Amongst the mountains of the
little Austrian Duchy of Salzburg dwell peasants who still
mingle religion and mythology in a curious jumble and
observe many remarkable customs. Perhaps the most
extraordinary of their festivals is the Perchten dance,
which is performed only at very infrequent intervals. Mrs.
Vivian was fortunate enough to witness the latest
celebration of this unique function and secure a set of
HERE is probably not another place in
Europe where so many strange customs, survivals of heathen
and mediaeval times, are gathered together in a small tract
of country as in the Austrian Duchy of Salzburg. Amongst
those wonderful mountains and valleys live peasants who
still mingle religion and mythology in a mystic jumble.
Folk-lore attracts me like a magnet, and, therefore, I can
scarcely bear to let a summer pass without a visit to such a
rich treasure-house of legends and the like. Last year, on
my way from Marienbad to the Danube, I stepped aside at Linz
and ran down to Salzburg for a day or two. The weather was
ideal, the old haunts as fascinating as ever; but, best of
all, I discovered that in a few days' time a country fair
would be held in a village near by, famed for its
loveliness. At this fair both the
"beautiful" and the "wild" Perchten would dance their
strange dance. I had heard rumours concerning this
extraordinary ceremony for years, but as it is only
performed at irregular intervals—sometimes of twenty years—
I had never yet had the opportunity of seeing it.
Every plan and engagement for the near future was ruthlessly
thrown aside, and I determined to stay on in Salzburg at any
Perchtentanz is named in honour of Perchta, another name for
Holda or Frigga, Woden's consort and the mother of the gods.
Although banished from many of her ancient haunts by
rude civilization and unbelief she still clings to Salzburg
and parts of the Tyrol, where the peasants not only believe
in her, but fear her. Perchta means
the Splendid, the Magnificent One. She may be seen, they
say, wandering through the great fortress of Salzburg at
dead of night. Towards the beginning of the year, in the
guise of a tiny, wizened witch, with gleaming eyes, long
hooked nose, and wildly , tangled hair, she lurks at
cross-roads, waiting for travellers. When one
approaches she greets him with her friendliest smile, and
holds out to him a black cloth. If he takes it he is done
for, and will certainly not survive the year; but if he
brings out his crucifix and says, "Dame Percht, Dame Percht,
throw the cloth on the earth," then every joy and blessing
will come to his house.
Perchta shows herself in a stable, sickness and death are
sure to follow, unless the careful peasant hangs up a bunch
of consecrated St. John's wort, a potent herb in these
lands. On other occasions the goddess gathers all the
unbaptized children round her, and sweeps through the
country at the head of the band. At Christmas-time a
spoonful of every dish used to be placed on a fence, or a
gate, outside the house as an offering to this much-dreaded
lady. One of the strangest things about Perchta is that she
has a double nature. Sometimes she is the soul of goodness
and charity, at other times she is full of hate and malice
to mankind. Men are fascinated by her, but their
feelings are mixed, and fear is mingled with longing—fear on
account of her uncanniness, and longing because of her
Perchta has her troops of followers, strange beings half-way
between mortals and immortals. These do not live among the
children of men, but appear amongst them at such times as
Advent and the Feast of the Three Kings. Like Perchta
herself, they are divided in disposition. for some are good,
kindly creatures, such as the "beautiful" Perchten [Schon
Perchten]; while others, like the Schlachten Perchten, are
wild, irresponsible, malicious things. They are more felt
and heard than seen. In swarms they come down on men's
dwellings, and are recognised by their weird screams and
laughter. They love to draw men into danger by alluring
sounds and spells, and to punish undiscovered crimes. The
Perchten dances originated among the peasants of the
mountains, who desired to imitate these mythological beings,
but of late years the performances have seldom been seen. In
1867 there was a display, and then nothing till 1892.
The cost of the affair is so high that only the rich farmers
can afford it, for the head dress of a " beautiful" Percht
sometimes costs between thirty and forty pounds.
On the day of the fair I
had to be off early in order not to lose any of the fun. The
special train started soon after seven, and on Salzburg
station I found a collection of the notabilities of the
district — mayors in frock-coats and top-hats, local squires
and magnates in the becoming Tyrolese costume of green tweed
coats and breeches, and jaunty green felt hats adorned with
cords and a saucy little eagle's feather tucked into the
band at the back.
Past marvellous mountains
and through wonderful passes we went, till we found
ourselves in the most romantic part of the Tyrolese Alps,
just halfway between Dachstein and the Gross Glockner. A
jingling little victoria took me up to the fair ground.
Here, although so early in the day, people were running
excitedly about, flags were flying, and prize cows were
lowing. Women in quaint garb—black patent leather sailor
hats and very big white aprons— and men in green loden
wandered round, exploring with immense interest the little
wooden booths. Some bought from a redhot grill long strings
of the little hot sausages [würste] so dear to the Austrian
heart; others danced slow and solemn waltzes in the big
summer-houses with sides open to the air.
