The reading of Dirty-boy – a myth of the Native American Okanagan– allows us to briefly analyze the religious conception of Simone Weil in the second part of the post, The Great Revelation. The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) is a remarkable thinker and activist who speaks to the complexities of our times. She defies the usual religious categories and remains one of the most interesting spiritual figures of the twentieth century.
The moon had taken on the aspect of a decrepit old woman in rags and the sun that of a dirty boy, with his face covered with scabs, disgusting. They had come down to earth to overcome the resistance of the beautiful daughters of the Okanagan leader.
They had rejected all the young men that her father had proposed to them in marriage. To win the chief’s daughter, Dirty-boy must participate in two skill competitions.
In the first, he has to hit an eagle in flight with an arrow, and in the second, he has to show his ability to capture an animal that lived in the mountains and was quite rare in those parts.
Dirty-boy wins both contests, despite never having used a bow and arrow and being unable to walk.
Everyone had made fun of him, and the boss had done everything possible to prevent that lousy boy from becoming the husband of his daughter. But now, he too had to yield to the evidence and give the girls in marriage to Dirty-Boy.
On their way to their future husband, the elder daughter stopped by Raven’s house and eventually decided to become the wife of the eldest son of that family. Like all the other Ravens, he was ugly and had a big head; but she thought it better to marry him than to become the wife of a dirty, sickly boy.
The younger daughter went on, entered Dirty-Boy’s lodge, and sat down by his side. The moon-old woman asked her who she was and why she had come. When the old woman had been told, she said, “Your husband is sick, and soon he will die. He stinks too much. You must not sleep with him. Go back to your father’s lodge every evening, but come here in the daytime, and watch him and attend him.”
Frida Kahlo (1942). Portrait of Lucha Maria, Girl from Tehuacán (Sun and Moon).
The younger sister paid no attention to the elder who was making fun of her with her husband. She returned every morning to help her grandmother-in-law gather firewood and attend to her sick husband.
For three days, matters remained this way. In the evening of the third day, Sun said to his sister, “We will resume our true forms tonight so that people may see us tomorrow.” That night they transformed themselves. The old mat lodge became a fine new skin lodge…
The old woman became a fine-looking person with a tall figure, clothes covered with shining stars. Dirty-Boy became a young, handsome man of light complexion. His clothes were covered with shining copper. His hair reached to the ground and shone like the rays of the sun.
When the girl arrived, she was much surprised to see the transformation. The moon-woman addressed her in a familiar voice, saying, “Come in and sit with your husband!” The girl then knew who she was.
When she entered, she saw a handsome man reclining, with his head on a beautiful parfleche. His garments and hair were decorated with bright suns. The girl did not recognize him and looked around. The woman said, “That is your husband; go and sit beside him.” Then she was glad.
Sun took his wife to the copper kettle which stood at the door. It contained a shining liquid. He pushed her head into it, and when the liquid ran down over her hair and body, lines of sparkling small stars formed on her. He told her to empty the kettle. When she did so, the liquid ran to the chief’s lodge, forming a path as of gold dust. He said, “This will be your trail when you go to see your father.” (Thomson, 120-124)
2. Simone Weil and the great Revelation
This myth of the North-American Okanagan, which I have partly recounted and partly quoted from Thomson’s Tales of the North American Indians, is one of the mythological tales analyzed by Simone Weil in her Cahiers d’Amerique. Unlike her teacher Alain, for whom myths are a creation of the human spirit, Simone Weil argues that myths are a metaphor for divine truth: “The foundation of mythology is that the universe is a metaphor of the divine truths” (First and Last Notebooks, 191).
For Simone Weil, divine truths are inscribed in the universe, and it is necessary to recognize them. Her conception of mythology appears to be linked to her religious conception, which emphasizes similar spiritual needs in all humans regardless of their spatial-temporal location.
After the rapprochement with Christ, the desire to verify the universal character of the Gospel led her to dedicate a large part of the research on mythology of the last years of her life (1940-43) to the identification of elements similar to the story of Christ in the different mythologies. Simone Weil’s religious conception is based on the idea of a “Great Revelation” according to which God and the “supernatural” are everywhere if only we can recognize them.
