The Raetho-Roman Song of Sontga Magriata

How Alpine Goddess Worship Survived Centuries in a Simple Farmer’s Song

“There are three tasks of the Druid:
To live fully in the presence, to honour tradition and the ancestors, and to hear the voice of tomorrow.”

This well-known triad tells us much of the expectations we should have of a Druid, no matter the degree. It is not always easy to fulfil either of these objectives individually, and it can become really difficult to combine all three of them at the same time. In the following article I’d like to contemplate an old song rooted in ancient Celtic lands, singing of the fears of its makers, ancestors to some of us, during times of change and turmoil. What we consider history, our past, was their presence. This little gem thus connects us directly to our pre-Christian forebears and with that, as we will explore, deeply with the land. It does so even though the song was not created in ancient, but in mediaeval times, for it is a lament about what was back then “the Old Ways” already; it is evoking a time when it was the Goddess who made the land fertile through pagan ritual and who gifted her people with magic. When we discover the song’s linguistic and geographic origin we will learn of its Celtic roots, and by digging further we’ll find a truly magical core of the story. We will also lift the veil that disguised the main character far enough so women working on the fields in the high mountains of the Alps could sing it without fear of being persecuted by the Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant. While all this took place in the heart of Europe centuries ago, we’ll also see that the story compares to our own present days. And as we listen to the voice of the future, we may just realize that little has changed since our ancestors’ traditions were jeopardized by religious righteousness. But maybe, if we worked a little magic described in the song, we still could make our present and our future a better place.

Social Studies – Who Sang the Song and Where?

The song is called La Canzun de Sontga Margriata, which means “The Song of St. Margaret”, and is composed in Raetho-Roman, a language still spoken in some very remote areas of Switzerland. Raetho-Roman, also sometimes referred to as Romansh, belongs to the Roman languages, and replaced a hybrid tongue comprised of Roman Latin, Celtic, and some very old forms of High German. Raetho-Roman is termed after the Celtic province of Raetia, itself named after the Celtic tribe of the Raetii. As shown in the map …, the province covered a section of the Alps where we find the Austrian provinces of Tyrol and Vorarlberg, South Tyrol (now a part of Italy), the Italian province Trentino and the western part of the Veneto region, and finally the Unter-Engadin, the lower (i.e. unter) section of the Swiss part of the Inn valley today. In the latter area, Raetho-Roman is still spoken. Even the valley’s name hints at this old language, for En, the first syllable of the Engadin, is actually Raetho-Roman for the River Inn. To the North, Raetia stretched all the way to Lake Constance and the Danube. The Helvetii, the Proto-Swiss so to say, lived to the West of the Raetii, and in the east we find the Kingdom of Noricum, with

Raetia

Figure 1: The province of Raetia, from a historical map. Droysens Historischer Handatlas, 1886 (Public Domain)

Hallstatt right in the centre of it. Although the earliest culture we identify as Celtic is named after this quaint little village, Hallstatt was not the main dwelling of the realm. The capital of the Noricum is believed to have been the city of Noreia, mentioned in lore, but – officially – not yet found. There is, however, promising evidence that the city has been discovered very recently, as erosion has freed vast amounts of remains such as pottery and weaponry in an area of Austria where the capital of the Kingdom of Noricum has been believed to be for a long time. Not only was the author of this Article born and raised in this area, horse enthusiasts may also know of the breed “Noriker”, also known as the “Noric Pinzgauer”, which is termed after the kingdom. This breed’s current name, once known only as the Pinzgauer, is a 19th century invention, driven by the Celtic revival. Still, the breed itself does in fact origin from the area where the kingdom of Noricum once was.

The Raetii themselves were a conglomerate of a number of Celtic tribes and of non-Celtic folk, most prominently the Ladin people with their mythological forbears, the Fanes (Wolff, 1913). They are believed to have been a matriarch society (Göttner-Abendroth, 2005) who inhabited the fertile valley of the river Po in northern Italy originally. Their national epos sings of their attempts to hold the Celts at bay, who entered the Po-valley when venturing south from their place of origin, the Danube valley. This epos is full of magic and well worth the while reading, even though the Fanes vanished, i.e. assimilated with the Celts eventually.

