Every year on Chilbi Saturday, in October, when the church clock strikes one, a procession of figures dressed in sackcloth makes its way from the Gurschnerwald forest to the village. These are Andermatt's Woldmanndli, or Forest Men.
Older village residents suspect that the origins of this local custom lie in the spells and magic rituals that used to take place in the forest. Based on ancient excavated tree trunks and other geological evidence, we know that Andermatt used to be covered in forest to an altitude of 2,000 metres. But as early as the middle ages, logging activity and woodland clearance to make way for pastures destroyed the forest's natural equilibrium, and after that the forest was ever more damaged by mudslides and avalanches. Today's Gurschenwald is all that is left of this once mighty wooded terrain.
In 1397, anxious to protect their meadow village, the locals placed the forest under a spell, or religious interdiction, the purpose of which was to protect and preserve the remaining portion of the forest.
To meet this objective, the village council employed men, probably day labourers, to patrol the forest and uphold the interdiction. Their task began in spring as soon as the snow had melted. In the local dialect, the men were called woldmanndli, or forest men.
To protect them from the climate, which even in summer could be cold, they wore sackcloth as over-garments. And to communicate with one another and signal their presence in the forest, they fashioned themselves wind instruments from goat horns.
When shepherds and their flocks returned to the village for the winter, tempted back by the smell of fresh pies baked in the local ovens, then the work of woldmanndli was over for another year. Then, on Chilbi Saturday, when the village clock struck one, they would descend from the forest blaring their goat horns, to be gratefully received by the waiting villagers.
The origins and meaning of this ancient custom have been passed down in an oral tradition from generation to generation. But everyone is agreed that, today as much as 600 years ago, the protection of the forest is vital for the village of Andermatt.
Text: Willi Bomatter