Austrian traditions For Members

Austrian folklore: Myths and legends you should know about

Hayley Maguire
Hayley Maguire - [email protected]
Austrian folklore: Myths and legends you should know about
A similar celebration to Austria's Sonnwendfeuer taking place in southern Germany. Angelika Warmuth / dpa / AFP

Every country has its own folklore and Austria is no exception. Get ready to impress your Austrian friends with knowledge about the country’s unique and mysterious legends.


Many newcomers to Austria will be surprised to discover the many myths, legends and superstitions that exist in the Alpine Republic.

Some say it’s because Austria is a Catholic country, whereas others say it goes back to Austria’s strong farming roots and close connection to nature.

Whatever the reason, there is a wealth of folklore that still exists today. Here are some of the most prominent Austrian legends and the stories behind them.


The Nachtkrapp

Nachtkrapp - or night Raven, in English - is a giant nocturnal bird-like creature in Austrian and South German folklore. The legend is that the Nachtkrapp hunts at night and is used to scare children into going to bed on time.

The Nachtkrapp is described as having holes for eyes that are said to represent death. Likewise, if someone looks into the holes in the Nachtkrapp’s wings they will become unwell.

The dark version of the Nachtkrapp story is that if a child witnesses the bird they will be abducted and taken back to the nest to be eaten.

The lighter version is that the Nachtkrapp will place children in a bag and fly away. Either way, quite scary stuff for kids.

READ MORE: Aberglaube: Eight strange Austrian superstitions foreigners should know about

Not all stories about the Nachtkrapp are about kidnapping though. In Burgenland there are stories about the Guter Nachtkrapp (the goodnight Raven) which flies into children’s rooms and sings them to sleep.

The old wives’ tales about Nachtkrapp are believed to originate from rook infestations in Central Europe that became an existential threat to farmers.


The Krampus

Anyone that has spent a Christmas season in Austria will have heard about the Krampus, but for anyone that might be scratching their head at the name, here’s a quick explainer.

The Krampus is a horned, half-demon figure that is common in folklore across many Central European countries, especially in Alpine regions. He accompanies St. Nicholas, who is the patron saint of children in Catholicism and brings presents at Christmas.

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However, just as St. Nicholas rewards children for good behaviour, the Krampus punishes kids if they have behaved badly throughout the year. According to folklore, this is done by chasing children through the streets and taking them to his lair in the mountains (again - another kidnapping tale).

There are several theories about the origin of the Krampus figure, but it is likely that the legend is based on early mythology as the figure has similarities to creatures in both Norse and Greek mythology. 

Today, on the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 5th), young men still dress up in Krampus costumes and run around towns and cities to celebrate the story of the Krampus - and scare a few children in the process.

Participants celebrating the legend of the Krampus. Photo by Peter Kneffel / dpa / AFP.


The Kasmandl

The Kasmandl is a small creature with grey hair and a wrinkled face that lives in the Austrian mountains.

During the summer months, it is believed the Kasmandl lives outdoors to protect the environment and the dairy cows that graze on the mountain meadows. He survives by eating plants and small animals, like frogs and snakes.

Then, when the shepherds and dairy maids leave their mountain huts in the autumn to go back to the valleys, the Kasmandl moves into one of the vacant huts for the winter to act as a caretaker.

But the Kasmandl just has one request - the shepherds must leave some supplies for the winter, such as cheese, bread and chopped firewood. Otherwise the Kasmandl will fly into a rage and scare the cows, as well as terrorise the farmers.

Tradition dictates that mountain huts should be empty from November 11th (Harvest Festival) to April 24th (St. George’s Day). The Kasmandl is then kicked out of the hut in the spring by a procession of traditionally dressed folk playing out of tune instruments.

The spring procession is still celebrated today in some mountain villages in Austria.


Sonnwendfeuer (which means “fire of the solstice” in English) usually takes place on 21 June to celebrate the longest day of the year and involves lighting hundreds of fires along the mountain peaks to create a midsummer bonfire.

It’s a long tradition in Tyrol, dating back to Mediaeval times and, as with most long-held traditions, comes with its own myths and superstitions.

The custom of Sonnwendfeuer started in the 14th Century and originally marked the beginning of the harvest. It involved a community celebration with drinks and bonfires.

FOR MEMBERS: Austria’s Sonnwendfeuer: What is it and why is it celebrated?

The fires were believed to increase the power of the sun and keep evil away from people and animals. It was also believed that Sonnwendfeuer would ward off storms and make the grass on the meadows grow strong.

Over the years though, the meaning of Sonnwendfeuer has shifted and the fires are no longer associated with farming, the harvest or superstitions. Instead, the focus is mainly on the solstice.

Today, Sonnwendfeuer, also known as “Feuerbrennen” or “Johannesfeuer”, is a family-friendly event in the Austrian Alps and Bavaria in Germany. 

In smaller communities, locals gather in groups to light fires on the mountains and have drinks, but there are also more formal events organised by tourism boards.

Do you have a favourite Austrian folklore or tradition that we’ve missed here? Get in touch to tell us about it: [email protected]


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