The Magic and Mystery of the Majella Massif: the Mother of Mountains


Here an article by Patrick Barron of the International Mountain Society. He paints a picture of all aspects of this magnificent mountain and emphasises the importance of eco-development to reverse the trend of depopulation and declining economy.


During the latter half of the 20th century, many mountainous areas throughout the Mediterranean experienced widespread economic and social marginalization. The Majella Massif, perceived for centuries by local inhabitants as a sacred mountain, has since the advent of the Second World War witnessed a steady decline in the population of its surrounding villages and the abandonment of both farmland and pastureland. In 1995 the Majella National Park was established, which includes the moun- tain and adjoining territory. Despite the area’s natural beauty and numerous religious sites, a lack of infrastructure (including hotels, maintained trails, and efficient public transportation) together with insufficient incentives to revive sustainable agricultural and shepherding practices have slowed the development of the park. These trends may be reversed by land use regulations and governmental incentives that take into careful consideration the need to safeguard and develop not only the natural, but also the spiritual and traditional agropastoral resources of the mountain.

The Majella Massif in Abruzzo, Italy: “The Mother of Mountains”
The Majella Massif has long been one of the most revered mountains in Italy. Its name derives from Maia, the mother of Mercury (or Hermes), who in ancient times was widely worshiped in the Adriatic region. In the 13th century many monasteries and hermitages were built and rebuilt on its slopes, due largely to the influence of hermit Peter of Morrone (later Pope Celestine V). Over 40 of these structures survive, some intact, others in ruins; many are still used by nearby residents for religious purposes such as annual pilgrimages. Due in part to the widespread damage incurred during WWII, and in part to the tremendous postwar industrial boom in Italy, since the 1950s the Majella has become a marginal area, with continuous outmigration and limited economic activity.

After decades of continuing abandonment of villages, farmland, and pastureland, much of the mountain and a portion of territory surrounding it in 1995 were declared national parkland—a change that was greeted with widespread local support (rare in Italy). Long revered by local inhabitants as the “mother of mountains,” the Majella is now slowly becoming a known destination for outdoor recreationalists in search of natural “sanctity” as well as physical, mental, and spiritual renewal. It is too early, however, to tell if the livelihood of villages on the mountain will receive a significant boost from this nascent tourism. Improved infrastructure developed to accommodate both religious and outdoor tourism, combined with incentives to stimulate the recovery of local agricultural and shepherding traditions, could assist the recovery and stabilization of the local economy.

The Majella is not a mountain whose shape is easily understood from afar. As one moves around it, at distances from its base varying from 200 m to 10 km, its summits remain largely hidden and its aspect constantly changes. It shows many faces, often appearing at intervals to the peripatetic outsider to have somehow transmogrified into another mountain altogether—a phenomenon seemingly confirmed by a number of early maps, which incorrectly show 3 or more large clusters of peaks separated by areas of blankness instead of the entire, overarching massif.
Because the Majella is a complex clustering of 61 peaks over 2000 m in elevation and 75 lower-lying hills con joined by steep ridges and upland plains, and covers over 250 km2, it seems “not one but many:” in fact, the Majella is variously considered to be a single mountain as well as a “unified” group of peaks. While individual summits are identifiable at upper elevations, such as the highest point at Monte Amaro (2795 m), distinctions between them are rapidly lost as one progresses towards the base.

The Majella as a Sacred Mountain
The Majella is without doubt an enormous natural boundary, at once separating the lands around it, yet also suturing them together: it may be difficult to travel from Sulmona on its northwestern edge to Lama dei Peligni on its opposite southeastern one, but local residents from each town look up and confront the same mountain. For as far as it can be seen, the Majella exerts a strong influence on the Abruzzesi surrounding it—at once protectively welcoming and also ominously threatening them. With good reason they can be commonly heard to exclaim: “Managgia alla Majella!” (Damn the Majella!)—for the mountain, like a deity, is simultaneously capable of phenomenal beauty and severe destruction.

