R.I.P. Patrick Leigh Fermor

I first came across the name Patrick Leigh Fermor in a biography about Bruce Chatwin; he and Robert Byron were his predecessors and influences in travel literature, and they were so neatly described that I immediately ordered old, out-of-print copies of Fermor’s “A Time Of Gifts” and Byron’s “The Road To Oxiana”. These books marked the beginning of a long and happy interest in the writings of people who have grabbed a rucksack and gone off to find adventures in a changing world.

It took me years, however, to get around to ordering the second installment in the planned trilogy, and the third book has yet to come out (although I was happy to read in Fermor’s obituary that a final draft may indeed have been completed, and may actually get published, in my lifetime I would hope…) I can’t be too saddened to hear of his death, at age 96. He lived a long, full and happy life, and cheered many, many people along the way with his delightful stories.

>Pagans In Tirol: The Beten And Other Mysteries


OK, they’re Norns; but, as we say in rural Pennsylvania, same difference.

The book in my hands in the photo in the previous post is “Vorchristliche Kultrelikte im oberen Inntal” (Pre-christian cult relics in the Upper Inn Valley), Norbert Mantl, Schlern Publishing, 1967. I bought it full of hopes that I’d learn a lot of forgotten lore about the region. And, well, I did indeed learn a lot, although some of it just might be greatly exaggerated, and some of it hooey.

I’ll start with the premises I might be willing to accept, which are in fact quite interesting: the indigenous people of the Inn Valley, as others in the alpine regions, saw their gods and spirits in the sun and moon, in the mountain peaks, caves and springs, and erected stone altars on hilltops to give up offerings and prayers. There seems to have existed, maybe only in a spiritual sense, a trinity of women — the three Beten*. Their given names, Ambet, Borbet, Wilbet — are possibly still with us in the names of mountains, caves, springs and other old places (Bettelwurf, Bötlerkuche, Barwies, Wildermieming, Bötlerbrunnele, etc), the meanings of which have been lost or attached to later, revised tales about beggars (Bettlern). The legend of Frau Hitt, Mantl maintains, is very old, not about a beggar’s curse and not originally connected to the protruding rock we call that name, but with the namesake of the Heiterwand and Hötting, a mountain deity named alte Hattle.

Mantl makes some interesting leaps in connecting names with old words and meanings, assuming that the pre-indo-germanic mountain folk spoke a language of which parts have survived, in the local dialects, over the millennia. His argument is that these peoples were pushed out of the Inn Valley by a string of newcomers, including (but not limited to) the Romans, the Franks, the Baiuwarii. They headed for the hills, which kept them isolated from each other and insular in their customs, languages, (hence particular dialects) and legends.

(The idea about dialects hadn’t occurred to me before: that it’s the “old” language of the original inhabitants showing through the “new” language. As an American I had assumed that the language came first and then the regional differences, but it could be the other way around. )

This argument strikes me as plausible, although there might be a bit of wishful thinking about the good old days in there. (His chapter on architecture confused me, and the one on bells and music just had me shaking my head. I am not qualified to comment on the chapter on Fasnacht costumes and traditions.) If one is to believe that so many place names signify holy ground, the entire Inn Valley would be lousy with pre-Christian holy sites and nothing else. Mantl also covers the pre-Roman history of Bergisel, Veldidena, the Romedius legend, and the giants Haymon and Thyrsus, but curiously says not a word about either of the two known Raetian settlements, near Wattens and Birgitz (the latter, at least, was known well before the book was written) nor about the sacrificial altar at Goldbichl.
I found dangerously high levels of jumping to conclusions, which makes me want to put Mantl in the same drawer as the English blokes who insist Ötzi was killed by a meteor blast, and Hans Haid. Nevertheless he has collected a ton of very localized myths and tales here (and in other books), and has a lot of information about local culture which started disappearing by the first world war. Naturally a lot of it is concentrated on the upper Inn valley, as the title suggests; places pretty much unknown to me  —Nassereith, Dormitz, Imst, the Pitztal. I should probably get up there someday. There is an local archaeology museum in Fliess…

But what would indeed be fascinating, even if not completely provable, is a connective line from three Germanic goddesses of fate to the Celtic/Roman Matrones, and the Norns, then to the three saints/three virgins, later Faith-Hope-and-Charity and, in our time,  to the three ladies with strange and wondrous powers who visit Sleeping Beauty’s cradle!