For Weil, all humans of all times have access to this “Great Revelation;” between them and God, there is an abyss that can be bridged thanks to the work of different forms of mediation and mediators. In myths, these mediators take the form of divine incarnations for the benefit of humanity. The incarnation is combined with the idea of suffering endowed with a spiritual value both in the form of redemptive suffering and in the form of suffering that allows access to “supernatural knowledge.”
A group of myths studied by Simone Weil in the “Great Revelation” perspective concerns the search for humans by God through the descent and the incarnation. At a certain point in the myth, the seduction of the soul by God occurs and thus leaves a sign of its passage on earth. Simone Weil is not interested in the considerable difference between the gods of ancient Greece, the cosmological beings mentioned in American Indian myths, and the historical figure of Christ. What interests her is the common essential symbolic structure of stories and myths that are very distant and different. In all these myths, as in the Greek myth of Prometheus itself, Simone Weil sees Christological figures, mediators who allow access to the supernatural.
In this light, Simone Weil also interprets the myth of the “Dirty-boy” of the North American Okanagon. For her, that myth is a myth of Incarnation and Redemption. The Sun and the Moon, once incarnated, had lost consciousness of their divine character. After all, in the sky, there was always a sun because there were days and nights. But above all, it seems remarkable to her that the chief’s young daughter must have rejected all her suitors before the sun came down to earth for her sake.
Simone Weil sees an image of Christ connected to a myth of Resurrection also in the custom of the North American Indians of not breaking the bones of animals killed in hunting and eaten to allow their resurrection. She also suggests a biblical parallel in the practice of not breaking a single bone of the paschal lamb. She points out that the bones of the slain animals were thrown into the water, which was considered a factor of resurrection, as will later happen in baptism.
In another post on this blog, the Pale mountains, we applied Weil’s ideas to a Ladin myth of the Dolomites. Here we have a divine image of the moon in the form of a princess who comes down to earth to reign with a prince who is in love with her.
The divine female lunar figure in the ancestral knowledge of many peoples, including the Greeks and the peoples of the Mediterranean, plays a mediating role between the extreme poles of life and death, indicating the possibility of rebirth and fertility in the perseverance of the life cycle. This is what the Greek myths relating to the lunar deities such as Hecate and Artemis speak of. The female deities of the earth such as Demeter and Persephone are connected to them and speak of the same vital cycle. The interpretation of Simone Weil emphasizes in these myths their prefiguration of Christ, the divine mediator who has imposed himself with Christian culture. As she writes in Letter to a Priest,
“All the mediator-gods, comparable to the Word, are lunar, bearers of horns, lyres or bows that evoke the crescent (Osiris, Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, Dionysus, Zagreus, Eros, …). Prometheus is the exception, but in Aeschylus, Io is his counterpart, condemned to perpetual vagabondage as he is to crucifixion, and she is horned. (It is worth remarking that before he was crucified, Christ was a vagabond—and Plato depicts Eros as a miserable vagabond). If the sun is the image of the Father, the moon—perfect reflection of solar splendor, but a reflection that we may contemplate (i.e. gaze on), and which suffers diminution and disappearance—is the image of the Son. The light is then that of the Spirit” (292).
This legend was published by Karl Felix Wolff in 1905, as part of the folkloric tradition of the Dolomites in an attempt to enhance the Ladin minority that elaborated most of the legends today associated with the Dolomites. In fact, it was first published in the magazine L’amik di Ladins/Der Ladinerfreund (The friend of the Ladins). The most recent studies have highlighted the merits but also the problems of the collection of Ladin myths published by him. Among the merits is undoubtedly that of having saved from oblivion an extraordinary heritage of myths and legends destined to disappear when they were no longer told. Criticism of his work emphasizes the fact that he is a self-taught ethnographer and that he intervened heavily to integrate the legendary material in a personal way where it seemed contradictory or incomplete.
