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Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Mountain Fairies' Icy Realm

Like no other legendary figure the Saligen Fräulein utterly embody the beauty and the grandness of the high mountains. From Switzerland to Slovenia, from Austria to South Tyrol - everywhere in the Alpine regions legends tell about the magic and the grace of those mountain fairies.

Salig - the Old High German word means blessed, sound, or good. However, there are also other names for the Saligen: in Tyrol the "Wilden Fräulein" (wild young ladies) are called Schneefräulein (young lady of snow), Holde (graceful lady), or Heidnische (heathen woman). The almost transparent fairies of the South Tyrolean Fassatal (Val di Fassa), who are believed to live until the end of all times, are called Vivànes. In other parts of South Tyrol, the "Saligen" are known as Anguana, Salvària, Kristàna, Fai or Gana, Salighe, or Heilige Frau (holy lady). In Engadin (Switzerland) live the Diàles. Their outward appearance is versatile - depending on where they dwell: in the splendorous brightness of the glacial ice, in the gleaming green mountain forests, or in the depth of a clear mountain lake. They appear alone or in mythical trinity, similar to the Norns of the Nordic Mythology. All of those legendary figures share the characteristics of belonging to Nature and of guarding the Fauna and Flora.

The Goddesses of Ötzi the Iceman

The age-old legendary figure of the Saligen originates in pre-Christian times. In times in which the social order was still matriarchal, and the Alps were dominated by goddesses like Tanna, Alpina, or Donna Dindia. That matriarchal era ended when about 4000 years ago Indo-European peoples migrated to the Alpine regions. However, those female deities have endured millennia: legends tell about mountain fairies dressed in white, hidden in inaccessible mountain forests, caves, and in the glacial ice of the summits. Commonly the "Wilden Fräulein" (wild young ladies) are associated with rocks and stones. That also suggests the old age of the legends, as it obviously correlates to the worshipping of stones (Litholatria), which was introduced in the New Stone Age (about 5000 to 2000 BC) and lasted until Christian times. 

Some scholars believe that the "Wilden Fräulein" symbolize the native women of the Alps who were gradually replaced by migrating peoples. This theory is also supported by the fact that the Saligen are attributed with old knowledge and skills like working flax, grinding grain, making cheese, and the lore of minerals and medical herbs.

About well-meaning and wrathful Fairies

Despite their celestial beauty, the mountain fairies are not altogether aloof: they are not only guardian spirits of Nature, but they also help and protect humans - just as it is hoped for probably all around the world. They appear suddenly in huts and farms in the mountains, they help with the work and they bring boon and wealth to the house which sometimes lasts for nine generations. Many of these legends are evidence of the bitter poverty that characterized the hard life of mountain farmers over the centuries. Solace and hope arose, when the legends of the helping Saligen were told on long, dark winter nights in parlors blackened by the smoke of the open fire. Surely, the thought that a beautiful mountain fairy might provide her help in times of need, lightened the burdens and sorrows of many a poor mountain dweller. 

The storytellers of long ago attributed the Saligen with all the beauty and the grandeur of the high mountains, but also with their destructive powers. If humans arouse the wrath of the mountain fairies, they do not encounter any more kindness or helpfulness. The Saligen unmercifully take revenge for iniquities towards Nature and animals. They make hunters, who kill their chamois or deer, plunge to death, or cause avalanches and rockfalls when humans extravagate yet again.

The Glacier Paradise

The Saligen also appear as snow maidens or snow fairies, as beautiful and poetic figures. They dwell in fantastic crystal palaces far away from the world of man, inside of glaciers. Their bright white gown relates to the beauty and pureness of the perpetual ice. Some legends tell about gorgeous mountain pastures amidst the ragged wilderness of the glacier, where the snow fairies graze their white chamois - paradise can hardly be pictured more beautiful. If a hunter or herdsman somehow enters the realm of the Saligen, he is put under their spell and can not live in happiness among human beings ever again. For instance, a legend from Ötztal tells about a hunter who is saved by three snow fairies after he falls down a mountain. The Saligen take him to their crystal palace and nurse him back to health. 

The hunter returns home then and lives on yearning for the magic realm in the ice and its supernaturally beautiful dwellers. Once every month - at full moon - he is allowed to return to them for three days. However, when he accidentally gives away the location of the entrance of the crystal palace, the crevice closes forever. He is so desperate that he also breaks the second promise he has made: after his rescue he vowed that he would never again kill an animal of the mountains. Driven again by the desire to hunt he shoots a chamois on a steep ridge. At once the three mountain fairies appear, covered in bright light. The sight of their wrathful faces makes the miserable hunter plunge into the depths. 

Much time has passed since that day, much snowmelt has flown down the mountain brooks, as goes the Austrian saying. Today people go skiing on some of the Alpine glaciers. Other glaciers can be traversed and explored with a mountain guide and modern mountaineering equipment. However, no more stories have been told about humans who ever encountered the ice fairies again. Their fantastic realm moves further and further out of reach. No wonder, as modern man has grown out of the world of myths a long time ago. As more and more legendary figures and fairy-tale figures fall into oblivion, also the Saligen disappear from our planet. In our days not only the ice fairies but also the glaciers themselves withdraw from this world. All that is left are gray, smoothed rocks, and man’s eternal longing for a golden age and a change in the weather. When you think about the fading ice world of the Saligen, a nostalgic feeling inevitably arises - maybe even in the most well-informed, globalized-thinking rationalists who are governed by reason.

Let us, however, finally note the following thing: we cannot be sure that neither the glaciers, nor their graceful dwellers may return one day triumphantly, and conquer once again the Alpine world.
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Faries in the eternal ice

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