In addition to supposedly holding sway over immediately personal matters, the “enormous ‘wall’ of the Majella,” as architect Enrico del Pizzo from Lama notes, while currently the object of much hope for “the well-being and prosperity expected to result from ‘eco-development,’ was also in centuries past the source of many problems and misfortunes for our ancestors. If it hadn’t been for this ‘natural barrier,’ German military tacticians clearly wouldn’t have transferred the ‘gustav front’ here in order to slow the advance of the allied troops from southern to northern Italy.” Along with the extensive destruction caused by war due to the mountain’s strategic position, the effects of earthquakes and landslides come quickly to mind when surveying its encompassing landscape: ruins of houses pulled down by collapsing slopes commonly fringe Aventino Valley villages, which are also pocked with vacant lots containing the remains of buildings either bombed or shaken to the ground.

As a marker of extent (and active delimiter) of movement, the Majella bears the signs of oftentimes violent collisions, involving both momentary and drawn-out, active clashes (or merely inconclusive confrontations) between people and the land, one cultural or societal group and another, and between various land masses sliding against or over one another. The past 50 years have been marked by the large-scale abandonment of upland pastures and the subsequent regrowth of numerous species of plants, a process well-ingrained in the minds of the local populace above a certain age.

The Majella, while revered, shows many faces to the people that live around it, who variously consider it as potentially and variously imposing, impenetrable, dangerous, unsightly, sublime, uninhabitable, beautiful, tumultuous, peaceful, unpredictable, and demanding of respect. Like all mountains, it is home to strange upland animals and plants, where the soil runs thin and the rocky bones of the earth wildly cascade, splay, or jut out in chaotic arrays. It has often provided temporary (sometimes turning to permanent) refuge to escapees from war, social misfits, and ascetic-minded seekers of spiritual mediation. Embodied by contrasts, it at once protects and destroys, blocks out and closes in, holds up and pushes down.
Tuan (1974) surveys various esthetic responses to mountains in a number of early cultures, from the Hebrews who “beheld them in confidence … as an index of the divine,” to the Greeks and Chinese who “viewed them with fear and aversion.” He then outlines a general sequence of shifting attitudes towards mountains over time (roughly held in common between China and the Occident), characterized by a change “from a religious attitude in which awe was combined with aversion, to an esthetic attitude that shifted from a sense of the sublime to a feeling for the picturesque, to the modern evaluation of mountains as a recreational resource.”

The full range of these varying sensibilities can be detected in the past and present local populations surrounding the Majella. As “Brother Pio,” a resident of Lanciano, remarks to Donald Hall, “there are legends for ever of the Majella. It is feared for the storms that come from it; it is almost worshiped by the Abruzzesi, but it is also loved. In a sense it is still a mountain of sacrifice, which they say it once was” (Hall 1956). Pushed to extremes, even a well-educated person from an industrialized nation with at minimum the vaguest agnostic tendencies is capable of experi-encing a mixture of spiritual fear and awe when encountering the mountain’s full range of powers at close range. Stand long enough upon the actual edge of a summit featured in a postcard, and the picturesque may suddenly change into the sublime (or at least the panoramic). View the mountain with the current needs of its local population in mind accompanied by a pragmatic and generally ecologically-friendly point of view, and its most recent manifestation as a national park (and source of tourism-generated revenue) suddenly starts to make sense.

Although this last, more rational vision of the mountain would be the most likely to occur in such a person’s mind, the first two reactions would without doubt lurk in the shadows of consciousness, waiting to emerge in a moment of stress, elation, or doubt. To fully perceive a mountain is to be assailed by contrasting and competing thoughts and emotions, some with roots in the deep past and some of relatively recent origin. In the end, the mountain remains dominant, if constantly altered— the central “hub” in myriad ways directing the progress (and bearing the brunt of the effects) of the teeming human and nonhuman movement around and within it.