The Pale Mountains explains in an imaginative way the birth of the characteristic pale color of the Dolomites and the existential importance of their flowers like the edelweiss (Star of the Alps) and the rhododendron (Alpenrose). Reading this legend you will learn how the son of the King of the Alps with the help of hundreds of dwarfs prepared for the daughter of the King of the Moon a world of white so that she would never have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had become a flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the clouds …
The time of the story is the immemorial one of the origins and myth. The mountains we are talking about were not yet recognized with the name “Dolomites”. As is well known, the name Dolomites was coined in 1792 by the Swiss naturalist H.-B. de Saussure in honor of the French geologist Déodat de Dolomieu (1750–1801), who had discovered a new type of sedimentary rock, dolómia, made up of crystals of a double carbonate of magnesium and calcium (dolomite).
The central motif of the legend is the moonlight that is associated with the lunar deity, from the moon princess to the salvans. This was an ancestral people in deep contact with nature, able to weave the moon rays that would cover the mountains of the kingdom to alleviate the queen’s nostalgia for the moonlight. To recall Simone Weil’s conception elaborated in another post, Simone Weil and a myth of the Okanagan, in this legend we find a metaphor of divine truth inscribed in the universe. The moon princess is a divine incarnation, a mediator who benefits humans.
As Ulrike Kindl writes, “the legend of the Pale Mountains has its roots in a remote imago mundi, when the order of space and time was still perceived according to powerful symbolic projections, at the center, in all probability, was the figure of a primordial divinity, a numinous power identified with the entire cosmos, a goddess of heaven and earth, imagined as Mater Magna, fertile womb and deadly cave, source of birth, protector of growth and reproduction, and finally guardian of dead souls, until a new cycle begins” (194-195).
Once upon a time there lived the son of a King. His father’s kingdom lay in the southern territory of the Alps, with its green pastures and shady forests, and steep mountains with black rocks. The inhabitants lived as hunters and shepherds, loved their country, and considered themselves happy. One, alone, was not content with his life and the world about him – the King’s son. He felt tormented by a desire which no one could grant him – he wanted to visit the Moon. He had already consulted all the wise men of the kingdom as to what he should do in order to reach the Moon, but nobody knew how to advise him. The Prince, therefore, was discontented and sad. In vain his companions endeavored to distract him and to turn his thoughts to other things – he talked and dreamed only about the Moon. At the time of Full Moon, he always became very sad. From evening until the morning he wandered restlessly around on the rocks and meadows, gazing all the time at the Moon. The most expert physicians came to the Court but no one was able to cure the strange malady of the Prince. And it continued to become worse.
One day, while hunting, the Prince left his companions and lost his way in the forests. When evening came and the sun had set he found himself in a lonely, high valley, all covered with Alproses, and surrounded on three sides by steep ridges and mighty towers of rock. No longer hoping to meet with his hunting companions again that day, the King’s son decided to spend the night there. So he lay down on a green lawn in the midst of Alprose bushes and looked thoughtfully, in the distance, at the red clouds and mountain-tops which were just fading away. As he felt very tired, however, he soon fell asleep and had a curious dream … he stood on a meadow all covered with strange flowers, and spoke to a wonderful girl whom he had never seen before. All around, as far as the Prince could see, it was white, but he himself held some red Alproses in his hand, and gave them to the beautiful stranger. She, smiling, accepted the flowers, asking him what this country was like, and after a while she told him that she was the daughter of the Moon King. On hearing these words the King’s son felt an indescribable joy, and awoke.
It was already past midnight; the Moon stood high, and its silver light shone into the deserted clefts and on the pointed rocks of the lonely high valley: the Prince looked up and his joy changed, becoming deep sorrow. The usual ardent longing took possession of him, and for a long time, he gave free play to his sad thoughts. Finally, a gentle breeze passed through the Alproses, and the King’s son thought of what should happen if he really should meet the Moon Princess. So he began to gather the beautiful Alproses and to make a bouquet, and he was occupied with it for a long time. All at once, he thought he heard someone speaking high up in the rocks. He listened, but a great silence ruled, except that in the distance a waterfall murmured.
The Prince gathered some more flowers, but for the second time, he heard words, and now very clearly. The sound came down from the highest rock tower, and the top of this tower was wrapped up in a thick white cloud. Up there mountain-demons have to dwell, so the King’s son thought, and he grasped the hilt of his sword. Without putting away the Alprose bouquet he slowly strode to the tower, went around the foot of the mountain walls, and began to climb up on the back wall which was not so steep. The speaking became more clear, but it was not yet possible to distinguish words. Soon the King’s son came into a cloud, the moonlight could no longer get through, and he only groped his way forward. Finally, he struck something hard, a door was opened, and the Prince stood before a brightly Illuminated little space where two very, very old men were sitting.