Similar to other Celtic provinces right along the northern border of the early Roman Empire (before the Romans waged their wars beyond the Italian peninsula), the Raetii were exposed to this culture early on, and subsequently adopted much if it. So when we talk about “Raetho-Roman” today we need to consider that this constant movement of people in this region created a language with heavy Roman influence, yet still with Celtic elements.

Dialect – a Window into the Past

From the original version of the ballad, as it is penned down in the book Mythos und Kult in the Alpen (3rd ed., 2002) (“Myth and Cult in the Alps”) by anthropologist Prof. Dr. Hans Haid, you can easily see how close Raetho-Roman is to Italian. My English version is based on a translation from Raetho-Roman into German by the 19th century Catholic priest P. Maurus Carnot. As this translation is rather mechanical, I would like to propose a contest for all those interested in the bardic arts or on the bardic path reading this article. Shortly we will see that this song is a piece of evidence of pagan culture in the Alps, based on at least partly Celtic origins. It would be a great feat, if this were available for generations to come in a form that not only informs, but speaks to us poetically as well.

But before we go into the bits and pieces of information inherent in La Canzun, let’s explore how much of a mix and match the Raetho-Roman language really is. This will allow us to span an arch from a German dialect as it is spoken in the 21st century to this old tongue of some of our Celtic ancestors. Words like allura and ella clearly show the influence of Italian, and with that of Latin. However, there are also words in there that are difficult to trace back to one or another language, amongst which was also an early form of German. There is one expression in particular that I find of great interest, linguistically, the word “pietigott.” It appears in several verses of the song, e.g. in the following one:

Allura va Sontga Magriata dabot
E da tut ella prien pietigott:
Pietigott, ti miu bien signun!
E pietigott, ti mia buna caldera!”

This translates into: Then, St. Margaret leaves/And says farewell all around./“Farewell, my good herder!/And farewell, my good cauldron!

In the Eastern Alps, folks speak High German (the southern version of the German language), particularly Austro-Bavarian, as opposed to the Low German spoken in Northern Germany. There are actual linguistic variations between these two types of German, such as different words for the same object, and intonation of vowels and consonants, not unlike between British and American English. These differences are a result of the second Germanic consonant shift in which the northern Germans did not participate. The Angles and Saxons did neither, which is why English and Northern German are very close. The English word “ship” for example would be Schipp in northern Low German, but Schiff in southern High German. To make things even more complicated, there are a number of dialects spoken in both of these German language regions. In the dialects spoken in the Eastern Alps – you guessed it, folks in the Western Alps speak yet a different kind of German, Alemannic – it is still custom to say Pfiat-di-gott or more casually Pfiat-di as good-by. Just like St. Margaret says pietigott to all that she leaves behind on the Alp when she takes off.

This shows beautifully that even though society “moves on” by pressing these many variations of Europe’s most spoken language into one format, so-called Standard German, the Very Old is not forgotten at all in the common tongues spoken by the locals.

Who is Sontga Magriata anyway?

We need to consider another important clue to the deeper meaning of the song before actually delving into what the lyrics tell us. Who the main character is must be seen as of utmost interest for us. It is St. Margaret – and not any other Christian saint – and this is not arbitrary at all. When we visit remote village churches in the lands where the ancient Celts dwelled, particularly in the area of the Raetii, we often find church paintings depicting three saints. They are St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and St. Barbara. There is even an old adage telling us about the three:

Marg’ret mit dem Wurm
Barbara mit dem Turm
Katharina mit dem Radl
Des sind uns’re drei heiligen Madl.