The Majella is also a place long venerated in Christian tradition, notably during the 13th century when Peter of Morrone built numerous monasteries in hidden valleys and canyons. Ignazio Silone’s book L’avventura di un povero cristiano (The Adventure of a Poor Christian) is an account of the aged hermit’s last years of life, when to his great surprise (and later dismay) he was called down from his airy retreat on the Majella to Naples to be crowned Pope Celestine V in 1294 by quarreling, corrupt cardinals and church officials. He did not last long: unable to reconcile the demands of the spirit with the exigencies of office he resigned and escaped—only to be captured and imprisoned for the short remainder of his life.

Even if most current visitors to the mountain are merely escaping from the developed world for perhaps a day or two, rather than for months (if lucky) or years (if not) from military or police persecution, the Majella retains an aura of shelter. To enter the folds of such an enormous boundary is to meet innumerable smaller boundaries, each pointing towards an increasingly chaotic sense of the wild infinite.

Anyone choosing the life of a hermit on the Majella would certainly have a pick of many bucolic (if crumbling) shelters, built and rebuilt from stone and sometimes wood over the centuries by generations of shepherds and the occasional monk. While the Majella may seem at first glance to be a vast and uninhabited alpine realm, the ruins of many of these huts, enclosures, and improvised constructions within shallow caves, dot its slopes and upland plains—testimony to the mountain’s formerly integral role in the agricultural-pastoral economy of the villages encircling its base.

Now that the mountain falls almost entirely within the boundaries of a national park, evidence of its former use as pastureland, while still widespread, is becoming more difficult to identify. The commonest signs—the animals and their caretakers—are now nearly all gone, while other evidence, such as fragile dry- wall constructions and the pastures themselves, is quickly receding as dense meadows and the forests slowly regain their footing. Such upland territory, unsuitable to permanent inhabitation and inhospitable to year-round use (even the shepherds descended in the fall), has always resisted human occupation.

As an object of beauty and a preserve for wild plants and animals, the mountain is still a player in the region’s economy: hopes are high that tourist money will begin to flow in as the park becomes better established and well-known. Many Italians and some foreigners now familiar with the massif would never have been introduced to it had the park not been founded. For the first time in years (since the early 20th century, when the Via Frentana was a well- traveled, cross-mountain road that required frequent, overnight stops) Lama recently opened the doors to a hotel. During a stay in the summer of 2003, I met a few initial, overnight visitors. Although most trails up the Majella are poorly signed “goat trails,” and the Aventino River remains largely unadvertised and unsought with the exception of the odd kayaker, the fact remains that rooms were being rented and the restaurant modestly frequented. Tourists continue to trickle in, with small steps seemingly made each year to improve accessibility.

Perhaps the much touted “eco- development” that accompanied the boosterism of the formerly-nascent park is finally taking root. This hopeful note should be tempered with the commentary of a resident from Colledimacine, who when asked if the park was a positive development, responded by saying, “You know, Colledimacine is a part of the park now, but we don’t have anything positive. Over there in Lama, yes, they have the chamois, and the mountain right there that gives life to this park. The park also comes around and contains these little villages here, and these forests. But here, nobody visits, and the park gives us no work.”

The slopes of the Majella and the inhabited lands within or adjoining the park are difficult to define as being either “natural” or “artificial” (Lefebvre 1991); likewise, the challenge of deciphering the complex web of social relations inherent therein is doubtlessly difficult. And yet it may very well be that a key to helping guide positive development of the region lies in working to protect and sustainably use not only its natural and recreational, but also its religious and agropastoral resources. Perhaps an acceptance of past traditions revived in meaningful forms along with new land uses shaped by enduring reverence for the mountain will bring about wise development that will benefit both the diverse populations of flora and fauna for which it is celebrated and the human communities that have for centuries dwelt around its flanks.

If reverence is indeed the key, perhaps such development is possible. Once within the upper folds of the Majella where the lowlands are lost to sight, wandering along the barely legible tracings of trails that once held up to 6 head of sheep walking abreast, it is difficult not to feel dwarfed by the mountain. The eerie feeling that part of it may come suddenly crashing down, or that somehow the mountain is able to sway your innermost thoughts and emotions, often comes welling up. And yet, this sensation is not lost once you descend the slopes again, but only mildly subdued; no matter where you are within its purview, the massif remains lurking and omnipresent.

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