On the icy blasts of the February winds arrive the Tschäggätta, mountain monsters specific to this normally sleepy Swiss valley

The alpine region of Lötschental is known as the magic valley. However, come winter it is a dark and mysterious spell that is cast over the Bernese mountain range.

Every year, from the beginning of February, strange figures arrive in droves. Horned monsters clad in furs and cow bells. These are the Tschäggättä, grotesque masked monsters that appear during the carnival season to frighten young Swiss children into better behaviour.

It's the stuff of nightmares. Yet hundreds of curious visitors arrive each year to watch the pageantry.

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Since prehistory the pagan procession makes its way from Blatten to Ferden, passing the towns of Wiler Loetschen and Kippel.

The costume comprises of large shoulder pads, trousers from potato sacks, a fur cape and colourful gloves. Most important of all is the mask. The wooden Tschäggätta masks are made using real teeth and hair for shocking effect.

Where the wild things are: The masked raiders now chase tourists rather than loaves of bread. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Where the wild things are: The masked raiders now chase tourists rather than loaves of bread. Photo / Lötschental Tourism

Agnes Rieder, a mask carver, works for weeks before hand to carve spooky faces into the wood. At the Maskenkeller the greatest collection of masks in Switzerland from as far back as the 1800s, which is no mean feet as the wooden masks were traditionally burned at the end of the festivities.

Magic valley: The festival takes place around the beginnning of lent. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Magic valley: The festival takes place around the beginnning of lent. Photo / Lötschental Tourism

Even the seasons are frightened of the Tschäggätta.

While the reason for this terrifying tradition has been lost to time, many think it is to do with chasing away the winter and welcoming the lengthening days.

Out of the woods: The masks are made from the same material as other traditionall tools and buildings. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Out of the woods: The masks are made from the same material as other traditionall tools and buildings. Photo / Lötschental Tourism

The wood from which the masks are carved is an important material for the ancient Swiss community. Tools and furniture were all traditionally made out of the same alpine conifers as the masks, as are the buildings which sit atop of wooden stilts protecting the precious food stores.

Hunger masks: Legends suggest the Tschäggättä were mischievous hungry peasants. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Hunger masks: Legends suggest the Tschäggättä were mischievous hungry peasants. Photo / Lötschental Tourism

Even today, food is expensive to transport and store in the remote Alpine valley.
One local legend suggests that the Tschäggätta myth emerged during one such food shortage.

The story of the 'Schurtendiebe' people who lived on the dark side of the valley, tells how they couldn't get enough to eat.

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Winter be gone: Even the seasons are frightened of the Tschäggättä. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Winter be gone: Even the seasons are frightened of the Tschäggättä. Photo / Lötschental Tourism

In desperate hunger they disguised themselves in masks to raid their richer, better fed neighbours.

Now there is no longer such a desperate hunger and the Tschäggättä are more likely to chase unsuspecting tourists than a loaf of bread.

Tschäggätta costume comprises of shoulder pads, sack trousers, fur and a wooden mask. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Tschäggätta costume comprises of shoulder pads, sack trousers, fur and a wooden mask. Photo / Lötschental Tourism

As the pagan tradition merged with the church calendar it now coincides with Shrove Tuesday and the start of lent. A traditional food that is in ample supply is the buttery "Chiächlini" cakes, traditional for this time of the year in the Lötschental.

Pagan procession: Tschäggätta walk the length of the Swiss magic valley. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Pagan procession: Tschäggätta walk the length of the Swiss magic valley. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Many say the Tschäggätta chase away the winter and welcome the lengthening days. Photo / Lötschental Tourism
Many say the Tschäggätta chase away the winter and welcome the lengthening days. Photo / Lötschental Tourism

New Zealanders are not put off by local grotesques as last year the Communite Helvetique welcomed 43,000 Kiwis, up 6 per cent on 2017.

While tourism to urban hubs was steady, Switzerland's rural regions saw almost 40 per cent increase in overnights from New Zealand tourists.

Far from scaring brave Kiwi tourists away, it seems the fairytale villages and traditions such as Lötschental's monsters are just what New Zealanders are coming to see.