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In Swiss Alps, Tales Stand as Tall as the Mountains

April 02, 2006|Sam Cage | Associated Press Writer

ON THE ALETSCH GLACIER, Switzerland — It's a pageant of devils and demons, virgins and Pontius Pilate. But this is no horror story or nightmare -- just a taste of the Alpine legends that lend their names to Switzerland's high mountains.

It's unlikely that many visitors to the Alps, or even residents, give much thought to the names of the rocky heights. But closer investigation reveals tales of derring-do that add depth to darkly forested valleys and greater clarity to airy ridges.

"Some were named by early climbers, some are legend," Hanspeter Holzhauser, a geographer at the University of Zurich, said as he walked along a snow path looking down over the Aletsch Glacier, the Jungfrau massif on one side and the Matterhorn on the other.

A few Alpine mountain names -- such as the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc -- immediately evoke images of a needle-sharp spire or a huge mass of snow and ice.

Some are purely geographical, but vary by language -- French, German, Italian or even Romansch and Slovenian.

The Matterhorn gets its German name from the "Matt" in the name of the town of Zermatt below and the mountain's pyramidal peak, or "glacial horn." It is called Le Cervin in French and Monte Cervino in Italian.

But some names have their origins in Alpine history and myth, such as Jungfrau ("Virgin") or Quille du Diable ("Devil's Ninepin").

The profusion of names is testimony to the cultural variety of the Alps, a range stretching across linguistic and topographical borders, dividing nearby communities and giving birth to myths of dragons, devils and lost Roman legions.

Before anyone thought of climbing mountains for fun, locals gave names to the more important and distinctive features of the Alps, but many more went unnamed.

Superstition held that dragons and demons inhabited the high Alps -- giving rise not only to names such as Les Diablerets ("The Demons") and Quille du Diable, but also countless local festivals and traditions in which villagers make loud noises to chase away evil spirits or burn fires to provide light and warmth through long winter nights.

One of the strangest stories centers on Pilatus, which towers over the central Swiss town of Lucerne and is named for Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and, tradition says, committed suicide after being imprisoned.

Local legend has it that when the Romans tried to dispose of Pilate's body in rivers, a fierce storm would blow up and wouldn't stop until the corpse was retrieved. Finally, they took the body to the top of an isolated mountain in Switzerland, then known as Frakmont, and left it in a dark lake.

But Pilate still caused trouble. Lucerne authorities banned the ascent of the mountain until the 16th century and locals still blame him for storms that break over the area.

"Only once a year, on Good Friday, did Pilate allow himself to be seen, during the Passion, seated on a chair in the middle of Lake Pilatus -- with flowing gray hair and wearing the purple regalia of a judge," says a website by Pilatus-Bahnen, the cogwheel railway that runs up the mountain.

Another legend from the highest Swiss Alps holds that Moench ("Monk") peak is protecting the Jungfrau from the nearby Eiger ("Ogre").

"It is a good name, Jungfrau -- Virgin. Nothing could be whiter; nothing could be purer; nothing could be saintlier of aspect," wrote Mark Twain on an 1891 visit.

It's likely, however, that the original names arose for less romantic reasons.

Jungfrau most likely got its name because a convent once owned pastures at the foot of the mountain. Eiger -- famous for its killer north face -- could derive from the Latin acer, meaning sharp, or the Old German ger, meaning spear or javelin.

And Moench? Chances are its lower pastures were owned by monks.

But for simple Alpine misadventure, probably the best story involves the nearby peak of Trugberg.

In the mid-19th century, a group of climbers was trying to reach the top of Jungfrau via the Aletsch Glacier when they reached a confluence of ice rivers known as the Konkordiaplatz.

The party -- made up of scientists Louis Agassiz, Arnold Guyot and Edouard Desor -- headed in the right direction but ended up on the wrong summit, more than 655 feet lower than Jungfrau.

"They came up to Konkordiaplatz, and from there Trugberg hides the Jungfrau," Holzhauser said. "That's why they gave it the name."

The meaning of Trugberg in English? Cheating Mountain.

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