While this rhymes perfectly in German dialect (Madl is Austro-Bavarian dialect for Mädchen, meaning “girl”, and Radl stands for Rad, meaning “wheel”) the English translation would go like this: “Margaret with the worm/Barbara with the tower/Catherine with the wheel/These are our three holy girls”. The significance lies in the fact that the three saints are usually depicted with these three attributes, a “worm” (an old word for snake), a tower, and a wheel, in these old church paintings. And the three women are typically dressed in white, red, and black dresses, respectively (Kutter, 2003). The colors are not chosen randomly, but are based on the colors associated with the ancient Goddess trinity; white for the maiden, red for the mother, and black for the crone. The author Ernie Kutter also draws a link to an old, matriarch version of time keeping that connects the phases of the Moon with those of the menstrual cycle. In my book “Mountain Magic” I describe this idea as follows:

“The cycle of the year was originally not based on the number four – as in the four stations of the Sun determining the seasons – but on the enchanted number three. Three as a magical number was already part of the Neolithic consciousness. The first section of the Moon’s cycle is the white one, where the uterus builds up the white mucous membrane, which corresponds to the waxing Moon. This is followed by the red phase in the centre of which we experience the Full Moon, as well as the high point of fertility, ovulation. After this follows the dark or black episode, finding its end with the New Moon. White, red, black – the same three colours associated with the Goddess Trinity, with Wilbet, Ambet, and Borbet.” (Brunner 2015)

The wheel held by Catherine (dressed in white) has eight spokes and resembles the sun-wheel and the wheel of the year. The tower held by Barbara (dressed in black) is a symbol of the castle-keep, the place of protection and the warm hearth.

The worm or snake associated with the central Goddess needs specific consideration here, not only because it is Margaret’s attribute, but also for what it stands. Worm is actually an old German word for snake, which, more importantly, was also connected to the dragon (a rather huge snake). In the times of the ancient Celts, the dragons were more snake-like creatures, which got their legs and wings only later. In fact, the main sight-seeing attraction of Klagenfurt, capital of Austria’s province of Carinthia, is a statue of a dragon (with legs and wings), and it is called Lindwurm. We not only have the old word for dragon in its name, but also the ancient Celtic term for lake, LIND. Thus, the creature cast in bronze in this regional capital is a lake-snake, or water dragon, really (Inge Resch-Rauter, 1992).

DreiMadln

Figure 2: Carved figurines of Saints Barbara, Catharine, and Margaret in the parish church Klein Sankt Paul, district Saint Veit, Carinthia, Austria. (Public domain)

When we look at these church paintings mentioned above, we almost always see a snake winding around St. Margaret’s feet, symbolizing a dragon, one of the most powerful creatures of old myths (see Merlin, for example). At statues of Mary (mother of Jesus) we also sometimes see the same snake under her feet, or winding around the earth-ball upon which she stands. So, the “worm” in the old adage above is in reality a snake, with all its pre-Christian symbolism, and with the powers and status of the dragon.

Let’s for a moment revisit this symbolism of the snake. It can be best described as a physical manifestation of the magical power of the woman. When we imagine a snake of dragon-like proportion, we can get a feeling for its immense strength. When we consider how people and snakes have this kind of offish relationship, we get a hunch about how difficult it is to describe this power. Yet it is really ancient, pre-historic almost, reaching back into the realm of the dinosaurs. Which explains this fear some people have of this relentless, hard to grip (because it grips you as soon as you touch it), female power that stares you down with non-blinking eyes, hissing at you when you challenge it. It is a strength that is not to be ruled over, especially not by men. And thus it is vilified by them.

Figure 2 shows a later baroque altar piece with painted and gilded wood carvings of the Three Ladies. Borbet’s tower is at her feet here, Wilbet’s wheel is broken (which could be interpreted as a Christian pun for having broken Pagan faith), and Ambet’s worm is an actual dragon over which she now has control, symbolized by the chain. The garments of each of the figures show already all three colors of the Goddess, with the black having somewhat turned into a dark green.

A Pagan Goddess Survives in a Christian Song

This is the Margret we encounter in the song, and by now we have to ask ourselves, “Is this woman, who is associated with the dragon or snake; who wears the red dress in sacral paintings; who’s companions are attributed with the sun-wheel and the castle-keep and who wear dresses dyed with the other two colors usually associated with the ancient Goddess trinity, really just a saint?”

