The lucrative legacy of Lötschental's looters

It's carnival season in Switzerland, and communities across the country are decking themselves out in bizarre costumes. In the Lötschental valley, in canton Valais, the emphasis is on striking terror into locals and tourists alike.

This content was published on March 3, 2000 - 21:56

It's carnival season in Switzerland, and communities across the country are decking themselves out in bizarre costumes. In the Lötschental valley, in canton Valais, the emphasis is on striking terror into locals and tourists alike.

An unsuspecting visitor, dropping into the Lötschental valley during carnival week, might well flee Switzerland never to return. Instead of the usual warm welcomes from friendly hoteliers and shopkeepers, carnival week is when the "Tschäggättä" take control of the streets.

Every year, starting on "Dirty Thursday", these terrifying creatures - half human, half animal - go on the rampage through this peaceful valley terrorising anyone who gets in their way.

Yet anyone brave or foolish enough to tear off a mask, or an animal fur, would be in for a pleasant surprise, because behind those terrifying exteriors are Lötschental's most eligible young men and women.

The valley has an ancient tradition, whereby only unmarried folk can dress up as a Tschäggättä. Originally, being a Tschäggättä was the preserve of bachelors. But in these more enlightened times, women participate as well.

Nobody knows exactly why the Tschäggättä tradition started in the first place. But the inhabitants of the Lötschental have a theory, which has lately been given credence by archaeologists.

Lötschental local, Ernst Rieder, believes the Tschäggättä are based on "a band of thieves, who would attack the Alemann settlements in our valley at night. They were dressed in wild furs and were masked."

Archaeologists from the University of Basel corroborated the theory of outsiders raiding Lötschental's villages when they unearthed an encampment, thought to be 3,000 years old.

Those thieves may have made life difficult for Lötschental in ancient times, but their activities have done the valley a service in more recent times. The annual spectacle created by the Tschäggättä brings in millions of francs in tourist revenues every year.

The head of Lötschental's tourist board, André Henzen, says, "The Tschäggätä are absolutely unique and that is what makes our valley so special. They play a key role in our tourism sector. You see them on advertising posters and they always get a mention in local quizzes."

However, the Tschäggättä were not always so popular. In 1987, the parish councils in the valley banned the wild creatures from appearing in public after dusk.

The law was in response to complaints from tourists, who felt offended and harassed by the lewd behaviour of the Tschäggättä. The procession was revived in 1988 after local youths protested against the ban.

By Greg Morsbach

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