They rose, frightened; but he calmed them, excusing himself by saying that he was a hunter who had lost his way in the mountain wildness. On hearing these words both went to meet him, asking him to come in, and they became very friendly. They talked of one thing and another, and the Prince asked them if they were old men of the mountains. But the two old men replied that they were inhabitants of the Moon who had made a long journey all around the world and that they were on the point of returning to their own country. Hearing this, the King’s son became quite pale with excitement and he told them that for years and years he felt an ardent desire to make a journey to the Moon. The two old men laughed, saying that if he wished to join them they were quite content and that they were starting immediately.
The Prince was very happy, thanking the good old men with endless words. Meanwhile the cloud had drifted from the rock summit and began to sail towards the Moon with increasing speed. During the long journey the Prince told the two old men many things concerning his father’s kingdom, and they told him how things were on the Moon, and how one had to live there. Thus, they informed him that an inhabitant of the earth could not stay for a long time on the Moon because everything there was white-plains and mountains, plants and cities – all shining in silver sheen, and an inhabitant of the earth became blind, after a time, from this dazzling brightness. So also, said they, a Moon dweller could not remain for a long time on the earth because of the dark colors of the forests and rocks, which are saddening, and if such a one could not return soon, very soon, to the Moon he would surely die from too much pining for the white fields of his country.
With such conversation and considerations did the three Moon-travellers beguile their time. At last, the cloud on which they were, came down upon one of the mountains of the Moon and rested there. The first part of their journey was over, now they had to proceed on foot. The two old men explained to the Prince that they had to turn westwards, and they advised him to travel towards the east in order to reach the Capital as soon as possible. The Prince said goodbye and went down the mountain in an easterly direction. All the country around about was white, especially because of little white flowers which covered the surface of the Moon in endless numbers. But, in addition, the ground, which in some places was bare, appeared white, and even the flaming walls of rock had faint bright colors.
After a while the King’s son saw the houses and tower tops of the Capital. All these buildings, however, were made, from their foundations to their battlements, of white marble. With quick steps, the Prince hastened to meet this white splendor until he was stopped by a hedge that barred the way. This hedge was made, with great skill, of sparkling metal, and its slicks bore strange decorations. Beyond the hedge, a gardener was working. As soon as he noticed the stranger he advanced slowly, saluted, and inquired, in an astonished manner, as to the origin of the red flowers which the Prince was holding in his hands. These were the Alproses which he had gathered during the night. The Prince explained that he had come from the earth, and that the flowers grew there. Now, the gardener told him that in the castle, which stood in the background, lived the Moon King and his daughter. The Princess was very fond of rare and beautiful flowers, and she would surely reward the stranger in a royal manner if he would leave the red bouquet for her.
The Prince laughed and said that he would give his Alproses to the Princess with great pleasure, but that he would seek no reward for them as he himself was the son of a King. At this, the astonished gardener opened the gate and invited the stranger to enter the garden. Then he ran up to the castle. After a while here returned, breathless, begging the Prince to go with him to the castle. The King’s son followed his guide through many, many halls and corridors, looking amazedly at the walls of alabaster white, and at the bright arms which adorned them.
The Prince was received by the Moon King and his daughter in a large illuminated hall and was welcomed in a very friendly way. The Moon King was a very old man with a long silvery-white beard; but, on seeing the Princess, the Prince recognized that wonderful girl whom he had met in his night-dream. She accepted the Alproses gratefully, praising their glorious color, and asked the Prince if there were many such flowers in his country, what kind of people lived there, and how large was his father’s kingdom. It was only after a lengthy conversation that they parted, the Moon King telling the Prince that he was to consider himself as his guest.