We can even delve deeper into the symbolism of these three figures, by considering that in the oldest of these paintings, the names of the three women are not Catherine, Margaret, and Barbara, but they are Wilbet (remember, she carries a wheel, and there is in fact a linguistic connection there), Ambet, and Borbet, respectively.

The syllable BET all three of them share means something like “eternal” and words like bed in English (because people lied directly on Her when sleeping, or harvested crops from Her) or the German beten, “praying”, are associated with it. Since all three figures have that syllable in their names we can conclude that all three were “eternal ones”. Wilbet represented the eternal cycle (wheel) of the seasons, and Borbet the eternal warmth and safety of the castle keep.

Ambet is, in a sense, even more eternal. The AM in her name comes from the ancient term ANA, here in the meaning of (eternal) mother. The Celtic Goddess names Anu, Dana, or Danu are derived from this ancient word, as is Danube, i.e. the Mother River, along which the epicentre of the Celts is believed to have been. The Irish People of the Dana, the Túatha Dé Danann, are named after her and the Roman Goddess Diana is as well, Diana meaning Dea Ana or Goddess Mother. In German, the word for ancestors, Ahnen, and for midwife, Amme, also root in the ancient words ANA and AM.

A number of towns and river names in the wider Alpine region bear witness to her name, too – with and without the syllable BET. There is the Austrian town Amstetten, the Italian ski resort Cortina D’Ampezzo, the Hungarian city Syombathely (say “Shambetey”) or Austrian rivers like Ammer, Amper, and Amperbettenbach. When we put together the two syllables AM (mother) and BET (eternal), we get the true meaning of her name, “Eternal Mother”. In some versions of Ambet’s name, e.g., Anabet or Einbet (both meaning “One-Bet”), another aspect of her shines through, which is the central position she not only holds in many of the paintings, but also in the trinity of the “Three Holy Girls” (Inge Resch-Rauter, 1992).

So, although St. Margaret seems to be the one the song is about, her direct link to the ancient Goddess is already apparent in her name. And even more so in what the lyrics tell us:

