History of religion

Hexentanzplatz in the mountains

Witness to prehistoric cultures in the Alps

(Published in Grail World 76/2013)

Anyone who walks through the Alps with open eyes will be reminded again and again that the history of the Alpine region did not begin with the penetration of the Roman conquerors. Because despite their repellent climate, the valleys of the Alps have been populated for thousands of years. Hunters, shepherds and traders crossed the Alpine passes five or ten thousand years ago[i]. So even from times long before the introduction of Christianity, pagan symbols or traces of pre-Christian places of worship have been preserved in many places.

Examples of relics from forgotten times would be thousands of rock carvings in many places in the Alps (see in "Brief, scarce, curious" page 157 "Traces from prehistoric times").

Quite a few pagan cults, for example Carnival customs, Krampus and Perchten runs, solstice fires, etc. have been preserved more or less unadulterated. Some processions also suggest their origins from pre-Christian times. For example the pilgrimage to the Latzfonser Kreuz (2300 m) under the Kassiansspitze (near Latzfons, part of the municipality of Klausen in South Tyrol), which is considered the highest pilgrimage site in Europe.

The snake cult of Cocullo has probably been preserved in its original, pre-Christian form (cf. "Journey to the Snake Festival", here under “History of Religion”); not in the Alps, however, but in southern Italy. Pre-Christian rites can also be found in Carnival customs.

Most of the once numerous cult relics and testimonies from pagan times have now been forgotten, deliberately destroyed, integrated into church festivals or rededicated. Because around 590 Pope Gregory the Great came to the conclusion:

"After much deliberation, I realized that, instead of destroying the pagan shrines, it is better to convert them into Christian churches ... It is impossible to purify the rough minds of their errors in one fell swoop" (1, p. 67).
Churches or chapels were built on the old places of worship, or at least a Christian cross was erected.

Piled stones 
On all continents there are piles of stones, stone setting, cairns as playful communication, path markings, boundary signs, etc., with and without cultic meaning. Most of them are more recent. It is not uncommon for them to be knocked over by storms or avalanches and then have to be renewed every few years. Such heaps of stones can also be found in many places in the Alps. Many an alpinist looked surprised when they found a cairn on a mountain that had supposedly not been climbed up to now (2, p. 41).

In the construction of heaps of stones we may see the oldest and most original form of all monuments and stone architecture (1, p. 10). Also in the Bible in Genesis 31,45 a symbolic stone setting is mentioned when a contract is concluded between Jacob and Laban.

A witches' dance floor in the mountains?
The most impressive evidence of the alpine stone setting can be found in the form of the "Stone almonds" (stone men) at the Auenjoch in Sarntal (South Tyrol). There are over a hundred cairns that tourists and hikers are still building today.

“Stones must have been piled on top of each other since 'pre-Christian' times. In a document from 1540 it is reported that the farmer Barbara Pachlerin [Note: The Pachlerin is considered the last witch to be burned in the Sarntal], called the Pachlerzottl, had to answer in court for witchcraft. During the torture, the 'embarrassing questioning', she is said to have confessed to having made bad weather with other witches and the devil up at the 'STOANERN MANDLEN' ... These stone men are the oldest documented stone monuments of this kind. The place on the yoke is considered a 'witch's dance place'. Early historical finds in this area go back 7,000 years " (2, p. 30).

Did "witches" dance here?

As already said, relics of pre-Christian cultures have been preserved for a long time in remote places, such as in the Alps. So it is not unlikely that until modern times women (and men?) Got together to perform ancient rituals associated with religious dances. The priests made the "Witches' Sabbath" out of it.

If you want to get an impression of this “witch's dance place”, you can easily hike the wide Auenjoch with its impressive set inserts.

from Sarnthein (961 m) in the Sarntal (near Bozen) you come to the narrow, paved road Sarner ski hut (Berggasthof, 1618 m). The small but fine hotel is a hundred meters away Auener Hof (1622 m) as the ideal place to stay. Its gourmet restaurant is the highest in Italy. Comfortable, signposted hiking trails now lead past the Auener Alm (1798 m), over a wide ridge with the Auener Joch to the summit of the Great Reisch (2003 m) with the "Stoanernen Mandlen". The highest point offers a first-class observation tower with an impressive panoramic view. An old path from the Sarntal to the Etschtal also leads past here.

On the generous hilltop with its many cairns, thoughts are given wings, it is easy to dream. One can easily imagine a prehistoric place of worship there. Have shamans, masked and in imaginative robes, performed here once secret rituals that were alien to us?

We will probably never find out more details. Then the mysterious traces from the past reveal the presence of people. But what these people thought, how they felt and what religious acts they practiced when and for what purposes cannot be deciphered from their few legacies.

(1) Heid Hans, Myth and Cult in the Alps, Rosenheimer, Rosenheim 2002.
(2) Menara Hanspaul, Sarntaler Alpen, Athesia, Bozen 1982.

 Final grade:
[i] The age of the famous glacier mummy from Tisenjoch (Ötztal Alps), the "Ötzi", is estimated to be around 5,300 years.