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Kanisfluh © Teresa Meusburger / Bregenzerwald Tourismus

Sacred mountains and trees

Sacred mountains and trees

Ghost church, witch’s tower, spooky mountain and the worship of family trees - rock formations or great trees once had practical as well as enormously spiritual significance for the people of the Bregenzerwald. Today, such important landmarks are both embraced, and in some instances, climbed.

A few years ago, when a company considered mining gravel at the foot of the mighty Kanisfluh massif, fierce protests arose inside and outside of the valley community. Before long, it was no longer merely a matter of concern from the point of view of nature and conservation, but of blasphemy: Implementing the project would mean nothing short of desecrating of the Bregenzerwald’s “most sacred mountain,” the local equivalent of the Kailash, though admittedly without a total ban on climbing and pilgrimages. To prevent such things from happening in the future, the Vorarlberg State Government declared the limestone massif a landscape conservation area in 2020. Earlier generations, however, would have found this approach to be utterly befuddling: As far as they were concerned, mountains were areas to be exploited for economic gain, i.e. summer cattle grazing, haymaking, hunting, poaching, and for occasional mining. On the other hand, that which was too rugged, too inaccessible, and therefore economically unproductive and dangerous due to avalanches, rockfalls and mudslides, was considered ” sinister” in the magical sense; the abode of demons and spirits… in other words, the opposite of sacred and worthy of veneration.

The Kanisfluh, or more precisely its north face, was a prime example of this. According to legend, a pope banished all the spirits that had previously caused mischief, frightening people and scaring them at night. A court record from the year 1767 reveals the extent to which such ideas were commonplace: After her death, a woman haunting the Rhine valley as a particularly persistent ghost only came to rest when a magical specialist (apparently a Capuchin priest) banished her to the Kanisfluh. The inhabitants of the valley believed that such demonic beings had their headquarters in a prominent rock tower, which they called the “Ghost Church,” “Witch’s Tower” or “Wirmensul.” On some nights you can see the lights of unredeemed souls glowing there and even hear a little bell ringing.

The Winterstaude mountain was similarly maligned as the “spooky mountain.” It was considered common knowledge that witches and sorcerers gathered on its broad summit, which they reached whilst riding on wolves. They ate, drank and danced there at the peak. Sometimes, skirmishes even broke out, though if injuries occurred they were healed immediately. The progressively emerging dominance of Christian beliefs never succeeded in completely eliminating older ways of thinking. In different social classes, they have continued to have an effect until today, at times mixed with Christian elements, at other times – following widespread patterns of Eurasian shamanism – in the form of magical ideas and practices, of sorcery and “superstition.”

In the 1820s, the Swabian theologian, grammar school teacher and writer Gustav Schwab (known as the poet of the ballad “Der Reiter und der Bodensee”) described a seemingly archaic animistic cult that came to his attention. As an early “ethno-tourist” in the Bregenzerwald, he described the worship of certain special trees: “On beautiful summer days, the owner of such trees would gather around it with his family for evening prayer.” There are instances of penniless fathers, compelled to sell the property on which such a family tree stood, who deliberately had the written contract of sale drawn up in such a way that the right of free access to the tree was retained on the land, and the seller was free to do as he pleased with the tree. So that such a family tree would not die out, a small sapling would usually be planted by its side to take the place of the rotting tree, and to which the pious devotion would then pass.” Whether or not this was actually a remnant of the tree cult of the Alemanni, which dates back to the 6th century, is unknown. In Scandinavia, the veneration of protective and court trees, mostly ash, lime or oak, where prayers were said and offerings made, was also widespread until recent times. Gustav Schwab, however, would have hardly dreamed that two centuries after his observations, hugging trees would not only be recommended as a proven means of relaxation, but even as a medically useful therapeutic remedy.

Author: Alois Niederstätter
Travel Magazine Issue: Winter 2022-23