The Making of a Mountain: Constructing the Untersberg Mountain as a Contemporary Spiritual Destination

By: Robert Baumgartner

While waiting for the train back to Munich at the end of our place-based workshop in Berchtesgaden National Park last summer, I browsed the local station bookshop’s section on local tourism, culture, and folklore. With the National Park becoming an ever more popular tourist destination, it was not surprising to see tables filled with hiking guides addressing specific interests like local geology, local wildlife, short trips for families, and mountain bikes.

But, I was intrigued when I found a number of guide books for spiritual tourists—an unexpected demographic for Bavarian tourism. Books like Magisches Oberbayern. Wanderungen zu Orten der Kraft (Magical Upper Bavaria: Hiking Trips to Sites of Cosmic Energy) and Magisches Berchtesgadener Land. Ein Führer zu den vergessenen und neuen Kraft- und Kultorten rund um den Untersberg (The Magical Berchtesgaden Region: A Guide to the Forgotten and New Sites of Cosmic Energy around the Untersberg Mountain) suggest that the area of the national park, especially the northernmost mountain of the Untersberg region, enjoys a special spiritual significance.

In addition, I found numerous volumes on local folklore and half a dozen novels depicting the Untersberg Mountain as a place of power (and cosmic energy), full of mystery. According to folklore, the mountain’s cavernous interior is said to be filled with dwarves, giants, elves, treasures, forgotten cities—and even emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, waiting for the final battle before the Last Judgement.

Selected writings depicting the Untersberg as a sacred mountain (compiled by the author).

In preparation for our workshop, we read parts of The Mountain: A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present by Bernard Debarbieux and Gilles Rudaz. Both authors argue that the meaning of a mountain is not only derived from the “brute facts” of its physical properties, but also from processes of “social and political construction”[1]—in other words, a “holy mountain” is not just there, it is made. Inspired by this perspective, I want to show how centuries of human economic and cultural activity turned this specific geological location into a central node of alternative spirituality, a “place of mystery” that some authors now compare to Mount Shasta in California or Uluru/Ayers Rock.[2]

“Brute facts” of the Untersberg

Like the surrounding peaks, the Untersberg is mostly made of limestone. Karst erosion has formed more than 400 caves, among them the Riesending, the longest (19.3 kilometers) and deepest (1,149 meters) cave in Germany. The base of the mountain is made of a specific form of chalk that can be easily shaped; it was exported as “Untersberg marble” to the rest of Germany (for the construction of the Walhalla memorial near Regensburg, for instance)—and even travelled the world in the form of “ballast” balls that were used to weigh down or stabilize German and British ships in the Age of Sail.

Ice cavern in the Untersberg. Photo: Pixabay.

Salt deposits around the foot of the mountain, as well as the mountain’s proximity to a navigable river and vast forests made the area around the Untersberg an attractive place for human settlers (the mountain itself was apparently never permanently settled).

A Cultural History

The first signs of human presence in the Untersberg date back to 4,000 BCE and archeological evidence shows that the area later served as a hub of Celtic activity. Some authors even suggest that some Unterberg tales were created in Celtic times and survived in the local population until today,[3] but most scholars reject this hypothesis due to a lack of concrete linguistic and physical evidence.

After several centuries of Roman rule, and the following chaos of the Migration period, written records reappeared in the late 700s when the region was integrated into the Carolingian Empire. Soon, the political structure that would influence the Untersberg region until 1800 was established. The mountain marked the border between the Archdiocese of Salzburg, the Duchy of Bavaria, and the smaller Berchtesgaden Provostry. All three competed for control of the lucrative salt production facilities, sometimes even carrying out brutal raids and sieges to weaken each other.

The mid-sixteenth century marked a period of struggle between these regional powers, but also saw political, social, and economic problems throughout the Roman Empire. The tensions created by the Reformation, the aftershocks of the German Peasants’ War, and further attempts to centralize power in the hands of monarchs led to a resurgence of eschatological thought in the population: the Day of Judgement seemed imminent, and hope for the glorious restoration of the world by holy kings—and eventually Christ himself—was on the rise.[4]

It is in this context that the first written Untersberg tale emerges. In the story of Lazarus-Aigner, the protagonist enters the mountain through a hidden door and finds himself in a glowing monastery where monks record the events of the future. And the noble dead—among them Emperor Friedrich (the text does not specify whether it is Friedrich I or Friedrich II)—wait until the Day of Judgement to join the final battle on the Walserfeld at the foot of the Untersberg.

untersberg-emperor barbarossa-wikicommons
Friedrich I Barbarossa waiting for the time of his return. Photo: Karl Girardet via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The tale—written in the tradition of Christian eschatology established in late antiquity—is not unique. Generally speaking, it is classified as one of the “King in the Mountain” tales, which are told all over the world. Furthermore, several other German mountains like the Kyffhäuser are said to be the resting place of legendary Emperors (either Charlemagne, Friedrich I [called Barbarossa], or Friedrich II).

