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Exploding the myth

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William Tell, the definitive Swiss hero, has long been considered a symbol of Swiss culture and part of the national identity. But that’s not everyone’s view.

This content was published on July 26, 2004 - 16:40

Anthropologist Fabrizio Sabelli told swissinfo that Tell is neither the stuff of legend nor a reflection of Switzerland today.

Sabelli, who teaches at the University of Neuchâtel, said the Swiss had a purely emotional attachment to the legendary character.

swissinfo: How would you define William Tell?

F.S: It is a wonderful Swiss creation. And it works because everyone is agreed on what qualities the character of Tell embodied.

But William Tell is not a myth. He’s nothing more than a product, and he doesn’t really mean anything to the Swiss today.

swissinfo: What about freedom and courage? Can’t the Swiss identify with these values?

F.S.: I don’t think so. The Swiss were never great patriots. They have rarely fought wars against their enemies. And freedom is a vague term. It came into vogue during the French revolution. William Tell didn’t invent it.

swissinfo: If William Tell doesn’t mean anything, why do you think the image is so common in advertising, politics, and so on?

F.S.: Because William Tell is an icon, a symbol rather than a myth. And everyone needs icons.

The attachment to him is emotional more than intellectual, as it is for the Swiss flag, or Rivella, the Swiss drink.

swissinfo: Is the attachment to William Tell superficial or does national sentiment go deeper?

F.S.: In my opinion, the attachment to William Tell is superficial, as with other emblems. I would even say that other icons occupy a more important place in the hearts of Swiss than he does, Swiss Federal Railways, for example.

As with the former Swissair, people unite behind Swiss Federal Railways and attribute a particular power to it.

The Swiss identity is made up of a number of symbols (Rivella, the number one retailer Migros, Swiss Federal Railways), which matter to the people.

swissinfo: Don’t the Swiss need a national hero?

F.S.: Of course they do. We tried to make a hero of the [wartime military commander] General Henri Guisan. It was only a partial success - and a fleeting one.

I don’t see a Swiss hero on the horizon today, and I don’t think history provides one.

The Swiss don’t go for heroes so much. In other countries, a Roger Federer would be a star. Not here.

swissinfo: How do you explain that?

F.S.: There needs to be a collective feeling that someone deserves to be a national hero. But in Switzerland, there is no collective spirit; we’re divided along the lines of language, cantons and communes.

swissinfo: William Tell has an important place in the hearts of the people of Uri... Is he more of a regional hero?

F.S.: Exactly. The character can move the collective spirit, locally. He can capture the imagination and become part of their identity.

swissinfo interview: Alexandra Richard

In brief

William Tell is often described as the national hero, a symbol of Swiss identity and values.

For anthropologist Fabrizio Sabelli, he is only an icon, reflecting little of Switzerland today.

The anthropologist puts Tell in the same category as important Swiss institutions, such as the retailer Migros, or the Swiss Federal Railways.

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