Fear the Austrian Perchten:
Pagan Traditions in the Alps, Part I

A Percht on a Perchtenlauf ceremony in Austria

The Austrian Alps are a landscape rarely anywhere in the World in terms of grandeur. Impressive mountain ranges, glaciers, and deep valleys and dales fostering folk culture, the preservation of local dialects and inbreeding like no other landscape.

Long winters with loads of snow and high mountains do not help a great deal with allowing people from different valleys to mingle and the Alpine regions of Austria have been remarkably resistant to innovation and modernisation up to the 19th century, when railways made them accessible.

Impressions from a Perchtenlauf in Tyrol. Gives only a remote idea of how scary they actually are.

But even today, at times when the most remote valleys have a well-developed skiing industry including a range of 5-star-hotels and a local airport, many ancient traditions are preserved and still alive. They have become part of a distinct regional pride. Sometimes the interest of tourists helps to keep folk culture alive, too. The Perchten of Tyrol, Salzburg and parts of Upper Austria are one very prominent example of heathenish or pagan traditions in the Alps.

According to ancient Indo-Germanic believes, the months of the winter are dominated by demons and evil spirits. It is the winters that bring darkness, cold and dangers, so it is easy to understand how such believes could evolve. Traditionally, Frau Perchta is believed to be a god-like creator half man, half woman, but usually displayed in its female manifestation. She appears on Earth on the turning point between the old and the new year (winter solstice, matching with Christmas and the Julfestival in Scandinavian countries). Frau Perchta represents the dual male/female deity and is accompanied by all sorts of evil spirits of the winter.

The origin of the Pagan Perchten

Perchta keeps them under control, and as she hikes over the snowy mountains and through the even snowier valleys, she protects the good people of the sprits, and punishes the not-so-good ones. In the Alpine areas of Austria, these ancient beliefs were the basis for young men to dress up as evil spirits in an attempt to banish those that accompany Frau Perchta. Later (from the 16th century on) the men in costumes were - and still are - called Perchten. Other rituals, such as protective smoking of the house, cattle and food stocks by burning specific herbs also take place around winter solstice for protection. These customs also aimed to awake the spirits of the New Year, that were believed to rest in the soil underneath the snow cover.

When the areas of today′s Austria became Christian (again, after the pagan-Bavarian invasion into the Christian Romano-Celtic province of Noricum) in the 6th century, the church endorsed many of the Alpine pagan′s rites and traditions. Since the missionaries couldn′t really ban the rituals, they implemented them into a Christian context. And there they remained, untouched, unrecognised for many centuries.

In the 17th and 18th century, the church finally realised that these customs were of pagan origin and suddenly thought it would be worth abolishing them. Emperor Joseph II, the classic emperor of enlightenment, was never a big fan of organised religion anyway and supported bans. They never succeeded to the degree that Perchten traditions disappeared completely, though. In the 19th century, the age of romanticism meant that people discovered a keen interest folk culture.

In association with pan-Germanic ideas, the pagan traditions underwent a Renaissance. In the light of what German nationalism has turned into in the late 19th and 20th century, it is obvious that these tendencies need to be evaluated critically - even today, certain groups of neo-Pagan societies maintain cultural ties with Germanic and Aryan Gnostics and spiritualist teachings that have little to do with folk culture.

Continue with "Perchten - Part II"

back to "activities"

Further Reading

Traditions & Customs of Austria: January & December

Perchtenlauf in Salzburg

Heimatwerk Austria (preserves folk culture)

Ministery for Education, Culture and Science (includes folk culture)

Austrian Tourism Council for current events