Despite these facts, the story has been retold and remolded throughout the centuries. It captured the imagination of people like romantic poet Adalbert Chamisso, the Bavarian monarch King Ludwig I (who not only wrote a poem about the tale, but moved his summer residence to Berchtesgaden),[5] and even “völkisch” nationalists like Guido von List (founder of Wotanism, an ariosophical neopaganist movement) and Adolf Hitler himself. Hitler not only moved his summer residence close to the Untersberg, but—according to his chief architect and later Minister of Armaments Albert Speer—described himself as the redeemer of the Aryans featured in the corrupted version of the tale written by Guido von List in 1908.[6] For this reason, the Untersberg also still attracts visitors with neo-Nazi views.

During the intensification of mass tourism in the region in the 1950s to 1970s, the Untersberg was made more accessible to tourists, but it never gained the same popularity as the Watzmann mountain (which is much higher) or the main area of the newly established Berchtesgaden National Park.

However, starting from around 2010, more unique aspects of the mountain were (re)discovered by a small but growing group of tourists and journalists interested in the paranormal, spirituality, and new religious movements. Building on many existing tales, their reports and anecdotes tend to characterize the Untersberg as a “Bavarian Bermuda triangle”—a mysterious place where hikers experience missing time, light phenomena in mountain crags and above its peak signify supernatural activity, and deep caverns lead pilgrims into the womb of the earth where they can connect to Gaia or their inner self. Further, often unsourced stories mentioned in various guides and news articles connect the Untersberg mountain to existing symbols of alternative spirituality/the New Age, movement such as the fourteenth Dalai Lama (who allegedly called it the “heart chakra of Europe” and compared it to Mount Kailash), or Uluru/Ayers Rock (in a story featuring visiting Aborigine elders who attest to the mystical significance of the mountain).

View from the peak of Untersberg mountain. Photo: Bbb via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Today the Untersberg attracts a great number of spiritual tourists. Meditation groups visit for weekend retreats, neopagans use the mountain for seasonal rituals, and (Bavarian) shamans offer sweat lodge ceremonies. But most spiritual tourists come alone or in small groups, using available guides to reach and navigate a “mystical mountain” that has gained its significance through centuries of human observation, communication, and action.

*Featured image: A view of the Untersberg in the morning light.
Photo: Matthias Kabel via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

[1] Bernard Debarbieux, and Rudaz, Gilles, The Mountain. A Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015) 2.

[2] Rainer Limpöck, Magisches Berchtesgadener Land. Ein Führer zu den vergessenen und neuen Kraft- und Kultorten rund um den Untersberg (Berchtesgaden: Verlag Anton Plenk, 2012) 5.

[3] Manfred Compare Böckl. Von Alraunenhöhlen und Seelenvögeln. Keltische Sagen aus Altbayern (Dachau: Bayerland Verlag, 2007) 146, 147.

[4] Maria E. Compare Dorninger, “Mythische Endzeitvorstellungen. Der Untersberg und mittelalterliche Weissagungsliteratur,” in: Krisen, Kriege, Katastrophen. Zum Umgang mit Angst und Bedrohung im Mittelalter, eds. Christian Rohr, Ursula Bieber Bieber, and Katharina Zeppezauer-Wachauer (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag,  Winter 2018) 357–77.

[5] Hell, Bodo Hell, Walter Seitter, Elsbeth Wallnöfer, and Peter M. Kubelka, Untersberg. Geschichten, Grenzgänge, Gangsteige (Salzburg: Verlag Anton Pustet, 2012): 49, 50.

[6] Christian F. Uhlir, Im Schattenreich des Untersberges. Von Kaisern, Zwergen, Riesen und Wildfrauen (Norderstedt: Books on Demand, 2007) 96.

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