All the countries and ethnic groups of the world have tales, handed down by mouth when most of the population did not yet know how to write.
We have the great fortune to have remnants of them, preserved even today in collections divided by region. I am indeed Italian and I have happened many times to read some of them and each time I burst out laughing. Often, especially those from southern Italy, they are very strange and imaginative.
Some are even able to make you really uncomfortable because of how out-of-this-world they are. I have collected some of them, which originate from all over Italy. I have translated them, trying hard not to change the meaning of the story. Enjoy the stories.
Alto Adige Fairy Tale
Ondina, the nymph of Lake Carezza
“Ondina, the nymph, was a beautiful creature with long blond hair who spent her days singing in her gentle voice on the shores of Lake Carezza. The nymph’s beauty was known to all the wayfarers, but there was one sorcerer who just could not give his love-stricken heart any peace; it was the sorcerer of Masaré who lived on the peaks of the Latemar.
From the moment he saw her and heard her sing for the first time, he could no longer forget her. He tried everything he could to seduce her, but the nymph was frightened of him and every time she saw him approaching, she ran away in fear to hide.
Masarè even used magic to approach her, but each of his attempts was always in vain; once he even transformed himself into an otter to try to kidnap her, but Ondina, alerted by her bird friends, managed to escape into the depths of the lake.
Desperate and always very angry at not being able to have what he wanted, Masarè decided to ask for help from an old witch of the Fanes Kingdom, Langwerda, who advised him to create the most amazing spectacle she could ever see: a rainbow that would stretch from the Catinaccio to the Latemar and end up straight in the Carezza Lake.
The sorcerer created the amazing rainbow and transformed himself into a merchant with a beautiful white beard and a sack full of gold and precious stones, to see the nymph’s reaction and finally succeed in approaching her. Ondina was astounded by the marvellous spectacle of colours, so much so that the sorcerer was delighted.
It was a pity that the following day he showed himself to his beloved, forgetting his disguise, and she, frightened, fled into the waters of the lake and never emerged again. Masaré’s sorcerer became furious, so much so that he threw everything into the lake, trees, boulders, and in the end, even the rainbow, which shattered into a thousand coloured pieces and ended up in the lake, colouring it with its colours, which appear at sunset or on full moon nights.“
The giant Ortles
Some of these stories were used to explain nature’s behaviour to children, but not only. It is known that before we filled our heads with science and experiments, the only way to get an explanation of our surroundings was to make it up. And even adults relied on this sweet method to put their hearts at rest.
“A long time ago, when man had not yet appeared in these parts, there lived in the Val Martello and the neighbouring valleys some giants, almost as big and fat as the fir-trees of the alpine forests: they were always cheerful and smiling, they loved to scamper up and down the meadows, they ran through the woods wreaking havoc in the dens of wolves and bears, and they splashed happily in the icy waters of the streams and alpine lakes./
Then one day two things happened at the same time that, put together, would cause quite a bit of trouble. FIRST: a strange giant was born in Val Martello. The giant Ortles was born! SECOND: the first men arrived in Val Martello, simple shepherds who led large flocks of sheep to pasture.
To look at him, the baby Ortles was in every way identical to the other giant’s newborns. However, after spending the first few weeks in a huge cradle built from the trunks of ten larches, sucking night and day on the good milk of the mother giantess, the ‘little one’ grew as fast as a tomato plant in the vegetable garden, soon got out of the cradle and began to move on his own.
The fact is that he grew fast, in fact: too fast! Within a few months he became a handsome adult giant that was taller than his father, but he didn’t stop! The thing is that even Ortles soon realised that, while eating just the right amount, he was quickly becoming as tall as the other adults, and then taller than the other adults… even taller than all of them!
And he reached an unusual height, one he had never reached before: soon, with one step, just one step!, he was moving from one side of the Val Martello to the other, uprooting at least fifty trees each time. – But look how beautiful,’ the wretch began to rejoice, ‘I am the tallest giant in the valley, and perhaps also the tallest in the neighbouring valleys, so it is only right that I should become the leader of all the giants in the area!
All of you,’ he exclaimed that very day after he had gathered his fellows together, ‘you must all pay homage to me as king of the giants of this valley! You must always bow at my passage, and from now on you are obliged to gather food only and exclusively to feed your master! Someone was needed to stop the arrogance of Ortles!/
You will of course remember that in the meantime the first men had also arrived in Val Martello. They were sheep herders, who had come to the valley in search of new pastures: they had found excellent grass there, and in great abundance, but they had also made the acquaintance of the turbulent giant people.
I cannot tell you the fear and then the anger when the men realised that among those cyclops there was one that was growing out of all proportion, eating and rising and swelling without ever stopping: ‘That monster is a real catastrophe,’ the poor shepherds began to complain. “It grows at least two metres a day: if someone doesn’t stop it, in a little while it will destroy the whole of Val Martello and cause the mountains around it to collapse on us!”./
In short, it happened that the giants’ concern was joined by that of the men, but no one, neither of the former nor of the latter, had the courage to come forward and volunteer to face the monster. Until one day, a mysterious gnome dressed in green emerged from one of the forests of the valley. He was a small, thin man with a grey beard and long hair held back under a red woolen hat.