1. 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 scurclau siu bi sein alv.
Paster petschen ha quei ad aguri catau.
“Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina ventireivla puschalla nus havein.”
1. St. Margaret stayed on the mountain
For seven summers, less fifteen days.
Once she went down the meadow,
And slipped on a steep plate so that her naked buttocks were seen.
And the herder’s boy noticed that.
“The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
2. “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.“
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
2. “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.”
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
3. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti treis bialas nuorsas,
Che ti sas tunder treis gadas igl onn
E mintgaga ventgaquater crenas launa.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
3. “And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you three beautiful sheep,
Which you can shear three times a year,
And each shearing yields 24 clews of wool.”
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
4. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti treis bialas vaccas,
Che ti sas mulscher treis gadas il di,
Mintgaga siu bi curtè latg.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
4. “And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you three beautiful brown cows,
Which you can milk three times a day,
And a full bucket of milk each time.”
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
5. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti in bi curtgin,
Che ti sas segar treis gadas igl onn,
E mintgaga siu bi ladretsch fein.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
“And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you a beautiful pasture,
Which you can mow three times a year,
And a huge haystack each time.
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
6. “Sche ti vul quei buca dir ora,
Sche vi jeu dar a ti in bi mulin,
Che mola il di segal e la notg salin,
Senza mai metter si buc in.”
“Quei vi jeu buc, quei prend jeu buc!
Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
6. “And if the herder doesn’t need to know,
I will give you a beautiful mill,
That grinds rye during the day and wheat at night,
Without you having to fill it.
“I don’t want that, I won’t take that,
The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
“E sche tiu signun sto quei saver,
Sche ti sas fundar entochen culiez.”
“O, buna Sontga Margriata,
Lai po vegnir viado,
quei sto nies signun buc ir a saver.”
Cu la sontga Margriata ha gidau ô il paster petschen,
Ha quel puspei entschiet a dir:
“Quei sto nies signun ir a saver,
Tgeinina zezna purschala nus havein.”
“And if the herder needs to know,
Then sink into the ground to your neck!” “Oh good St. Margaret,
Oh help me out of here,
This the herder doesn’t need to know.”
St. Margaret helped the herder boy out,
But the boy decided to say,
“The herder needs to know that,
What a beautiful lady we have here.”
8. “Sche ti vul quei dir ora,
Sche dueis ti fundar treis tschuncheismas ault.”
Allura va sontga Margriata dabot,
E da tut ella pren pietigot!
“Pietigot, ti miu bien signun,
E pietigot, ti mia buna caldera,
Pietigot mia buna panaglia,
E pietigot ti mia buna fueinetta,
Che jeu durmevel adina cun tei.
Pertgei fas quei miu bien paster?
Pietigot mias bunas vachettas,
Vus vegnis a schigiar dil latg.
Ah, pietigot entuorn, entuorn,
Sappi Dieus cur jeu cheu tuorn!”
8. “And if the herder needs to know,
Then sink into the ground three yards!”
Then, the holy maiden leaves
And says farewell all around.
“Farewell, my good herder,
Farewell, my good cauldron
Farewell my butter keg,
Farewell my little hearth,
Where I had my sleeping quarters.
Why did you do that, good herder?
Farewell my good cows,
Your milk will dry up.
Oh, farewell, farewell everything around!
God knows when I will return again!”
9. Epi mav’ella sul Cunclas ô.
La caldera e las vaccas mavan suenter,
Aschi lunsch sco ellas han viu,
Han ellas buca calau de bargir.
Epi eis ella ida sper ina fontauna ô, a cantond:
“O ti, o ti fontaunetta,
Sche jeu mond ir naven
Sche vegnas lu schigiar si!”
E la fontauna ei schigiada si.
Epi eis ella ida sper ina plaunca ô, a cantond:
“O ti, o ti plaunchetta,
Sche jeu mond ir naven,
Sche vegnas ti guess a seccar!”
E la plaunca ei seccada.
“Ah, mia buna jarva,
Sche jeu mond ir naven,
Ti vegnas lu seccar e mai verdegar.”
E la jarva ei seccada e mai verdegada,
E cur ch’ell’ei ida sut il zenn da sogn Gieri e sogn Gagl,
Tuccavan ei d’ensemen, ch’ei dev’ô il battagl.
9. Then she left the valley.
And the milk bucket with her,
And as long as they could see the leaving maiden,
The cows couldn’t stop crying.
Then she passed by a well and sang,
“Oh well, oh little well, when I leave,
You will surely dry out!”
And the well dried out.
Then she left the pasture behind and sang,
Oh pasture, oh pasture so close to my heart,
When I leave, you will surely wither.”
And wither did the pasture.
“Oh you good herbs, when I leave,
You will wither and never green again.”
And wither did the herbs, and they never greened again.
The maiden passed the bells of the churches of St. Jörgs and St. Galls,
And the bells rang so loud,
That the clapper fell out.

First, the “saint” has stayed on the alp already for a long time, a magically long time: seven summers. But what she does fifteen days before the end of the summer is somewhat surprising and rather unbecoming for a “saint”. She slides down a rock, and a young boy sees her naked buttocks when she does that (there was no underwear back then). Although it may appear like this was an accident, it really refers to something else, something truly pagan. Sliding stones can be found in the Alps frequently. They are slanted rocks, often with a groove or two next to each other, and they are very smooth. Some have engravings on, or cups carved into them, often a set of three times three. The cups are believed to be made to hold gifts, maybe milk and honey, and the boulders themselves are designed for women to slide down. Pagans of old did that as part of fertility rites, may that be to induce fertility in a young woman generally, or if she had problems becoming pregnant; or as a part of a coming of age ceremony for young women. And it would seem logical that the women did that naked, or at least lifted their skirts to be in direct contact with Mother Earth.

