Famous Swiss folklore and mythological tales
Switzerland is known for its breathtaking nature and scrumptious cheese, but a lesser-known and important element of Swiss culture is its folklore.
There are all manner of folk tales, packed with exciting stories, mythological creatures and a healthy dose of magic, that Swiss children grow up with - and each tells you something about the history and culture of the region or canton where it is told. Looking at the tales and legends helps us to understand Switzerland and its people a little better.
Swiss tales and legends you should know
While there are plenty of famous figures in Swiss folklore, here are some of the best ones. For anyone visiting Switzerland, or thinking of moving here, make sure to keep an eye out to see how these legends are embedded in modern-day Swiss landmarks and culture.
The Böögg, or the bogeyman, is a mythical creature that was in the past used by adults to terrify children into good behaviour. Although nowadays the Böögg is depicted as something resembling a snowman, it traditionally had no specific appearance, instead simply being described as an androgynous monster that would punish children for bad behaviour. The concept of a Bogeyman is commonly found in many cultures around the world, but the word originated from the Middle English word bugge or bogge.
In Switzerland, the Böögg makes an appearance every year, to this day, at the Sechseläuten Festival in the springtime. This sees people gather in Zurich to watch the burning of the Böögg, which is constructed as a large snowman stuffed full of explosives.
Superstition has it that the time it takes for the Böögg to explode after the pyre is lit is a prediction of what the weather will be like in the summer that year. The quicker the explosion, the warmer the summer! Make sure to attend Sechseläuten in the springtime to see what kind of summer the year will bring!
The Witch of Belalp
Switzerland has a long history of executing presumed "witches", with waves of mass-hysteria-induced witch trials beginning around the 15th century and remaining a common practice for hundreds of years.
One of the famous is the trial of the Witch of Belalp. According to the story, she was burned at the stake after being accused of murdering her husband and cheating on him with a sorcerer. For the past 35 years, this tale has been honoured through an unusual tradition that is still practised currently, called the Witches’ Descent.
The Witches' Descent is a race held in January each year on the ski slopes of Hohstock, a mountain in the Bernese Alps, all the way down into the village of Blatten. The racers dress up as witches, complete with scary masks, and face this rigorous descent to honour the Witch of Belalp.
The Giant Gargantua of Matterhorn
The Matterhorn is one of the most distinct landmarks of Switzerland with its large, near-symmetrical peak, which is one of the highest summits in the Alps. It is located on the Swiss-Italian border, and around 3.000 people climb the mountain each year. What is perhaps lesser-known about the mountain is what is fabled to be its origin.
The Matterhorn is believed to be home to some of the most famous giants in Switzerland. In particular, one named Gargantua, who is depicted in the legends as the creature responsible for Switzerland's gorgeous landscapes - the soaring peaks and tumbling valleys of the Swiss Alps are the marks left behind by his footsteps!
Gargantua was said to be a powerful man with long hair that disappeared into the clouds, and a gait that made the earth tremble. Walking through the Bernese Alps one day, he fell, and his legs remained, forming the distinctive shape of the Matterhorn.
The Basilisk of Basel
When walking in Basel along the Rhine, you might notice one of the many depictions of Basilisks in various shapes and sizes. A basilisk is a mythological creature of Greek origin that has the head of a rooster and the body of a serpent, and is often referred to as “the king of serpents”.
Basilisks have the ability to petrify and kill their victims simply by looking at them. In relation to the Swiss city, however, legend has it that a basilisk once lived in a cave underneath the fountain Gerberberglein, a historical site in the heart of Basel. The first depiction of the creature in relation to Basel was all the way back in 1448, when it was shown holding the city’s coat of arms.
The most common depictions in the modern-day city are the basilisk fountains, also known as Basiliskenbrunnen, which can be found throughout Basel. The Basiliskenbrunnen were designed by Wilhelm Bubeck in 1884, with a decorated cast-iron bowl on top of an urn-shaped pedestal. These fountains are still there nowadays, all along the banks of the Rhine, and are a popular photo opportunity for visitors.
Dragons of Mount Pilatus
Mount Pilatus is a stunning mountain that overlooks the dazzling lake in Lucerne. It’s a beloved tourist destination, but the famed tale of the creatures that the mountain housed are just as impressive. Legend has it that many dragons used to live in the crevices of the mountain.
In the 1400s, there were countless stories by villagers claiming to have seen a dragon or had been healed by a dragon. In one of the most famous stories from 1421, a farmer named Stempflin fainted because a dragon flew by him. When he regained consciousness, he found a dragon stone with a lump of coagulated blood next to him.
The tales of the dragons of Mount Pilatus are honoured on the Drachenweg (Dragon Trail) at the top of the mountain. This beautiful, circular trail, which can be completed in under an hour, offers some of the best views of Lake Lucerne and the Central Swiss Alps.
Celebrate these folk tales
Switzerland has some of the most interesting folklore and mythological tales that are still honoured today in various ways. Pay a visit to one of these regions to witness the legends come alive!