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The Seelisberg Cheese

Seelisberg in the Uri canton is renowned for its beautiful scenery and rich pastures. Here once dwelt a peasant who had won the good-will of the mountain dwarfs and often was helped by them. In return for their favours, he lavished on them the best of all he had. When called away by urgent business, he often left them in charge of chalet [1] and herd.

The mountain dwarfs could always be trusted to see to everything if the warm foehn [2] wind did not blow. But whenever the breath of that strong wind swept over the glaciers, all of them crept far down into the earth, and did not come up again tillthat wind had stopped blowing.

Once, while the herdsman was on the other side of the lake, the foehn suddenly broke loose and made such waves that he could not cross the water for four whole days. Then the waves abated enough to enable him to return home. During all that time the dwarfs had been deep down in the earth. Nearly all his cattle had died from hunger and thirst. When the peasant entered his stables and saw this, he tore his hair in despair: "Oh no! What am I to do?"

When he was somewhat cooler, his little friends offered to teach him how to make cheese from sweet milk. This would enable him to use much milk that otherwise would be lost if it did not thicken in time to be of use.

The herdsmen said, "If it is possible to make cheese from sweet milk, I could get rich again."

Then the dwarfs bade him kill his old goat, showed him how to curdle milk by using its stomach as rennet [3], and taught him to make the splendid cheese that the Seelisberg is still noted for. The peasant soon became rich again, with fine pastures, countless heads of cattle. His descendants still use the cheese receipt he learned from his little friends. [4]

[Adapted, from Guerber, p. 226-28]


  1. chalet: a wooden house with a roof that slopes steeply down over the sides, usually built in mountain areas, especially in Switzerland.
  2. föhn or foehn, a dry, warm south wind that descends on the northern slopes of the Alps.
  3. rennet: a substance that makes milk thick and sour and is used in making cheese.
  4. Seelisberg cheese, Seelisberger käse: an award-winning Swiss cheese.

Swiss chalet
Swiss chalet



The Dwarfs on the Branch and the Rock

In the summer-time the dwarfs came in great numbers down from the hills into the valley. There they joined the men that were at work, either assisting them or merely looking on. They especially liked to be with the mowers in the hay-making season, seating themselves among the dense foliage on a long, thick branch of a maple-tree and look at from the shade.

But one time some mischief-loving people came by night and sawed the branch nearly through. The unsuspecting dwarfs sat down on it in the morning as usual. The branch snapped in two and the dwarfs fell to the ground.

When the people laughed at them, the dwarfs became greatly incensed and cried out, for now they also saw that their branch had been sawed almost in two:

We are ridiculed,
But not again!

They never let themselves be seen in that place again. However some of the dwarfs soon took to seating themselves on a large piece of rock above another field away from there, and look on hard-working haymakers at work in that place. It worked better until some mischievous people lighted a fire on the rock and made it quite hot, and then sweep off all the coals.

In the morning the dwarfs came to sit down on the rock as usual, and burnt themselves. They lamented and cried out angrily, "What harm have we done in the world of women and men?". They called aloud for revenge, and soon disappeared from sight.



For an Oven Full of Bread

One cold winter morning a mountaineer of the Bagne Valley in the Valaisian Alps decided he would make some house cheese, but he found he had forgotten his tools on the Louvie Alp. There were many rumours that during the winter the Alp was visited by ghosts and evil spirits, and therefore he could find no one who would go up to get the tools for him. Finally, he promised to give an oven full of bread to the one who would go up the Alp and fetch them down.

Poor Christopher had a large family. He thought that an oven full of bread would be good for his little ones, so he offered to go. But first he asked the hermit Pierre des Tetes in Fionnay for some good advice against bad spirits. The hermit gave him a small lantern, a knife and a little hatchet, and advised him never to look back, and to go on his way without fear, no matter what happened.