For today’s Ovates, as healers and helpers, we can extract some ideas from this very first verse of the song, and its deeper meaning, if we were called to service by someone who needs help with fertility. Safe of sliding down a rock, the mere contact of the woman’s body, particularly of her buttocks – naked skin to ancient stone – could become part of a ritual designed to increase or induce fertility. Obviously, such ancient sliding stones with their own ritualistic history, as they exist in the Alps, cannot be found everywhere. But it should not be a problem to locate a bolder in anyone’s area, where the woman in question could at least sit in direct contact with Mother Earth, as part of such a ritual. Offerings typical for Celtic worship and for the spirit of the land can be given to the Goddess by leaving them in natural dents or crevices of the bolder.

SlidingStone

Figure 3: Sliding rock. (Photo by author)

Druid-Celebrants, involved in coming-of-age-rites for young women, could also incorporate something in the rite where the girl would sit on a boulder. Utmost consideration must be given to the girl’s particular feelings at that stage of her life, obviously. A dress or skirt would do the trick.

Figure 3 shows a small version of a sliding rock near the town of St. Wolfgang in the Austrian Salzkammergut area. The stone is about a 30 minute walk from a major Celtic cult place, the Falkenstein, and was certainly used for fertility rites. The Catholic Church altered the history of the rock, though, and tells the legend of 10th century Saint Wolfgang of Regensburg, who sat on the stone to contemplate where to build a new church. Because of his holiness, the stone became soft and adopted the form of the saint’s buttocks. The wayside shrine reminds of this tale. The photo also shows the author’s daughter sliding down the stone to explain to her the old ways. Utmost care was taken, however, not to invoke any fertility magic in this teaching moment.

Gifts of Magic

St. Margaret did not slip and fall by accident. She held a fertility ritual. And the little herder boy saw her doing that, saw the “saint” doing something he knew would not be condoned by his master, the herder. That’s why the boy says that the herder needs to know. But why is he so obsessed with having a beautiful lady up there in the remoteness of the high pastures (Figure 4 for an example) in the first place?

Because it was a taboo for unmarried women to work there in mediaeval times, and it was still punishable by law to do so in Tyrol in the 1960s (Haid, 2002)! Herding sheep was a male domain, and women up there, together with a lonely man, and so far from the orderly village life where people pried into each other’s affairs left and right, could only mean one thing: sinful, lusty behaviour. When the little herder boy saw a woman in this male realm, practicing old, pagan ways of worship, which made him see her naked buttocks – that could only upset him. And so he cries out that he has to tell on her.

But the Goddess sees an opportunity, a glimmer of hope that the child may come back to her and the Old Ways. For he is a little boy and possibly gullible. So she promises him a gift. And when he shows no interest, but insists on telling the herder, she offers him another gift, and another one. Five in total. But the boy is relentless in his wish to tell the herder, and the gifts are all meaningless to him.

If we look at the gifts more closely, that is surprising, actually. A shirt that gets whiter the more often it is washed? Sheep that can be sheared three times a year? And cows that can be milked three times a day? That is impossible! Why, it is impossible, unless you know magic.

Consider the folk ballad “Scarborough Fair” for a moment. Throughout the song, a person – either a man alone or a man first and a woman later – ask the listener to tell a person they love to perform some magical crafts, like sewing a shirt without seams and needlework, to wash it in a dry well, to buy an acre of land between the water and the beach, to plough it with a ram’s horn and so on and so forth. At one of the Eisteddfods during the 2016 East Coast Gathering of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, David Smith, the Order’s Pendragon and also known as Damh the Bard, explained one possible meaning of this ballad. It may be about a man of the Fae people, the original faeries, who dwells at the Scarborough Fairground, and who loves a human lady. But he can only be with her if she proves that she knows magic. She has to verify her skills by fulfilling these impossible tasks, which she could only do with magic.

We have a similar concept here. The magic is “agricultural” and “pastoral”, in the sense that the gifts offered by the Goddess are quite impossible in the apparent world, but would be very beneficial and profitable to have. If the herder-boy stayed with the Goddess, she lets him know, he would not have to worry about anything ever again. He would be well dressed and rich.

