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The Burkla at Schongau

Updated: Dec 15, 2023



The Burkla, also known as the Schlossberg or “Castle Hill” is a large hill in Schongau surrounded by a wall and a ditch. The river Schönau flows past its base. According to legends it contains cellars and tunnels in which a large treasure is hidden.


Three sisters were said to live here who originally owned the treasure. One day, three men from the village of Niederhofen wanted to take the treasure. When they had descended into the tunnels, they saw a small black dog sitting on the treasure chest. The dog proclaimed: “One of you shall it be, and it shall be the Gitterweber of Niederhofen!” The man replied: “Oh God, I don't want to!” After this invocation of the Almighty, the dog and the chest sank into the ground.


 

Commentary: During the early modern era, much of Central and Western Europe was swept by treasure manias. Groups of otherwise-normal people banded together and became convinced that if they just found the right location, the right tools, and the right method, they could become rich beyond imagining by finding treasure. Their efforts were considerable - they often bought “magic items” and “magic tomes” of dubious provenance on the black markets of faraway cities, and paid vagabonds or bribed priests to provide the “treasure spells” which would indicate the spots where treasures were buried.


Needless to say, this real-world mania found its reflection in folklore. While in more traditional tales, a treasure was the reward for the virtue or bravery of the heroes or heroines of the story, “treasure hunters” were motivated by greed instead of virtue, and thus their quests usually ended in a variety of entertaining failures. There were some attempts to recast the treasure hunts as something more virtuous - a common narrative was that a tormented ghost was bound to the treasure, and could only find the release of the afterlife once all the treasure had been taken away. But usually, the narrators of these folk tales portrayed the treasure hunters as rather foolish people who chased after impossible dreams. Nevertheless, the hope to become rich quickly is eternal - then as now.


“The Burkla at Schöngau”, though one of the briefer narratives of this type, has some fairly typical elements. The ruins of old abandoned castles (which Germany has in abundance) was considered a favorite spot for searching for treasures. And many of these treasures had some kind of guardian spirit - a black dog (usually a poodle) was the most common form, though others (such as a gargantuan black toad, a snake, or even the Devil himself) were also possible.


There are two interpretations of what happens in the tale when the three would-be treasure hunters come across the guardian dog. The most obvious one is that the dog asks for a human sacrifice among the three men as a payment for the treasure. The intended victim refuses, invokes God, and thus places himself beyond the power of the evil spirit. Thus thwarted, the spirit vanishes and takes the treasure with it. This has parallels with other treasure tales where the human sacrifice is more explicit. In some cases, the treasure hunters even trick another person to come with them as an intended sacrifice - and in one case, this sacrifice is actually successful.


However, in many cases the spirits guarding the treasure simply want the treasure hunters to fail. And thus, they try to trick the treasure hunters into breaking the most important rule of treasure hunts: The taboo of silence. Once the treasure hunters are within sight of the treasure, they must not utter a single word before they have retrieved it in its entirety - or else the treasure will sink into the ground and be lost forever. Asking for a victim among the treasure hunters is a standard and highly successful ploy in such situations. After all, if some supernatural creature states that it wants to kill you - would you keep calm and keep proceeding in silence while retrieving the treasure?


 

This is a translation of a German folktale contributed by Jürgen Hubert.

It is a part of our series, Folklore Worldwide. We are currently open to submissions from around the world, and you are welcome to send us your stories!


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