Sontga Margriata – The Raetho-Roman Song of St. Margaret

This article was published in the May 2015 edition of “Touchstone,” the monthly journal of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids.

Typical "Alm," the high Alpine pasture

Typical “Alm,” the high Alpine pasture

In this edition of Touchstone, I would like to introduce you to what I consider a gem in the realms of wider Celtica. It is a song that is still sung in some remote areas of the Alps, in an area that was once called Raetia by the Romans. The Raetii were known as the Fanes people originally, who inhabited the Po valley in Northern Italy. When Celtic tribes moved into this agriculturally rich region, the Fanes people fled into the higher regions of the Dolomites. According to their own myths, the Fanes people eventually dissolved into the greater Celtic people of that region, the Raetii. Geographically, the Raetii were jammed between the Celtic Kingdom of Noricum (where I am from) in the East and the Celtic tribal lands of the Helvetii in the West. With the Romans so close, the Romanization of these Celts was inevitable, and this is why we talk about a Raetho-Roman language, one that is still spoken, and is a mixture of ancient Celtic, Latin, and some sprinkles of German.

Now let’s explore why this “only” 1,200 years old song could be of interest for us Druids. I have inserted the first few verses, just to give you a feel for that language. First, let’s look at the name of the woman the song is about. In ancient times, Alpine folk worshipped a Goddess Trinity, the Three Beten. Their names were Wilbet, Ambet, and Borbet. With Christianity, they morphed into the three holy ladies, St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and St. Barbara. You can see already in which direction this is going. Sontga Margeriata is St. Margaret, the central figure of the old Goddess Trinity.

In the song, Margeriata has broken a Christian taboo by being on a mountain pasture, were only men were allowed. (Probably, because the church didn’t want men and women mingle so far from anyone else, all kinds of sinful behaviour could be expected.) Up there on the pasture, she runs into a little boy, who threatens to tell the master herder of her presence. To avoid that, she offers the boy “three beautiful sheep/which he can shear three times a year/and which will give [him] 24 clews of wool,” then she offers him “three beautiful brown cows/which [he] can milk three times a day/ and each time a bucket of milk;” then she goes on with “a beautiful pasture/which [he] can mow three times a year/and a huge stack of hey each time,” and finally “a beautiful mill/which grinds rye during the day, and wheat at night/without the need to fill the mill.”

When she offers cows that give milk three times a day, even a city slicker would realise that these are magical gifts, which yield more profit than the normal sheep, cows, pastures, and mills. Still, the boy declines every single one of her gifts, and even when she threatens to kill him, he does not change his mind. He feels he must tell the master herder.

When she realizes the boy’s stubbornness, she decides to leave the pasture, singing: “Farewell my beloved mountain/Farewell my butter keg/Farewell my little hearth/Where I had my bed./Why did you do that, good herder boy?/Farewell my beloved cows/Your milk will dry up/Oh farewell, farewell everything around/God knows when I will be back!” Later in the song she predicts, “O well, o little well, when I leave/You surely will dry out/ And the well dried out/And then she walked over the pasture and sang/O pasture, o pasture I came to love, when I leave/You surely will wither/And the pasture withered/O good herbs, when I leave/You’ll wither, and surely won’t ever green again/And wither did the herbs.”

Clearly, someone who can offer magical gifts has also the power to keep the land fertile and livestock productive. This is, after all, the Goddess. When she leaves, she does not destroy the well, the pasture, the herbs, and the cows, but everything is still bound to die; because without her and her magic, the land perishes.

So, why did this happen? Why did the boy decline the gifts? What made him side with the master herder even under threats to his life?

The answer lies in the first word of the sixth line of the song: “Paster.”
The master herder is what we would call a pastor today, with its literal meaning of someone herding livestock, particularly sheep, and with its figurative meaning as a man of the frock, a minister, herder of a different kind of sheep.

In essence, this song tells of the people flocking around the pastor of the new faith, thereby expelling the Goddess out of their hearts and from the land. They do that even though they know what gifts she offers when she’s around, and despite the threat of the land to wither.

Why is this of interest for us Druids? Because as this situation unfolded in 800 CE, the Raetho-Roman Song of St. Margaret also sings of the time before the Goddess was banished, of when people in the Alps of old – and that includes the Celts – were still in tune with Mother Earth, and enjoyed her gifts.

What gives me hope is that she sings of coming back, even though she doesn’t know when. I think, if we, as Druids, invite her back in our hearts, the time for her to come back has come.

Sontga Margriata ei stada siat stads ad alp,
Mai quendisch dis meins
In di eis ella idadal stavel giu,
Dada giu sin ina nauscha plata,
Ch’igl ei scurclu siu bi sein alv.Paster petschen ha quei ad aguri catau.

“Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina ventireivla puschalla nus havein.”

“E sche tiu signun sto quei bucc saver;
Sch’ta ti vi jeu dar treis biallas camischas,
Che pli to scarvunas e pli alvas, ch’ellas vegnen.“

St. Margaret was on the mountain for seven summers,
minus fifteen days.
Once she went down the meadow,
And slipped on a steep plate
So that her naked buttocks were seen.

And the herder boy noticed that.
“The herder needs to know that.
What beautiful lady we have here.”

“And if the herder doesn’t need to know;
I will give you three beautiful shirts,
Which will become whiter
The more often you wash them.”

Translation: Prof. Hans Haid

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