Pre-Christian Alpine traditions

Pre-Christian Alpine traditions

The central and eastern Alps of Europe are rich in traditions dating back to pre-Christian (pagan) times, with surviving elements amalgamated from Germanic, Gaulish (Gallo-Roman) and Raetian culture.

urvival through the ages

Ancient customs survived in the rural parts of Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, western Croatia and Italy in the form of dance, art, processions, rituals and games. The high regional diversity is a result of 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.Even in Oberstdorf, in the southwestern alpine part of Bavaria, the tradition of the "Wilde Mann" (wild man) is kept alive. He is described exactly like Krampus (except the horns), dressed in fur and frightening children (and adults) with rusty chains and bells.


The word Krampus originates from the Old High German word for claw ("Krampen"). In the Alpine region the Krampus is represented by an incubus in company of St Nicholas. Traditionally, young men dress up as the Krampus in the first two weeks of December and particularly in the evening of December 5 and roam the streets frightening children (and adults) with rusty chains and bells.In some rural areas also slight birching especially of young females by the Krampus is part of tradition.

The present day Krampus costume consists of red wooden masks or Larve, black sheep's skin and horns. Considerable effort goes into the manufacture of the hand-crafted masks, as many younger adults in rural communities engage competitively in the Krampus events.


Originally, the word Perchten (plural of Perchta) referred to the female masks representing the entourage of "Frau Perchta" or "Pehta baba" as is known in Slovenia, an ancient goddess (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 6 January. 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 form the Old High German word "peraht", or brilliant, meant as a warning against the sin of vanity.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" (beaked 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.

In the town of Andrista, Valle Camonica, Italy each year came a mythological figure of the forest: the Badalisc (or Badalisk). [ [ ADL ©Atlante Demologico Lombardo: Il Bresciano - Festa del Badalisc ad Andrista di Cevo ] ]

ee also

*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)

External links

* Swiss neopagan site focussing on pre-Christian Alpine traditions
** [ Swiss legends]
** [ Austrian legends]

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