Wilde-Mändle-Tanz Oberstdorf -Wild Men
Wilde Mandle Tanze
WildeMändleTanz is a ritual dedicated to the Germanic god Thor, and involves 13 men, all of whom belong to old local families who have been living in that region for centuries. The men’s costumes are made of moss, which grows only in the Allgäu Alps.
Custodians of the Wilde Mandle Tanz Ancient Ritual Dance
The Trachtenverein* Oberstdorf cares for what is probably oldest cult or ritual dance in the German-speaking area - the Wilde Mändle Tanz. It is the goal of the association to preserve this and pass it on to posterity. The dance is only performed once every 5 years “as we have received it from our ancestors”. (*society for traditional costumes)
90 citizens from all walks of life founded the folk association on April 28, 1901 at the Gasthof zur Sonne in Oberstdorf. Today, the largest costume club Germany with 1000 members can look back more than 110 years of club history.
Since 1901, the Wild-Mändle-Dance is organised by the Mountain and Homeland Security Association in Oberstdorf and since then re-enacted every 5 years. It is an honour to be allowed to join in, and in general only members of long-established Oberstdorf families are invited. All of whom belong to old local families who have been living in that region for centuries.
Oberstdorf Locality and Town History
Oberstdorf is a municipality and skiing and hiking town in southwest Germany, located in the Allgäu region of the Bavarian Alps. Oberstdorf is one of the highest market towns in Germany. It is the southernmost settlement in both Bavaria, and in Germany overall.
The Oberstdorf area was already inhabited from the Stone Age to the Roman Empire. It was first mentioned in 1141. King Maximilian, the later emperor, granted Oberstdorf in 1495 the right to hold a market and the High Court. In 1518 Count Hugo of Montfort built a spa in Tiefenbach at the sulphur spring.
The Wilde Mändle” A Pagan Civilisation in Oberstforf Allgäu Alps
The "Wilde Mändle" ritual used to be spread over the whole Alpine area, from the high caves to the Tatras and from the Dolomites up to the Harz and the Thuringian Forest. But only in one place in the Alps has the dance been preserved in its original form: in Oberstdorf in the Allgäu. It is one of the last of the pagan civilizations that was able to protect itself under the protection of the remote Oberstdorf mountain valleys.
Survival of the Wilde Mandle Tanz as a Ritual of Protection
Why did the dance only survive in Oberstdorf, after it was once widespread throughout the Alpine region? This is a question with no straightforward answer but there are some clues ...
The origin of the Wilde Mändle dance undoubtedly goes back to the mysterious world of prehistory. The purpose of dance is said to connect with the forces of nature, the stars and the gods, especially the god Donar (or Thor).
Only a few hundred years ago, the term Oberstdorf represented the combined terrors of the forest, the wilderness and the unexplored mountains. This maybe one reason why reason why this ancient legacy has been maintained in Oberstdorf. There is another interesting story about the ritual which may also help to explain the loyalty shown to it by the locals.
In 1648, when the plague killed over 800 people in the small village of Oberstdorf, some brave men danced through the village in the disguise of the "Wild Mändle". When, after a few days, they repeated the dance and discovered that none were missing, the great fear of the plague subsided and the village recovered. As a result, the dance became a folk festival that was celebrated every year.
Elsewhere it is stated it was played out for ‘a joke’ by the men of the village but I suspect that was not really the case but rather a centuries old ritual being used as a method of appeasement or luck or blessing bringing to a place under siege from disease as well as great turmoil brought on by the Thirty Years War.
I think therefore, it’s important to understand the religious background of this ritual and possible reasons for its’ survival.
Religion and Ancient Beliefs of Ancient Germanic Paganism
Ancient Germanic paganism was a polytheistic religion practised in prehistoric Germany and Scandinavia, as well as Roman territories of Germania by the 1st century AD. It had a pantheon of deities that included Donar/Thunar, Wuotan/Wodan, Frouwa/Frua, Balder/Phol/Baldag, and others shared with northern Germanic paganism. Celtic paganism and later Gallo-Roman syntheses were later practised in western and southern parts of modern Germany.
In the territories of Germany under the control of the Roman Empire early Christianity was introduced and began to flourish after the 4th century. Although pagan Roman temples existed beforehand, Christian religious structures were soon built and completed during the reign of Roman emperor Constantine I (306-337 AD).
Christianity and the Battle Between Catholicism and the Protestants
During the Carolingian period, Christianity spread throughout Germany, particularly during the reign of Charlemagne (r. 800-814 AD) and his expansionary military campaigns.
In Pre-Reformation period (1000–1517) territories of present-day Germany, like much of Europe, were entirely Roman Catholic with religious break-offs being suppressed by both the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor.
We should remember that Catholicism to a large extent tolerated ancient festivals, usually re-dedicating them to a saint day nearest to the date of that festival. In remote areas especially, times were slow to change and ancient pagan rituals were often only thinly disguised. They continued as an essential part of the rites and customs of daily life.
Germany suffered suffered from religious fragmentation. Roman Catholicism was the sole established religion in the Holy Roman Empire until the advent of Martin Luther (1483–1546) who was responsible for the Protestant Reformation which began in 1517. In 1521 the Diet of Worms outlawed Luther, but despite this the Reformation spread rapidly.
