Monday, August 27, 2018

Alpine wonderland (Following folktales around the world 80. - Switzerland)

Today I continue the blog series titled Following folktales around the world! If you would like to know what the series is all about, you can find the introduction post here. You can find all posts here, or you can follow the series on Facebook!

Legends of Switzerland
H. A. Guerber
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909.

I chose this book because I really enjoyed the author's other collection, Legends of the Rhine, and I was curious what stories she collected from Switzerland. Heléne Adeline Guerber was a 19th century British historian, who had a knack for organizing stories; in this book, she arranges them by canton, and by the landscape they are connected to. The volume contains about 100 stories, ranging across the mountains as well as across several historical eras, presenting the most exciting tales, legends,and beliefs. The stories don't have any sources, sadly, but she does quote other books occasionally.


It should go without saying that William Tell, and the legends of Swiss independence, are featured in the book. We also catch a glimpse of Odin (Wotan), who tries to flood the canton of Vaud, but when his powers prove to be useless against Christianity, he retires to a mountain to hold witches' sabbaths. He is also credited as the leader of the Wild Hunt in Switzerland. And talking about typically Swiss things: There was a story about how a shepherd acquired the alpine horn from three mysterious visitors who offered him a choice between superhuman strength, wealth, and music.

The Castle of Vufflens had a very beautiful legend about a lord who wanted a son, and when his wife kept giving birth to daughters, he imprisoned all of them in the towers of the castle. Eventually, with the help of the faithful servant, the wife was reunited with her lost daughters, and the sisters lived happily.
One of my favorite tales from the book was that of the tailor from Conthey, who liked to call his wife a witch because she believed in ghosts and fairies. Then one night a dwarf showed up, and dragged the tailor along on a crazy ride across the mountains, showing him monsters, ghosts, dragons, dragon-maidens, the spirit of Nero, souls of lawyers condemned to be fishing in murky waters, fire-breathing boars, and other fun things, until the tailor got home in the morning and apologized to his wife for doubting her. I was also amused by the story where a naturalist used a box of live snakes to cure a customs officer's curiosity...

Picture from here
Of course there is no European mountain land without Dwarves, Fairies,and Giants - Switzerland has plenty of all three. Fairies usually inhabited caves, forests, or waters. For example, there was the legend of a fairy ship drawn by large swans on Lake Geneva; wherever the fairy woman stepped on shore from it, she brought prosperity, until steamboats chased the fairy skiff away from the lake. I also loved the fairy godmother that saved two doomed lovers by sternly scolding the angry father (and springing water from a rock). The legend of the Lake of Zug was a tad more eerie. A young man fell in love with a water fae, and went to live with her, but eventually he became homesick. As a solution, the fairy brought part of the city, along with all his friends, into the lake, so that they could all love together under the water forever... As for giants, most of them were helpful and benevolent. Among them the most famous was Gargantua, who rearranged the Swiss landscape in various ways.

It was fascinating how the famous image of Phyllis and Aristotle (in which the lady rides the philosopher like a horse) displayed in the priory of Romainmotier, gave birth to a whole other story, since locals did not know the original. In the local legend, the gatekeeper turned away a poor girl who wanted to pray for her sick mother. The girl died,and began to haunt the gatekeeper, forcing him to carry her on his back every night to pray at the chapel.
Other classics also made an appearance: The ghost of Pilate, for example, haunted Mount Pilatus, until a master of the Black Arts from Salamanca exorcised him into a small mountain lake. Mount Pilatus had other legends as well, some claiming that it was inhabited by gnomes, while another one telling about a cooper who accidentally got lost, and spent the winter living with two hibernating dragons. They got along great, except he got so used to dragon food that he could not digest normal food after that.
Another Master of the Black Arts appeared in the amusing legend of the Monster Sheep. A shepherd sprinkled holy water on a sheep to protect it, but it unexpectedly turned the animal into a monster that ravaged the area until a sorcerer managed to raise a white bull to fight it off.


Among the giant legends I found one of my favorites, the one about a giant's daughter taking a farmer home in her apron, just to be told by her father that people are not toys. There were also other familiar tale types such as Mare's Egg, Town of Fools (here, Merlingen), Sunken Cities, maiden rescued from dragon (by her father this time), etc. The story of Sintram and Beltram was reminiscent of a Dietrich-legend; here, two brothers set out to hunt a dragon, but one was immediately swallowed whole, and the other had to defeat the beast alone to rescue his sibling. I once again got to read the Ring of Fastrada - because, according to Swiss legend, the magic ring was presented to Charlemagne in Zürich. There were also knights sleeping under mountains (here, the leaders of Swiss independence), and an appearance from the Wandering Jew, who loved the Swiss landscape. I even found yet another mouse-army story - this time, the evil lords of Güttingen were devoured by the flood of rodents.
I was reminded of the Greek legend of Marathon by the story of the Battle of Murten, after which a Swiss soldier ran home with the good news - and barely said "Victory!" before he dropped dead from exhaustion. Other Greek parallels were brought up by the story of an eighty-year-old lady who managed to talk her rich grandson into granting as much tax-free land to the peasants as she could walk around in one day. The old, lame, and weak lady walked around no less than a thousand acres in one day, out of sheer love and determination.

Where to next?
San Marino!

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