*A very generous Druid in Bavaria wrote and uploaded a comprehensive piece about the Beten and their later incarnations throughout Germanic history. You can read it here.

UPDATE: that link seems to be broken. Try here. And see also here, a later post about the Beten found in Leutstetten, Bavaria

>The Other September 11th.

>I caught this poem in a film clip at the end of Patrizio Guzman’s documentary “Salvador Allende”, read aloud by its author, Gonzalo Millán. I couldn’t find an English translation of it online, so you’ll just have to accept mine. As this poem deals with another September 11 anniversary, it would be interesting to me if someone wrote about 9/11 like this.

The City

The river flows against the current.
The water cascades upwards.
People begin to move in reverse.
The horses run backwards. The soldiers unmarch the parade.
The bullets leave the flesh.
The bullets enter the gun barrels.
The officers put their pistols in their sheaths.
The electricity flows back into the cable.
The electricity flows back into the plug.
The tortured stop writhing.
The tortured close their mouths.
The concentration camps empty.
The disappeared reappear.
The dead leave their graves.
The airplanes fly backwards.
The missiles rise into the airplanes.
Allende fires.
The flames go out.
He takes off his helmet.
The Moneda is rebuilt like new.
His skull reassembles itself.
He walks back out onto the balcony.
Allende backs up to Tomás Moro.
The arrested leave the stadium, backs first.
September 11th.
Airplanes return with refugees.
Chile is a democratic country.
The armed forces respect the constitution.
The soldiers return to their barracks.
Neruda is reborn.
He returns to Negra Island in an ambulance.
His prostate hurts, He writes.
Victor Jara plays guitar. He sings.
The speeches go back into the speakers’ mouths.
The tyrant embraces Prat.
He disappears. Prat returns to life.
The suspended parts are put back into the treaty.
The workers march by, singing.
We shall overcome!

>Anyone Up For a Walk Through Northumberland?

>The internet is, for all its faults, an amazing thing.

When I was around 12 years old I read a few books involving English Gypsies, and became fascinated by them and by England at the same time. One book in particular stayed with me, because of a long, descriptive passage of a walk from the Scottish border to Hadrian’s Wall. But that was pretty much all I could remember about this book. Title, author, character names were all lost to me.
Then recently I discovered that certain bookseller websites have forums where you can ask just this sort of thing. I wrote a post with the above information, and the dim memory of one brief bit about a gold coin offered and rejected. Within 24 hours I had a response and within the week I had the name of my book. There was no pressure to buy it anywhere, either, and I ended up ordering it somewhere else, but I am eternally grateful to the volunteer Book Sleuths who helped me out!
The book? It was Winifred Cawley’s “Feast Of The Serpent”, and after re-reading it I saw immediately why I was so fascinated. The protagonist, Adonell, is a teenager, half Gypsy, and when her father is killed her mother takes her (on foot, it’s 1649) from their Northumbrian village to reunite with her Romany family further south. On the way the reader is introduced to reading Gypsy signs, Neolithic cup-and-ring stones, the ruins of the Castle of Seven Shields (or Sewingshields), Hadrian’s Wall (Cawley calls it “the Picts’ Wall”), and the marginalized communities living within its fortification ruins. A bit of internet research convinced me that she was writing about what is now called Housesteads, near Barcombe Hill (from the Roman Vercovicium? which is called only Barcom in the book), and Vindolanda. The lake with the “steep crag beyond it” is surely Crag Lough, one of three lakes in the region which form a sort of triangle of land in between, which, Cawley writes, is sacred land to the Rom.
Of course, now all I want to do is fly to Newcastle and go on my own “Feast Of The Serpent” walkabout! I want to see these things! And again, the internet, with all its images, blogs and helpful websites, is an amazing thing.

Northumberland National Park
Housesteads Museum and Fort
Hadrian’s Wall Blog