German Folklore: Rübezahl
Benevolent to the meek but wrathful to the insolent, Rübezahl is a mythical spirit who has been guarding the mountains of Bohemia and Silesia since pagan times. This the guardian spirit of the Krkonoše Mountains appears prominently in German, Polish and Czech folklore. If you're ever caught wandering in the mountains, it's probably a good idea to find out what you're up against...
Rübezahl: Lord of the mountains
Guardian Rübezahl is a mountain spirit (woodwose) who lives in the Krkonoše Mountains. This mountain range is situated between the historical regions of Bohemia and Silesia (now the border between Poland and the Czech Republic). These lands were populated by Germanic tribes and it was these Germanic peoples who created the legend of Rübezahl, thus he appears prominently in German, Polish and Czech folklore.
In the legends, Rübezahl appears as giant, gnome or mountain spirit. He is known to be incredibly unpredictable; capable of helping people but also of exacting terrible revenge on those who he perceives to have wronged him.
Attestations of Rübezahl have been found from as early as pagan times, however, the earliest known depiction appears in 1561 on map of Silesia drawn by Martin Helwig (a Silesian cartographer). On this map, which Helwig compiled from surveys and information from local inhabitants, Rübezahl appears as a horned demon in the Krkonoše Mountains.
What does Rübezahl look like?
Rübezahl is the Lord of Mountain Weather. He is often depicted as a cloaked old man, much like Wotan (the German name for Odin, King of the Norse Gods). His unpredictable nature is derived from the fact that he sends rain, snow, fog, thunder and lightning down from the mountaintops, even when the sun is shining.
This characteristic has also drawn comparisons with the Wild Hunt, a spectral hunting party that erupts through the night sky causing storms to ravage the country. In European folklore, the Wild Hunt is often depicted as being led by Odin, providing a good example of how Germanic and Scandinavian folklore is intertwined.
He is the keeper of the legendary storm harp, which when played is capable of summoning a tempest in the clearest skies, and when he walks, the ground trembles before him. He can take any form he wishes, from the old cloaked woodwose (mountain man) to an old crone, or an enormous giant.
Over the centuries, Rübezahl has evolved from the demonic lord of the weather to the guardian of the poor who live by his mountains. He is known for giving food, particularly sourdough bread, to the people, as well as teaching them the art of medicine and inventing the speciality regional soup, keyselo.
Rübezahl often tested people, to check if their hearts were pure. If you passed his test, he would guide you to the treasure located deep within his mountains. He also defended the poor against invaders, as well as German landlords who were exploiting their Czech tenants.
What’s in a name?
The origin of Rübezahl’s name has been subject to many different interpretations. The author and folk story collector, Johann Karl August Musäus, wrote a story entitled: How Rübezahl Got His Name. In this story, Musäus uses the German word for turnip, Rübe (plural: Rüben), to explain how Rübezahl got his name.
It goes like this: Rübezahl abducted a beautiful princess and took her high into the mountains. She complained of being lonely and so Rübezahl turned the turnips in the fields into her friends and family. However, as the turnips start to wilt, the apparitions of her friends start to fade. The princess complained to Rübezahl, asking him to count (Anzahl in German) the turnips to make sure they were all still there and as he did so, she made her escape.
Another interpretation of the name is gleaned from Martin Helwig’s map. Since the demon appears with a tail, some have speculated that is name might have evolved from Riebezagel, Riebe being the demon's name and zagel meaning tail in Middle High German.
However, it's important to remember that, despite its unclear origin, the name Rübezahl is an offence. Mere humans must refer to him with respect, as Lord of the Mountain, Treasure Keeper or even Lord John (which is what he is called by the herbalists he taught medicine to).
Rübezahl in Germany
Rübezahl has appeared frequently throughout German literature, music and culture since the 1500s. He was first mentioned in literature in a poem called Ribicinia by Franz von Koeckritz in 1565 and his story was first recorded by Johannes Praetorius’ Daemonologia Rubinzalii Silesii (1662). Since then, he has been mentioned in stories by great authors such as Johann Karl August Musäus, Otfried Preußler and Ferdinand Freiligrath.
He has also been the subject of many different musical ventures. He has appeared in operas, such as Franz Danzi’s The Mountain Spirit (1813) and Louis Sphor’s The Mountain Spirit (1825). Even today, in modern music, Rübezahl is still sometimes mentioned. The rockband Amon Düül II featured a song called The Return of Rübezahl on their 1970 Yeti album, and, in 1982, Dschinghis Khan had their own song, simply called Rübezahl.
Rübezahl is a staple of German folklore and culture. His statue can be found at the Märchenbrunnen in Berlin and he continues to inspire authors and artists to this very day - in fact, he's supposed to have provided J. R. R. Tolkein with inspiration for the character of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings! If you ever find yourself in the area, you can visit the Rübezahl Museum in Görlitz, which opened in 2005.
More folklore to come
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