A few years ago, when a company considered mining gravel at the foot of the mighty Kanisfluh massif, fierce protests arose inside and outside of the valley community. Before long, it was no longer merely a matter of concern from the point of view of nature and conservation, but of blasphemy: Implementing the project would mean nothing short of desecrating of the Bregenzerwald’s “most sacred mountain,” the local equivalent of the Kailash, though admittedly without a total ban on climbing and pilgrimages. To prevent such things from happening in the future, the Vorarlberg State Government declared the limestone massif a landscape conservation area in 2020. Earlier generations, however, would have found this approach to be utterly befuddling: As far as they were concerned, mountains were areas to be exploited for economic gain, i.e. summer cattle grazing, haymaking, hunting, poaching, and for occasional mining. On the other hand, that which was too rugged, too inaccessible, and therefore economically unproductive and dangerous due to avalanches, rockfalls and mudslides, was considered ” sinister” in the magical sense; the abode of demons and spirits… in other words, the opposite of sacred and worthy of veneration.
The Kanisfluh, or more precisely its north face, was a prime example of this. According to legend, a pope banished all the spirits that had previously caused mischief, frightening people and scaring them at night. A court record from the year 1767 reveals the extent to which such ideas were commonplace: After her death, a woman haunting the Rhine valley as a particularly persistent ghost only came to rest when a magical specialist (apparently a Capuchin priest) banished her to the Kanisfluh. The inhabitants of the valley believed that such demonic beings had their headquarters in a prominent rock tower, which they called the “Ghost Church,” “Witch’s Tower” or “Wirmensul.” On some nights you can see the lights of unredeemed souls glowing there and even hear a little bell ringing.