The Legend of Mount Pilate, A Superstition

Superstition is to this day a strong characteristic of the inhabitants of the Alps. A reason for this, is easily found in the various and imposing phenomena of Nature, to which these simple mountaineers are daily and nightly witnesses. A storm, which on the plains would scarcely attract attention, offers at each instant, in these lofty and diversified regions, some new and appalling spectacle. Each clap of thunder finds a thousand echoes, and is reverberated almost to infinity. The lightning's flash plays not only above, but about and underneath the beholder. Here a roaring torrent dashes past him down the precipitous rocks, driving all before it in its impetuous course; there a sudden whirlwind uproots the sturdy monarch of the forest, and bears it aloft, as though it were a feather on the breeze. The heavy cloud, which one moment envelopes the poor shepherd in its vapoury folds, in the next is seen rolling its dense masses over the lower earth, hundreds of fathoms beneath his feet. Nor are the calmer sublimities by which he is at other times surrounded less calculated to speak to his imagination than the loud voice of the bellowing tempest. The plaintive murmuring of the vernal breeze amid the lofty pines; the deep silence of the summer's burning noon; the fantastic changes of the fleecy cloud, whose form is varied by every pinnacle of the mountain; the hollow and mournful moaning of the autumnal gusts as they scatter far and wide the falling leaves; the bright beam of the resplendent moon, across which each jutting crag throws some grotesque shadow; and above all, the mist, which, rising from the plains a mere mass of dull and dank vapour, here first appears to receive life, and takes innumerable shapes and forms, incredible to those who have never witnessed its airy evolutions! These are the ever-varying phantasmata of nature that pass in scenic succession before the eyes of the Alpine peasant, and add fresh fuel to the fire of his superstitious inclinations.

It was in scenes of this inspiring character that Ossian saw his shadowy armies, his warrior ghosts, his visionary maids, and heard the wild music of their aërial harps. And although from the imperfectness of our nature, we are all liable to have "our eyes made the fools of the other senses," yet is it in these cloud-capped regions alone that the illusions are always of a dignified order, and that poetry spreads her veil of enchantment over the dull realities of life.

Such was the nature of my reflections after I had retired to rest upon the night before my intended pilgrimage to Mount Pilate; and, having made them, I slept soundly until the bright beams of a July sun darting in at my latticed window gave me notice of the morning's growth. I arose from my bed of leaves and rushes, and, strolling forth into the open air, tasted the delicious sweetness of the hour. Never do I remember a more enchanting prospect than here met my view. It seemed as if Nature had proclaimed a universal holiday. She was abroad in her gala dress; while Spring and Summer, her vernal and blooming handmaids,—the former lingering as though loth to quit her mistress, the latter rushing to anticipate her call,—appeared on either side of her, and strewed her rosy path with freshness and fragrance. The dews of night, glistening in the first rays of the slanting sun, spangled the green carpet of the earth; and the tall pines, ever the first to greet the morning breeze, gracefully bowed their dark heads to welcome day's return. Far across the intervening lake, the flocks and herds were seen winding slowly up the mountain's side in search of their wholesome pasture; while the simple harmony of their bells, mingling with the wild song or whistle of their urchin conductors, came upon my ear over the still waters in distant snatches, and formed, with the loud melody of the feathered minstrels close around me, a rural concert in happiest unison with the scene. A tap on the shoulder from my venerable conductor aroused me from my reverie. Our preparations were soon made; and with a small wallet destined to contain the necessary provision for such a journey, and each a long staff, pointed at one end and hooked at the other, such as is required for the ascent and descent of the precipitous paths we were to tread, we commenced our march. We proceeded first to Brunnen, where we took water upon the fairest of Switzer's lakes, and before sunset arrived at Lucerne, the town from which it takes its name. The next morning we were again afoot betimes, and, as we jogged along, I obtained the result of my companion's long gleanings in this fruitful land of romance and superstition.

