According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, fairies seem to have originally been emanations of the Earth Mother that subsequently became water and vegetation spirits, appearing frequently on mountains, in woods or forests, or near water–courses. This is particularly true of all those areas of the Italian territory where medieval legends merged with a rich tradition of pre–Christian belief in all sorts of spirits, which produced a myriad of different magical creatures: not only fate, but also the diminutive beings usually called folletti, the Italian counterparts of the various sprites, gnomes, leprechauns and pixies encountered in the folklore of western and northern European countries. Unfortunately, references to this vast body of lore can be fragmentary and quite difficult to find outside the writings of folklorists or anthropologists or the occasional collection of folktales gathered directly from oral sources, since modern life seems to have eradicated most of those beliefs from the minds of people.
However, a very interesting reference to these beliefs can be found in a book that has very little real connection with fairy tales or fantasy literature in general. Carlo Levi's autobiographical novel Cristo si è fermato ad Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1945), one of the best–known examples of modern Italian literature, contains a lengthy, detailed description of the beliefs of the peasants of the Basilicata region in southern Italy. As a matter of fact, the actual title of the book refers to the strong pagan undercurrents present in this once forsaken, still disadvantaged area of the country. In what amounts to almost a whole chapter, Levi describes impish, mischievous earth spirits called monachicchi (literally "little monks"), who were believed to be the souls of children dead before being christened, and therefore fated never to find rest on this earth. Like most spirits of this type, monachicchi are tiny, extremely lively, and wear red hoods; they also stand guard over a treasure (usually a pot of gold), and exact revenge on anyone trying to steal it by turning the gold into lumps of coal.
However, spirits of this type exist in most parts of southern Italy, their names being basically variations of the "little monk" concept: for instance, they are called munacielli in Naples and monachielli (or munachidd) in Calabria. In other rural areas of the south, folletti can appear in folktales as snakes or other animals with strong connections to the earth, which represent a sort of father figure for the protagonists and help them attain their goals, as in the Apulian tale Le palle d'oro ("The Golden Balls"). Another tale from the same region, Il folletto aggiustatutto ("The Folletto That Can Fix Everything"), sees a benevolent house spirit called the Laùru help a young prince win his bride.
In the Italian language, the name folletti is a diminutive form of the adjective folle, meaning "mad," which emphasizes the mischievous, sometimes outright disruptive nature of these beings. As to their origins, one theory maintains that they derive from the Roman Penati, the gods of home and hearth; however, they might be even older, coming from the mythology of the Celtic populations that inhabited several parts of Italy before the Roman conquest. There are numerous types of folletti, all having very picturesque names; most of them love to play tricks on humans, though very few of them are really malicious. However, there are several instances of folletti that recall demon–like beings like incubi rather than mischievous, but ultimately harmless sprites. An example is the Mazapegol of the north–eastern, coastal region of Romagna (formerly inhabited by Celts), described by folklorists as a cross between a goblin and an incubus. These hairy, monkey–like, malicious imps, which wear red caps as many other kinds of folletti are wont to do, love to get into bed with young, attractive women, squatting on their bellies and causing them to have nightmares. However, a woman can banish them by starting to behave in a disgusting way (like eating bread while delousing herself), which will drive the creatures away for good.
Dwarf–like, underground–dwelling beings, harking back to the traditions of northern European countries, are to be found in the folklore of Alto Adige, though they are missing in those parts of the country that possess a different cultural background. Some of these creatures are called Ometti (literally "little men"), created by God in order to mine and work the immense riches contained by the mountains. Physically, they look like humans, though, as their name says, they are much smaller. They can only be seen in those places where gold, silver and other precious materials abound, and their presence is considered good luck by those who see them. Like the various kinds of monachielli from southern Italy, they are also dressed in monks' robes when they work, which leads them to be called Monaci della Montagna ("mountain's monks"); they can be playful, especially towards miners, but never intentionally malicious. Other dwarf–like creatures from the same geographical area are the Eismandl, or Nani del Ghiaccio ("ice dwarfs"), who look like bearded old men wearing broad–brimmed hats; they live in tunnels delved in glaciers, where they guard fabulous treasures. The mythical Dwarfs of the Rosengarten (one of the most beautiful peaks of the Dolomites range, called Catinaccio in Italian), and their king Laurin share many of these features. The German name of the mountain has its origins in the legend of the magnificent rose garden guarding the entrance to the Dwarfs' realm and their treasures. Though Laurin turned the garden to stone in order to make it invisible to the eyes of men, his spell did not cover the hour of sunset, when the bare rock walls of the mountain turn a wonderful, deep rose colour.
This essay does not aspire to being more than a general overview on the subject of fate and other magical beings in Italian folklore, for it is clear that a more thorough treatise of this topic would probably need the space of a whole book. I also apologize for having mainly used Italian–language sources which will not be readily available or accessible to most readers, though it was obviously the best, and in most cases the only way of finding relevant information.
1. The motif of the fairy–bride that punishes her husband for his boasting is also to be found in Marie de France's 12th–century Llai of Lanval, whose protagonist is one of King Arthur's knights. (Continue reading)
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