As I was quite alone and
knew nobody, I had now to find out when the Perchten dances
took place and to try to wheedle someone into allowing me to
see the dress rehearsal and take some photographs. Just then
I caught sight of several young men in top-hats and
frock-coats adorned with huge rosettes. Nobody could
possibly put on a silk hat from choice on a roasting summer
day, I argued, so they must have something to do with the
show. With some trepidation I pounced on one of them, who
wore a benevolent expression, and begged for information.
Nobody could have been kinder, but at first it seemed as if
he could not enlighten me much. I became almost tearful at
the idea of returning with no spoils of war, for I knew well
that once the Perchten arrived at the fair there would be no
getting anywhere near them, and crowds at least four deep
would separate my camera from its prey. Presently, however,
he became more hopeful; a friend of his was arranging the
dances, he said, and he would see what could be done. With
as many apologies for bothering him as I could muster in
German I retired to an open-air cafe, where I tried to while
away the period of waiting by drinking many coffees with
whipped cream floating on the top.
Time was getting on, so I wandered round the show
again, gazing at immense cart-horses, prize oxen, and the giddy
merry-go round. To my relief I caught sight of my young friend
(who I now discovered was the sub-prefect of the place),
accompanied by another cheerfullooking youth.
"Here is the gentleman who is arranging about the
dances," he said; "he will tell you what can be done."
The cheerful young man had evidently had little
experience of the trials that befall a photographer, but after
some persuasion he agreed to let me see the dress rehearsal,
which was to take place at a farm some little way off.
"Meet me at the bridge at three," he said, "but I
shall not be dressed like this. I shall be clad in green loden
from top to toe. So prepare for the transformation!"
At three o'clock punctually I was on the bridge, and
here I sat for some time watching the dear old town, with its
wooden houses, and the great mountains all round. Presently a
boy touched me on the shoulder. My cicerone had kindly sent a
chariot for me, which drove me to an old farm-house on the
outskirts of the town. Here I found him surrounded by a motley
crew of people in masks, whom he was striving to keep in order.
"Now, what do you want to snapshoot?" he said. "There
is plenty of choice. Will you have a chimney-sweep, a bear, a
bundle of wood shavings, or a village idiot?"
Everybody entered into the spirit of the game. A
rag-picker clasped his temporary wife —a man in female clothing,
of course, about double his size —wildly to his arms, with
shrieks of "My darling Eliza," and the village idiot sank in a
huddled mass against the wall. All wore
the most repulsive masks and the strangest collection of
tatters, and darted about, letting off squibs, brandishing
sticks, and ringing large and peculiarly penetrating bells.
For all their hurry and scurry, however, they were most
polite and kind to me, and were ready to pose for any groups I
Presently there was a stir. The "beautiful" Perchten
were arriving. Nothing could be more fantastic than the
appearance of these gentlemen. The pictures describe them far
better than any words of mine can do. The lower part of their
costume is unobtrusive, and all one's attention is centred on
their heads, which are crowned with what surely must be the most
immense and eccentric head-dress in the whole world. Two
diamond-shaped boards, in all some ten or twelve feet high, are
covered with red velvet. On them are fixed dozens of silver
watches and chains and every kind of ornament the Perchten have
been able to collect or borrow—looking-glasses, artificial
flowers, pictures of the Virgin, bracelets, necklaces, and
coins. At the top comes a crown, above that a moon, and then
again a star.
In their right hands the "beautiful" Perchten clasp a
naked sword, and with the other they lead their partners — young
men dressed as women. The latter were disguised so skilfully
that it was almost impossible to tell whether they were really
women or not, for of course there were many wives and daughters
of the Perchten helping with the preparations. I remarked on
this to my guide, so he immediately seized hold of the first
person in woman's garb he saw, and inquired :—
"The English lady wants to know if you are a man or
woman. Now, let's hear which you really are." As a matter of
fact, the victim was a very shy girl; and there were blushes and
giggles, accompanied by squeals of delight from the crowd.
The noblest of the "beautiful"
Perchten wear bird head-dresses. These are large pieces of
moss-covered, board, and on them are fixed every rare bird that
has been shot in the neighbourhood by the Perchten and their
friends. The "tafel," as they are called, are really most
striking and artistic. On the top comes a large bird with
outspread wings, in this case a huge peacock with a gigantic
tail. Naturally these head-dresses are of a terrific weight, and
have to be supported and steadied by an iron rod which is
fastened to the back at the waist. I should think the poor
fellows suffer for being beautiful, as the strain and the heavy
load must conduce to violent headache. The back of the erection
is usually covered with canvas and painted with a pastoral
scene, such as the Almfahrt. A good part of the toilette of the
Perchten had to be done in public, and it was rather amusing to
see their wives fussing round them doing up buttons and tying
When everything was ready and all the company assembled
the cortege started on its way to the show.
First went the band, then came the "beautiful"
Perchten, leading their partners with stately step and slow. The
"wild" Perchten followed behind. At first they affected a
certain dignity, and tried to make out they hadn't the least
desire to appear more conspicuous than necessary.
