our articles

The Land of Noreia: Gods, folks and traditions of the Central-Eastern Alps

The territory of the Central-Eastern Alps has historically been a place of interaction of the different souls of the European civilization since the most ancient of times. Through the millennia, many different languages and traditions existed here, a plurality that we can see still nowadays in the great diversity of dialects, languages and popular customs.

The first stable inhabitants of the valleys of Switzerland, South Germany, Austria, Italy and Slovenia were farmers and shepherds of the Neolithic Age, who came from the Danubian basin. Recent discoveries in archaeology and genetics have shed new light on the role of Anatolian and Danubian peoples in the birth of the historical European identity. Little is known about the languages and cultures of these peoples, but we now know they were pre-Indo-European.

In the early Metal Age, this region is at the centre of the trade across the Amber Road. Amber, which was traded for metals and products from the Mediterranean, became the sacred currency of many peoples who traded with each other from Scandinavia to the Aegean Sea. The Amber Road was not only a trade route in the modern sense of exchanging goods and resources between international partners: exchange of myths, religious aspects, traditions, alliances and languages flourished all across Europe, in an atmosphere of aristocratic exchange that is well described in the Iliad and the Odyssey. European artisans and warriors reached also Anatolia -an unconscious return to the home of the early farmers?-, the Middle East and Egypt. North-Eastern Italy and the Eastern Alps, until the beginning of the Iron Age, appeared to be the centre of the known world at the time: in Greek mythology it is here where Phaeton, the son of the Sun, fell to his death. From the North came ideas related to shamanic cults: the worship of migrating birds, the Sun Ship symbol, the myth of the northern Eternal Summer of the Hyperboreans. From the South came the mysticism of metallurgy, divination techniques, the science of the division of the sacred spaces and, later, magical alphabets and the rites for the foundation of holy towns.

The Central-Eastern Alps are mainly connected to the Rhaetians, who spoke a language closely related to Etruscan. Their main deities were the Sun Rider and Reitia, a shamanic Goddess of water, healing and divination, who also rules over the transmission of the sacred alphabet. The early inscriptions (500 BCE) show that the Rhaetian language was the first holy language ever used between all the other languages in the area. The Rhaetians were probably descendants of the earliest Neolithic Danubian peoples, who in these places developed a peculiar culture under Indo-European influence. It is important to note that, despite their constant closeness, Rhaetians and Etruscans were not the same people, they were two different peoples of the Tyrsenian family.

In the eastern part of Slovenia, there are no pure examples of the utilization of the Rhaetian language, but only the use of certain Rhaetian sacred names and words by Paleo-Venetic speaking folks (Italics and/or Celts). Paradoxically, we can find Rhaetian inscriptions in the eastern part of the country, far from the Rhaetian epicentre in modern-day Tyrol. This "gap" can be explained when bearing in mind the semi-mythological conquest of the Euganeans - an Adriatic native folk - by the Venetics and the Trojans after the Trojan War. When the alphabet spread in the area, the Euganean language probably died out, assimilated by Venetic and Celtic languages. In any case, we could easily assume that the Euganean people were Tyrsenians as the Rhaetians, and that the pseudo-Rhaetian religious influence in the Venetic and Carnic (contemporary Eastern Venetia/Western Slovenia) area comes from them.

At the beginning of the Iron Age, languages and cultures strongly related to the Indo-Europeans became relevantly present here: Celts and Italics, and partially Illyrians. The Venetic language, related to Italic and with many Celtic loanwords, became the holy language of the Eastern Alps, in regions that today are Kärntern, Friûl and Slovenia (ancient Carnia), as shown by the Carinthian archaeological sites of mount Gurina and Rosegg, and by hundreds of other pieces of evidence. The Hallstatt Culture, developed around metallurgy, was the first undoubtedly Celtic facies of the continent, but its sacred language was still Venetic and its main goddess was still Reitia. It's hard to say which linguistic and ethnic identity the two main folks of the area - the Karnii and the Norics - had, but probably they were a mixture of Celtic, Italic and pre-Indo-European peoples, with Illyrian influences. The most relevant identity at the time of the Roman arrival was Celtic. In any case, this identity developed into a very peculiar ‘border civilization’.

It is a mistake to depict ancient nations as alike to modern nations: the ethnic identity was at the time built around dynasties of aristocrats who were all blood-related to each other, and around the Gods’ federal sanctuaries. For this reason, we find identities in the Alpine area that were more aristocratic and religiously based than properly ethnic. About this time, we find also the worship of the Alpine Hercules and the healer god Belenos (a typically Celtic name). With the proclamation of the Kingdom of Noricum, between modern Austria, Italy and Slovenia, the goddess Reitia took the title of Noreia, with the same characteristics. We can say that the people of Noricum were multi-ethnic and multilingual, organized around the aristocracy and the cult of Noreia.
Statue of Noreia

The Romanization of this area was mainly pacific, as it was for Veneto. Romans came here as part of the area’s system of alliances or later as skilled miners and metal workers. There was no real “war of annexation” in the case of Noricum, only a few battles were fought against the Karnii south of the Alps and other local tribes. The local religion remained unmodified, with just a slow adoption of the Latin language. However, there is identifiable Roman influence: for example, the Krampus/Parkelj tradition, which is pre-Roman and pan-European, is observed during the time of the Faunalia Rustica, a holy festival of Central Italy well described by Horace. The Roman influence must then have been important in the establishment of a common calendar, that's even partially alive nowadays.

It is not well known when the first Germanic people entered this area. Surely it was long before the mass invasion of Late Antiquity and early Dark Age. Small groups of Germanic pioneers are thought to have been here since the 5th century BCE, because of evidence such as the Negau (Negova) Helmet and the early adoption of ritual traditions by Germanic peoples that are more related to the Italic and Italo-Celtic area: such archaic syncretism couldn't have happened late into the Roman times. The runes themselves are probably derived from the holy alphabet of Rhaetians, Etruscans, Venetics and Alpine Celts, taking the place of a much more ancient pre-runic writing. After the invasion of the Cimbrians and Teutons - who seriously menaced Noreia’s holy town itself, in the area of modern-day Klagenfurt in 113 BCE - we know that Germanic pioneers settled in this area, left back by the main invasion column.

Very different were the invasions of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages: wandering peoples, mostly without a bond to their ancient tradition, often already Christians. These invaders in some cases wiped out the natives or enslaved them, causing the “Germanization” of certain areas, while in other places they were integrated, giving birth again to new ethnic identities. When they came, the religion of the Eastern Alps, under a Romanized facade, was still very strong. During the siege of Aquileia by the Goths, the Romanized Carnic priests evoked Apollo Belenos and the God himself was seen fighting on the walls alongside the defendants.

Throughout the Middle Ages in Friûl, Tyrol and Carinthia, Pagan remnants and traditions related to the archaic tradition of the Alps persisted, sometimes under a Germanic veil. This is the time of the entrance of the Slavic peoples too: the Carantanians, ancestors of the Slovenians, who were still Pagan. Despite the Carolingian invasions against Pagan Carantania and the Lombard Kingdom of Italy - which was Christian but very tolerant - some aspects of the ancient ethnic traditions reached the Counter-Reformation period almost untouched. In a partially Christianized fashion, they remain alive to our days.

Through the rediscovery of our common traditions, it will be possible to rediscover our common European identity, defeating the empty materialism of globalization without losing ourselves in the blind chauvinisms of the last two centuries.
Made on