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Land of myth and glory: Why William Tell is so important for Switzerland

05.08.2022 – SWISSINFO.CH | EVA HIRSCHI

Historical myths played a key role in shaping Swiss national identity well into the 20th century. Their effects are still felt today. A hiking trail, an exhibition and a museum in the country’s heartlands provide glimpses into the mythical soul of Switzerland.  

“Every nation needs its myths and legends,” says Monika Schmidig Römer, a scholar at the Forum for Swiss History in Schwyz. She is standing on the hiking trail called “The Way of Switzerland”, one of the best-known historic routes in the country. From the Rütli to Brunnen, the 35-kilometer-long trail circuits the shore of Lake Uri, the southernmost arm of Lake Lucerne. It enables visitors to discover legends of Switzerland at various stops, from the Rütli meadow, where three heroes are said to have sworn an oath to form a confederacy, to the Schiller Stone and the Confederates’ chapel in Brunnen.

In front of the Tell chapel between Sisikon and Flüelen, down by the lakeshore, Schmidig Römer stops and points. “The murals here show Tell, Gessler and the Rütli Oath – the identifying symbols of Switzerland.” Yet there is no historical evidence for them. “William Tell was mentioned for the first time in 1472 in the White Book of Sarnen,” explains Schmidig Römer, “but in the archives there is no trace of anyone of that name.” Even the famous story of shooting the apple off his son’s head is not a Swiss invention. It occurs in a variety of European folktales, such as the English ballad of Adam Bell (The Three Outlaws), and seems to have originated in connection with the Danish hero Toko. 

A twice-told tale 

Yet in no country was the story part of a founding national myth as it was in Switzerland. Meanwhile, William Tell became known outside this country in 1804 as the hero of the play of that name by the great German dramatist Friedrich Schiller. That is why the latter is honoured by what is known as the Schiller Stone – a piece of rock which sticks 20 metres out of the lake near where the “Way of Switzerland” passes. It bears the inscription: “To the singer of Tell / F. Schiller / the central Swiss cantons / 1859”. 

Schiller never visited Switzerland in his life. He picked up the story at second hand from his friend and fellow-German writer Goethe. Later his play was made into an opera by Rossini, including the famous spirited “galop”, the tune which English speakers associate with William Tell. 

So is the Tell story just the literary and musical imagination of foreigners with no real Swiss substance? Not quite. Folktales differ from fairytales to the extent that they have at least some basis in reality. “The most important thing about legends is not their historical accuracy or the lack of it, but the message they convey,” says Schmidig Römer. “And William Tell became a figure [for Swiss] to identify with – a great freedom fighter.” 

Feeling part of the new federation 

Why were such legends an uncontroversial part of the teaching of Swiss history up till recently? “We have to consider folktales and legends in their historical context,” says Schmidig Römer. Up till the 16th century legends were transmitted by word of mouth. The 16th century humanist Aegidius Tschudi was one of the first in this country to collect and write down such stories. His goal was to study the historical origins of Switzerland. He collected the legends about William Tell and the Rütli Oath and filled in the missing dates (he thought he was just making them more accurate). According to his calculations, then, Switzerland was founded on November 8, 1307. “That’s how stories become history,” comments Schmidig Römer.  

Particularly in the 19th century when modern Switzerland was taking shape, leaders were trying to find a common history for this patchwork of a country which would create a sense of national unity and belonging. After the abortive civil war of 1847, Arnold Winkelried, another heroic figure from Switzerland’s past, became a key patriotic symbol. According to legend, Winkelried fought at the battle of Sempach in 1386. He charged into the fray, seizing Austrian spears, and allowed himself to be killed so as to make a breach in the enemy lines for the Swiss Confederates. It is not known if this Winkelried really existed. “For national unity in the newly-founded federal republic, he and Tell were crucial,” Schmidig Römer points out nonetheless.

Moral and edifying 

One reflection of this myth-making is the grand monument to  William Tell  erected in Altdorf in 1895. This monument is still a magnet for sightseers, from Switzerland and abroad. The sculptured pose of the Swiss hero is instantly recognisable and still very much in use. William Tell is often seen adorning Swiss political posters, most recently for the referendum on state support for the media. His story also continues to be interpreted in new ways, such as at the annual William Tell pageant in Interlaken, or the novel just published in March of this year by Joachim B. Schmidt entitled simply Tell. In the past, William Tell was everywhere to be seen, as the current exhibition at the History Forum in Schwyz shows. He adorned knife-sheaths and notebooks, postcards and paintings. Even the (alleged) crossbow Tell used is on display here.  

The monument to William Tell and his son Walther stands on the town hall square in Altdorf. Today, the Swiss national hero is considered an invented legend. Eva Hirschi

This exhibition deals with other folklore as well, such as the nightmare figure of Toggeli, well-known in central Switzerland, or the Lucerne dragon stone from Mount Pilatus. At audio stations, visitors can listen to folktales told in the four national languages. “In the old days there was no Google, so people found their own ways to account for baffling phenomena,” says Schmidig Römer. Folktales had not only a historical, but also a moral or religiously edifying purpose. The early horror novel The Black Spider by 19th century Swiss author Jeremias Gotthelf is a tale expressing Christian ideals of good versus evil, tradition, custom, decency, and the God-fearing way of life.   

Political function 

Not just folktales,  but idealisation of the land and its history characterise Switzerland and its identity building. There is the myth of the Alps as the core of the country, the “nation by choice”, and the Swiss self-perception as a nation of sturdy peasant folk. There are values like direct democracy, armed neutrality, and the humanitarian tradition. Another jewel in the crown of national identity is the Federal Charter of 1291. This document was forgotten for 500 years, but at the time of the 600th anniversary of confederation in the year 1891, the government of the day resurrected it and triumphantly declared it to be the founding document of Switzerland. This, by the way, was the first time there was a national holiday on the first of August.

“For a country that has no real territorial or language boundaries, nor a common religious denomination, nor a common culture, there is a need to find something in common. We have sought our common roots in history,” says Annina Michel, head of the Federal Charter Museum. This museum was built in 1936. The Federal Charter in its display case became a sort of Ark of the Covenant, standing for a Switzerland based on freedom and independence. It was regarded as the first Swiss constitution. 

Such symbols had a definite political function, and were part of ideological efforts to keep up domestic morale during the War. In times of threat from without, the Swiss turned to thoughts of inner unity. The Federal Charter Museum played its role. There the Federal Charter was said to be “laid on the Altar of the Fatherland”. The museum can still be visited, just a few minutes’ walk from the Forum for Swiss History in Schwyz.

Not without value 

In the 1970s, historical research began to reveal that the Federal Charter was not a founding document, but just an agreement to keep the peace between the valleys of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden. By the 1970s and 1980s, even the stories of William Tell and the Rütli Oath were being regarded as reactionary and a bar to progress, if not dismissed outright as fairytales. Yet Michel believes these legends still have their purpose.  

“In scholarly discourse today, the state-supporting function of the myths, especially in the 19th century, is no longer in any doubt. The myths themselves can’t be historically authenticated. It seems the Rütli Oath never actually happened. But that doesn’t mean that the myths are without value.”  These myths, as all historians agree, have been of major importance for the development of a Swiss national identity. They are no longer glorified today, but the part they played is recognised,” says Michel.  

To explain the effect and meaning of these myths, the Federal Charter Museum is still in business – even if it no longer presents the Federal Charter as a sort of Holy Writ lying open on an altar. It’s now just one exhibit among many others. 

see original article on swissinfo.ch

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