Italian Myths and Legends

Pimsleur Approach • November 26, 2012 • ItalianComments (0)
romulus-and-remus

Romulus and Remus, the Lupercal, Father Tiber, and the Palatine on a relief from a pedestal dating to the reign of Trajan (AD 98-117) - via Wikipedia

Italy is not really famous for its dragons and fairies, is it? But you may be surprised by how many legends and folk stories there are!

Many Italian myths and legends come from the Greek and Roman culture, or are the remnants of pre-roman and pre-Christian stories narrated by native people. Many other stories are about saints and biblical figures.  Italian folklore also includes stories about some mythological or fantastic creatures, which are similar to those known in many parts of the world, such as werewolves, witches or vampires.

Every Italian region has its own stories, just like it happens with typical dishes. If you like old stories, then this is indeed a good excuse to travel and get to know Italians!

 Probably one of the best known Italian myths is that linked to the founding of Rome.

In the year 753 B.C., a couple of twins was born. They were named Romulus and Remus. Their mother was Rea Silvia, a sacred priestess of Vesta, the hearth goddess, and their father was Marte (Mars), the Roman god of war.

Their uncle, who usurped their grandfather’s throne of Albalonga, sent them to death, because he wanted to be the king. But the servant who was in charge of the killing didn’t want to assassinate two innocent babies, so he just put them in a basket and threw it in the Tiber river.

The basket travelled safely until it got blocked in a swamp that was among the Palatino and Campidoglio hills. Here, a she-wolf found the twins and breast-fed them. They were then adopted by a shepherd and his wife. A slightly different version of the story is that the twins were found by a prostitute (also called Lupa, “she-wolf”, in Latin).

Once grown up, the boys killed their uncle, gave the power back to their grandfather, and were given permission to found a new city. Unfortunately, Romolos had to kill his brother Remus, as he dared to pass the line that signaled the walls of the future city holding his sword, an action his brother had strictly forbidden.

 So Romolos became the first king of Rome. He governed it wisely, and finally disappeared during a storm. Romans believed his father Mars took him away.

The Befana is a very ugly and old lady, and is sometimes believed to be a witch. She is very well known by Italians, and every child loves her, because in the night of the 6th of January she is believed to fill everybody’s stockings with sweets and gifts, flying all around riding her old broomstick. Her clothes and her hat look well-worn, and she patched them up many times with colorful pieces of cloth. Just like Babbo Natale (Santa), she knows who has been good and who has been naughty. She will give treats to the first, and charcoal to the latter.

 Some say she is an old spinster, some that she lives with Babbo Natale, some say they are even married!

befana

Three Befane with their brooms. - via Wikipedia

Ancient Romans believed that, for twelve nights in a row, following the winter solstice, mysterious women flew over the fields, so to obtain an abundant harvest – this may be the origin of the story of the Befana. The Catholic Church harshly condemned such beliefs, and accused them to be linked to Satanism, and this is the reason why stories about horrible witches and demons begun to be heard.

There are many nursery rhymes about this ugly, old, magic lady. Here’s the most famous:

La Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte il vestito alla romana (Or: con le toppe alla sottana) viva viva la Befana!”

 (The Befana comes at night, with her torn shoes, with her Roman-style dress/Or: with her patched skirt, hooray for the Befana!)

Lupo Mannaro” is the Italian term for werewolf. Even at the time of ancient Rome, werewolves were believed to live among human beings. Some Latin authors, like Petronius in the Satyricon and Ovidius in the Metamorphosis, wrote about them, describing their characteristics and their encounters with such creatures. They are often called Versipellis (Those who change skin) or simply Lupus hominarius (Wolf that behaves like a man).

Italian dialects often have a specific term to indicate such a creature, which is usually depicted as very dangerous, antsy and unpredictable. Ancient pastoral stories describe werewolves to be so restless that they would start counting the stars at night, or the pebbles near a stream. They are very strong and though.

Tradition states that a man is werewolf by birth, if he was born on a magical night (interestingly, Christmas night is one of those nights. Of course, a full-moon night is magical as well) or because he is so wicked to willingly use magical means to achieve such shape-shifting ability. One could become one because of excommunication, or because of a curse by a saint. So many opportunities to become a werewolf…!

ring

Gold coin of Bartolomeo Gradenigo (1260–1342): the Doge kneeling in front of Saint Marc. - via Wikipedia

Many Italian traditions describe the ways to cure a werewolf or to stop its transformation when it is still not complete. In some regions a cold bath is recommended, in some others it is prescribed to hit the creature with a key, to prick its forehead three times, or to throw a scarf at it. Besides, werewolves have some natural limits, which are described in folk stories. For example, in Sicily it is said that the creatures cannot climb more than three steps, so being on top of a flight of stairs would be a reliable way to be safe when a werewolf is around.

Werewolves and witches were seen in the medieval time as satanic creatures and people accused of witchcraft or Satanism were usually burnt at the stake.

L’Uomo Nero (The Black Man) was invented to scare misbehaving children and convince them to be quiet. Grown-ups would tell them off, and tell them that if they wouldn’t behave, this boogeyman would come and take them away. There’s not a clear description of him, so every child tends to give him different characteristics. Curiously, he is also cited in an old lullaby, which sounds like this:

Ninna nanna ninna oh, questo bimbo a chi lo do?

Lo darò alla Befana che lo tiene una settimana; lo darò all’Uomo Nero, che lo tiene un anno intero; lo darò alla sua mamma che lo ninna e che lo nanna.”.

(Ninna nanna ninna oh, to who I will give this baby? I will give him to the Befana, who will keep him for a week; I will give him to the Black Man, who will keep him for a whole year;

I will give him to his mom, who will cradle him and make him sleep).

 The ring and the old fisherman – this is a story told in Venice. Once, an old man asked a fisherman to take him to San Giorgio Island. The sky was dark and a storm was approaching, but the good fisherman just agreed. Once they reached the island, a soldier hopped on the boat. Arrived in San Nicolò del Lido, a third man hopped on the boat. The sky was getting darker, and the wind was blowing hard, but the three men still wanted to put out to sea, so the good fisherman started to row, and soon a black ship appeared, crowded with devils of every shape and size, that wanted to invade Venice and destroy it!

The three men, who were Saint Mark, Saint George and Saint Nicholas, battled with the demons and finally made their ship sink. The fisherman was so surprised, he couldn’t believe to what he had just seen. Saint Mark gave him his ring, telling him to go to the Doge, the Head of Venice, and tell him everything. He also added, “If he doesn’t believe you, show him my ring”.

The fisherman went to the Doge and showed him the jewel, which was the one kept in the great Basilica, and disappeared just a few days before. The good fisherman was given a rich pension, and the Doge also gave him the permission to sell the sand of the island of Sant’Erasmo.

These are just a few myths and legends known in Italy. There are many of them, with so many different versions! You will find them to be all very fascinating and interesting.

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