By Hariulf OR

First of all this article is not really an Odinic article, but I would like to share with you a very important myth for Switzerland: the myth of William Tell. Indeed, this heroic episode was the cause of the rebellion of the Swiss against the dukes of Austria, which led to the historic unification of the cantons and the independence of Switzerland.

But the very interesting thing with this myth is that it is very close to two other myths of Germanic lore: Toko’s story reported by Saxo Grammaticus and the Dietrich von Bern/Thidrek’s saga.

In the story of Toko, Toko who was a great bowman was forced by the king Harald Bluetooth to shoot an apple from the head of his son. And just as in the Myth of William Tell, Toko had prepared a second arrow to kill the king if he had missed the apple.

In the Dietrich von Bern’saga, Egil, the brother of Velent (Weyland) was known to be a great Archer. Egil was forced by king Nidung to shoot an apple from the head of his son. He readied two arrows, but succeeded with the first one. Asked by the king what the second arrow was for, he said that had he killed his son with his first arrow, he would have shot the king with the second one.

As you can see, there are some similarities between these three myths. There is no doubt that the myth of William Tell is of Germanic origin.

Let me now tell you the story of William Tell as told by my forefathers:

The inhabitants of Uri,Schwyz and Unterwald had always lived free and without a master. To preserve their independence they had placed themselves under the protection of the German Emperor. From time to time the Emperor sent to them a bailiff who set the taxes and pronounced verdict. For the rest, the Swiss people of this time exerted themselves all rights and lived as free men in their own land.

When in 1298, the Duke Albert of Austria became the new Emperor of Germany, he attempted through promises and threats to make the men of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald subjects of the Habsburgs of his country of origin. The Swiss replied that they would remain free and independent like their forefathers. They asked him to confirm their rights and to send them a protective bailiff. Albert was seriously outraged by this reply and he refused to confirm the recognized franchises.

Until then the bailiff had always been a great lord who came to the area only to hold the high courts. Instead of a bailiff from the Empire, Albert sent them two Austrian bailiffs. This was contrary to the customary practice settled in the country. The two bailiffs were Hermann Gessler and Beringer of Landenberg, two hard and heartless tyrants who sought by their arbitrary rules and cruelty to subject the people of Austria.


Gessler, wanted to test the people’s sentiments and their loyalty to the Habsburg. In Altdorf town square, near the lime tree, he had an Austrian hat put on the top of a pole and had his men-at-arms to guard it. The bailiff published an edict compelling all passers-by to bow respectfully to the hat, whether Gessler was there or not. Anyone who did not obey would be arrested and punished severely.

One day when William Tell was coming down with his son Walter from Schächental, from Bürgeln to Altdorf, he passed near the hat without paying attention to it. Immediately the guard seized him and led him before Gessler. When asked why he had not saluted the hat, Tell replied that it had not been out of ill-will, because he did not know that this mark of respect was so important for the bailiff.

Gessler would not believe Tell. He was convinced that it was out of pride and disdain that Tell had not saluted the hat. Thus he pronounced an extremely cruel judgement:

“You are known as a good marksman and you are going to prove it to me now by shooting an apple placed on your son’s head.”

Tell, who loved his son above all else, implored the bailiff to repeal this sentence. In vain! Gessler ordered his valets to tie the boy to the lime tree and place an apple on his head. He ordered Tell:

“Shoot or you and your son will die.”

A large crowd had gathered in the square. They were following the event with horror. People were paralysed by fear of the bailiff and his valets.

Tell held out his crossbow, took a bolt from the quiver and hid it under his shirt, then he grasped another bolt and slotted it into the crossbow. Then he took aim, his gaze sharp and his hand firm. Tell fired. When the crowd saw that the apple had been pierced through the centre, they gave a cry of relief and showered the master bowman with signs of their appreciations. Full of joy, Tell took his son into his arms.

Gessler was very disappointed by the outcome of the shooting, and above all he was angered by the people’s reactions. Suspicious, he asked Tell why he had hidden a second blot on him. Tell replied that it was the custom amongst bowmen. Gessler did not believe him and demanded that he tell him the truth:

-”Whatever reply you make, your life will be safe.”

Tell told him:

“Had the first bolt hurt my son, the second one would have gone through your heart.”

The bailiff was frightened by this brave reply. Pale with anger he cried:

“I promised that your life would be safe and I will keep my word. But you shall pay for your criminal intent. So that your bolts do not hurt anyone, you will spend the rest of your life in a dungeon.”

He ordered his valet to bind Tell and take him by Boat to Flüelen. When Gessler had embarked on his boat, he ordered to cast off from shore and row toward Brunnen. He wanted to take the shore route to his fortress, above Küssnacht. It was there that Tell was to be thrown into a dungeon for his whole life.

When they were in the middle of the lake, the wind started to blow harder and harder. It was the Foehn, feared by everyone in the area. Hurtling down from Gothard at full speed through the valley of the Reuss, it unleashed its immense force on the Lake Uri, transforming it within moments into a seething cauldron. The waves rose very high and tossed heavy craft about like a nutshell. Now it was only a question of time; the boat would sink or be dashed against the sheer wall of the mountains. The pilot, frightened to death, spoke to Gessler:
-”Only one man can save us from the storm: William Tell.”

Gessler feared for his life and was afraid that they would never reach the shore. He unbound Tell and ordered him to take the helm. With a strong and skilful hand, Tell guided the boat toward a stone slab which was just out into the lake beneath the vertical wall of Axenberg. When they had come quite close, Tell picked up his crossbow and with a powerful leap sprang onto the spur of stone. At the same time, with his foot, he pushed the boat back into the windswept lake. Now he was free. But for how long?


From this rocky outcrop, he watched the boat until it was out of sight. He knew that his life and his family’s lives were in jeopardy as long as Gessler was alive. If the bailiff survived on the lake, he would certainly send his valets after him. If Tell managed to get away, Gessler would then avenge himself on his family. So there was only one solution: Gessler must die!

Firmly resolved, Tell scaled the Axenberg and, via Morschach and the Land of Schwyz, hastened to the place called the Hollow Way. It was a section of the old road which linked the Lake of the Four Cantons to the Lake of Zug. Feet, hoofs and wheels, as well as rainwater, had gradually hollowed out the path through the wooded ridge above Küssnacht. Thus a sunken passage of a hundred metres long had been formed. Here Tell waited, screened by the bushes, in order to shoot down the bailiff if he was still alive.

For a long time Gessler’s boat had been tossed about by the storm and only with great difficulty were the rowers able to land it near Brunnen. From there the bailiff and his escort rode on horse through Arth and Immensee and went down the Hollow Way toward Küssnacht. When Tell saw his enemy approaching on horseback, at the head of his troop, he seized his crossbow , waited until Gessler was close enough and shot the cruel bailiff full in the heart. Fatally wounded, Gessler fell from his horse and died in the arms of his valets. He had had the recompense which tyrants deserve.

Now Tell was free for good and had no need to fear for his loved ones.

On the morning of the first day of 1308 the freedom of early Switzerland dawned. On that day the Confederates made themselves master of the castles, demolished them and chased out the bailiffs forever.

Sources and influences:

“Histoire Suisse rancontée au peuple”
By Albert Gorbat
“Gesta Danorum” –
By Saxo Gramaticus Thidrek’s Saga




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