Old-Timey Religion in Austria

Peter LLC continues his guest stint at BCC. See his earlier posts here and here.

Thanks to its deep Catholic roots, Austria is one of a handful of countries that still observes Whit Monday. So what better way to observe this holy day of obligation than to visit the purported sites of even older Celtic rites? No one I knew had a better idea, so off we went to follow the path of the Druids (no, not those druids) on the scenic Kaltenberg mountain in Lower Austria. 

The three hour hike centers around a number of stone formations that may have been in use by the native Celts around 450–350 BCE, with at least one of them (see below) in use until the late 19th century by the native farmers. The formations are known by names like “Sitting Dog” and “Sphinx,” bestowed upon them by a local priest, Hans Wick (1904–1988), a hobbyist who spent years exploring and researching the mysterious rock piles. 

Walking along the top of the Kaltenberg to the south, one first reaches the “Phallus with Vulva.” The phallus, a vertical band of rocks, is only obvious from the valley below, but when one approaches from the high side the vulva becomes apparent.

 

Passing through the hole in the rock apparently cleansed the worshipper of evil in preparation to take part in blood sacrifices on the other side, where the sacrificial basin is visible as the dark depression on the right. There is documented evidence that this was in use by one of the farmers in the valley below (where sheep are raised to this day) until the end of the 19th century. 

The next stop is the “sitting dog,” regarded as a symbol of fertility and loyalty. 

Next is a sacrificial altar, apparently toppled when the countryside was christianized. 

Not far beyond is the main meeting place of the druids–two more or less concentric circles of stone (the inner shown here) surround the mushroom-shaped throne of the high priest (second picture). Incidentally, the “Beltene Fest” is observed on May 1st in honor of Belenus, and the charcoaled branches we found inside the circle suggest he still has a few 21st century adherents.


The next stop is a basin some 70cm in diameter and 35cm deep. According to legend, it never dries out, no matter how hot or dry the summer is.

With a little imagination, one can see why Brother Wick called this the “Sphinx.” It is located on a rise overlooking the rest of the mountain and was apparently considered a holy of holies–only the Celtic pontifices were allowed up here. You can see why in the next picture–the view is great but there’s not much room at the top (despite what Adam Ant says).


Once one descends from these heights, there’s not much left to see except for this cross–a subtle reminder that Christianity is never too far away, even on this pagan mountain. This doesn’t stop the local tourism board from telling all those who have experience to bring their pendants and divining rods. There are still many in this deeply Catholic country with a strong belief in crystals and other non-approved objects and supersitions run rampant (for example, an acquaintance will not tell anyone about a pending job interview for fear that it will jinx her). This mingling of magic and religion is probably not news to anyone here, but probably worth keeping in mind when sharing the gospel. Sometimes Europeans like to play the sophisticated child of the Enlightenment to the misguided American believer. But as strange as, for example, Joseph Smith Jr.’s seer stones and treasure seeking may seem to us now, it’s not just his American contemporaries that put a lot of stock in the supernatural–not by a long shot.

P.S.–Look forward to a post on the proliferation of crosses on Austria’s mountaintops in the coming days. 

Comments

  1. Peter,

    That’s fascinating to see. Sometimes I forget how widespread the Celtic culture was in ancient times. Is it just me, or does the forest around those stones seem relatively new (last 100 years or so)? Just curious.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    How they danced, the merry children of Stonehenge. Peter, what is the role of religion in Austrian life? Is it like unto France, where religion has an enormous sociocultural impact but largely an historical one?

  3. Researcher says:

    Interesting. After returning from a German mission I took the obligatory culture class at a certain university. The professor explained that despite the veneer of Christianity, Germans were largely still tree worshipers at heart. It rang true based on my many interactions with many (not all) of them.

  4. I’ve been to Vienna a few times, but each time I’ve been there and walked through the old Catholic churches, the only people I see attending daily mass are pensioners (elderly folks). Maybe it’s different on Sundays and Holy days.

  5. Jonathan Green says:

    How much actual continuity is there between modern New Age-ish spiritualism, 19th century superstition, and prehistoric beliefs? My best guess: not a lot. The records are too spotty to say much about what the local Celts believed and practiced, and the later Romanization and Germanization and Christianization of the areas involved were too thorough, at least in terms of culture, to leave many remains. Tracking down Celtic cites in the forest makes for some great hiking, though.

  6. Peter LLC says:

    MattG: The Austrian Federal Forests log about every square inch of land that isn’t tilled, so you are right, the forest isn’t very old. In fact, some suspect that back then the hilltop was bare, giving the rock formations much more prominence. And the holidays do seem to bring the worshippers out of the woodwork–at Easter it was standing room only.

    Steve: I suspect France and Austria have a lot in common (but I’ve only spent a few months in the former learning how to say things like “je ne suis pas d’ici,” so my views are under-informed to say the least).

    Researcher: my first exposure to New Age beliefs (that is to say, contact with real people who believed in it) was as a missionary in Austria.

    Jonathan: Indeed. The Celts remain shrouded in mystery (which is half the fun, I suppose) and any signs of continuity are more the result of the author painting with the widest brush in his inadequate palette than anything.

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