By the light of his lantern, Christopher zigzagged up the snowy slopes. After a strenuous climb he arrived at the mountain house of the Louvie Alp. He opened the door and held up his lantern to light the room. There on the table lay the tools he wanted.

He stepped forward to take them, but at that moment he heard the first stroke of midnight, and the kettle in the corner began to shake like a bell. The table with the tools on it began to turn round on one leg while the next strokes of the hour sounded. At the twelfth stroke Christopher heard a terrible noise. It sounded as though a thousand mad rats were running back and forth and jumping and dancing on the slate roof. And out of that din Christopher could hear voices crying, "Cannot, cannot."

Christopher got very scared, but he remembered the hermit's advice, and without looking around he went quickly into the room and snatched the tools one by one from the wildly turning table. Then he ran out of the house and down towards the valley.

At each turn of the road little gnomes were standing. Over the precipices some of them called out, "Get his coat, get his coat, and let him freeze to death in the cold for being so bold!" and others answered one by one, "Cannot, cannot."

When Christopher at last set foot outside the boundary of the Alp Louvie, the gnomes at the last bend in the road cried sadly after him: "We could not catch him! His suit is sewn with good thread!"

So that was why the gnomes and dwarfs could not tear his coat and suit from him in the cold!

A few minutes later Christopher arrived at the house of the hermit, bathed in sweat in spite of the cold. His hair had turned white, but he had won an oven full of bread for his hungry children.



A Woman in White

Not very far from the crumbling walls of Haldenstein Castle is a fine spring of clear water. People tell of a charming vision that was often seen there: A lovely maiden, dressed in a long white gown, used to linger on the sunniest spot by the edge of the spring, dabbling her hands in its cool waters.

A hunter once came to this place, saw the beautiful maiden, and heard her weeping softly. At once he drew near and looked at her with such compassion that she told him: "If you will only hold my hand and not let it go until I tell you to, you will release me from a spell that makes me grieve so much."

Without hesitation the young man took her slender white hand between his own palms. The hand felt as cold as ice.

While he held it tight, trying to bring a little of his own warmth to the chilled fingers, a tiny old man came out of the castle and silently offered him a diamond basket full of gold.

Although the huntsman could easily have secured this treasure by stretching out one hand, he kept on keeping the maiden's hand in his. He was soon rewarded by feeling a little warmth steal into the slender hand he held so firmly. At the same time the girl's sad eyes beamed with pleasure, a slight flush stole into her pallid cheeks. Looking up at him, she joyfully exclaimed, "You have proved trustworthy! You may now let go my hand, and take that basket as a sign of my gratitude."

The maiden softly drew her hand from his, gave him the treasure, and disappeared with a gentle smile.

Since then the White Lady of Haldenstein has not been seen by mortals, but the spring became known far and wide for healing powers. They lasted for many years; but now the spring may have lost them all.



Sturdy Hans

Once on a time a son was born to a really large woman called Big Beth. When the boy was only seven years old, he was called Sturdy Hans, and one day his mother said to him: "We are poor folk, and you have to begin to work early and earn your bread in a stranger's house. Farmers take only strong men into their service. But before I send you out to work for others, go into the forest and bring me a good load of wood home, so I can see if you can handle such work yet."

Little Hans did as he was told, and fetched a small bundle of wood. His mother said: "This means you are not strong enough to work for others yet."

Hans stayed at home for another seven years. After that period he was sent into the forest a second time. He rooted up fir-trees as if they were small plants and carried them home almost as easily as if they were feather brushes. His mother now had enough firewood to last her for a whole year. "You may go and earn your bread now," said his mother, but she forgot to tell him that work for others was for wages.

Hans filled his knapsack and walk off to the next farm. Here there were already two men in the farmer's service, and he did not need a third. But he hired Hans anyway, for he was a greedy man, and Hans did not ask for wages.

The first work he was given to do was woodcutting and carting in the forest. The wagon had already more than a full load, and the horses could not move it. Hans picked up the horses, and threw them on to the wagon on top of the tree-trunks, harnessed himself to it and rushed home with the whole load. He came like a little hurricane at the farm-house door.