"First," said he, "with regard to the name of this celebrated mountain. Some have thought that it obtained the designation of Mount Pilate from a tradition of its having been formerly peopled by a band of Roman deserters, who sought refuge among its almost inaccessible rocks,—the Latin word pila having been often used to signify a mountain-pass; others, that it is a corruption from pileus, a hat, because its bald summit is often covered by a complete cap of clouds,—and hence the old proverb so often quoted in this country,

"'Quand Pilate a mis son chapeau, Le temps sera serein et beau.' 

But the explanation drawing most largely upon the liberal credulity of the simple inhabitants of the Underwald, and therefore sure to be the best received, is the following amusing fable:

"Pontius Pilate having been condemned to death for his crimes, to avert the shame of a public execution, committed suicide. His body being found, was by the enraged multitude fastened to an immense weight of stones, and thrown into the Tyber. But the spirit of that noble river, outraged by her waters being made the deposit of so foul a carcase, from that hour rose in foam and torrent to resent the injury; and, interesting great Nature in her behalf, the most frightful storms and whirlwinds, with hail, thunder, and lightning, ravaged the whole country from the Mediterranean shores to the opposite Adriatic; nor did the elemental uproar cease until the terrified inhabitants, by dint of the greatest exertions, dragged the body up again, and in all haste caused it to be conveyed as far as Vienne in Dauphiny, and there anew committed to the deep. But what was the consequence? The Rhone would no more suffer such an insult than had the Tyber; and its blue waters, swelling with the indignity offered them, overflowed their natural banks, and rushed with headlong rapidity, as if to fly the spot of pollution. No bark could live an instant on the tremendous waves, which now so frightfully disguised this hitherto calmly majestic stream; and the Dauphinois, like the Romans, had no remedy for the crying evil, but, as they had done, to rid themselves and their river of such an ill-omened guest. This was at length accomplished: but the noble Rhone, although cleansed of his 'filthy bargain,' could not so easily forget the deep affront; and yearly, at that very season, he has ever since marked his undying resentment by a repetition of the same angry demonstrations. Meantime the offending cause of all this tribulation was secretly transported to Lausanne, and there condemned to a third watery grave. Why a preference so little flattering was given to this beautiful spot, is not known; but certain it is that its inhabitants, being made acquainted with the new arrival, presaged but little good to their 'placid Leman' from so confirmed a disturber of the silent waters, and before his presence could have time to create its usual uproar, and thus prevent or impede such a measure, the body was once more brought to land; and, a council being held, it was then determined that a small and isolated lake, situated near the summit of the Frakmont, should be  the chosen place of interment. Being situated at a good forty leagues from their city, they would at least have little to dread from his future operations; and the bleak and barren nature of the soil surrounding his new residence would, as they hoped, neutralize, if not entirely destroy, his baneful influence.

"There, then, he was finally deposited; but soon this desolate region, as though doubly cursed by his coming, felt the dire effects of his sojourn. The lake itself turned black; and its surrounding shores, infected by the noxious vapours which it now emitted, could no longer yield a wholesome herbage, but became one huge and marshy swamp, where the rankest weeds alone could thrive. The surface of the water was covered with the blanched bodies of its finny inhabitants; the water-fowl that used to haunt its banks no sooner came within its unhealthful precincts than they shared the universal doom, and fell dead upon the earth; the venomous snake lay stiffening in the sun, conquered by a superior poison; and the slimy toad expired in a vain attempt to crawl from an atmosphere too fetid even for his loathsome nature.

"The peasants, from their hamlets in the neighbouring plains, had marked the striking change in the appearance of the mountain's top, which, instead of standing out clear against the blue sky, was almost always enveloped in a shroudy mist, or, if for a short period it could rid itself of that encumbrance, still appeared like a heavy blot upon the surface of the earth, reflecting no single ray of that bright sun which beamed on all around it. Convinced that such a sudden change could proceed but from some supernatural cause, a thousand speculations were hazarded as to what was actually going on at the summit itself; and at length one among them, more hardy than the rest, set out, determined to explore the mystery. His presumption, however, was awfully punished; for although, by dint of an extraordinary courage, he returned to his anxious friends, yet the sights he had seen, the fright he had endured, and the bodily exertions he had used to quicken his descent, were too much for him. It was permitted only that he should relate to the throng crowding around him the pestilent appearances of the once beautiful little lake, and then ague-fits, convulsions, and a raging fever ended the poor wretch's mortal struggles.

