A small scale disaster hit our house last week in the form of a flood (ok, it was just an unnoticed spill). The only thing really wrecked? A box of my old childhood Albums. As I pulled them out one by one, it broke my heart a little bit. Mold had already started to set in. Granted, they weren’t in the best shape to begin with (I was kind of hard on my toys) Max und Moritz, Kinder Märchen, and then a brown album with a scary brown giant on the cover Rübezahl! I loved listening to this one as a child (records or vinyl, for those of you too young to remember, is what kids had before the invention of youtube). My daughter sees me looking at it and asks… “What is Ruebezahl? I don’t know that story”. That’s when I realized it was time to share a bit of our Silesian Culture …
What is Ruebezahl
Rübezahl! Lord of the Mountains! The stories go back to pagan roots… to the Wild Hunt and even Wotan. Ruebezahl legends come out of the Riesengebirge, a mountain range between Silesia and Bohemia, today the Karkonosze in Poland. Because these border mountains changed hands, and were home to many different people, you will find Ruebezahl tales in German, Polish and Czech culture. His mountain home pre-dates modern borders.
The stories of Rübezahl were first captured by Johannes Praetorius in the rather intimidatingly named “Deamonologia Rubinzalii Silesii” in 1662. Over the next few hundred years the stories were retold by Johann Karl August Musäu in “Legenden vom Rübezahl”, and Carl Hauptmann’s “Rübezahl-Buch”. Not to be left out, Otfried Preußler’s (Der Rauber Hotzenplotz) wrote “Mein Rübezahlbuch” for kids.
Although he is described as a GIANT, Ruebezhal is actually a Woodwose… a native spirit of the mountains and forest. He’s not a demon or god, just a big prankster and shape shifter. His powers were over the weather, and supposedly, was responsible for lightening, thunder, fog, rain and snow in the mountains… even if the sun was shining.
What is his NAME?
Although he is called by many names… Treasure Keeper, Lord of the Mountains, Lord John, Prince of the Gnomes, and Riebezagel, it’s the name Rübezahl that stuck. And this is the name that causes his anger!
Rübe- Turnip Zahl– Count. Counting Turnips? How did he get this name? From a Fairy Tale I heard over and over…
Postcard image courtesy of Peter Jedinka
Once upon a time the Prince of the Gnomes captured a Princess, and took her away to his mountains. She was lonely, and he felt sorry for her, so he used his magic, and transformed turnips into members of her court. The problem is, the turnips would rot, and he would have to make more. She sent him to count how many turnips (or turnip seeds in some versions) he had left. Then, while he was distracted, she escaped.
Since then, he has the name… and since then, he gets very upset when people use it.
Rübezahl in Silesia
One of the earliest images is found on a map of Silesia drawn by cartographer Martin Helwig in 1561. Tucked in at the bottom of the Schneekoppe Mountain you see a small figure with horns and a forked tail. Riebezagel. In High German Riebe- Devil, and Zagel – tail. A devil like image.
Miners in Silesia believe that Rübezahl watches over them while mining for coal, but they never mention his name for fear of mine collapse or flood. Those who were good and kind to Rübezahl would receive gifts like medicines and food. Or maybe he would lead them to his treasure trove under the mountains. For those who teased him for his name, or cheated others, he would find revenge.
In Silesia, Rübezahl was the guardian of the poor mountain people. Usually he is pictured as a monk like figure in grey robes, in his arm a storm harp. And when he walks, the earth beneath him trembles. But he’s also imagined as a wizard looking being in grey robes and a pointed hat.
Rübezal is GANDALF?
And here I need to digress a moment-
Some people believe that Rübezahl was JRR Tolkien’s inspiration for Gandalf. WHY? In the 19th century, spa holidays to the Riesengebirge were a popular vacation. Many of places called themselves Rübezahl in an early attempt to being hip and kitschy. They sold post cards… including one made from a painting by Josef Madlener entitled “The Mountain Spirit”. The painting shows a man in robes and hat sitting in the mountains. JRR Tolkien, author of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series, had one of these postcards. On the back of the postcard was written “The Origin of Gandalf”.
While I would LOVE for this to be true… I’m not entirely sure. Is Madlener’s Mountain Spirit actually Rübezahl? Honestly, I went down a few rabbit holes looking for more information. Including a Reddit trail that points out that Rübezahl would be more accurately portrayed by the character Tom Bombadil (from the Fellowship of the Rin… a character that didn’t make the movie). And if you’ve read the books, it does make more sense…
Now, back to the story….
Rübezahl the Trickster
Although his usual appearance was that of a cloaked man, he would sometimes disguise himself to “test” travelers through his mountains. Many believed that if you helped the “real Rübezahl”, he might lead you to his treasure deep in the mountains. Sometimes, he pretended to be an old woman in need of aid on a mountain trail. If travelers along the way helped her, their journey was blessed. But instead, if they chose to ignore the old woman, their trip was fated to end badly, and they could be lost in the mountains forever.
One of my favorite stories is the tale of the Musicians.
A group of Musicians were wandering through the mountains in search of places to play. They were all quite hungry, for they hadn’t had food in days. They encountered a man dressed in grey robes along the road. “Do you have any food?” they asked. “We don’t have money, but we can reimburse you with music”. He agreed. When they finished playing, Ruebezahl gave them each a piece of horse manure. Three of the musicians threw it to the ground in disgust. The fourth carefully wrapped his up in a piece of cloth, and tucked it into his bag. The musicians went on their way. At the end of the day, the musician reached into his bag, and discovered that the manure had transformed into gold.
There is a moral to this story…any gift is a gift, and should not be disparaged. Although it’s more like he’s a helpful trickster.
The Schneekoppe Mountain, once on the border of Silesia and Bohemia (now Poland and the Czech Republic), is called Snběžka. There, at the base of the mountain, you will find Rübezahl’s Garden. This wildlife preserve is filled with an unusually large number healing plants thought to be planted by Rübezahl as a gift for the people of the mountain. Under his other name “Lord John”, Rübezahl taught people to use the herbs for healing.
After becoming a little too popular as a pilgrimage destination, the local government put the land under protection, and discourage people from picking the plants.
Today you can still see signs of Rübezahl in the Jizera Mountains. There is even a Rübezahl Gravesite near Szklarska, Poland!
But mostly, Rübezahl remains the stuff of Legend and Fairy Tales. Something to be read aloud and enjoyed. The tales of a trickster… and the tale where he was tricked.
And if you ever find yourself wandering in the Karkonosza mountains… and you come across a little old lady in need of aid… be sure to help her along. You never know, she may lead you to the Treasure under the Mountain.
Stories and Books
Rübezahl stories in English. I’ve been reading these again, and they really are enjoyable.
German Books, CDs and DVDs.
Be aware, the DVD will not work on American Players… you need an all region player to make German DVDs work in the US.