So, according to etiquette, the spectators
and hangers-on felt it their duty to encourage them and tease
them in order to extract the well-known war-whoops, whistlings,
and unearthly growls and groans. However, until the wild ones
reached the fair they managed to keep up an appearance of calm.
Here the procession marched to the middle of the ground, where
the "beautiful" Perchten (who never lose their stupendous
pomposity) began treading a measure at a pace carefully adapted
to their cumbersome head-gear. The crowd closed round them,
wrapt in admiration of their finery. This was the opportunity of
the wild, bad Perchten. They began to quarrel amongst
themselves. The chimneysweep and the rag-and-bone man had a
violent discussion. Evidently the insults of the latter were not
to be borne, so the chimney-sweep made a wild plunge in his
direction, nearly knocking over half-a-dozen old women; and they
began to chase each other all over the ground, dodging in and
out among the unwary spectators and executing mad leaps and
bounds. The postman promptly began to flirt with the
rag-picker's wife, which, of course, was not to be tolerated for
an instant; so the rag-picker dropped his quarrel with the
chimney-sweep and dashed off to clasp his "darling Eliza" in his
arms and to punch the postman's head.
Perhaps the bear and his leader achieved the greatest
success of all. He prowled around in the most stealthy manner,
and got a rise out of more than one person absorbed in the
performance of the "beauties." I was standing on the edge of the
crowd watching them, when suddenly a huge hairy paw was put
round my waist and a gruff voice said "Boo!" in my ear. In my
terror, for I had quite forgotten the bear, I leapt a foot into
the air and gave a piercing yell, which afforded all my
neighbours the keenest delight.
As a rule the "wild" Perchten
like to do their "running," as it is called, at night, and the
three Thursdays of Advent are the favourite time. They go round
armed with whips, drums, iron kettles, big and particularly
noisy bells, and a quantity of very small shrill ones. Sometimes
a group of Perchten from one village meet a band from another
village and warfare ensues. Indeed, on one occasion in
past days, four Perchten were killed and stealthily buried by
the rest. Their graves, marked with stone crosses, may yet be
seen near Wagrein.
In the old days the "wild" Perchten did not even fear
association with the Evil One, and a fearsome tale is told by an
old wife of Gastein. It was once thought that if a Perchten
runner went for fourteen days before the great occasion without
praying or making the sign of the Cross it would make him more
agile and amusing than any of the others. So one of the
performers thought it could do no real harm to try the recipe
and see what would happen. When the time
arrived the spectators were amazed to find one of the Perchten
jumping on to the roofs of the houses and swinging himself with
the greatest ease from one high point to another, till at last
they could not see him at all. Something was not quite
right, they thought, and hurried off to fetch a priest. The
reverend gentleman was in church, but he came as soon as
possible to the market-place and began to scatter his blessings
to the four winds. Suddenly the agile Percht dropped from
nowhere at all at the priest's feet. Naturally, there was not
much of him left, but he just managed to utter a remonstrance.
"Oh, sir," he groaned, "you might for once have spared me your
blessing. You cannot imagine the heavenly sensation of dancing
aloft on the clouds which I have been enjoying. But directly
your reverence came the devil forsook me and here I am!" With
that he drew his last breath.
The Perchten in Pinzgau are rather differently clad.
Their head-dresses, though not quite so amazing as those of
Pongan, are still most curious. They consist of a round hat in
the shape of a crown, adorned with tufts of erect white
feathers. On either side wide, brilliant coloured ribbons fall
to below the waist. The coats and knickers are of some gaudy
figured stuff, and even the long white stockings are striped and
worked with startling designs.
Some of the masks worn by the Perchten are
extraordinarily curious and frightful. In olden times the
different variations of devil-masks were the most popular, and
the village artists seem to have let their imagination run riot
in producing the most uncanny results in these wooden faces.
Animal masks, too, are popular. Long teeth and twisted horns are
favourite ornaments, and a tongue lolling out of the mouth also
has a good deal of success. The masks of men's heads are not
unlike those used by actors in ancient Rome. They are truly
grotesque, with protruding eyes, deep lines, warts, and so on.
Some are fashioned like Turks, the face painted yellow, and with
a gaudily-decorated turban on the head. Many of the masks are
very old and extremely interesting.
When the dance at the fair was over the performers
marched to the high street of the village, and there, between
the two principal inns, gave another display. The kindly
landlord of the principal inn, seeing me trying to find a quiet
place whence to watch the antics, came and invited me to the
balcony on the first floor, where I had an admirable view of the
proceedings. I was indeed sorry when the time came for me to
catch my train back to Salzburg, for I have rarely spent a more
interesting day, or met more good-natured and merry people.
In conclusion, I must not fail to express my thanks
to Herr Adrian, of Salzburg, the chief authority on the
folk-lore of that district, who kindly gave me many interesting
facts about the Perchten out of his vast store of knowledge.