From mountain spirit to Gandalf

Now stern and threatening, now benign and jocular: Rübezahl
Now stern and threatening, now benign and jocular: Rübezahl | Illustration (detail): © Public Domain

Rübezahl is a mountain spirit that terrifies or helps people, depending on the tale. Poles, Czechs and Germans have written his story together. And then a British writer made Rübezahl immortal by dedicating a literary monument to him.

Rübezahl, some say, has always lived in the Giant Mountains. Others believe that he first moved there together with settlers in the Middle Ages. At that time, the wealth of the mountains attracted people from all directions: miners, loggers and shepherds from Silesia, Bohemia, Germany, Poland, even from France and the Netherlands. The miners hoped to find metal ores. And they were convinced of the existence of a supernatural skarbnik, or treasurer, who bestowed wealth on only a lucky few.
The loggers and shepherds in turn believed in a ruler of nature, a protector of forests and mountain pastures, or the Wild Man of the Woods of medieval legends. This may have gone to conjure up the figure of a mountain spirit, an ancient creature who guarded subterranean kingdoms and mountain passes. The mountain spirit had many names and assumed many shapes: he most often appeared as an old man, a monk or giant, but could also turn into a handsome knight.

With hooves and horns

The first depictions of Rübezahl, however, deviate surprisingly from the fairy-tale illustrations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the sixteenth century, the cartographer Martin Helwig shows him on a map of Silesia. Against the backdrop of the Giant Mountains, at the foot of the Schneekoppe, you can see the outline of a strange figure that is very close to contemporary imaginations of the devil: it has hooves and horns, a bird’s head and a wafting tail. The figure is leaning on a staff or lance, reminiscent of a heraldic animal. Underneath it appears unmistakably the legend: “Rübenczal”. This first known depiction is at the same time the only one that so strongly emphasizes the demonic element of the figure.

Rübezahl as giant The mountain spirit had many names and assumed many shapes: he most often appeared as an old man, a monk or giant. | Animation: Kajetan Obarski Perhaps this is a trail that leads to Rübezahl’s original identity, for after Christianization, the early European deities were downgraded to the rank of devils and evil demons. Some believe that Rübezahl is a late echo of the worship of Scandinavian and Germanic gods such as Odin, Heimdall and Thor, whom the spirit from the Giant Mountains somewhat resembles.
But the folklore of the mine workers and their belief in supernatural beings, brought with them to Silesia by settlers from both Germany and the Czech Republic, also played a role. Jan Długosz, the most important Polish chronicler, noted that in 1367 some citizens of the town of Bytom who owned a lead and silver mine murdered two clerics. The later tradition added that the two had entered into a pact with the devil, who ruled over the mineral wealth and had promised to make the town rich.

Treasurer and ruler of the mines

Beginning in the sixteenth century, scholars from the Czech Republic and Poland mention Rübezahl, or rather a spirit who guarded the Silesian coalbeds. 1622 saw the publication of the poem Officina ferraria by the Silesian writer Walenty Roździeńskis, which describes the mining of Silesia, its wealth, and the supernatural beings with whom the miners come into contact. In addition to numerous lesser demons, the poem mentions a creature that lives near the Schneekoppe, showing itself “in terrifying form” and playing tricks on people, but never actually harming them. This short description fits exactly the legends about Rübezahl.
To this day, the Silesians tell of Skarbnik, the treasurer and ruler of the mines, who assists the miners as long as they treat him with respect, but otherwise wreaks revenge by collapsing or flooding tunnels. His description resembles that of Rübezahl, not least in that the miners dare not utter his name.

Miners were afraid of Rübezahl Miners were afraid of Rübezahl – they dare not utter his name. | Animation: Kajetan Obarski
The history of the name is interesting: the German “Rübezahl” provided the basis for the more or less literal Polish derivations: Liczyrzepa, Rzepolicz, Rzepiór, Rzepnicz, each of which refers to the root word for “turnip”, in Polish rzepa. This derivation, however, was made relatively late, while the actual origin of the word “Rubinzal” or "Rübenczal", documented in text sources since the sixteenth century, is unknown.

