LOOKING towards the long range of snow-covered mountains from Lombardy, one wonders what strange secrets are shrouded in their mists. They are ever-changing one moment all is hidden beneath heavy storm-clouds, then a snow-peak, flushed by the rising sun, gleams out, and gradually the clouds roll away in weird fantastic shapes like wandering spirits. The mountains change from grey and purple to the loveliest blue, the peaks lose their terrifying aspect, and in their tranquillity tempt one to explore their wildness.
In the plains the peasants often go to their work singing, and are communicative and eager to talk ; but in the mountains they become silent, for they are much alone sometimes in the high pasture-land for weeks at a time without seeing a human being. They watch the storms and sun-sets, and grow most observant of nature, and living in these surroundings it is not surprising to find they have such vivid imaginations. But it is not until one has gained their confidence that they will talk of their beliefs and fears and then one realises what a great part these play in their lives.
When near a glacier, every peasant will tell how they have seen the ” cours,” the strange procession of the spirits of the dead winding through the mountains on their way to the glacier singing the ” Miserere.” For a penance they have to pick out steps in the ice with a pin, so that at last they may pass from purgatory to paradise. The peasants even say that they have walked along by the side of these weird companies, and have seen the shining halos round their heads and hands.
Sometimes they describe the spirits as being dressed in ordinary clothes and carrying bundles wrapped in white tied to staves held on their shoulders, and when they speak it is so low that their conversation cannot be understood.
Two girls I knew, said they walked along with the procession to see if they could recognise any-one. At last the younger girl said to her sister : ” Let us turn our lantern on their faces, perchance we may see some one we know.” When the lantern was flashed, the spirit said : ” We go our road without disturbing you ; you go your road without disturbing us,” and two by two the spirits passed on in silence.
Other peasants say these companies are led by living flames, or by the ghost of the wickedest one very richly dressed, who when he comes to a precipice has to bend down his body, which is miraculously lengthened out to reach the other side, thus forming a bridge over which the other spirits can pass. Children, they say, often mistake these phantoms for human beings carrying lights, and when they have asked for one, they have been given something luminous which in the morning has turned out to be the phosphorescent bone of the spirit’s little finger. Until the child returns the luminous bone, the spirit is forced to go weeping at the end of the procession, for otherwise he will have no light to guide him on his way to Paradise.
If there is a queerly-shaped rock it is certain to have some legend connected with it. An old shepherd told the following story about a boulder at a place called Piantalor. A hunter named Gebbe went off hunting one night ; he walked all day into the higher mountains, arriving at Piantalor in the evening, and lay down to sleep on the rock. In the middle of the night he was awakened by the flare of a burning pine-tree, which was so brilliant that it lighted up the grass and moss even in the surrounding valleys. Seated on every stone near where he lay, he saw the shadowy figures of beautiful maidens. At first all was silent save for the sound of the burning wood. Then one by one the girls burst into song, singing as they rose and danced :
” O del Cielo gran Regina
Tu sei degna d’ogni amor ;
La beltade tua divina,
Chi non ama, non ha cuor.”
As each phantom glided by with her flowing veil, Gebbe thought she was going to seize him, and was very frightened. At last the flame died down, and there was nothing left except a column of smoke rising to heaven. His fear subsided, and he watched the singers rise and follow their leader, who touched the mysterious stone, which opened, revealing a cavern with a staircase descending into the depths of the earth. The spirits went down the stairway, and when the last had disappeared, shut the cavern with such a crash that it shook the whole earth. Who knows whether the cavern contains immense riches, and will its mystery ever be fathomed ?
In every district there is a strong belief in witches, and in their evil spells, especially over children. Sometimes a baby is said to have been snatched from its cradle, and a witch-baby put in its place. This changeling is always naughty, is often very ugly and cannot speak. After years of trouble the mother will by chance put eggs and polenta to roast on the hearth, and this so excites the witch-baby that it cries out : ” In all the hundreds of years that I have lived, I have never seen so many eggs and so much polenta before.” The peasant then knows that he is a witch-child, and has lived hundreds of years. She thereupon seizes him and beats him, until his cries bring his own witch-mother, who snatches him away, returning the human baby to its parents.
A peasant living in a little lonely village told the following story : A tinker once strolled into the house of two witches, mother and daughter. He did a day’s work for them, and asked if he might rest the night there. As he was dozing off to sleep he overheard the following conversation : ” A baby was born to the tinker last night shall we take it from him ? ” The witches agreed to do this. They greased themselves with some ointment out of a pot, and flew away, calling out : ” High and low, carry me out of the reach of shrubs, branches, and trees.” The tinker then greased himself with some of the same ointment, and called out : ” Carry me one hour sooner.” In his anxiety to save his baby he forgot the other words, and he arrived home torn and bleeding in his rush through the bushes. He lay down and watched his child, and soon a black cat appeared, who stretched out a paw to seize the infant. The tinker was ready with an old sword, and, aiming well, he cut off the cat’s paw. Once more the witches uttered their magic words and flew back home, followed by the tinker.
Next morning, when he asked to be paid for his day’s work, the old mother counted out the money with her left hand. The tinker insisted that it should be done with the right. He then saw that she only had a stump, and drawing the cat’s paw from his pocket, he found to his amazement that it fitted exactly.
Besides legends, there are numerous songs and proverbs which the peasants sing and teach their children. What could be more charming than the following cradle-song ?
Fa la nina, Fa la nana, T’ses le gioja D’tua mama.
Fa la nina, Fa la nana, T’ses la gioja To papà.
(Sleep, my little one, Sleep, little one, Thou art the joy Of thy mother.
Sleep, my little one, Sleep, little one, Thou art the joy Of thy father.)
The Book of Italy
What could give better advice than these two proverbs ?
” Chi a là pasienssa cun el fil,
A l’à pasienssa cun el marl ”
(” Who has patience with the thread, Has patience with the husband ” ;
and : ” Chi l’à paura del cauld dl’istà A chërpa d’fam an tl’invern ”
(” He who fears the heat of summer, Will die of hunger in the winter “).
But it is only when wandering from valley to valley, entering into the lives of the peasants, working with them, nursing their babies whilst the mothers attend to their duties, that gradually one sees how endless and varied are their ideas. Every plant is known for its value as a medicine. If one gathers a bunch of flowers for the sake of their beauty, the first question asked is : ” For what sickness art thou going to use them ? ”
The real time for stories and song is in the evenings, when the family with their goats and cows have come down from the mountains, and are gathered together in the stable. The door is shut to keep in the warmth, and the mother of the family warms the soup over a fire smouldering between a few stones in the middle of the floor. Through the smoke and gloom the faces of the peasants peer forth strange and gnome-like. The silence is only broken by the cows chewing the cud ; the chickens fluttering up to roost on the rough wooden beds. When snuff has been offered and accepted by host and guest alike, it is then, and only then, that the reserve of the peasant is broken and the evening is passed in story, song, and game.