Demon face

November 28, 2012

Heitwerwang, Austria

By Dominic Ebenbichler

Tourists or foreigners have to look twice when attending a Perchten festival in the western Austrian region of Tyrol. Some probably think there is something wrong with the countryfolk – dressing up like demons, wearing head to toe animal skins and wooden masks, behavior that could easily be associated with some kind of a devil’s cult. It just doesn’t seem to be normal.

The explanation goes back to the years about 500 AD. Back then farmers performed pagan rites to disperse the ghosts of winter to help bring a fruitful harvest. They thought it might work with terrifying masks which should scare even ghosts. And what is more scarier than the devil himself? Right, nothing! Even ghosts have to be scared by the devil.

In 2012 not much has changed. Of course we know that scaring ghosts is not going to work, but traditions are deep-rooted and somehow people still believe in the power of pagan rituals. And in the countryside there is nothing more important than a good harvest, so why not help a good harvest along by getting rid of some winter ghosts one way or another. Old habits die hard I guess.

I come from the countryside and still live there, but never was very interested in those kind of traditions (maybe because my family are not farmers). Of course I knew about Perchten and things like that, but I was never about to perform in any kind of festival. I was however very interested to find out why people are still dressing-up like the devil and running through the streets, trying to scare adults and little children. I knew that the festivals would produce atmospheric pictures, but I also wanted to look behind the curtain to see if those people involved are still really normal men and women just like you and me. Thus I thought it would be best to follow the production of the costumes, masks and preparations for a festival.

It wasn’t that easy to find a tannery producing the special costumes. But eventually I found one in Scheffau, Tyrol. The boss of the tannery is a women named Barbara Trenkwalder and she told me that they exclusively produce the costumes by hand out of sheep and goat coats. They need 11- 14 sheep for one costume, which seemed to be a lot to me. Three dressmakers need to work one full day to make one costume. Of course, the tannery produces some other products as well, but in the months of September to November the dressmakers almost solely work on the costumes.

Barbara also introduced me to Markus Spiegel, a woodcarver in Paffenhofen, Tyrol. His workshop, which is located in the basement of his house in Pfaffenhofen, was full of finished masks, all looking very meanly at me. He showed me the whole production, starting with a 30x50cm wood stump. Cutting the stump with his power saw and seeing all those gruesome looking masks hanging on the wall reminded me a little bit of a Freddy Kruger movie. After cutting the stump into something which looked like the shape of a head, Markus started to show me the next working steps, the finest and most delicate art of woodcarving I would say. The production of one mask takes almost 15 hours and Markus’ waiting list for a mask is therefore more than one year!

Markus invited me to join his “Pfaffenhofener Tuifl” crew to go to a Perchten festival in Heiterwang, Tyrol. As I wanted to photograph a festival anyway, I thought it might be a very nice opportunity to shoot the people dressing themselves up. And indeed it was.

During this festival more than 500 little (even children ran through the streets) and big devil’s donned their unique costumes and individually crafted masks and tried to scare the gathered spectators. People were screaming and smiling at the same time. The show the masqueraders put on was very impressive. Fire, fog and pyrotechnics made it all even more spectacular.

I now totally understand if people and children are a little scared by just looking at demons and devils… I was too!

2 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Actually, Perchten, the name of the festival, comes from the name of a Germanic Goddess named Perchta. The “devils” you see at Perchten do not actually come from the *Christian* devil, but originated as Pagan nature spirits. (The Greeks called them satyrs, the Romans called them fauns, the Hebrews called them sei’rim, etc.) All over the world, different pre-Christian cultures believed in supernatural horned beings that existed somewhere between human beings and the Gods. These creatures were never believed to be “evil,” but could be good or bad just like people. They often protected forests and animals, and they helped farmers with their crops (provided that the farmers were respectful toward them). Krampus, who is said to accompany Saint Nicholas at Yuletide in Germanic folklore, is just one example of these creatures.

It was only after Christianity spread to Northern Europe that these creatures were completely demonized as “devils,” which was mostly an attempt to defame Paganism. In Perchten we find one of the ways in which the Germanic Pagans thought these beings could be friendly: by warding off evil spirits that threaten the fertility of the land and the safety of the hearth. This is an example of what archaeologists call apotropaic magic, which goes back to Neanderthal times. So this sort of practice really has nothing to do with “the devil” since it is far older than both the Christian devil and Christianity itself.

For more information, check out the references on Wikipedia’s webpage about the Goddess Perchta:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perchta

Posted by GBMar | Report as abusive

While the photographs here may be very well done, this poster should be ashamed of his presentation of this traditional practice. The way in which he portrays this ritual is offensive not only to those involved but also to those that, unfortunately, have to be associated with someone holding onto such an ethnocentric perspective.

Posted by RTG92 | Report as abusive