In the Alps, particularly in Austria, farmers still keep their livestock high up on mountain pastures called Almen (singular: Alm) over the summer months. There, cattle and other grazing farm animals are held rather loosely to regenerate from the winter in the narrow stables. The grass on the high mountainside is much cleaner than near the villages and roads in the valleys, and interspersed with a myriad of wild herbs. The milk is thus much enriched with healthy ingredients. That the animals can roam around freely keeps them moving and therefore much more healthy as well.
If you ever have a chance to take a hike in the Alps, be sure to stop by an Almhütte (an Alpine hut) to get a taste of butter and cheese made from this outstanding raw milk. They usually also serve awesome bacon (Speck) and hearty dark bread. And the Alpine version of Schnaps (a strong, clear, double-distilled fruit brandy) will help you digest all that food.
Since the livestock doesn’t spend all its life up there, it has to be brought to the Alm – usually end of April or beginning of May – and, of course, be driven down again before snow begins to cover the mountaintops.
The latter is called Almabtrieb, and takes place during the last days of August and throughout September, particularly at the Autumn Equinox. It’s usually a big hoopla and I highly recommend putting participating in one on your bucket-list.
While nowadays it is mostly God’s mother, the Virgin Mary and her son, who are being thanked for a successful summer, in the days of our early ancestors, the festivities were probably the way to thank Gods and Goddesses for keeping everyone safe during the summer. It should be noted in this context, that farmers traditionally celebrate the Almabtrieb with guests only if neither family nor livestock became seriously ill, or died, during summer. If there has been illness, or a tragic loss, they will bring the cattle down without any celebration.
But if all went well, the Almabtrieb is celebrated in true Austrian – and maybe all the way back to Celtic – fashion. There is much feasting, music, dancing, and singing. When it’s actually time to herd in the cattle and start the descent into the valley, the animals are decorated with beautiful headdresses made of flowers and branches of evergreen, and the biggest and loudest cowbells are hung around their necks. While the animals are being readied, the dairymaids walk around the guests and hand out small cakes baked the day before, using up all the milk, butter, and flour that was left over from the summer. Nothing is to remain at the mountain hut and no one may refuse the dairymaid’s gift.
Finally, the farmer’s family, which often includes three or four generations, sings a lament about having to leave that beautiful place before everyone makes their way down the mountain with lots of noise from the cowbells. The video shows the family owning the Bürgl-Alm singing a lament about having to leave this beautiful place.
We close and lock the hut
And walk right down again
And we look forward to
The next time around
For more about Alpine lore and customs and how they relate to Celtic times, please consider my book “Mountain Magic – Celtic Shamanism in the Austrian Alps”, available at lulu.com (preferred) and distributers such as amazon.com