Fear the Austrian Perchten:
Pagan Traditions in the Alps, Part II

Perchten traditions involving ugly wooden masks ("Schiachperchten") are most traditionally performed in the Raunächte ("Smoke Nights") in the South of the Salzburg province and Western parts of Tyrol. Gastein, Altenmarkt, St Johann and Rauris are particularly famous for their strictly traditional performances, whereas other regions allow more modern mask styles and alterations of the dances.

The wooden, painted masks resembling devils are usually equipped with several horns, tusks and teeth to pierce the souls of haunted people. In some valleys, they have no ears - so that they don′t hear the screams and lamenting of their victims. They are covered with fur and wear large bells around their hips. They also carry dried horse or cow tails which they use as whips (they hurt, let me tell you). Masks can weigh up to 30 kilograms and sometimes resemble stereotypical animals, such as eagles, bears or wolves.

Centres: Salzburg, Tyrol & Salzkammergut

A more charming variation of the custom are the "Schönperchten" or "Pretty Perchta", that are meant to awake spring and deliver happiness and luck for the new year. They come in all sorts of variations, and are again most common in the mountainous regions of Salzburg and the Salzkammergut. The best-known types of Schönperchten are the Tresterer from the Pinzgau, the Schnabelperchten ("Beak Perchta") from Rauris, the animal-like Wilde Jagd ("Wild Chase") from the Untersberg region and the famous Glöckler from the Ausseerland near Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut.

Depending on the region, they come in male and/or female versions, are usually wearing white with flower ornaments, small pieces of mirrors and little bells; some are rather scary creatures with masks symbolising animals or archetypes (such as Death or Frau Perchta). They often perform dances and go from house to house to deliver blessings and luck. Dances often involve the joint stomping on the ground to awake spring and the seeds in the soil.

Krampus customs & Dates to consider

A pre-Christmas tradition in Austria is St Nicolas walking from house to house handing out small gifts on the 6th of December. The traditions of the Perchten was implemented into this custom through the "Krampus", which is a different thing to a Perchta: "Krampus" is derived from an old Germanic term for claw and it is an evil spirit controlled by St Nicolas. Unlike Perchten, it is not meant to protect of the evil - and it has a tongue unlike traditional Perchten masks. With modern designs of the masks and the tradition turning into commercialised folklore, it is hard to tell a difference between Krampus and Perchten these days.

These days, Perchten ceremonies are organised in the sake of tourism outside of Alpine areas, too. Most of the big ones take place in the Salzburg province. For Schönperchten performances, watch out for events in the Ausseerland in the Styrian part of the Salzkammergut. For the most traditional events, you have to go to the Alpine regions of Southern Salzburg during the four Raunächte Nights: Thomas Night (21st of December, winter solstice); Christ Night (24th of December, Christmas Eve three days later); the night preceding Silvester′s Day (30th of December); and the night before Epiphany (5th of January).

Return to "Perchten - Part I"

back to "activities"


Further Reading

Traditions & Customs of Austria: January & December

Heimatwerk Austria (preserves folk culture)

Ministery for Education, Culture and Science (includes folk culture)

Perchtenlauf in Salzburg

Austrian Tourism Council for current events