From 1545 the Counter-Reformation began in Germany. Much of its impetus came from the newly founded (in 1540) Jesuit order. It restored Catholicism to many areas. For the most part, the states of northern and central Germany became Protestant (chiefly Lutheran, but also Calvinist/Reformed) while the states of southern Germany and the Rhineland largely remained Catholic.
In 1608/1609 the Protestant Union and the Catholic League formed. The Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), one of the most destructive conflicts in European history, played out primarily in German lands, but involved most of the countries of Europe and was to some extent a religious conflict, involving both the Protestants and Catholics.
1648 The Dance as Symbol of Life versus the Plague.
In an area that largely remained catholic after years of conflict followed by terrible plague, the dance then became a symbol of an enduring past and of local identity in times of great change and upheaval.
In isolated area up in the mountains practising an ancient way of life, farming and hunting for centuries, this ritual was central to its’ calendar and culture. As a ritual played out over midsummer, it perhaps offered a vital symbol of life, endurance and permanence. The meaning of which only served to be emphasised by the then current events.
The costume would also serve to remind them of life, endurance and permanence being made from evergreen plants.
This ritual was wildness choreographed and contained, yet still calling in the unknowable and something ‘other’. Timeless and unchanging, a world beyond man that called out to them at a point in time when civilisation as they knew must have seemed on the brink of collapse.
Rather than bolting the door against the wild they seemed to have reached out and called it in. The healing powers of land and community united against death and destruction. In midsummer in the time of longest days and lightest nights this ritual appears to have shone as a beacon of hope dispelling darkness and evil.
Wilden Klausen Winter Ritual
We should also note the survival of the "Wilden Klausen" ritual that also takes place here. This is the counterpart (I would think) of the midsummer ritual, that takes place in winter. I will look at this in another article as I think it’s important to consider them as twins in the year. Together they represent balance and continuity in the wheel of the calendar, an essential weight in the balance of life and death, good and evil.
Wilde Mandle Tanz the Oldest German Cult Dance
The indigenous population has therefore remained loyal to the "wild-mändle dance" through the centuries. And although some figures may no longer be danced as they were 2000 years ago it is an uninterrupted line from the past. It existed long before tourism and state interest in native folklore and customs. The "Wilde Mändle Dance" therefore, was never played for the purpose of attracting visitors.
The first complete description of the "Wilde-Mändle Dance" can be found in the Vita written by Abbot Columban in 615 AD. A sacrificial ceremony is mentioned, in which the wild men were united to a drink and drank their beer from wooden cups and sang to it, as the final scene still represents it today. The beer in this case being mead.
It does have echoes of the 'mead of poetry' ritual of importance in Norse ritual. The song sung to the mead has echoes of the eloquence sought by Odin.
The Ritual Dance of the WIlde Mandle Tanz
The dance itself requires great strength and agility embodied exclusively by men and it takes place in midsummer.
In ancient times, it was accompanied by wooden pipes, horns and drums. In 1811, a teacher from Oberstdorf wrote the music down and also set the song of celebration to music, the dance accompaniment was taken over by the then emerging brass bands.
The entire performance takes place to the sound of this ancient music with an old, very simple melody, which has in its first andante phrase highly pronounced rhythms, preferably for the leaping movements, etc. While the second, the allegro set, for the more rapid successive movements that appear.
The simple and repetitive melody of the music band Oberstdorf accompanies every dance figure. The 17 dance ‘images’ are divided into 3 parts performed by the men.
They dance to rhythmic drum music, build a pyramid, and at the end they drink mead from their wooden mugs, singing a ritual song. The song is sung to the mead in their cups.
The Costume of the Wilde Mandle Tanz - Green Man, Wild Man
The costumes of the "Wild Mändle" are sewn of fir-beard, that is a moss lichen, which occurs only on firs or spruces in higher mountain ranges (about 1400 to 1900 meters). The whole man is covered up to the eyes. On his head he wears a wreath of Holly, around his waist he wears a belt of braided young fir branches. All these materials are evergreen and grow throughout the year. The choice of materials is clearly plays an important part of the overall symbolism of the ritual dance. Therefore costume is not just about performing an action, but of embodying something deeply symbolic.
The Wilden Klausen and the Klausentreiben
The "Wilden Klausen" of Oberstdorf (wild beast-like creatures): On the evening of December 6, St. Nicholas Day, during the so-called "Klausentreiben" young, men in fur and leather garments drive the evil spirits away from the village. I will write about this another time in the run up to Christmas.
Thank you To the Trachtenverein Society For Traditional Costume
We owe a debt of gratitude to the both the inhabitants of Oberstdorf and their Trachtenverein Society For Traditional Costume for preserving a ritual of such antiquity in times when these customs are so easily lost. If you are inspired to visit I am sure they would be delighted.
I would so love to see this Wilde Mändle Dance ritual in person, to document, take photos and film it. If you want to go and see it details are below.
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The ritual will next take place in 2020. You could combine a visit to see this with lots of other activities such as walking, spa or skiing too. I would love to go, so if you get there I’d love to see your pics!
Images from the Trachtenverein Society