The mighty Dolomites are an unrivaled mountain range in Europe. Really, it is no wonder that so many fascinating myths and legends were born in this monumental region. As you follow the ancient trails, the dramatic peaks will leave you in a speechless awe. When the clouds roll in and the misty atmosphere envelops the summits, the landscape looks equally intimidating as majestic.
A few weeks ago, when I was hiking to the mighty Mount Seceda in Val Gardena, I took out my smartphone to send a few photos to my friends and family. I let out a sigh and couldn’t help but wish I could reverse the science in my mind and go back to those days when people still recognized the pure magic in our earthly landscapes. In-between the summits, the people that lived in the Ladin valleys tried to make sense of their enigmatic surroundings. How else should they understand the origins of these otherworldly landscapes?
Legends from the Dolomites: making the world make sense
Even long before the arrival of Christianity, humans were enthralled by the strange world they lived in. They spoke of mountain spirits, water witches, devilish gnomes, and many more creatures that have now been lost to history.
After I got back home, my mind couldn’t let go: it was still up there, in the mountains. So, I decided to revive some of those legends now, to understand our ancient views of the natural world. I dedicated a bit of time to some historical research. The result: three of the most magical myths and legends from the Dolomites and its Ladin valley culture.
1. The Pale Mountains and the Moon Princess
Did you know the Dolomites have a much older name that most of us have forgotten about? The “Pale Mountains” isn’t just a reflection of the typical light grey rock that forms the mountains. It’s also the title of a fairy tale that describes a beautiful union between a young prince and a wondrous woman from the Moon. 1
When she descended to Earth, the moon princess brought a gift. It was a brilliant white flower that grew in the alpine meadows. The people in the valleys decided to call it ‘edelweiss’.
The young prince had always dreamed of flying to the Moon. One faithful day he encountered two little old men in the forest. The curious creatures revealed to the prince that they lived on the Moon and could take him with them. When they arrived on the surface of the Moon, the prince met the daughter of the Moon king and instantly fell in love. She did too, as the prince had brought the most gorgeous red rhododendrons as a gift.
The mythical origin of the edelweiss flower
On the moon, all the flowers were white. Everything was white, so white that the human prince was slowly going blind. The prince and princess decided to move back to the Earth, together. As a gift, the princess brought the white flowers from the moon to plant them on Earth. The humans were enchanted by their special shine, and decided to call them edelweiss. Even to this day, you will find them growing in the alpine meadows.
But all was not well. This time, the princess started feeling incredibly homesick. The mountains were so dark and looming, she was afraid she would collapse. They eventually returned to the moon, but, again, the prince slowly started going blind.
It seemed like there was no way for the couple to stay together, until the prince decided to talk to the king of the dwarfs who lived in a cave in the forest. After some negotiations, the king of the dwarfs decided to help the prince: he painted the mountains a light silver grey with shining threads from the moon. It reminded the princess of her home and they lived happily ever after in the Dolomites.
2. The Anguanes: wicked witches or water goddesses?
Many of the valleys in the Dolomites used to tell all kinds of legends about supernatural figures called ‘anguanes’. They were female, nymph-like witches that were rumored to grow nails on their head instead of hair. But the stories varied from valley to valley. 2
Some thought they were fearsome water goddesses, while others said they were simply mountain spirits that liked to roam around. Some believers claimed they were the souls of suffering women instead, and that they should be avoided at all costs.
The anguanes allegedly lived in caves, streams, lakes and rivers, anywhere that was near to the water. They would guard the caves and the surface of the water: the hidden entrances to the world of shadows.
According to some legends, the witches would always try to collect water in willow baskets. Of course, this was an endless task that was impossible to fulfill. The water would immediately stream away through the holes in the basket. That’s why locals would sometimes leave empty baskets outside their doors at night, to keep the anguanes distracted.
The anguanes lived in caves, lakes and rivers, anywhere near the water. They would guard the caves and the surface of the water: the hidden entrances to the world of shadows.
Other valleys interpreted this story differently. They said the anguanes would actually lure young women away from their villages to enslave them and force them to collect the water in willow baskets. The young women would disappear into a life of eternal anguish, blindly filling leaking baskets with the water that endlessly streamed down the mountains.
3. The Nightingale of Sassolungo Castle
Another legend tells a story about a castle that has long disappeared, at the foot of the Sassolungo mountain in Val Gardena. In the castle lived a powerful king and his kind-hearted daughter. One day, when the princess was outside, she witnessed a hawk preying on a nightingale. The ferocious hawk quickly caught the little bird in its clutches. The princess couldn’t just stand and watch and she decided to save the nightingale. 3
In all his gratitude, the mysterious nightingale promised the princess that he would gift her a magical power: any time she wanted, she could now transform into a nightingale. This metamorphosis would allow her to fly around like a free spirit. The only thing that could break this spell, however, was the death of a human.
When the spell turned into a curse
A little while after this magical encounter, the princess was singing a song that enchanted a lonesome knight that lived near the castle. At first, he was fascinated by her melodies, but soon became resentful. She had put a spell on him, and he angrily chased her way.
If you ever hear the captivating song of a nightingale in the distance, pay attention. It might be the bewitched princess calling your name.
The princess felt awful and left him alone again. When she finally mustered up the courage to transform into a nightingale again and reunite with the knight, she found his lifeless body in the courtyard. The death of the knight broke the metamorphosis spell, but the princess had just transformed into a bird. For eternity, the princess had no choice but to continue her life as a nightingale in the forest.
If you ever wander through the valleys of Val Gardena and hear a nightingale singing an unforgettably beautiful song, pay close attention! It might be the bewitched princess calling your name.