As winter’s darkness descended on Blatten, one of four hamlets in Switzerland’s Lötschental Valley, I heard the flat, hollow sound of cowbells in the distance. It was not the languid ring of grazing heifers. It was frenetic. Intentional. The tschäggättä were on the move, bringing to life a 200-year-old tradition unique to this small 19-mile swath of the Alps.
It was Carnival, the festive period generally celebrated in February up until the night before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins. The tschäggättä (pronounced chalk-a-taw) are villagers who roam the narrow streets of the valley, clanging bells and making mischief dressed as Sasquatch-like creatures. To protect their anonymity, they wear hand-carved pine masks with terrifying human faces. On their bodies is a combination of burlap and old clothes worn inside-out, paired with homemade shoulder cushions used to create an imposing silhouette. Layered on top are goatskin or sheepskin pelts secured at the waist by a wide leather belt from which a cowbell hangs.
Today, any villager can take part, but historically, the fur-clad revelers were exclusively young, unmarried men who moved alone or in small groups during the day (save Sundays) during Carnival. Johann Gibsten, a conservative Catholic prior in the valley during the mid-19th century—an outsider with little enthusiasm for the area’s customs or traditions—recorded the earliest written reference to the tschäggättä for an 1868 church chronicle, which described their schoolboy antics. Appalled with what he saw, he banned the practice during his tenure sometime between 1864 and 1876. A translation of Gibsten’s entry appears in an exhibition at the Lötschentaler Museum in the valley’s village of Kippel, alongside more than 350 masks:
“During Carnival time, there was a terrible abuse of the so-called Tscheggette. As wild as one could dress; the face with a descriptive wooden mask, the head with horns, the body with furs, resembling animals, frightening children, smearing daughters with ashes and blood, etc., that was the joy of the so-called Tscheggeten, immoral things peeped out here and there from the same rudeness. I finally pushed it aside, but here and there before the Carnival season, a reminder of the ban might well be in place.”
Occasionally, tempers got out of hand. “The custom used to be rough and uncivilized at times,” says Thomas Antonietti, the curator of the Lötschentaler Museum. “Under the protection of anonymity, bills were sometimes ‘settled,’ for example, in the form of fights … but never murder or manslaughter.”
The tschäggättä I encountered in Blatten last February were more interested in good-natured frights and teasing. At most, I received a fuzzy glove’s soot-less smearing over my face, followed by an enthusiastic chest-slamming hug.
Incredibly, the source of the tschäggättä is a mystery. There is “no historical-scientific theory that can prove the origin of this figure,” says Antonietti. The oldest physical evidence is a mask on display at the museum, dated between 1790 and 1810. But, at that time, people burned their masks after wearing them, suggesting the ritual could have begun much earlier.
Nils Ritter, 24, lives in the local village of Wiler. He was 5 when he first dressed as a tschäggättä. Growing up in the Lötschental, he heard different stories claiming to explain their beginnings. The most likely answer, he believes, is the legend of the Schurten Diebe (meaning “little thieves” in a folktale from the Middle Ages). “Some time ago, there was a little village on the other side of the valley,” Ritter recalls having heard during his grade school days. “Every night, a group of young men would cover themselves in fur and wear a wooden mask. [Dressed] like that, they crossed the river [into the Lötschental] and stole things from the cellars of the villagers.”
Another possibility is that men adopted the guise as a means of courtship. Its anonymity enabled single men to interact with unmarried women more freely than a protective father or judgmental clergy member would allow. “In the controlled Catholic society of the Lötschental, there were few opportunities for young, single people to socialize without the supervision of parents, authorities and the pastor,” says Antonietti. “In the summer, the young women were on the alp with the cattle; the family stayed in the village for haymaking and farming. The young boys would then visit the women on the weekends or at night in the alp. A second opportunity to meet more or less uncontrolled was Carnival.”
The most likely origin, Antonietti believes, is the ecclesiastical baroque theater of the 17th and 18th centuries. “The figure of [the] tschäggättä could have developed from the devil figure of the baroque theater,” he says. “But even that is just a guess.”
What is known is that, for the most part, the look of the tschäggättä has remained faithful to its roots, though a few characteristics have evolved. The earliest masks were bare wood until a noted artist and photographer in the area, Alfred Nyfeler, began painting masks in the 1920s, a trend that continues to this day. Agnes Rieder, a local artist carving tschäggättä masks in the 1970s, sparked the most significant change. Until then, the craft belonged to men. Moreover, Rieder defied convention, says Antonietti. Her signature was sculpting faces that resembled witches. Though criticized, she defended her right to artistic expression and became a prominent figure in local mask-making. Rieder was also the first to sign and date her work—a move that transformed masks from expendable pieces to works of art. Others followed suit. “Today’s Carnival in the Lötschental is no longer just about who is hiding behind the mask, but who carved the mask,” says Antonietti.
Elia Imseng, 24, a fourth-generation hobbyist mask-maker, learned to carve from his father. He averages two to three masks per year, each taking at least 20 hours of work. The hardest part, he says, is coming up with the vision. “You can learn everything else, but you can’t learn fantasy,” he says. “You have it, or you don’t. I usually have a picture in my mind of how the mask should look. Sometimes, I just start working and see where my fantasy takes me.”
In the contemporary Lötschental, get-togethers are mainly private affairs, and the tschäggättä stick to nights and weekends. Clubs organized by “the young people of Wiler and Kippel,” says Ritter, are favorite haunts. Sometimes, a few tschäggättä stop by local restaurants to thrill patrons. The week before Ash Wednesday, two scheduled activities provide the best opportunities for visitors to participate. On Thursday night, the citizen-beasts run through the streets from Blatten to Ferden, some three miles away. On Saturday afternoon, awards for the best costume prompt competitors to debut new masks and spiffier furs. Occasionally, you’ll see a mask with a pop-culture reference, such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream or Marvel’s Venom. They join a larger procession with floats and marching bands called guggenmusik, which starts at the base of Lauchernalp Ski Resort in Wiler.Molly Chinchilla, an American expatriate living in Bern with her husband and two children, discovered the celebration by “happenstance” and made a day of it. “[It was] extremely unique, [and] fun for adults and kids, and definitely not something we’d expected to see in Switzerland,” says Chinchilla. “Our dog didn’t enjoy the giant cowbells that rang so loudly from their belts, but we definitely did.”