Forgotten Innsbruck: The Irrwurzel

Fellow-blogger Paschberg has posted the following 1966 article from Innsbruck’s local newspaper, about a mysterious root found in certain places  which, should you step on it, will send you wandering through the mountains, completely disoriented. Here is an English translation by me, because I find weird legends like this kind of cool.

MYSTERIOUS “IRRWURZEL” OF MARIA LARCH

from the Tiroler Tageszeitung, Innsbruck, 25 October, 1966, Nr. 247, S.6

“Was terrestrial radiation to blame for the mental state of Johann König from Gnadenwald?

In response to Dr. Dietmar Assmann’s article “300 Years of Pilgrimages to Maria Larch near Terfens” in the October 8 issue of “TT”, I would like to tell a story which is interesting on ethnological, scientific, psychiatric and mountaineering levels.

The history of Maria Larch the legend is exhaustively discussed in the article. In conclusion the author writes, “like many other cultural sites of this kind, we see close ties of nature with the desire for protection from its violence.”

The saga tells of such violence. According to it, a mythical root grows in the Larch valley. The Tyrolean ethnologist Johann N. from Alpenburg wrote over 100 years ago, “in the forests and meadows, on mountain and valley grows a root which possesses such powers, that whoever steps upon it will meander aimlessly for days, just as the witches and masters of the dark arts understand how to distract a person and lead him astray.” Such persons would wander the entire night and came to only by the morning call to prayers. Such instances are said to have been frequent in the Larch Valley, although no one knew anything for certain.

Dr. Guido Hradil, Adjunct Professor at the University of Innsbruck, described such occurrences as terrestrial radiation which, like that which has been measured in the Gastein Valley, may also be observed in Gnadenwald.

On January 4th, 1912, innkeeper Josef Heiss, whose inn stood at the edge of the Larch valley and who also owned a timber business, was busy with his men and horses pulling logs on sleds from the forest near Maria Larch to Gnadenwald on sleds. They had been delayed by the shying of the horses and it was getting dark.  Hansel, a boy from a nearby farm, rode by on his sled as they were bustling about to go. The woodsmen called out, “Hey, where are you off to, so late?”, but he gave no answer. The company left the unfriendly boy alone and hurried home, as night was already upon them.

The next day word got out that the boy hadn’t come home. His family, the workers, the neighbors and soon the whole village was searching for him, along with the police. Soon enough they found tracks of the boy’s sled. The tracks led from Maria Larch, through the so-called Sau Valley through the woods, crossed the Umlberg road, went straight up nearly vertically on the steep and icy slope of the Walder Pass, cut through the meadow there to the summit and descended the north side into a gap, where with a sleepwalking instinct he had made his way between the cliffs down to the stream. Here his sled broke. His body was found frozen by the stream. He had pulled off his shoes and stockings.

The discovery caused an uproar in the region. Why did the boy leave the marked road in the Larch valley and sled through the fields? Even if he’d become snow-blind, how did he cross the road without noticing it? Why had he not noticed the village lights, clearly visible on the way up the mountain? How did he find his way through the pathless gorge in the dark? There were no answers, and no one wished to mention the Irrwurzel out loud.

In the Gnadenwald church’s chronicle the priest had written: “Johann König, single, farmer’s son, in the night of January 4th-5th, 1912, strayed in confusion, found frozen in the Vomp Gap and brought home.” In the city one spoke of an epileptic fit or schizophrenia, perhaps brought on by an unknown force of nature. — I.M. Metzler”

Also included in the post is an article written by the blog author’s father and found among his papers, and in English at that. Here with permission:

THE “IRRWURZEL”

TRADITIONAL FOLKLORISTIC INTERPRETATION OF A POSSIBLE

UNKNOWN GEOPHYSICAL PHENOMENON?

By Alois Schönherr

In the Tyrolean, Austrian and German folklore, there is the tradition of the so called “Irrwurzel”, a mythical root, which, if stepped on, allegedly distorts the orientation of the wanderer to such an extent that he or she will become unable to find one’s way even in a perfectly familiar environment. 1)

Alpenburg writing in 1857 relates that according to tradition the Irrwurzel is very frequent in the pastures below the Tratzberg castle, between Schwaz and Jenbach (30 kms east of Innsbruck), “where everybody is careful, not to walk through with bare feet” , but just how it looks – nobody knows. He also writes that “today the Irrwurzel is no longer known” (i.e. the term is not associated with a certain botanically known plant or root) because in 1803 a dying oil-trader from the Ziller-valley burnt the last specimen by order of a priest. 2) It seems that similar to the personifactions of natural forces like wind or ligthtning as gods, the Irrwurzel constitutes a sort of botanic rationalization for certain mysterious effects.

At least in the Tyrol, stories about the Irrwurzel aren’t always located in a vague, hazy, undated past or associated only with unknown persons and places. The following tale, also related by Alpenburg, can be considered as typical:

One day in 1832 at three o’clock in the morning the porter Jakob Tunner from Alpbach departed from the Kupal alp in the Hinterriss with a load of 100 pounds of butter for Jenbach. After a quarter of an hour, fog fell in but the porter proceeded as he knew the way very well, having used it a “thousand times” in both directions before. He walked for hours, but he never reached the pass leading to the Inn-valley. At noon he rested and prayed, then he went on again. Finally, late in the night, he perceived a hut in the distance. It was the Kupal alp, from where he had started twenty hours before. He was so confused that he asked after the name of the alp. The herdsmen there said he must have stepped upon an Irrwurzel. 3)

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1) In Germany the term “Irrfleck” is more popular, which means a definite spot, a sort of haunted place so to say, where orientation is distorted.

2) Alpenburg, Johann Nepomuk Ritter von, Mythen und Sagen Tirols, Verlag von Meyer und Zeller, Zürich 1857, p. 409.

3) Ibid. p. 410

below the Tratzberg castle, between Schwaz and Jenbach (30 kms east of Innsbruck)”

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