Perchtenlaufen is a folk custom found in the Tyrol region of central Europe. Occurring on set occasions, the ceremony involves two groups of locals fighting against one another using wooden canes and sticks. Both groups are masked, one as 'beautiful' and the other as 'ugly' Perchte.
In the state of Styria, Southeastern Austria, all of the Perchtln were played by women right into the 19th century. As a part of this, they blackened their faces, wore their hair long and sometimes exposed their breasts. In the mid-20th century, one old woman was recorded as saying that when she was young she remembered seeing a female Perchtln from the Styrian municipality of Donnersbach who carried a swaddled baby. She related that many of the women dressed as Perchtln would let one breast hang out, but that they were so well disguised that "no one needed to be ashamed."
In January 1977, the German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr attended the Perchtenlaufen in Styria, noting that by that time there were no more female Perchtln, with youths instead having taken up all of those roles.
The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg made reference to the perchtenlaufen in his book The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1966, English translation 1983). He noted similarities between the perchtenlaufen and the benandanti, a visionary tradition which existed in Early Modern Friuli, a province in Northeastern Italy, which was the primary focus of The Night Battles. He remarked that the perchtenlaufen was "undoubtedly a remnant of the ancient ritual battles" which he believed had originally been based around the fertility of the crops.
Ginzburg's comparison between the perchtenlaufen and the benandanti was adopted by the German anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr in his book Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization (1978, English translation 1985). He also compared it to the case of the Livonian werewolf, arguing that they all represent a clash between the forces of order and chaos.
- Academic sources
- Duerr, Hans Peter (1985) . Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilization. Felicitas Goodman (translator). Oxford and New York: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-13375-5.
- Ginzburg, Carlo (1983) . The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. John and Anne Tedeschi (translators). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. ISBN 0-8018-4386-3.
- Scary monsters scare away evil spirits in Perchten pagan festival in Germany — photo gallery published by The Telegraph featuring work by Philipp Guelland