But, obviously, the boy is not interested. Even after the Goddess buries him neck-deep in the ground, and after a brief moment in which he gives in to her wish not to tell his master, he turns against her as soon as he is freed. That’s when the Goddess sees no other way than burying him for good.

Why, you would ask, why is the little boy so persistent in his urge to tell on her, to tell his master of the broken taboo, of the forbidden worshipping in the old style, and of the naked buttocks? Why does he not take any gifts, and why does he not come to the Goddess’s side even after a threat to his life?

A Historical Perspective

Let’s take a break here for a moment from analysing the song, and ask ourselves what could be the meaning behind this story generally. Let’s explore the history of the ballad for a few moments, which will help us better understand the boy’s motives and next section of the ballad.

Based on the lyrics and the melody, the song was probably composed sometime between 650 and 750 CE (Christianus Caminada, 1961). Unlike so many songs and stories from that era, this ballad is not an ancient, pre-Christian one, just penned on parchment by some mediaeval monk to eternalize it. It was a new song back then, and the main character was just disguised as a saint. That was the proper way to make sure an old song can be sung, and survive, despite Catholic Church dogma. This and the mention of churches and bells in the end – which most probably was a later addition – made the song less dangerous to sing (Haid, 2002).When we look at the first part of the ballad, it clearly speaks of the Goddess and her magic. But we hear already that this magic is not appreciated any more by the common folk, represented by the master herder and the boy. That is the first indicator that the song was composed at a time when the old faith was replaced by the new one. The second part, where we learn what happens when the old faith is lost, can only be interpreted as lament for the old faith vanishing. This can only mean that the ballad came into being during this time of change, or a short time after; but definitely not before. However, while it is therefore not ancient and hence not of Celtic origin, it tells us much about what the people creating this song thought, and how they were still immersed in these old, pagan traditions.

Alm

Figure 4: Alm, high mountain pasture (Photo by author)

Even though we can establish that the ballad comes from a time when Christianity has already spread throughout the land, we must not think that this new faith was fully implemented everywhere. Much rather, this was still a time when Christianity had to fight hard to get accepted, or even to survive. Like in any society still to this day, there must have been gullible people back then, and early adopters, who embraced the new religion right away. Then there must have been some of the intellectual establishment who were probably intrigued by the early onset of science, who then were also able to convince at least some nobility to convert to the new faith. That was not a fast process, though, but took centuries! Let’s just think of the fact that the Church felt the need for such a radical scheme like the Inquisition to fortify their footholds some 500 years after the ballad was penned down.

And there must have been, back then as much as today, those who were wary of anything new, who held on to the older traditions and saw these teachings from the Near East via Rome as a threat to their lives. It is easy to imagine that we would have encountered these folk predominantly in the rural areas, especially in the remote valleys in the Alps. Not only because of the geographic distance to the urban centres, but also because it is the farmers who we are talking about. Ever since Neolithic times, when farming replaced hunting and gathering, certain ways of worship, especially of the Earth Mother, guaranteed a good harvest and with that survival during the harsh winter months. We are actually talking about a process over tens of thousands of years, where Pagan ritual has been developed to help people endure, year after year. If a cobbler, a merchant, or a member of nobility in the city converted to the new faith and it turned out that this was a bad choice, offended “the land”, their actions wouldn’t have affected their own livelihood or that of the people in that city that much. But here we are considering the providers of crops, of food. What if following the liturgy of the new faith didn’t yield the same amounts of corn, vegetables, fruit, and meat? Or none at all? If your job were to supply your community with basic food resources, would you easily be willing to risk giving up what has worked for generations before you, and try something completely new, without evidence that it will yield any success?

When looking at this time of change in the dark ages, and at people on that personal level, it is not surprising that we still find the earlier mentioned sacral paintings in remote Alpine churches, with the three “saints” bearing all their pagan symbols, sometimes even their original names. It shouldn’t strike us odd, either, that the bishop of Brixen in Tyrol had to escort the feared mediaeval inquisitor, Heinrich Institoris, out of the area when he visited the diocese, a centre of the Goddess cult at that time, and wanted to start the first witch court there in 1485. The bishop seemed to have been very aware of how his flock would feel about some outsider mingling with their traditions, and was rightfully afraid that the angry mob would lynch the inquisitor right then and there (Kutter, 2003).