The Prince remained then for a time at the royal castle, taking long walks through its surroundings, and became well acquainted with the Moon to which he had so often looked up with longing. After some weeks the Moon King asked his foreign guest, at lunch, how he liked the Moon. The Prince replied that the white, shining landscape of the Moon was the most beautiful he ever had seen, but its unaccustomed brightness was so affecting his eyes that he feared he would go blind if he did not return soon to his own country. The Princess interjected that she did not share the apprehension of the earth Prince and that with time he could accustom himself to the splendor of the landscape. A wise old courtier, however, ventured to contradict the Princess, saying that it really was not advisable for an inhabitant of the earth to remain too long on the Moon. After that, the Princess said no more.
At the time that the King’s son lost his way while hunting, his companions searched for him everywhere in the gloomy forests and among the pathless rocks, but though their quest lasted for many days they were unable to find him. They were obliged, then, to return to the royal castle and to inform the old King of what had happened, but he sent them away, warning them that they should not dare to appear before him again without his son. At the same time the whole kingdom was informed that anyone who could bring any tidings of the Prince might expect a great reward.
But it was all to no purpose. No one knew anything, and the Prince was not heard of again. Everyone believed that he had perished at night on the mountains, when suddenly, it was reported through the country that the Prince had come back, bringing with him the Moon King’s daughter as his wife. The simple people of the Alps were very glad, and they all went to the palace to try to see the Princess as they could not imagine what an inhabitant of the Moon should look like, but she differed only from the women of the earth in that a bright light seemed to emanate from her, and that in the meadows each tree shadow vanished as soon as she appeared. The people were astonished at the white flower which grows everywhere on the Moon, and which the Princess had brought with her. This flower spread with time over the whole Alps, and even today the bright stars salute one from the rock walls, they are called Edelweiss.
The Princess for her part was enchanted by the colored meadows and pastures of the Alps, never getting tired of admiring the variegated flowers and the green lawns. She also loved the blue mountain lakes, and, ever and always, she praised the variety of the earth’s surface, comparing it with the monotony of the Moon landscape, where everything was white. A proud satisfaction came over the Prince when he saw that the Moon daughter was so well and happy, and he delighted to show her everything, the valleys of the kingdom and their different curiosities, and all the beauties of the country. Both of them fell very glad and cheerful, and had no other thought but to remain like that.
Once, however, when the King’s son returned late one evening from hunting he saw his wife standing on the balcony and looking up at the Moon. He thought it was strange. He went up softly, surprising the dreamer, and asked her why she was looking up so thoughtfully at the Moon. She smiled and was silent, but on being asked again she confessed that she had been pining for the white Moon-fields. The meadows and valleys of the Alps are beautiful, she said, but the confusion of dark mountain tops which extend themselves threateningly towards the sky, like the black fists of gigantic demons, give the landscape a gloomy closeness, and this in time presses like deep sorrow upon the soul.
On hearing this complaint the Prince grew afraid, for it recalled to his mind what the two old men said to him when he went up to the Moon: they said that a Moon dweller would soon miss the white beauty of his country and die, languishing for light ….. At present, of course, there was no cause for a serious fear, and the Prince hoped to be able to release his wife from her dangerous homesickness by amusement and all kinds of diversion. He was mistaken, however, for her condition became worse little by little. Just like the Prince before his journey to the Moon, she now gazed at the Moon for hours and hours, becoming finally so pale and weak that there were grave fears for her life, and always she lamented about the black rocks which threatened down in such a ghostly way, just as if they would darken the valleys. And just as once no one was able to help the Prince, so now, also, nobody could bring deliverance. In the meantime, the suffering of the Princess was becoming worse, and the words of the two old Moon dwellers seemed to be terribly true. The Prince felt desolate, and those about him were helpless.
As soon as the Moon King heard that his daughter was in danger of death, he left the Moon and came down to the earth to visit his son-in-law who told him about her terrible home-sickness, which grew worse and worse and was now about to kill her. The Moon King said he could not let his daughter die, and, therefore, that he wished to bring her back to the Moon. At the same time he invited the Prince in a very friendly way to accompany them if he wished to do so, but said that in case the Prince should be obliged to stay on the earth he would be very sorry, without, however, being able to change his resolution to take the Princess back to her country.