Known in the whole world through a fairy tale

Johann Karl August Musäus, a writer of the Enlightenment, was one of the first to compile the traditions about Rübezahl. The second volume of his Volksmährchen der Deutschen (Folktales of the Germans), entitled Legends of Rübezahl and published in 1783, contains the story of a mountain spirit who kidnaps a Silesian princess. When the king’s daughter resolves to escape from the mountain spirit’s underground kingdom, she asks him to count the turnips his field; this distracts him so that she can flee back to her world. Ever since, the hoodwinked mountain spirit has been laughed at as “Rübezahl”, or “Turnip Counter”. Musäus’s fairy tale, which took motifs from the story of Rübezahl but changed them, has spread throughout the world.
In later legends and fairy tales we learn that the mountain spirit cannot stand the name “Rübezahl” and is ready to kill anyone who utters it. Better off than the Germans and the Poles there were the Czechs, who respectfully call him Krakonoš and have named a whole mountain range after him: the Giant Mountains, in Czech Krkonoše. Incidentally, in Czech legends Rübezahl is usually a helpful ruler of the mountains, giving wealth and assisting people.

Ride to hell on a flying goat Rügezahl once punished a tailor with a ride to hell on a flying goat. | Animation: Kajetan Obarski
In fairy tales Rübezahl is usually a helper of the needy who gives poor peasants gold, but he is also good for giving dishonest craftsmen a lesson. Well-known is the story of the tailor who was to sew a coat for Rübezahl and cheated him when taking his measurements. The mountain spirit punished the tailor with a ride to hell on a flying goat. 

“The origin of Gandalf”

Beginning in the nineteenth century, when spa holidays came into vogue, boarding houses were named after Rübezahl and he adorned the often rather kitschy postcards and souvenirs from health resorts. In this way he came to influence contemporary culture even more than most people would probably suspect, because the writer J.R.R. Tolkien once bought such a souvenir: a Rübezahl postcard showing Josef Madlener’s picture The Mountain Spirit. It depicted the ruler of the Giant Mountains as an old man in a coat and a big hat.
The writer put a note on the card: “The origin of Gandalf”. And so Rübezahl, the mountain spirit of the Silesians, Germans, Czechs and Poles, lives to this day as a magician in the Lord of the Ring books and films. Rübezahl, the figure of the mighty ruler with supernatural powers, served as a model for one of the most impressive figures of fantasy literature.
  • Rübezahl’s Kingdom Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Rübezahl’s Kingdom

    Panorama of the Giant Mountains from 1935. Legend has it that the mountain spirit lived underground, somewhere in the area around Schneekoppe. Numerous ghosts, demons and fantastic beings mined the ores and gems for him and piled them into his treasure chambers. From time to time, Rübezahl left his kingdom and went among people, whom he would help or play pranks on, but also punish if they had done something wrong.
  • Next to the Schneekoppe Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Next to the Schneekoppe

    Excerpt from a map by Martin Helwig (1516-1574): Erste Land-Charte vom Hertzogthum Schlesien, Wrocław (Breslau) (First Map of the Duchy of Silesia, Wrocław), 1738. To the left of the paws of the Czech heraldic lion you can see Śnieżka, the Schneekoppe.
  • Rübezahl in diabolical form Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Rübezahl in diabolical form

    The first depiction of Rübezahl on Helwig's map. At the foot of the Schneekoppe you can see the figure with hooves, bird's head and deer antlers, and under it the word: “Rübenczal”.
  • A knight fighting with the “Wild Man” Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    A knight fighting with the “Wild Man”

    This illustration by Hans Burgkmair, done around 1500, depicts the medieval Legend of Sigenot. The Wild Man, a fantastic figure of medieval legends portrayed as a bearded, fur-covered giant, is thought to be a model for Rübezahl. As in some representations of Rübezahl, the motif of the abducted princess, also known from the story about the origin of Rübezahl’s name, appears in legends about the Wild Man.
  • Ruler of nature Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Ruler of nature

    Scandinavian deities in an illustration by Donn P. Crane. People have sometimes drawn parallels between Rübezahl and ancient Germanic deities. Like these, the mountain spirit intervened in human affairs and had power over nature and numerous fantasy creatures. Rübezahl is most often compared to Odin or Thor; like Thor, he has command over thunder and lightning.
  • Beings from the world of mining Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Beings from the world of mining

