The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.