Vogel Gryff–only in (Klein)basel, Switzerland!

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Vogel GryffThe January tradition called Vogel Gryff is the day when Kleinbasel–that smaller part of town on the north side of the Rhine–gives Gross Basel its bum. Literally. Like so much here, the day is filled with symbolism, much of which simply has no translation that I’ve been able to find. I’ve enjoyed watching several iterations of Vogel Gryff, and they have all followed the same strict rituals. Yesterday, all the Vogel Gryff activity here brightened a gray winter’s day.

The players

Three heraldic figures do their traditional dances across the part of the city on the right-hand bank of the Rhine: Wilde Maa (Wild Man), Leu (Lion) and Vogel Gryff (Griffin), who gives the day its name.

Vogel Gryff
Wilde Mann (Wild Man) of the Hären honor society is, a demon that comes after the winter solstice, promising fertility and new life. He is from the forest and swings an excavated fir tree. Around his head and hips, he is wreathed in ivy, hung with seed pods or apples.
Vogel Gryff
Leu (Lion) represents the honor society for Rebhaus. He is a symbol of strength and power, fire and light. He carries a green and white staff and does a lively dance, making sweeping movements with his paw and exuding vitality. Leu’s mask is hammered from copper.
Vogel Gryff
The Vogel Gryff is a proud mythical beast, half lion and half eagle. He holds a long blue and white scepter. A symbol of the spirit, he lives in the air, winged and free. His appearance and dance are proud and solemn.

 

The action

Wild Maa opens the day with a raft ride on the Rhine, dancing to the accompaniment of snare drums and small cannon fire. He makes sure to keep his backed turned to Gross Basel.

Vogel Gryff
Cannon firing, Wilde Mann dances for the people of Kleinbasel. Wilde Mann and his honor guard keep their back turned to the Gross Basel bank of the Rhine.
Vogel Gryff
Wilde Mann’s raft passes beneath the bluff of Cathedral Hill before reaching the Mittlere Brücke. The cannon continues to fire, drummers drum and Wilde Mann waves his fir tree.

When Wilde Mann reaches the landing at Kleines Klingental, he leaps ashore, and is joined by the Vogel Gryff and the Leu and their companions, the four fools of Ueli. Together with the drummers and standard bearers, they make their way to the Mittlere Brücke, where assorted officials and a crowd of townspeople await. The fools lead the way onto the bridge, rattling cans to collect money for charity. Drummers and standard bearers are next, and finally, each of the three figures, ready to do his star turn.

Vogel Gryff
Each Vogel Gryff character performs a dance–twice–and presents himself to an official who doffs his hat.

The dances begin at the Käppelijoch in the middle of the bridge, always with backs to Gross Basel and to the figure known as Lallekönig, a 17th-century symbol of Basel mounted on the corner of a building at the Gross Basel end of the bridge.

Once the niceties are done, the characters take off dancing and running through Kleinbasel on a fixed route, stopping for “drinking pauses” at specified locales, and saluting the society masters. Along the way, they are joined by passersby, who run alongside for a time. The celebrations continue until late in the evening.

The back story

Vogel Gryff is not about Fasnacht, nor the guilds of Gross Basel. It is also not an equal-opportunity event, as the honor societies remain an all-male domain–perhaps not surprising, as they originated in the Middle Ages.  It is, however, a popular annual happening for the people of Basel, society members or not.

The symbols and processions of Vogel Gryff date back to the sixteenth century, although the particulars of the its origins are rather obscure.  For a dose of medieval history, Kleinbasel style, here is the best rendition of the Vogel Gryff story I’ve seen, from the three societies’ website.

Want to see Vogel Gryff for yourself? Mark your calendar for Tuesday, 20 January 2015!

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