"Whether the circumstances of this intrusive visit added fresh fuel to the demon's rage, or whether the moment was now come when, having no longer within his reach any living object on which to vent his diabolical vengeance, he became impatient of his watery incarceration, certain it is that, from the very day of the luckless villager's return, new sounds and sights of horror and desolation startled the whole country around. A hollow rumbling noise, as of distant thunder or a smothered volcano, issued, with scarcely a minute's intermission, during the hours of light, from the mountain's summit; while the deep silence of midnight was suddenly broken by shrieks and yells so  hideous and piercing, that, compared with them, the war-whoop of a whole nation of Whyndots or Cherokees would have seemed soft music. Thus were announced to the affrighted listeners the terrific struggles then making by the foul spirit to burst his liquid bonds. At length, one luckless morn, he succeeded in his attempt to breathe again the free air; and his first feat was to celebrate the unholy triumph by a storm that hid the sun's face from the world during eight and forty hours, being the exact number of days of his forced sojourn in the lake.

"It seemed, from his remaining afterwards on this bleak and desolate station, either that his infernal art could not compass his entire removal from the mountain, or that he preferred it to the low grounds on account of the advantage which its elevated situation gave him to direct the tempests, and with greater certainty to launch the fires of destruction upon those particular parts of the country from which he was at the moment pleased to select his victims. Whichever of these was the cause of his stay, he, at any rate, by force, or by choice, did remain there for some hundreds of years; during the whole of which period he continued more or less, and by every means within his fell power, to vent his undying rage upon the hapless peasantry and their little possessions. In the midst of the most terrific of the storms with which it was his custom to visit the valleys below, the phantom himself would sometimes be for a moment visible to one or other of the terror-struck shepherds, and then some dreadful mortality among his flocks and herds was sure to be the lot of the luckless wight by whom the apparition had been seen.

"Once, during a dreadful hurricane that tore up the largest trees by the roots, and scattered ruin and dismay abroad, the grisly fiend was plainly seen perched upon the very highest pinnacle of his rocky dominion, in desperate conflict with a second unearthly being, who, by the violent gesticulations displayed on both sides, could be no other than his once mortal enemy, the renowned King Herod. In short, nothing could exceed either in variety or extent, the mischief caused to the pastoral inhabitants of the two cantons of Lucerne and Underwald by this 'Lord of the Black Mountain,' the name by which their demoniac tormentor was universally known. It gave them, therefore, joy beyond expression when their good genius at last sent them some hope of deliverance from the evil power, in the person of a pious and learned doctor, who, being informed of the devastation, agreed to try conclusions with the imp of Satan. This champion in the good cause was a celebrated brother of the Rosy Cross, who had already taken the highest degrees in the university of Salamanca, and who, having dived deeper than his fellow students into the mysteries of the far-famed Bactrian sage, possessed a reputation that placed him almost on a level with Zoroaster himself. Like a good alchymist, gold was the ultimate object of his philosophical researches; and for a sufficient sum, (to obtain which many a poor peasant was deprived of his last kreutzer,) he undertook to rid the country of what had been so long a scourge to it.

"He set out accordingly for the conflict; but alone and unarmed, having refused all aid or guidance but such as his sacred mission and his hidden knowledge gave him. The combat was long and obstinate, but never for a moment doubtful. Arrived at the mountain's summit,  the Rosicrucian took up his station on a commanding point of the rock, and called upon the phantom to appear before him. This simple summons remaining unnoticed, he proceeded to a display of his cabalistic powers, and finally brought the stubborn offender into his presence; but not until the force of his mystic conjurations had torn the huge fragment on which he stood from its solid base, and left it balancing on a mere point, where, indeed, it may to this day be seen, a trembling memento of that awful hour.

