Fembio Special: Women from North and South Tyrol and the Trentino
∗ ca. 3370 BCE
✝ ca. 3320 BCE
The all-encompassing, hypothetical figure Ötzi goes back 5300 years, to the heart of Europe’s matriarchal epoch in the late Copper Age. Thus when Ötzi is spoken of here, a female Ötzi is meant, Ötzi’s mother, not the male of the sensational discovery of 1991, found 3210 meters above sea level on the border between Austria and Italy in the Ötztal near the Tisenjoch.
It requires careful, painstakingly detailed work to investigate the woman of the Ötztal. A trip to the Archeological Museum in Bolzano will not suffice. Clues and traces provided by anthropology and ethnology, cultural history and the study of mythology, as well as the study of religion, geographical mythology and modern matriachal research must all be gathered. They point to a pre-indoeuropean, matriarchally influenced cultural landscape in the old Rhaetian region, in which the goddess Reitia/Rätia/Rita was worshipped and given the intimate, heartfelt name „my shepherdess.“ One can only speculate that Ötzi belonged to a matriarchal society; but it’s just such suppositions that we want to expound on here through various perspectives.
Once upon a time
The Ötztal Woman came from the highly developed neolithic cultural epoch, a flourishing culture high in the Alps. As a girl she presumably lived in the upper Eissack valley; later she moved to the Vinschgau. Late neolithic humans were intelligent, clever and more varied than we might imagine today. Their religiously shaped world view was determined by the passing of day and night, the phases of the moon, the constellations, the changing seasons. This was true even in the remotest corner of South Tyrol, on the edge of the Alpine divide.
Ötzi, gatherer and shepherd of the Alps
The Ötztal Woman presumably belonged to a herding culture of shepherds; the seasonal transfer of sheep from the southern Vinschgau Valley across the Hochjoch, Niederjoch and Eisjoch was probably already succesfully practiced. During the summer the herds of sheep moved to their summer pasture near Vent; in September they returned via the same route to Schnals and on to the Vinschgau Valley. At that time the passes were still free of ice, Swiss pine grew at elevations up to 2600 meters, and Ötzi was well equipped even without trekking clothes or sports underwear. She had an excellent knowledge of animal husbandry and leather processing – the finely worked goats’ leather underclothing is an example of sophisticated and elaborately conceived everyday culture. The techniques of knotting, weaving and braiding had already developed to a high level: Ötzi made clothing, cloaks and nets for shoes (Schuhnetze). And she wove grass mats from Alpine sweet grasses.
Ötzi was born into a clan in a village community in Pflersch, in the “Silbertal” (Siver Valley). The neolithic settlement community consisted of an extended family with houses, fields, pastures and meadows.
As the mother of three daughters and two sons – Ötzi junior was her youngest child – Ötzi interacted a great deal with the other women of the family clan. The women owned the herds, and milk production was entirely in their hands. Responsible for the preparation and distribution of food, the women gathered raspberries, blackberries, rose hips, elderberries and blackthorn – for a varied and vitamin-rich diet. They cultivated peas, flax, opium poppies and the four grains einkorn, emmer and rivet wheats and barley. Ötzi was self-sufficient for the long term and economically independent: to prepare for the winter she gather wild apples and wild plums – they tasted wonderful when dried – as well as acorns, beechnuts and hazelnuts. Little Ötzi junior especially liked sweet juneberries, and the wood of this tree made good firewood for his mother. She liked to mix the fruit of the blackthorn into her dishes, for their high bittern content helped quench thirst. Ötzi refined wild wheats and seeds with dill, parsley and celery; dried meat was a useful provision for long crossings over the passes, and the mineral-rich blackthorn offered new energy after strenuous hikes.
Ötzi the hunter
Was the Ötztal Woman also a hunter? Perhaps. There is no doubt that her village community was connected to a much larger cultural network and used the same hunting weapons as the rest of the Alpine region. Over 5000 years ago flint daggers were already standard; they were usually tied to a pouch on the belt and were used for daily tasks as well as for hunting. Women as well as men participated in hunting. They were very brave and skillful and also represented their experiences in artistic form. Even as a girl Ötzi liked to climb into the wild ravine of the Pflersch glacial stream and carve her delicate marks in the stone. Archeologists still puzzle over the famous petroglyphs, which include a sun wheel.
For her arrows the Ötztal Woman peeled the bark off branches from a wayfaring tree; she attached the flint arrowhead with birch pitch – this had to be done quickly or the birch tar became hard as glas – and wound it around with string made from animal sinew. Feathers from wild birds such as the jackdaw, red-billed chough (Alpine crow), golden eagle, and vulture were employed as rotary vanes to stabilize the arrows in flight. The pointed ends of antlers, especially curved ones, served as “universal tools” for cutting, separating, grating and skinning. All in all: the best neolithic handiwork of a female hunter.