No one ever knew his name: perhaps he had no name, perhaps he came from a nameless people of gnomes, but everyone in Val Martello still remembers him today, because… – I have heard your cries: you need someone who has the courage to face the giant Ortles, don’t you? – said the dwarf to the specially summoned assembly of men and giants. – Good: you have found what you were looking for! – YOU?!? – exclaimed the men, barely holding back ironic and incredulous giggles. – YOU?!? – exclaimed the cyclops, their eyes wide with scepticism and pity. – OF COURSE, ME!!!
The little man dressed in green reached the giant in less than two hours. Ortles sat on the edge of a pasture with his back against the mountain to the west. The gnome managed with difficulty to climb the huge left shoe and from there with a leap he was able to cling to the hem of his trousers. It took him quite a while to reach the waistband.
When he reached the right shoulder, the dwarf let out a deep sigh and, with a leap, clung to a tuft of hair… And then what everyone feared happened! The giant realised that something had crept into his hair and jumped to his knees, frightened and angry. He stuck his fingers into the long, dirty hair and tried in every way to rid himself of that annoying guest who was causing him itching and discomfort, but it was all in vain. The gnome, in fact, managed to sneak through the thicket of hair until he reached the giant’s right ear. And at that point he began to speak to him, shouting into that dark, deep cave.
– If you thought, my dear Ortles, that the fact that you were the tallest giant of all gave you the right to feel you were master of all things, you were wrong! – WHO YOU ARE! – was meanwhile braying that mountain of rage and tickling. – How can you talk to me without me seeing you? – If you thought, my foolish Ortles, that one’s worth is measured only by height and body weight, know that this is not true! – How can you say such nonsense,’ cried the giant. – If I catch you, you’ll see what an end I’ll make of you! WHERE ARE YOU?!?
– I am small, much, much smaller than you,’ continued the gnome, shouting in my ear, ‘but I am also strong, much, much stronger than you! With the authority that comes to me from being the King of all the Gnomes of the Mountains around here, I command this monster of pride and conceit to transform himself … INTO A MOUNTAIN!
Then a strange thing happened: kneeling where he was, Ortles felt a sudden coldness rise up his legs, seize his stomach and chest, stiffen his neck and then his arms. He lowered his eyes in terror and saw that his skin had already turned to black rock.
He tried to scream… “Nooo… I ask for your forgiveness! Now I understand the evil I have committed…. Forgive me, men and giants of Val Martello, but don’t let this mysterious voice turn me into rock, into snow, into ice…”.
Nobody answered those invocations, because the shepherds and the other giants were following the extraordinary spectacle fascinated from the valley floor.
When all of Ortles became dark rock shining under the sun’s rays, the Cyclops let out a terrible scream and stood there motionless, stone-faced: forever.
There he was, the conceited one, transformed into the highest mountain of all around. He had become the Ortles Peak that we all know today: a paradise of silence, snow, ice and a blazing sun reflecting off those rocky crags that look like tufts of black hair.“
Fairy tale of Apulia
Pull brother that the donkey laughs
“A long time ago, a lot of wine was produced in Modugno. However, since the grapes were very rotten, all the wine became sour. So, the people of Modugno thought of organising a big feast and, in order to get a lot of people to come, they said that two brothers, who were the dumbest in the village, should pull the donkey up the bell tower.
They sent many town criers to Bitonto, Bitetto, Bitritto, Grumo and other villages, who, with trumpets and drums, said that there should be a big party in Modugno and that at the end of the party a donkey should be pulled up the bell tower by two brothers. The number of people who came to Modugno that time cannot be told: men, women and children came from many countries to see how the Modugnese were to pull the donkey up the bell tower.
Meanwhile, all the outsiders drank and drank the spiked wine that was sold everywhere, and especially in Piazza Sedile. When the wine ran out, they brought out the two brothers, who were both dumb, but one was big and strong, and the other was puny. The strong brother, who showed everyone what sort of arms he had, went up to the top of the bell-tower and threw down a big rope; the puny brother, on the other hand, took the donkey under the bell-tower, put the rope around its neck, tied it in a knot, began to prick it, beat it with his whip, and told it to climb up the wall on the bell-tower.
From above, the big lump pulled and pulled with all the strength he had; from below, the tiny lump stung, pushed and lashed him like a thunderbolt. So much did the two of them, that the donkey lifted himself a little off the ground and, since the rope was tightening his throat, opened his mouth and began to make his cry: ‘Ihò! I-hò! I-hò!…”. The tiny fool, all happy, shouted: “Pull, brother, the donkey laughs”. The people, who were already laughing, at hearing these words, pissed themselves.