The farmer scratched his head when he saw this, thinking with a slight shudder what he would be up to if the young farmhand got wiser about money matters and wages. But he kept his thoughts to himself, and sat down to dinner with Hans.

At table Hans worked wonders too, in that he ate for four men. The farmer scratched his head again; he started to understand that his new servant could eat him out of house and home in less than a yea unless he thought up a cunning way of getting rid of the sturdy youth.

"My wife dropped her ring down the well a few days ago," he said to Hans. "See if you can go down to the bottom of the well and fetch it up."

Hans did as he was told. But no sooner had he got to the bottom of the well, than the farmer and his men ran up with a barrow of stones as big as a man's head, and flung them down on top of him.

"Drive those chickens away!" came a voice from the well. "They're scratching up the gravel around the well up there, and gravel is coming down on me."

The farmer now got the idea that the large bell of the church tower could crush and kill Hans while he was down in the well. Soon the farmer and the other farmhands stole the bell and let it fall into the well.

This time Hans cried: "Oh, what a nice hood for me!"

Then the farmer and the other farmhands hoped a millstone would get rid of Hans, and threw it down into the well too.

"Stop!" called Hans from below, "I've got the wedding-ring now. Get out of my way, you up there. I'm coming up." And Hans climbed out of the well with the bell on his head and the millstone on his finger.

The farmer thought again of the contract he had made with Hans, and was afraid that Hans should find out how he had tried to kill him three times and not paying him a bit for his work. So now he offered Hans as much money and goods as he needed for his further journey out into the world.

Hans walked away and soon met two comrades, a huntsman and a fisherman. They too were looking for work. The three banded together and journeyed on for a whole day, but when the night drew near they found neither villages nor inns; only a queer, tiny house. There was no one there, so they spent the night in the place.

Next morning when they woke up they felt very hungry. But there was nothing in the house but a tiny piece of meat and a stewpot - not enough for three. They agreed that the fisherman should cook the meat while the huntsman and Hans went out into the forest to find some more food.

The fisherman had just hung the stewpot over the fire when an ugly little old woman appeared. She was wearing a red skirt and had a cap on her head, and she begged im for a tiny piece of meat. The good-natured fisherman bent down over the pan to cut her a piece, when suddenly she leapt onto his back, weighed him down like a heavy rider and knocked him almost senseless with her fists.

In his terror the fisherman at last crawled under the hearth. The old woman disappeared, and the fire went out.

Towards evening his two comrades came home. Luckily they had shot a bear, and after they had taken out its inner organs, cut it up and cooked it, they had something to eat.

When the next day came, the fisherman went hunting with Hans, and the huntsman kept house and did the cooking. What had happened to the fisherman happened to him atoo. The old woman in the red skirt stole up to him, and while the huntsman was cutting her a piece of bear, she jumped onto his back, knocked him and finally thrust him under the hearth. There he was still lying when the two others came home and asked for their meal, but in vain.

When the third morning came, the huntsman and fisherman kept quiet about the old hag and how she had humiliated them. Hans stayed at home while they went to the forest.

Hans was busy cooking when the miserable little woman knocked at the door and begged for a small piece of meat. Hans began to cut her some of it, but just as she was leaping on to his back, he seized her with one hand and swung her round and round above his head until she could hardly breathe. Then he tied her up and threw her under the hearth. There she lay till evening, when the other two came home - and quite early to see what had happened to Hans. But when they saw the old hag lying tied under the hearth, there was no great need for words.

Hans did not want to let the witch loose before he had got some advantage from her; he told her that he would not set her free until she had let him into her greatest secret.

At last she yielded. "In the mountain," she began, "is a deep cave, It leads down to a splendid castle. A princess lives in it, guarded by three dragons. Whoever defeats thedragons will be rewarded with all the treasures in the castle, and will also get the princess."

