Vogel Gryff Ceremony

One of Basel’s old and unique traditions is the Vogel Gryff ceremony, a vestige of the muster-parade inspections for the citizen soldiers trained by three guild-like honor societies in Kleinbasel that were responsible for the city’s defense several hundred years ago.

Kleinbasel began to flourish after the construction of the first bridge across the Rhein around 1225. Around 1300, Kleinbasel was a separate city with around 1,000-1,500 citizens. It was politically, administratively, and judicially separate from Grossbasel, although the two cities had strong economic ties.

The three guild-like honor societies were established in the 14th century, with the earliest mention in 1304. In contrast to the typical guilds in Grossbasel, which were established by different professions, these societies were associations of citizens who represented Kleinbasel to the outside and helped organize public life. In 1597, three heraldic figures representing the guilds were mentioned for the first time —the Wilde Maa (crazy man), Leu (a lion-like figure), and Vogel Gryff (a half-man-half-bird creature).

The three societies still exist today; they each have around 150 members (all male) and are each led by a master and six superiors. To be eligible for membership, the men must either reside in Kleinbasel or live elsewhere in Basel and own substantial property in Kleinbasel for at least 2 years; must be Basel citizens; must be at least 18 years old; and must have a good reputation.

The Vogel Gryff ceremony takes place every year in January, alternating each year between January 13, 20, or 27—unless the date falls on a Sunday, in which case it takes place on the previous Saturday. On this day, the three heraldic figures representing the three societies—the Wilde Maa, Leu, and Vogel Gryff—parade through Kleinbasel, accompanied by three drummers, three standard-bearers, and four jesters (Ueli), who collect money for charitable causes.

It starts in the morning when the Wilde Maa floats down the Rhein on a barge, escorted by his drummers and other entourage. He performs a ceremonial dance with his back stubbornly turned towards Grossbasel. At the Mittlere Brücke, he is met on the Kleinbasel river bank by the Leu and the Vogel Gryff. Each of the three figures has its own characteristic dances that they perform throughout the day in various locations around Kleinbasel as well as on the Mittlere Brücke. The festival typically ends late at night. It is definitely a festival like no other!

photos: © anne kohler