image source: Basler Zeitung

Yesterday, Kleinbasel, once little more than a village across the Rhine from the Bishop’s city of Basel, celebrated Vogel Gryff. The annual ruckus has gone on without interruption for centuries, save a brief hiatus under the dominion of Napoleon.

The event is named after the griffin that represents one of the three Honorable Societies, or guilds, of Kleinbasel (Lesser Basel).  The mascots of the other two guilds are also mythical creatures: Wild Maa (in this photo, wild man, is the guy in green holding a sapling fir); and the Leu (lion), here leaping in a vigorous dance.

The tradition-filled January day dramatizes the ancient rivalry between Kleinbasel and Grossbasel, or Greater Basel, historically the richer of the two communities. A stone bridge, seen here at Christmas from the Grossbasel side of the river, was originally built in 1225 to connect the two communities.

A century later, the two sides of the Rhine were united to form the city of Basel, and Kleinbasel has held a grudge ever since. Vogel Gryff provides an all-day opportunity for some symbolic nose snubbing.

 image source: Basler Zeitung

Wild man opens the party, dancing down the Rhine on a platform set astride two boats, and accompanied by drums and blasting cannons, always keeping his back turned to Grossbasel. When the boats dock at the Kleines Klingental Museum in Kleinbasel, wild man is greeted by the griffin and the lion, who are his companions for the rest of the day.

 image source: Basler Zeitung

The trio makes a foray half-way onto the stone bridge, with more back-turning toward Grossbasel. For the rest of the day, they run through the streets of Kleinbasel, stopping to dance manically at various points, paying honor to the guilds. Wild man chases kids and brandishes his sapling (I’m not sure what this is about, since his get-up of greenery, apples-tree branches and a copper mask are supposed to commemorate the abundance of spring).

There are speeches, too, this year involving something of a flap: the guild master setting a non-traditional tone and a rap performance at the big guild dinner party. You’d have to be there to understand this, and I wasn’t.

In addition to being one of the more arcane commemorations hereabouts, Vogel Gryff also signals the countdown to Fasnacht, Basel’s inimitable carnival.

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