Now people from all parts besieged the Prince, begging him to think of the kingdom he was appointed to rule, to remain among his native mountains and to renounce his wife. They praised the great future he had before him, advising him to undertake a campaign in the beautiful south, but the Prince would listen to no such speeches, and went with his father-in-law and his sick wife to the Moon. Here she recovered her health very soon, but long before she was perfectly healthy the Prince perceived with horror that he was seeing less from day to day and that he would be blind after a short time. The old Moon King now advised him to leave the Moon before it was too late. The Prince struggled against it, but seeing the danger growing more and more apparent he finally gave it up and returned, wretched, to the earth.
Now the Moon-home-sickness took hold of him more strongly than ever. At full Moon time he was never to be seen in the castle but was wandering restlessly around on the mountains. During the day she slept in caverns and under trees, and at night he climbed high peaks, looking steadfastly up at the Moon. With the new Moon, then, the Prince would return but so changed that scarcely anyone could recognize him. Eventually it wearied him to see people at all, and he no longer went down to the valleys, so completely wild did he become. Ceaselessly he traversed the large forests and rock deserts of his kingdom, climbing every mountain-top.
Nowhere could he find consolation and peace. Many weeks had passed since the King’s son had last seen or spoken to anyone. One evening, in a rubbled valley-end, he was surprised by a thunderstorm and obliged to flee into a cavern. There he met a strange little man, hardly three shoes tall but with a long beard and a serious face and a golden crown upon his head. The Prince spoke to the little man and soon realized that he had found a fellow-sufferer, for what the little man with the golden crown had to tell about his fate was very pitiful and sad.
The little man was the king of the”Salvans” (Salvan in the Ladin language, signifies cavern-inhabitant, wild man). From olden times they had inhabited a beautiful kingdom in the far east. This kingdom, having reached the height of its glory, and possessing as many inhabitants as a large forest has leaves, was subjected to an invasion of hostile foreign forces who devastated the country by fire and sword and killed so many Salvans in protracted battles that the survivors had to flee from their own country. Then the king, with the remainder of his people, marched from one neighboring kingdom to another begging for a mountain, or a marsh, or some other piece of ground so that his people could settle there. No sovereign would listen to him, however, and everywhere the Salvans were ejected with scorn. At last, they found shelter in a distant country, but they were obliged to work so hard that many of them died and others escaped in order that they might not witness any longer the misery of their brothers. Thus, it was with the king.
Having related this, the little man sighed and said that no creature could be more unhappy than a sovereign whose people had entirely perished and he unable to prevent it. The Prince then sympathized with the dwarf king on the hard fate which had befallen him but he said that his own destiny was no less cruel and he, too, related his distressful history. At first the dwarf king listened with a gloomy look but, little by little, his face began to brighten, and at last he smiled, quite pleased, and when the Prince, who did not notice this, had finished, the little man jumped up, clapped his hands and cried out joyously: Prince, be happy, we are now both saved. On hearing such an unexpected exclamation the Prince was almost afraid to look at the dwarf, for he thought that the little man had surely lost his reason and gone crazy.
But the dwarf king had not spoken without reason and he now began to explain his meaning quite clearly. He pointed out that the Princess was only obliged to return to her own country because a Moon child, accustomed to light could not bear the look of the black rocks for long. If the mountains of the Alp-kingdom were of the same clear color as those on the Moon, the Princess would never have been attacked by such a home-sickness. The little Salvans, he said, are a clever and skilled people and they would be willing to cover the innumerable dark mountain tops, from head to foot, with the whiteness of the Moon landscape if only the King of the Alp-kingdom would give them permission to live there forever without being molested. This would give help to both, to the Prince as well as to the dwarf-people.
The Prince listened to this promising speech half astonished, half unbelieving, and then he said he did not think it would be difficult to obtain permission for the Salvans to remain in his kingdom but that he did not understand how they could make a dark rock wall white. The dwarf-king smiled in a superior way and then he said the Prince could rest assured about that because the dwarfs had already done things that were more difficult. The Prince then hesitated no longer, inviting the little man to come with him to the court. The Salvans agreed and in addition, as the storm had ceased, they immediately left the cavern, walking on together. They had to wander for two days through desert solitudes before they reached the principal valley and the castle.
