On Mount Pilatus in Switzerland, a writer remembers
MOUNT PILATUS CONSISTS OF a chain of mountains overlooking Lucerne and the nearby lake of the same name. At its peak, it is nearly 7,000 feet: rocky terrain and tall fir trees give way to lush valleys dotted with gardens, wooden houses and grazing sheep. It is a majestic and imposing range, part of the Swiss Alps, but overshadowed by other more spectacular peaks and lake views. It might not be the most obvious choice, but its appeal lies in the myths and stories surrounding its history, a bloody past filled with fire-breathing dragons and the bones of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who ruled presided over the trial of Jesus Christ. . Legend has it that after his suicide, the Romans attempted to throw his corpse into a series of rivers. The storms passed every river they chose, continuing until they fished out the body. Desperate, they found an isolated mountain in a remote forest in Switzerland and buried him there, where his anguished spirit rises every year on Good Friday in a futile effort to clean his bloodied hands.
There is nothing quiet in the history of Mount Pilatus. Even its ancient Latin name, Fractus Mons, “broken mountain”, alludes to violence and decadence. Swiss tradition speaks of terrifying thunderstorms and choppy waters of lakes, ghosts howling through the air. Pamphlets marketing Mount Pilatus detail helpless cattle being lifted into the sky, and for centuries locals have traded tales of uprooted trees and floods so severe that the Lucerne government banned anyone from climbing the mountain . Pilatus was a fearsome place, subject to otherworldly storms, and the spirits were the only way to explain what defied logic. Demons and monsters helped reframe the world for the people of Lucerne. They widened the possibilities of what might happen, when so many visible and concrete things were already testing the limits of villagers’ gullibility: illnesses and sudden deaths, crop failures and unexplained livestock diseases, floods and storms. These legends made what was disastrous seem everyday, banal. They made it bearable.
Today, these myths are just a point of interest, a marketing angle to help distinguish Mount Pilatus from all the other scenic spots in Switzerland. The very real terrors that might once have existed have been replaced by curiosity and a condescending nod to the gullibility of unsophisticated people born in another era. The stories simply reflect naïve superstitions and overdeveloped imaginations. The same anxieties surely no longer exist.
Perhaps my mother had a personal fear that she hoped to overcome when she began her journey to Mount Pilatus. The place called to her in a way she couldn’t explain, and woven into her many stories of this journey was her palpable pride in having done it alone. After this trip, she was determined to take me.