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October 2003

Legends of the Fall

Bavarian myths to read on cold autumn evenings

“And when,” said the old woman, leaning over the table towards us, so that we could see the whiskers on her chin, “the king’s beard has grown round the table three times, all the ravens will fly away and he will emerge from the cave.” The crone sat back, took a loud slurp from her beer and eyed our worried faces with satisfaction. It was a cool October evening and I had taken temporary refuge at an inn together with a hiking companion before walking the last kilometers to our guesthouse. Though neither of us had been properly frightened by the old woman’s telling of the Barbarossa tale, the gathering darkness outside and a sharp, chill wind that rattled the door, a messenger of the cold dark months ahead, lent her story an eerie character that it would not have had in more convivial surroundings. It was an interesting reminder of the power of storytelling.

Bavaria is rich in myths and legends and in the next three issues of MUNICH FOUND we will be looking at some of the best and most popular tales of this area. While a pedant would probably argue about what constitutes a proper myth or legend, we will subscribe to a looser interpretation here, best summed up by a good old Bavarian saying, “Des is scho so lang her, dass scho gar nimmer wahr is” (roughly translated, “it happened longer ago than you can possibly imagine”).

Emperor Frederick I—called “Barbarossa” on account of his red beard—was a real historical figure. He lived from 1125 until 1190 and played an important, indeed pivotal role in German history. When he was elected emperor in 1152, Barbarossa strengthened the sovereignty of German duchies by granting their ruler’s new rights and powers—unlike his predecessors he was a negotiator as well as a warrior. This helped lay the groundwork for Germany as a collection of small semiautonomous states, a situation that persisted in one form or another until 1815. Barbarossa’s death—he drowned in the Saleph River in Armenia while leading the third crusade—was regarded as a catastrophe, not only for his army, which subsequently disbanded, but also for the stability of the Holy Roman Empire. Perhaps it was the dramatic and unexpected death of this visionary that subsequently elevated him to the status of a mythical figure. Interestingly the two most popular surviving legends surrounding Barbarossa insist that he is not dead at all, but sleeping in a cave ready to awake when the time is right.

One story is set in the Untersberg, a mountain that lies near Salzburg on the border between Germany and Austria. There are many versions of this tale, but according to the most popular account Barbarossa is seated at a giant marble table in a subterranean throne room, asleep and surrounded by all his knights and servants. When his beard has finally grown around the table three times and the ravens no longer fly around the mountain peak, the emperor will awake and emerge from the cave to fight the final battle between good and evil. Barbarossa’s triumph over evil will herald the beginning of a golden age in which there will be neither hunger, nor sickness, nor death. How exactly this legend came into being is unclear, though the notion of the emperor’s immortality probably has its roots in much older Germanic sagas. These often included secret kingdoms hidden away beneath rocks or inside mountains.

The story of King Watzmann—our second legend this month—is by contrast not based on fact and is the lesser known of two tales about this ruler. Many thousands of years ago, the region of Berchtesgaden was ruled by King Watzmann, a man known and feared for his cruelty toward farmers. The king liked to force his serfs to draw their own plows themselves instead of allowing them to use their oxen. Each day the miserable farmers were chained to the plows and, if one fell or was too weak to work, the king would set his hounds on the offender. One day, a farmer called Hois, who had had nothing to eat for three days and was weak with hunger, stumbled over a stone. As he struggled to right himself, a small man no bigger than his thumb appeared at his side. Signaling to to keep quiet, the tiny man climbed into the serf’s pocket. That evening Hois rushed home and, taking the little man from his pocket, demanded to know who he was. “I am Heinzel, and I have come to help you avenge yourself of King Watzmann’s tyranny. Gather your farmer friends together and I shall tell you what to do.” Heinzel’s plan was that each farmer gather pebbles with which to ward off the King’s dogs. Though the farmers were by nature suspicious, early next morning, they filled their pockets with stones. A few hours later, one of the serfs happened to stumble. Before the hounds were able to attack, however, the farmer reached for a stone. To his amazment the target was struck dead. Encouraged, his companions began to pelt the king and his dogs with stones. Soon the oppressor Watzmann and his animals lay dead beneath a mountain of stones. The farmers, freed from torment, lived long and happy lives and even today we can admire the Watzmann mountains near Berchtesgaden, under which the king was buried all those centuries ago.

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