When Goddesses Leave

When we now continue to the next segment of the song of Sontga Margriata, we can easily see that the person who composed it must have been of the group of the traditionalists; what their fears were; and how they eternalized the message of doom when neglecting the old faith. All that in an innocent ballad sung during work in the fields.

Recapping what has happened so far, we learned that there was a woman on the Alm, the high Alpine pasture, although that was a taboo. What’s more, that woman, who is really the Goddess, engaged in a pagan ritual, which a young herder boy observed by chance. Indoctrinated by the new faith, the naïve boy insists on telling on her, despite being offered magical gifts. He refuses even when she threatens to kill him.

We actually do not learn why the maiden feels the need to leave, for the herder boy is dead, and it is never said that his master actually learned of her presence or her pagan activities. We can only conclude from her reaction that she must have felt that if neither gifts nor threat to life and limbs can bring the people back to her, all she can do is to concede to the new faith and leave the field to its followers.

And leaving is what she does. However, she knows that her absence will cause the land to become barren, for she is the land. Thus, the cows’ milk dries out, and so does the well. And the pasture and the herbs on it wither as she foresees.

Clearly, these are the fears of those of the rural population, who see the changing over to the new faith as a risk not worth taking. Not only will the abundance – the magical gifts – given to them by the land be a thing of the past, they are even predicting that the land will waste away. They go so far as to warn the villagers of the effects of her leaving that even thick iron parts, wrought and welded together in the heat of the smith’s fire, fall apart when she passes by in agony.

There Is Always Hope

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The Goddess does not leave without sparking a glimmer of hope in her beloved children. Although she concedes to the Christian god insofar as she claims that only he will know when, she does not rule out returning entirely.

This old song from the ancient Celtic lands has made us understand that more than 1,200 years ago people were already concerned that breaking with tradition could mean doom and decay. Today, as Druids we have the utmost delicate challenge, expressed in the triad at the beginning, to uphold these traditions while, at the same time, listen to the voice of tomorrow. It is our duty to progress as much as it is our duty to conserve, and we can only do so by searching for this fine boundary no thicker than a hair, and, once found, walk along it. However, us becoming Druids, learning these rather peripheral pieces of tradition, equips us with the necessary wisdom and tools to tread this thin path.

References:

Brunner, C. (2015). Mountain Magic: Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps. Raleigh: LuLu

Caminada, C. (1961). Die verzauberten Täler : Die urgeschichtlichen Kulte und Bräuche im alten Rätien. Verlag Olten. Freiburg i. Br.

Göttner-Abendroth, H. (2005). Frau Holle ~ Das Feenvolk der Dolomiten: Die großen Göttinnenmythen Mitteleuropas und der Alpen, neu erzählt. Ulrike Helmer Verlag. Königstein/Taunus

Haid, H. (2002). Mythos und Kult in den Alpen. Rosenheimer. Rosenheim.

Kuttner, E. (2003). Der Kult der Drei Jungfrauen: Eine Kraftquelle Weiblicher Spiritualität Neu Entdeckt. Books on Demand GmbH. Norderstedt.

Resch-Rauter, I. (1992). Unser Keltisches Erbe: Flurnamen, Sagen, Märchen und Brauchtum als Brücken in die Vergangenheit. Eigenverlag. Wien.

Wolff, K.-F. (1913). Dolomitensagen. Sagen und Überlieferungen, Märchen und Erzählungen der ladinischen und deutschen Dolomitenbewohner. Mit zwei Exkursen Berner Klause und Gardasee. Verlagsanstalt Athesia. Bozen.

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One Response to The Raetho-Roman Song of Sontga Magriata

  1. Kurt says:

    Wonderful, I love the unraveling of the truth over time. It’s a fine wine.

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