Between the World Wars: Articles from the Syracuse Union, available through the New York State Newspaper Project

November 2, 1928 page 7

Weather Witches


Until a few Centuries ago People in the Alpine Countries believed in Them


by Georg Eschenbach

When a cold wind whips the rain against the windowpane all week long during the summer, folklore called it "Petrus," or St. Peter. It was blamed for sunless, damp days and some people thought that it was no kindly, white-bearded keeper of the heaven's keys, who chased the wind and rain from our disappointed faces but rather a legendary monster, who played evil tricks on us.

This treacherous entity seems very powerful and at its worst practices its dreadful deed in the Alps, where to this day some people believe in, hate, and fear the weather witches. Even a few decades ago most Alpine residents were firmly convinced of their existence and their power.

The weather witches suddenly and surprisingly unleash their force on unsuspecting Alpine folk. The sun can shine hotly in a cloudless sky, then a white curtain of fog will creep up in the west and blanket the mountains. Gray clouds follow and gather in the valley. The dark army of the weather witches storms through and smashes against the steep rock face. Crouched in fear, the lifeforms in the narrow valley are plunged into sinister darkness. Suddenly hail pelts down, beating the shingles on the roofs, tearing fruit from the trees, pounding harvest-ready grain into the ground, churning up the potato fields. Streams and rivers swell up past their banks, flood the valley and fields in gray, icy water which deposits rubble in its wake. Eventually the sun shines again and highlights the battlefield created by the weather witches.

Many "home remedies" were tried by the country folk to control the dreadful work of the weather witches. Even today some people consider it especially effective to gather certain herbs in the spring, which are sanctified on the feast of the Assumption, and cast into the hearth flames by housewives as a storm approaches. The smoke rises through the chimney, goes up the noses of the weather witches, and chases them away.

An ancient custom, which supposedly offered the best remedy against the unholy rabble, is the clanging of a weather bell because the witches fear nothing more than the metallic voice of a dedicated protector. For this reason most churches in high-lying Alpine villages, which suffer most greatly in stormy weather, only used their bells for this purpose. When bad weather threated, the first weather bell sounded from the valley or mountain chapel and the sister bells followed suit in the neighboring villages. The shock caused by the clanging bells pushed through the weather witches' blustery appendages and prompted them to avoice the bell-protected valley. The mighty sound swept away the witches like an old broom and destoyed their power like the warning bark of a dog chases away unwanted visitors. There's an old saying in the Lower Inn Valley (Unterinntal): "When the Schwaz Broom sweeps, and the Brixen Bull bellows; when the Salve Hound barks, then the weather has no power."

The "Broom," "Bull," and "Hound" refer to the weather bells in Schwaz, Brixen, and Upper Salve.

Another effective remedy to the weather witches was supposedly the weather cannon. People hoped that the ear piercing bang would terrify the weather witches as the sound resounded a hundred fold through the narrow valley. Even clear-headed individuals swore to the cloud-dispersing properties of the cannon and the practice was continued in the Alps right up to the beginning of our century. In many regions of Styria weather towers and weather huts can be seen which house rusted, bell-mouthed barrels of weather cannons. Even Frederick the Great wanted to investigate the effectiveness of gun powders against approaching storms. In his "Trostgründen" [Consoling Reasons] Laicharding reported, sometimes in his meetings with Joseph II in Neiss the king had the assembled military body of 36,000 men shoot their rifles and cannons at the same time when approaching clouds indicated strong storms were on the way, "regardless of the dreadful banging." Laicharding continued, "The clouds did not move off, and the expected rain came in its fullest measure."

In contrast the Alpine herdsmen were completely convinced of the effectiveness of weather cannons. During every storm an ear-shattering volley of guns, mortars and cannons played in concert. Some more zealous weather cannon shooters loaded their barrels with solid balls and shot holes in the sky and clouds. In Lower Inn Valley on such an occasion a careless shooter's finger was torn off and folklore has it that once his ringed finger dropped out of the clouds the wounded weather witch unleashed her pained rage with hail and thunder in the neighboring valley. In other regions people loaded guns with breadcrumbs, believing they could shoot a witch down with them.

If the residents of a village were able to defend themselves by uniting their efforts in a witch raid, the monsters had to attack a neighboring community. Naturally the neighbors were not in favor of this, so things sometimes led to bloody conflict because the threatened neighbors would try to prevent their countrymen from using their weaponry. Some communities, which were located downwind of a storm's path, begged the authorities to forbid the more favorably located village from chasing away the weather witches.

A slightly less treacherous but mischievious entity is the wind witch. It scatters freshly cut grass clippings and destroys hay piles. Even until recently it was usual for mowers to throw their knifes as soon as the wind blows because they believed it chased the wind witch away.

The last remnants of these superstitions are slowly disappearing. The insights into the soul of the people, which we find so interesting, should be acknowledged but we should not regret their passing.


"Mystery Ships" revealed.


In the Daily Telegraph Counter Admiral Gordon Campbell tells about the "Mystery Ships" which were under his command during the War and were used to bait enemy submarines. In outward appearance these ships were innocent trade steamers, but in reality they were secretly equipped with artillery guns to shoot U-Boats. To enhance the illusion as soon as a sub was sighted, the boats in which the crew took their places, were lowered. Naturally it was only a portion of the crew but the people in the U-Boat didn't know that. When the enemy boarded, the crew still left onboard quickly opened fire on the invaders.

The group which had the assignment of leaving the ship was called the "panic party" because they were supposedly leaving the ship in apparent panic and confusion as demonstrated by their screaming. The officer, who commanded this group, swapped caps with the Captain on the bridge. He was the last to leave the ship, accompanied by a stuffed parrot in a cage. (Seamen always had a beloved pet with them.) As the boats were casting off, a boilerman with a ruddy complexion would come out of the boiler room shouting and hand ringing. The boats would come back to get him. There were about thirty men in the boats dressed in clothing to represent a full crew. The ship looked abandonned when in fact the crew stood by the cannons, the chief machinist and his men were at the kettles, and the machinery, the Captain and the Quartmaster were on the bridge which was hidden from sight by a wooden screen and a man stood ready to raise a white flag. The radio operators were in the "Panic Group" and the crew, which stayed onboard, was deployed.


Steinheim, Government District of Heidenheim, Württemberg. Recently two nineteen year old boys wanted to shoot at the fountain near the cemetery. While one was taking aim at the fountain the other was carelessly shooting his weapon and hit his friend in the chest. Several shots in the right lung caused the victim to sink immediately to the ground and breathe his last breath. The dead nineteen year old is baker Wilhelm Pharion of Steinheim. The rural police unit took up the investigation of the accident. The unfortunate shooter's name is Ewald Dorfer.

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Translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks

March 8, 2023