Pre-Christian Alpine traditions
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The central and eastern Alps of Europe are rich in folklore traditions dating back to pagan (pre-Christian) times, with surviving elements amalgamated from Germanic, Gaulish (Gallo-Roman), Slavic (Carantanian) and Raetian culture.
Survival through the ages
Ancient customs survived in the rural parts of Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, western Croatia and north eastern Italy in the form of dance, art, processions, rituals and games. The high regional diversity results from the mutual isolation of Alpine communities. In the Alps, the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and paganism has been an ambivalent one. While some customs survived only in the remote valleys inaccessible to the church's influence, other customs were actively assimilated over the centuries. In light of the dwindling rural population of the Alps, many customs have evolved into more modern interpretations.
The word Krampus originates from the Old High German word for claw (Krampen). In the Alpine regions, the Krampus is a mythical horned figure represented as accompanying Saint Nicholas. Krampus acts as an anti–Saint Nicholas, who, instead of giving gifts to good children, gives warnings and punishments to the bad children. Traditionally, young men dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly in the evening of December 5, and roam the streets frightening children and women with rusty chains and whips and bells. This figure is believed to originate from stories of house spirits such as kobolds or elves.
Originally, the word Perchten (plural of Perchta) referred to the female masks representing the entourage of an ancient goddess, Frau Perchta, or Pehta Baba as it is known in Slovenia. Some claim a connection to the Nordic goddess Freyja, though this is uncertain. Traditionally, the masks were displayed in processions (Perchtenlauf) during the last week of December and first week of January, and particularly on January 6. The costume consists of a brown wooden mask and brown or white sheep's skin. In recent times Krampus and Perchten have increasingly been displayed in a single event, leading to a loss of distinction of the two. Perchten are associated with midwinter and the embodiment of fate and the souls of the dead. The name originates from the Old High German word peraht ("brilliant" or "bright").
Regional variations of the name include Berigl, Berchtlmuada, Berchta, Pehta, Perhta-Baba, Zlobna Pehta, Bechtrababa, Sampa, Stampa, Lutzl, Zamperin, Pudelfrau, Zampermuatta and Rauweib. The Roman Catholic Church attempted to prohibit the sometimes rampant practise in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but later condoned it, resulting in a revival.
In the Pongau region of Austria large processions of Schönperchten ("beautiful Perchten") and Schiachperchten ("ugly Perchten") are held every winter. Other regional variations include the Tresterer in the Austrian Pinzgau region, the stilt dancers in the town of Unken, the Schnabelpercht ("trunked Percht") in the Unterinntal region and the Glöcklerlaufen ("bell-running") in the Salzkammergut. A number of large ski-resorts have turned the tradition into a tourist attraction drawing large crowds every winter.
The Badalisc is a "good" mythological animal who lives in the woods of Andrista, in Val Camonica, Italy. During an annual town festival someone dresses up as the creature and is "captured" and brought to the town. The animal is made to tell the people of the town gossip. At the end of the festival the creature is released until the next year's ceremony.
- History of the Alps
- Transhumance in the Alps
- Swiss folklore
- Continental Germanic mythology
- Pre-Christian traditions of the Low Countries
- Companions of Saint Nicholas
- Wenn die Hexen umgehen, Claudia Lagler, 5 January 1999, Die Presse (newspaper), (in German)
- Swiss neopagan site focussing on pre-Christian Alpine traditions (German)
- Swiss legends and Austrian legends on Sagen.at (German)