"Unable to make head against the superior prowess of his opponent, the malignant spirit sought safety in flight but was pursued by the victorious astrologer, who, coming up with him again on the part of the mountain now called the Hill of Widerfield, renewed the contest with fresh vigour; and so furious were the attack and defence on this spot, and so violent the arts of exorcism to which the reverend champion had recourse, that the grass beneath their feet was burnt up as by the fire of heaven, and has never since recovered from the unnatural blight. Success at length crowned the efforts of the holy father, who, however, was forced to consent to a sort of honourable capitulation on the part of the vanquished. It was therefore finally agreed between them, that the spectre should return to his watery sepulchre, there to remain inactive during three hundred and sixty-four days in every year. On Good Friday alone he was to be permitted to walk abroad, clothed in those magisterial robes which he was wont to wear when living; even then, however, pledging himself not to overstep the limits of the mountain's summit, and never, unless provoked by previous violence or insult, to do harm to aught that had existence.

"This settled, he mounted a coal-black charger, which, as a ratification of their solemn treaty, was presented to him by his conqueror, and which on starting struck his hoof into the neighbouring rock, and left to all eternity its huge print there. Then, with a noise that resembled the hissing of an army of serpents, he plunged into the lake and disappeared; nor has he ever since been known to violate the engagements then incurred by showing himself to the world, save on the anniversary of the day above mentioned, or when irritated beyond his bearing by the language of abuse or some overt act of aggression, such as the throwing of stones or other substances into his prison-lake. The treaty thus broken, he has never failed to exercise the power still left him, and to evince his anger by some terrific storm or inundation, which would shortly after, and generally in the very midst of the brightest and clearest weather, suddenly proclaim his sense of the insult offered him.

"In consequence of these infractions, by the ignorant or the disobedient, of a treaty solemnly entered into, a general order was issued by the competent authorities, interdicting all persons whatsoever, under severe pains and punishments, from making the ascent of this mountain without a special permission to that effect, from the chief magistrate of the district, who at the same time was to appoint proper and trustworthy guides, they being answerable with their lives for the attention of the whole party to certain prescribed rules. The shepherds, too, by whom the lower part of the Pilate was peopled,  were obliged every year to appear before a certain tribunal, and to take an oath that they would make no attempt to visit these prohibited regions.

"Things remained nearly in this state until the event of the Reformation; after which both Catholic and Protestant united to remove from the minds of the vulgar, prejudices which ages of ignorant habits had tended to fix on them. Among the rest, in the year 1585, one Muller, the curé of Lucerne, having appointed a day for that purpose, and invited all who were willing so to do to accompany him, set out on an expedition to the summit of Mount Pilate, and was followed thither by some hundreds of his parishioners. Arrived at the so much dreaded lake itself, he proceeded to throw into it, stones, blocks of wood, and missiles of various descriptions, accompanying the action with words the most likely to provoke the wrath of the redoubted fiend; but, to the surprise of the assembled multitude, who had beheld with affright the audacious ceremony, all remained silent,—neither sound nor sight replied to the daring invocation, and the sky was not in consequence overcast by a single cloud. In order to follow up the partial light which he had thus let in upon the darkness of ages, the worthy curé soon afterwards obtained an order from the government of Lucerne, authorizing the draining of the lake itself,—a work which was actually begun in the year 1594, but to which a want of the necessary funds, and other minor causes, put a stop before it could be entirely accomplished."

I have thus repeated at some length the fabulous histories which I that day learned during our long and laborious ascent to the summit of the mountain in question; and I will now only add, that the various scenes therein alluded to, as having been the theatre of the phantom's exploits, were pointed out to me by my companion; nor could I avoid perceiving, by the fondness with which he dwelt rather upon the superstition itself, than such refutation as followed it, that he was himself in no slight degree tinged with the popular belief.