The three comrades went to the cave and drew lots to decide which of them should be the first to be let down into it by a rope. The lot fell to Hans. At the bottom of the cave he found the castle. It was made of gold and precious stones. The princess was in it, s the witch had said.

The princess offered him wine and bread. After he had eaten and drunk, he felt many times stronger than before. Then she gave him a huge sword and said he should slay the dragon with it.

With a terrible roar the dragon rushed out of a cleft in the rock, belching forth a stream of fire. Hans struck off his head with a single blow, but the fiery stream engulfed him, and he fell senseless to the ground. The princess rushed up to him and restored him with more wine and bread. As soon as he had come to himself, he felt many times stronger than before once again. That was good, for almost at once there was another roar, and a larger and fierier dragon came rushing down the cave.

Hans had to fight again. The castle trembled and boomed, smoke darkened the air, but Hans wielded his sword bravely and pierced the dragon again and again and at last chopped off its head. But he was exhausted after the fight; he sank down senseless beside the slain dragon. The princess was again at hand; she restored him again with wine and bread, and soon he had recovered his senses. Then the princess ordered her serving-women to take him to a fine bed. There he slept soundly for a long time.

Now the princess handed him a third sword. It was the largest of the three swords she had given him. And when his strength had again been increased many times after food and drink, she told him that the third and largest dragon was still to be faced.

This fight lasted three hours. At the end of that time the dragon lay bleeding to death and Hans lay motionless beside him. The princess hurried up, and under her tender care Hans slowly recovered, and at last opened his eyes.

Then the joy of Hans and the princess was almost beyond control, and they began to make preparations to celebrate their wedding next day.




Paracelsus portrait by Quentin Massys (1466-1530). Modified part
Painting of Paracelsus (1493–1541)

Once a man who walked through a forest heard a voice calling "Paracelsus" to him. He looked around, and at last found that it came from a fir-tree. In the trunk of it there was a small stopper sealed with an emblem.

The voice begged him to set him free. This the man readily promised, if only the one who talked inside the tree gave him a medicine that could heal all diseases and a tincture that would turn every thing it touched to gold. The spirit agreed. Then the man took his penknife, and got out the stopper. A black spider crept out and ran down the trunk of the tree. When the spider reached the ground, it changed into a tall haggard man with squinting red eyes, and wrapped in a scarlet mantle.

He led the man to a high, overhanging craggy mount, and struck the rock with a hazel twig that he had broken off by the way. The rock split with a crash at the blow, divided itself in two, and the spirit disappeared within it for a little while before he returned with two small glass containers that he handed to Paracelsus. A yellow one contained the tincture that turned all it touched to gold, and a white one contained the medicine that healed all diseases. He then struck the rock a second time, and at once it closed again.

Both now set forth on their return from the rock. The spirit headed towards Innsbruck to seize on the magician who had banished him from that city. Now Paracelsus trembled for the consequences of releasing the spirit from the tree it had been trapped in, and thought hard of how he might rescue that magician. So when they came once more to the fir-tree, he asked the spirit if he could possibly change himself again into a spider, and let him see him creep again into the hole.

The spirit said he could and would show it to his deliverer. He changed into a spider and crept into the well-known hole again. Paracelsus had kept the stopper all ready in his hand while they talked beside the fir. Now he clapped the stopper as quick as he could into the hole, hammered it in firmly with a stone, and made a fresh emblem on it with his knife.

The spirit was mad with rage, and shook the fir-tree violently from within in the hope of driving out the stopper that Paracelsus had thrust in. But it was in vain. The stopper held fast and left him there with little hope of escaping, for the tree stood in a place where the forest would not be cut down because of the great drifts of snow from the mountains. Besides, if he should call day and night for help, nobody in that neighbourhood ever ventured near the spot.

Paracelsus found that the glass containers were as he had demanded. After he got them he became a celebrated and distinguished doctor.

Swiss Folk Tales and Legends, tales of Switzerland



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