    Rübezahl reputedly ruled a subterranean realm in which hosts of ghosts, dwarves, and demons filled his treasury with precious ores and gems. Silesian, Polish, Czech and German traditions are familiar with a multitude of supernatural creatures from the mining world that could provide help to miners but also harm them. In the Giant Mountains, all these creatures served the mountain spirit (illustration from the French collection Contes populaires de l'Allemagne, 1846).
  • Rübezahl as a monk Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Rübezahl as a monk

    Beginning in the eighteenth century, Rübezahl was depicted in the legends usually as a bearded, often red-haired giant, old man or monk. It is believed that the representation as a monk is an echo from the time of the medieval settlement of Silesia, for then the mines often belonged to monastic orders (Postcard detail from about 1900).
  • The mountain spirit has many names Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    The mountain spirit has many names

    The most common is the name “Rübezahl”, which was used by the Silesian population, who spoke German and Polish, but the exact origin of the word is still unknown. At the end of the eighteenth century, the writer Johann Karl August Musäus invented the story of the princess and the enchanted turnips, which has been adopted by the most popular collections of folktales (front page of Musäus’s collection Die deutschen Volksmährchen [The German Folktale]).
  • Fairy tale of the enchanted turnips Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Fairy tale of the enchanted turnips

    In Musäus’s fairy tale the mountain spirit beholds a beautiful Silesian princess and falls in love with her at first sight. He assumes the form of a young knight and spirits her away to his kingdom. To sweeten her time there and ease her loneliness, he gives her enchanted turnips, which can transform themselves into whatever her heart desires (illustration from Silesian Folk Tales by James Lee and James T. Carey, 1915).
  • Mocked as “Rübezahl” Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Mocked as “Rübezahl”

    The princess transforms the turnips into her court ladies. But her playmates, like the vegetables, wither and die fairly quickly. The unfortunate princess therefore resolves to flee. To distract the mountain spirit, she asks him to make an exact count the growing turnips in his garden. Her plan works, she escapes unnoticed, and the mountain spirit is henceforth saddled with the mocking name “Rübezahl” (Turnip Counter) (illustration by Albert Robid for the French translation of Musäus' fairy tale: Contes populaires de Musaeus, 1900).
  • Now stern and threatening, now benign and jocularKultursymposium Weimar 2019 - Die Route wird neu berechnet © Goethe-Institut
  • Ride to Hell on a flying goat Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Ride to Hell on a flying goat

    In fairy tales Rübezahl is usually a helper of the needy who gives poor peasants gold, but he is also good for giving dishonest craftsmen a lesson. Well-known is the story of the tailor who was to sew a coat for Rübezahl and cheated him when taking his measurements. The mountain spirit punished the tailor with a ride to hell on a flying goat (illustration from Silesian Folk Tales by James Lee and James T. Carey, 1915).
  • The common people's hero Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    The common people's hero

    Finally, Rübezahl is portrayed in some tales as a supernatural hero of the common people. He opposes the exploitation of the Silesian peasants, weavers and miners, and gives harsh punishment to landowners who exploit those over whom they have power. This story is especially popular in the Czech legends of Krakonoš (illustration by Franz Müller-Münster).
  • On souvenirs and postcards Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    On souvenirs and postcards

    As tourism developed and Silesian spas became famous, Rübezahl became a kind of mascot of the Giant Mountains: from now on Rübezahl depictions adorn numerous postcards and souvenirs. At the same time, other fairy tales arose that take place in the transitional period from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. In them the mountain spirit helps travelers or seriously ill spa guests (picture postcard from approx. 1900).
  • Rübezahl becomes Gandalf Illustration (detail): © Public Domain
    Rübezahl becomes Gandalf

    The portrayal of Rübezahl as a bearded, often pipe-smoking old man in a coat, sometimes with a large hat, came into the hands of the British author J.R.R. Tolkien in the form of a picture postcard. Tolkien himself later stated that it was Rübezahl who inspired the character of the magician Gandalf in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (illustration by Franz Müller-Münster).
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