Ötzi the traveling tradeswoman
The Ötztal Woman moved around a lot. Her clan was widely networked, and with good connections to the north and the south bartering flourished. Flint (silex), for example, the material for knife-blades and arrowheads, was not found in South Tyrol and had to be “imported.” As tiny fossils embedded in the flint dagger of Ötzi’s son show, it comes from the Lessine Alps east of Lake Garda. Sites uncovered in Lower Bavaria show the same micro-fossils – proof of a lively long-distance Alpine trading practice. In the Alpine region there were smelting sites where copper arrows were professionally produced; the processing of ore originated in the southeastern part of Europe and gradually made its way from the Balkans to the Central Alps. The Ötztal Woman traded not only in luxury goods such as flints but also in dill, parsley, opium poppy, lemon balm and celery. She exported rivet wheat of her own cultivation to the north of the Alps. An important neolithic trade route ran from South Tyrol through the Adige Valley up to the Similaun. Perhaps Ötzi was even the head of a stone-age transport business. Certainly she was in any event “globally” oriented within the parameters of her time.
Ötzi the healer
The Ötztal Woman carried birch bracket mushrooms (Birkenporlinge) with her which she had carefully strung together on strips of animal hide. We can assume that she knew about the healing properties of tree trunks. The mushroom spheres (Pilzkugel) have a disinfecting and styptic effect. Her many blue-black tattoos lie exactly along the points used in acupuncture. They might have been a form of medical treatment – perhaps a precursor of the Asian medical art of acupuncture? Her marks were created, like those of her son Ötzi, by making fine cuts in the form of bundled lines into which pulverised charcoal was rubbed. The Ötztal Woman also regularly ate the fruit of the blackthorn or sloe shrub, an invigorating remedy which she would also have given to her daughters and sons. She understood the healing power of the local plants and herbs, which she gathered, dried and prepared, and she passed this knowledge on to her children.
Ethnologists are aware of structures having to do with ancestor cults or cults of the dead; these are connected to rituals of life and life-transitions. It is unfortunately not known the extent to which or the forms in which the Ötztal Woman may have conducted her ceremonies or treatments in birth or menstruation huts, or in normal houses.
Ötzi the shaman
The Ötztal Woman lived within a sacral society in which everything was regarded as holy: the earth, nature, humans, animals – all beings were considered divine. This immanent concept of divinity is central to the spirituality of her time; the separation of sacred and profane had not yet occurred. She was knowledgeable about nature and the weather; study of the seasons and the weather was the province of the “Wise Women.” We can assume that the Ötztal Woman took it for granted that she should spend part of every day sitting quietly to observe and contemplate nature. Folk tradition in the entire Alpine region attributes magical knowledege about wind and weather to women. Fertility and blessing depend upon them. Devotion to the Magna Mater, a female creative force, played a central role in the Copper Age. A mother-goddess, in charge of birth, life and death, had life under her control. Was the Ötztal Woman a priestess of this Alpine original goddess? It is certainly possible that she celebrated the major seasonal festivals: festivals of planting, sprouting and growth, of ripening, withering, harvest and reaping. As an observer of the stars she would have been familiar with the movements of sun, moon and constellations and could have produced an agrarian calendar.
There is much evidence that testifies to this deep spiritual power: the menhir (standing stone) figures, which can be found in great numbers across the entire southern Alpine region, narrate neolithic history. The stones, carved by human hand, are decorated with scratched drawings and magical symbols. Discoveries in South Tyrol belong to the so-called Adige Group and date back to the time of the Ötztal Woman. Might she be represented in the female menhir from Algund? The overhanging rocks of the mountains where for thousands of years sheep have been driven across passes and snow are also rich in mysterious formations from the stone age: cup-marked rocks, steles, stone circles. The “Kaiser” mountains in the Vent Valley of Austria bear neolithic signs; the cup stone collection at the Pfitscherjoch reveals mysterious traces at a 3000-meter elevation. Could the amazing engravings in Karthaus of a snake and an egg have stemmed from Ötzi? Could she have shared responsibility for the recesses in cup-marked rocks along the ancient paths? It is conceivable that she took part in cult games with water, blood and milk at midsummer. What is definite is that the Ötztal Woman knew the magical places (Kraftorte) of the Alps; they were sacred to her and of central meaning to the age-old culture.
Moreover, the Tisenjoch, where Ötzi’s youngest son was found, also possesses mythological and topographical significance. The name comes from the “Disen,” pre-indoeuropean goddesses of fate. Was Ötzi buried on the Tisenjoch in a grave of stone? We don’t know.
Ötzi and Tanna
The Ötztal Woman has called to me as a Tanna-Woman. Perhaps it was the mountain mother Tanna, queen of the stone-people the Crodères and creator of marmots and humans, who was Ötzi’s goddess – might she have inspired this mythobiography? The winds of the east and of the north, of the south and the west, the Dolomites’ gleaming white power, an encounter with the Salige (helpful wild women of Alpine myth and saga) or the primal sounds of an Alpine vulture – they will tell us. In some such surprising glorious moment, gorgeous as Alpenglow.
(Transl. Joey Horsley)
Author: Heidi Hintner
Literature & Sources
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