The old King was very pleased al the return of his son but he considered the request of himself and his companion a strange one. He did not bother about to look at the mountain-tops but he thought he could not agree to the immigration of strange people. It was only when the king of the Salvans had explained that they would never lay claim to the rich valleys, meadows, and fields, but be satisfied to remain in the forests and wild rocks, that the Alp King and his advisers gave their consent. The agreement was confirmed by documents and both parties swore to observe it faithfully.
The dwarf king departed immediately to look for his poor people and to bring them the good news. Some days later the exhausted little people were seen to cross the frontiers of the kingdom in long columns and turn towards the high mountains. After having selected their dwelling places under clefts and rock sand behind waterfalls, the dwarf king sent word to the Prince that the Salvans would begin next evening the work they had undertaken by contract. The Prince who could scarcely restrain his impatience was in addition, tormented by doubts, for it seemed incredible to him that the dwarfs would be able to accomplish the difficult work. He ascended one of the highest mountain-top to await the evening.
As soon as the moon had risen, seven Salvans appeared, forming a circle and beginning to make all sorts of contortions. Their little hands worked convulsively, like the waves of a torrent. Astonished, the Prince watched this performance; finally, he asked the little men what they intended to do. They answered that they were about to weave the moonlight, and, sure enough, after a while, in the middle of a circle, one saw a clew which radiated a soft but continuing brightness. The dwarfs worked busily, the clew was growing and became a large bundle. The Prince gazed steadily at the seven little men, while hour after hour passed. Then he looked in the distance and behold, on every mountain top a point of light was glowing: everywhere stood little dwarfs who had spun the lights.
In deep astonishment the Prince looked at this wonderful picture; the stars seemed to have fallen down on the dark sea of mountains tops. Already the valley had become all black, and the Moon shone only on the highest peaks, then it sank down beyond long wavy borders. The Salvans did not rest but immediately began another task; they pulled apart their bundle of light, drawing glittering threads down from the tops over the declivities, and they went around the mountains wrapping them, little by little, into a net of light. As soon as every edge and top had been spun over, the meshes were drawn closer together until finally, every dark plain vanished and the whole ground radiated a pale glimmer.
The next day no one, down in the valley, could believe their eyes, for the high mountains all around, once towering aloft so gloomily, were now all white, and their bright color formed a strange contrast with the maze of mountains which remained black beyond the frontier. In a single night, the dwarfs had covered all the mountain tops in the kingdom with the white color of the Moon-landscape. When the Prince arrived at the castle highly pleased, a messenger was brought before him with a sad message: the Moon King informed the Prince that the Princess had contracted an illness which endangered her life, and had expressed a desire to see her husband once again. The Prince made no answer, not even a single word, but when the messenger departed he was his companion.
As soon as he arrived at the Moon, he hastened towards the glittering palace. On reaching the hall the Prince was informed that the Princess was on the point of death. But he ran to her, crying that she must not die now, for all their sorrow was ended: the mountain tops of his kingdom were glittering like Moon-mountains; she must return with him once more lo the earth, as he had prepared for her a world of white where she would never again have to languish for light, because every high mountain top in his country had now become a flame of stone, flaring, resplendently to the clouds.
These cheerful, happy words revived the spirits of the Princess, and soon it was obvious that she had recovered again. After a short lime the Prince was able to bring his wife back to the earth, and how joyful was the astonishment of the young Princess who had lain so near to death, when she beheld the shining landscape: the smiling Alp-garden united in its white rocks, green meadows and variegated flowers, the Moon’s regions of light with the rich color-beauty of the earth. Never again did the Moon-daughter sigh for her own country, as it was now more beautiful on the white mountains than in the Moon.
The pale mountains are standing there today, and they are called the Dolomites. The kingdom as such has ceased to exist for a long time, but the Salvans still dwell in the wildness of the rocks and forests. But not only does an enchanting brightness still cling to those pale mountains -they are haunted by the deep home-sickness of that Moon-Princess, for anyone who has ever been there, is always called back to the marvel of the light-girded Dolomites by an infinite longing.
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).
Joos de Momper the Younger, Anthropomorphic Landscape c.1600-1635
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.
Misurina Lake, in the background the Sorapìs
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.