The two of them got even busier: the one pulled and pulled with all his strength from above the bell-tower; the other one pushed, prodded and struck the poor beast with his whip, always shouting ‘Pull, brother, that the donkey laughs’. And so much did they do, that the donkey choked to death; but the two fools did not notice at all, and always said that the donkey was laughing. I won’t tell you what happened when the big brother with one last effort managed to pull the donkey up the bell tower. And so the party was over, and everyone, the owners of Modugno, the two dumb brothers and the outsiders, went happily back to their homes.“
Tuscan fairy tale
The Green Seaweed Man (Western Ligurian Riviera)
“A king shouted in the squares that whoever brought him back his missing daughter would be given a fortune. But the shout had no effect because no one knew where this girl could have gone: they had kidnapped her one night and there was no place on earth they had not searched for her. A long-serving captain came up with the idea that if she could not be found on land she could be found at sea, and he armed a ship especially to set off in search of her. But when he wanted to hire a crew, he could find no sailors: because no one was willing to set out on a dangerous voyage, which no one knew when it would end.
The captain stood on the dock and waited, and no one approached his ship, no one dared to go on the first. Also on the dock was Baciccin Tribordo, who was known as a vagabond and a drinking man, and no one took him on the ships. – Say, will you come on my ship? – the captain asked him. – Yes, I do. – Then get on, – and Baciccin Tribordo got on first. So the others also took courage and climbed aboard.
On the ship, Baciccin Tribordo always stood with his hands in his pockets, regretting the taverns, and everyone grumbled at him, because there was no telling when the voyage would end, food was scarce and they had to keep a fa-niente like him on board. The captain decided to get rid of him. – See that little island? – he told him, pointing to an isolated rock in the middle of the sea. – Go down in the lifeboat and explore it. We’ll go around here. Baciccin went down into the lifeboat and the ship sailed away, leaving him alone in the middle of the sea.
Baciccin approached the rock. On the rock there was a cave and he went inside. At the bottom of the cave was a beautiful girl, and she was the king’s daughter. – How did you find me? – she said to Baciccin Tribordo. – I was going octopus fishing,’ said Baciccin. – It is a huge octopus that has kidnapped me and is holding me prisoner,’ said the King’s daughter. – Flee, before he comes!
But you must know, that this octopus for three hours a day turns into a mullet, and then it is easy to catch it, but you must kill it at once because otherwise it turns into a gull and flies away. Baciccin Tribordo hid on the rock, himself and the boat. Out of the sea came the octopus, and it was huge, and with each gill it could go round the island, and it stirred with all its suckers, because it had heard that there was a man on the rock.
But the hour came when he was to turn into a fish, and all of a sudden he became a mullet and disappeared into the sea. Then Baciccin Tribordo threw out his nets, and every time he pulled them in, there were mullets, sturgeons, snappers, and finally the mullet also appeared, all jerking. Baciccin immediately raised his oar to give it a killing blow, but instead of the mullet, he struck the seagull that had flown out of the net, and the mullet was no more.
The seagull could not fly because the oar had broken its wing, so it turned back into an octopus, but its gills were all full of wounds and it was spurting out black blood. Baciccin was on top of him and finished him off with an oar. The king’s daughter gave him a diamond ring as a sign of perpetual gratitude. – Come, let me take you to your father,’ he said, and made her get into the boat. But the boat was small, and they were in the middle of the sea. They rowed, they rowed, and they saw a boat far away. Baciccin raised the robe of the king’s daughter to the top of an oar.
From the ship they saw them and took them on board. It was the same ship from which Baciccin had been abandoned. On seeing him return with the King’s daughter, the captain began to say: – O poor Baciccin Tribordo! And we, who thought you lost, have searched so hard for you! And you have found the King’s daughter! Let us drink, let us celebrate your victory!
– It did not seem true to Baciccin Tribordo, so long had he gone without tasting a drop of wine. They were already almost in sight of the port from which they had departed. The captain made Baciccin drink, and he drank, drank until he fell down dead drunk. Then the captain said to the king’s daughter: – You will not tell your father that the one who freed you is that drunkard! You must tell him that I freed you, for I am the captain of the ship, and that there is a man of mine whom I commanded to do what he did. The King’s daughter does not said neither yes nor no.
– I know what I will say,’ she replied. And the captain then thought of doing away with Baciccin Tribordo once and for all. That very night they caught him, drunk as he was, and threw him into the sea. At dawn the ship arrived in sight of the harbour; they signalled with flags that the King’s daughter was safe and sound, and on the quay there was the band playing and the King with the whole Court. The wedding of the King’s daughter to the captain was arranged.
On the day of the wedding in the harbour the sailors saw a man coming out of the water covered in green seaweed from head to toe, with fish and crabs coming out of his pockets and from the rips in his suit.
It was Baciccin Tribordo. He climbed ashore, and all covered in seaweed that covered his head and body and scrambled on the ground, he walked through the town. Just at that moment the wedding procession was advancing, and the green man of seaweed was in front of him.
The procession stops. – Who is this man? – asks the king. – Arrest him! – The guards advanced, but Baciccin Tribordo raised a hand and the diamond in the ring glittered in the sun. – My daughter’s ring! – said the king. – Yes, this is my saviour,’ said the daughter, ‘this is my bridegroom. Baciccin Tribordo told his story; the captain was arrested. Green with seaweed as he was he stood beside the bride dressed in white and was joined to her in marriage.“
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