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Swiss folklore

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Swiss folklore

Modern Fasnacht costume from Basel. Fasnacht, a mixture of Christian and pre-Christian beliefs, is a pre-Lenten Carnival.

Swiss folklore is used to describe a collection of local stories, celebrations and customs of the alpine and sub-alpine peoples that occupy Switzerland. The country of Switzerland is made up of several distinct cultures including German, French, Italian as well as the Romansh speaking population of Graubünden. Each group brought their own folklore traditions with them.

Switzerland has always occupied a crossroads of Europe. While Switzerland has existed as an alliance and country since 1291, the Swiss as a culture and people existed well before this time. Before the Swiss, the region was occupied by Pagan and later Christian Germanic tribes which would become the Swiss. Before the Germanic peoples, the region was occupied by Roman and Gallo-Roman populations. Finally, before the Romans the Celtic Helvetii lived in what would become Switzerland. In addition to conquest, Switzerland has been a crossroad of Europe since at least the Roman Empire. Constant movement of cultures and ideas into Switzerland has created a rich and varied folklore tradition.

The study of folklore (Folkloristics) is known as Volkskunde in German. The study of Swiss folklore originates in the 19th century. The central figure of its academic development is Eduard Hoffmann-Krayer, who founded the Swiss Society for Volkskunde in 1896.


  • Folklore and customs 1
  • Legends 2
    • Christianization 2.1
    • Old Swiss Confederacy 2.2
  • See also 3
  • Notes and references 4

Folklore and customs

Tatzelwurm fountain in Kobern-Gondorf
  • Barbegazi, a small white furred man with large feet. Helpful and shy they live in the mountains and are rarely seen.
  • Berchtoldstag, festival in honor of Berchta or Berchtold
  • Berchtold, white cloaked being, leader of the Wild Hunt
  • Böögg, or bogeyman, of the Sechseläuten festival
  • Dwarfs, the little hill or earth men. Described as happy and helpful, they raise cattle and produce magical cheeses[1]
  • Dragonet "little dragons" tales originated in Switzerland during the Middle Ages.
  • Eis-zwei-Geissebei, a fasnacht event for children in Rapperswil
  • Fasnacht (or Fastnacht), pre-Lenten carnival[2]
  • Kobolds, called 'Servants'[1]
  • Jack o' the bowl is a house spirit of Switzerland for whom a bowl of sweet cream may be left out.[1]
  • Perchta (or Bertha, Berchta, "The Shining One"), Germanic goddess, and white cloaked leader of the Perchten who drive bad spirits away, and female leader of the Wild Hunt. January 6 is her festival day.
  • Perchten, those followers who work with Perchta. Also the name of their wooden animal masks.
  • Samichlaus leads a donkey laden with treats and toys for children.
  • The Singing Fir Tree, a Swiss fairy tale
  • Bäregräubschi and Chöderchessi, traditional wedding presents in the Simmental (Bernese Oberland). The former being a kind of fork symbolising the male element in the wedding. The latter being a magical bucket symbolising the female part. Reported in an Italian anthology of Alpine culture in the 1860s, it is unknown whether this custom is still in use[3]
  • Schnabelgeiss, a tall goat with a beak in Ubersitz
  • Tatzelwurm, a cat with the hind-end of a serpent with no hind legs. Allegedly photographed by a Swiss photographer named Balkin in 1934.
  • Treicheln
  • Chlausjagen
  • Ubersitz
    • Huttefroueli (or Greth Schell), an old woman who carries her husband on her back
  • Tschäggätä[2]
  • Vogel Gryff (the Griffin Bird)
  • The Rääbeliechtli or "turnip light" are hand-carved lanterns from turnips. The turnip is hollowed out and designs are carved into it, which are lit by a candle in the turnip. The children of the villages then walk through the streets of their town with the lanterns and sing traditional songs. The custom originates with thanksgiving traditions at the end of harvest in November.[4]


The Abbey of St. Gall, founded on the site of his hermitage

The legends of Switzerland include historic and semi-mythic people and places that shaped the history and culture of the nation.


  • Saint Gall, an Irish monk who in the early 7th Century helped introduce Christianity to eastern Switzerland. The Abbey of St. Gall is believed to have been built on the site of his hermitage.[5]
  • Magnus of Füssen, a missionary saint in southern Germany. He was active in the 7th or 8th Century and is considered the founder of St. Mang's Abbey, Füssen.[6]
  • Saint Fridolin, patron of Glarus. He is traditionally believed to be an Irish saint who founded Säckingen Abbey, Baden, in the 6th or 7th century. According to legend, he converted a landowner who left his estates, now the Canton of Glarus, to Fridolin. When the landowner's brother took Fridolin to court over the gift, Fridolin raised the landowner from the dead to confirm its legitimacy.[7]

Old Swiss Confederacy

A fresco showing William Tell and his son after he shot an apple off his son's head.
  • Teufelsbrücke is a bridge which was supposedly erected by the devil.
  • William Tell is a Swiss folk hero who was forced to shoot an apple off his son's head by the tyrannical reeve of Habsburg Austria. After successfully shooting the apple and escaping the reeve's men, he assassinated the reeve and started a revolution.[8] He became a central figure in Swiss patriotism as it was constructed during the Restoration of the Confederacy after the Napoleonic era.
  • Rütlischwur, a legendary oath of the Old Swiss Confederacy, taken on the Rütli, a meadow above Lake Lucerne, by three men representing Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden. It became connected to the legend of William Tell.
  • Arnold Winkelried was a possibly legendary hero of the Swiss Battle of Sempach against the Habsburg Duke Leopold III of Austria. According to the story, when the Swiss army was unable to break through the Austrian pikes, Winkelried threw himself on the pikes and used his body to open a hole in the Austrian lines leading to the Swiss victory at Sempach. Though the existence of Arnold Winkelried is disputed, the story was another central part of Swiss patriotism in the 19th century.
  • Bruder Klaus was a Swiss monk and ascetic who is considered the patron saint of Switzerland. In 1481 the leaders of the Old Swiss Confederacy began quarreling over treasure from the Burgundian Wars and civil war appeared likely. Bruder Klaus was consulted and passed a secret message to the quarreling leaders. The message, the contents of which are unknown, calmed the tempers and led to the drawing up of the Stanser Verkommnis which expanded the Confederation.[9]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c [2] Keightley, Thomas (1870). The Fairy Mythology Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries. 
  2. ^ a b Customs and Traditions in Switzerland accessed 20 May 2008
  4. ^ Plättner, Anya (15 November 2006). "Rääbeliechtli, wo gaasch hii?". Retrieved 6 February 2012. 
  5. ^ "St. Gall" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.
  6. ^ "St. Magnus" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia.
  7. ^ Leo, Hermann (1886). Der heilige Fridolin. Herder. pp. 163–167. 
  8. ^ Meyers Konversations-Lexikon, Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts, Leipzig und Wien, Fourth edition, 1885–1892, entry on "Tell, Wilhelm," pp. 576–77 in volume 15. In German.
  9. ^ Stanser Verkommnis in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.

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