Karoly Kerényi writes in Essays on a Science of Mythology, “Mythology always tells of the origins or at least of what originally was” (Kérenyi 9). It is essential to consider mythology as “founding thought” with features that belongs to the world of orality. In this sense, it cannot represent a simple etiology like the one developed in the alphabetic world of modern writing and science. Mythology does indicate “causes,” only to the extent that “causes” are considered “beginnings” or “first principles”.
The reference to the Greek Presocratic thinkers can help us get closer to these concepts. For them, the beginnings consisted of primordial elements such as water, fire, and earth. These were not conceived as mere causes but as primary, boundless, and cosmic substance. In other words, for the earliest Greek philosophers, beginnings were “primary states” that cannot age or be surpassed. They produce everything and form the ground or foundation of the world, since everything rests on them. Everything individual or particular goes back to them out of which it was made, through a continuous metamorphic vital cycle. These primary states are ageless and inexhaustible as they live in timeless primordiality. “The past for them is imperishable because of its eternally repeated rebirths” (Kérenyi, 9).
This idea of origins as an eternal metamorphic process takes us to the heart of the myths that can be glimpsed behind the legend of Misurina. For Kérenyi, the ultimate goal of the Eleusinian mysteries and associated myths such as Hecate, Demeter, and Persephone is the awareness of the drama of human life and the continuity of life even within death. We have discussed this central idea in each myth in two other posts of this blog, Simone Weil and a Myth of the Okanagan and the Pale Mountains.
The best way to get out of the sterile critique of mythological and legendary representations and the idea of a trivial scientific determinism of the geographical space is to think that space is not an objective reality but a metaphor. In this sense, humans, not only geographers, may be explorers, not because they discover new lands but because they uncover changes, territorial innovations, and new meaning in the metaphorical landscape of the earth (De Matteis, 139, 149).
The Mirror of Misurina
Once upon a time there was a father and a child. The child was called Misurina and Sorapìs the father. Dad was a giant, and Misurina a tiny little wagtail, that could very well be in his waistcoat pocket, yet what do you ever want? that tiny little wagtail could at ease make fun of that dad as big as a mountain.
It is the fate that comes to the dads too good with little girls who do not deserve any goodness.
– But it’s so pretty – said Sorapìs when his wife reproached him for excessive indulgence that he had for his little daughter.
– But it’s so small.
But it is this, but that is, for one reason and another, father Sorapìs always allowed to be fooled without even noticing it. And Misurina grew fizzy like pepper, to the desperation of others.
At the castle of Father Sorapìs all fled her like the tertian fever, court men and chamber valets, company ladies and kitchen women, but the tertian fever jump on everybody even if you run away, don’t you? and Misurina did the same.
When less thought was given to her, she produced the worst tricks, and those poor guys, gesummaria, they always had some to tell the king.
– Sire, Misurina stole my wig.
– She hid my sword sheath.
– She blinded the horse with the salt.
– She cut off my steed’s tail.
– Oh, oh! – snorted Sorapìs trying in vain to look serious.
– This is serious, let’s see, we need to find a remedy, honorable isn’t it? But the little girl is so tiny! you had to excuse her.
– Sire, Misurina poured the ink into my coffee.
– She stole the buttered croutons.
– She has …
– My children, be patient – said Sorapìs – I know, I know, it’s not pleasant drink coffee with ink, or remain without croutons, but the poor creature is so lively!
– Sire – said the ladies – Misurina tramples on the train.
– She overturns our face powder.
– She steals our perfume.
– She …
My ladies – Sorapìs moaned – I know, I know, Misurina is a little brat, but she is so much a dear child! We will find a remedy, won’t we? We’ll fix this.
But the poor man did not fix anything. On the contrary, the little girl growing up became more and more unbearable. What desires she had! What demands she had! If someone had brought her the moon, she would have shrugged her shoulders and said, “Is this all? Beautiful stuff! For me we need something else! ” But these were roses. His biggest flaw was curiosity.
It was impossible to meet a girl so curious all over the world.
Se wanted to know everything, she wanted to see everything, she wanted to have her court and her kingdom on her fingertips.
She wanted, if possible, to read in the soul of the people.
– Peanuts! – the nurse told her one day.- For a young lady like you, adored by her father so much as one loves the sun, one needs to have so much as the mirror I know everything (tuttosò).
– Eh! – exclaimed the child, reddened by emotion – And what is this mirror?
– A mirror where it suffices to mirror yourself or let someone mirror himself or herself to know everything about him and her.
– Oh! murmured Misurina. – Curious! And how can I have it?
– Ask your dad who knows everything. And Misurina went to her father hopping like a sparrow.
-Daddy, – she began to shout before reaching him. -You have to give me a present. –
– If I can, my little jewel.
– Yes you can. – Then let’s hear.
– First swear that you will give me this present.
– I can’t swear if I don’t know what the gift is.
Then, Misurina began to cry and to despair and cooing to bring that poor father out of his mind, and he was consoling her and promising while sighing.
– All right, I swear to you, whatever the gift you want, I’ll do it for you.
And then Misurina clapping her hands expressed her desire.
– I want the mirror I know everything.
– You don’t know what you ask me, child.
– Yes, I know.
– But don’t you know that the mirror belongs to the fairy of Monte Cristallo?
– And what does it matter! You will buy it.
– You’ll steal it.
– Listen, Misurina …
– You promised, dad, you swore it.
– And that demon of a child began to cry and to sigh and to roll on the ground. – And if you don’t bring me that mirror, I’ll die.
To die Misurina! Let’s imagine! The poor father put the crown on his head, dressed the ermine cloak, he took the scepter as a stick and set off. He walked and walked, he walked a little because the fairy lived two steps away from him, right in front of him, and as soon as he came to the castle, he knocked on the door.
-Come on, – said the fairy who sat in the throne room with her bridesmaids. – Who are you and what do you want?
– I’m Sorapìs and I want the mirror I know everything.
– Strawberry trees! – laughed the fairy. – Only? As if it were strawberries.
– Oh, fairy, fairy don’t laugh; if you don’t give it to me, my little girl dies.
– Your little girl? And what does she know about the mirror? What does she need it for? What’s the name of this girl?
-Misurina, – replied the king.
– Ah! ah! said the fairy. – I know her by reputation. Her cries reach me when she is acting up, and this is a whim well worthy of her. All right, I’ll give you the mirror, but with a pact.
-Let’s hear, – the king agreed.
– See how much sun beats from morning to night over my garden?”
I see,” replied Sorapis.
– It burns all my flowers and bores me. It would take me a mountain to throw me some shade; behold, as big as you are, you should be content with turning yourself into a beautiful mountain. At this agreement I would give you the I know everything mirror.- Eh, eh, eh! – said Sorapis scratching his ear and sweating coldly.
– Take it or leave it – said the fairy. – Well, what do you want to do with it? If there is no other way … give me the mirror – the poor king sighed.
The fairy drew from a casket that was close to her a large green mirror and handed it to him, but since she noticed that poor Sorapìs had become lifeless, she had pity on him, and said to him:
– Let’s do something; I understand that you don’t have too much desire to transform yourself into a mountain, and it is natural, but on the other hand you are afraid that your little girl will die if you do not keep the promise you made to her.
-Word of king must be maintained,- Sorapìs moaned.
– Yes, yes, but I would have given to her some spanks in your place; this is the way to cure whims. But as I said, let’s do something. You return to your castle and tell her the condition for which she can come into possession of the mirror; if she loves you she will renounce to possess it in order not to lose his father, and you will send me back the mirror, and if not … don’t blame me.
-All right,- answered the king, – thank you very much and goodbye. – He was sure to send her back the mirror.
And he left again.
Misurina was waiting for him sitting on the highest battlement of the castle and as soon as she saw him:
– Well – she shouted – did you bring it to me?
-Yes, I brought it to you,- the poor man gasped, dripping with sweat; and after taking the girl by the hand to talk to her better, he told her about the embassy of the Mount Cristallo fairy.
Misurina clapped her hands.- Is it just that? Daddy give me the mirror, and don’t think about it. To become one mountain must be a beautiful thing. First of all you will no longer die, then you will cover yourself with meadows and woods and I will enjoy it.
The poor man paled, but there was anything he could do, his sentence had been decreed. As soon as Misurina had grabbed the mirror, Sorapìs broadened, expanded, swelled, he seemed rising in the sun; he became petrified, and in an instant was transformed in the mountain that still stands in front to the Mount Cristallo.
Misurina suddenly found herself raised to that prodigious height, on the crest of a white and bare mountain, where gradually his father’s eyes died. She cried terribly and, taken by dizziness, with her green mirror fell down. Then, tears began to fall from Sorapìs’ almost lifeless eyes and tears and tears kept falling, until the eyes died out and the tears no longer rained. Those tears formed the lake under which Misurina and the mirror lie and in that lake the Mount Sorapìs is reflected and looks with his dead eyes for his dead child.
Jung, C G, and Karl Kerényi. Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis. New York: Pantheon Books, 1973. Print.
Pina Ballario. “Lo specchio di Misurina” in Fiabe e leggende delle Dolomiti. Firenze: Giunti, 1973, pp. 17-30. Print. The English translation is mine.
Richard Buxton. Forms of Astonishment : Greek Myths of Metamorphosis. Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
De Matteis, Giuseppe. Le metafore della terra. La geografia unama tra mito e scienza. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1985. Print
“Joos de Momper the Younger, Anthropomorphic Landscape c.1600-1635.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 19 Jun 2018, 16:18 UTC. 29 Jun 2019.