In past centuries, the peak was seen as largely inaccessible terrain with no economical use. Of course, farmers couldn't let cows graze on the Eiger. So the people had absolutely no need to name them – of course apart from when the peak served as a landmark for orientation.
Many of today's mountain names were given several centuries ago. They didn't always refer to the same peaks, like our example of the Mönch demonstrates. The name first had to be officially documented and, until that point, a peak could run through several name changes.
The flourishing tourism in the Alps brought continuity with it: a permanent name for the peaks. From the renaissance period on, the Alps were discovered as a tourist attraction. The first Alpine peak climbs didn't take place until the 19th century.
Mountains and mountain ranges are named according to size and shape (Breithorn)...
...according to their location (Mittaghorn)...
...according to geological condition (Schwarzmönch)...
...after people (Agassizhorn), and also according to the weather, the vegetation, the animal world and inspired by myths.
For the sake of completeness, we'll list the nine 4,000 metre ones in the Bernese Alps here: Finsteraarhorn, Aletschhorn, Jungfrau, Mönch, Schreckhorn, Grosses Fiescherhorn, Grosses Grünhorn, Lauteraarhorn and Hinteres Fiescherhorn.
Once upon a time, a family of terrible giants lived in the Wengernalp. They were known for miles around for their bad tempers. One day, a poor, old man with threadbare clothes came along and asked for a sip of milk from the giants. The giants denied him this wish and argued that he hadn't earned anything more than water.
Oh dear, that's not going to end well. We can see disaster rearing its head.
The Wengernalp train posing in front of the Wetterhorn. Luckily, today there are no terrible giants here to bump into anymore.
Father, sons and daughter united in solid rock. They offended the wrong man.
We were right of course. Disaster reared its head: The little old man offended the giant and the giant wanted to get his hands on him. Sure, a giant's not scared of such a dwarf. No one knew though, that the little old man was a mountain troll, and therefore was much stronger than all the others. Hmm, bad luck. Giants really aren't prepared for that. The troll would put a curse on them if they did a bad deed. Suddenly they began to grow. They grew bigger and bigger and became solid rock and ice. And that's how the father became the Eiger, the sons became the Weisse and Schwarze Mönch and the daughter became the Jungfrau. Makes sense. That's how it would have happened.
Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau – the order just makes sense. That's how it's been saved in people's memories. We'd never change the order. It's fine like that.
The Eiger is one of the first Swiss peaks to be mentioned in records. In 1252, it could have been an Alp, whose name was used for the peak later, which was referred to with the words «ad montem qui nominatur Egere» in the first existing reference. We don't know for sure. It takes a further half a century until the Eiger is mentioned in the German language – with the wording «under Eigere».
It's supposed to be an ogre, a man-eating giant – at least according to the traditional interpretation of the name Eiger. Of course the friendly Shrek with his donkey comes to mind. As opposed to Shrek, the Eiger has a dreaded reputation. The Eiger north face takes care of that in an impressive way.
The first settler at the foot of the Eiger is said to have had an ancient German name: Egiger or Agiger. The mountain towering over his meadows was therefore called «Aigers Geissberg». That's possible of course. Or does beloved Latin reveal the right meaning? The French term «aigu» was developed from the Latin word «acer». Both words mean «sharp» or «pointy». Of course the shape of the Eiger is being referred to here. The third explanation also judges the Eiger's outer appearance: the spelling commonly used in the past, «Heiger», could have developed from the dialect «dr hej Ger» («hej» meant high and «Ger» was a Germanic spear). Hmm, one, two or three? We don't know.
A beloved story tells that our «ogre Eiger» constantly wants to get his lecherous paws on the Jungfrau (virgin). He's constantly hindered by the Mönch (monk). Poor ogre... or poor Jungfrau?
Karl «Moli» Molitor,
to an inexperienced mountain climber, who was shaking, crawling on all fours over the thin ridge
Sandwiched between the Eiger (3,970 metres above sea level) with its spectacular north face and the Jungfrau (4,158 metres above sea level) with her pretty looks, the Mönch has lived a wallflower existence for a long time. It starts with his name. He didn't have this one for a long time. Well into the 19th century it was called Eiger's Schneeberg, Hinterer Eiger, Kleiner Eiger or Inner Eiger. Later it became Weissmönch, Grosser Münch or Gross-Mönch.
It makes the most sense that the name was derived from the monks in the monastery nearby. But no, unfortunately not. At the foot of the Mönch there were many more Alpine meadows where geldings, so-called «Münche» would spend the summer. That's why the mountain towering over the München (Munich) Alps became «Münchenberg» and then Münch and Mönch.
It hasn't only had many names, it has also been measured several times. And, surprisingly, with a different result every time. The results varied from a minimum of 3,976 to a maximum of 4,114 metres above sea level. Today, it counts as one of the 48 four-thousand metre high mountains in Switzerland.
And with the third peak in the trio we can only make assumptions about the derivation of the name. With just a few, very rare exceptions, this peak has carried its current name for centuries.
In the 14th century there were many premonstratensian double monasteries like the one here in Interlaken – an order which was founded according to the Augustinian rule.
Cape, hat and beret of the traditional costume of the monks and the choir girls were pure white. We assume that the monks in Interlaken had the idea of comparing the white glimmering peak with a premonstratensian choir girl.
The name Jungfrau appeared for the first time in 1577, in Thomas Schöpf's «Chorographia ditionis Bernensis». In this book, the author makes the assumption that the Jungfrau is a mountain, stiff from eternal snow and ice, is fully unapproachable and the residents therefore derive the name from the idea of an untouched virgin.
The name would then have been transferred from a Jungfrauen alp to the peak above it.
Thanks to the Jungfrau Railway, we can ride through Eiger and Mönch up to the Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe, and all that in the complete comfort of a seat. The Jungfrau remains unattainable, just like her name. At least by train.
British author, painter and art historian
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the three peaks have monks, geldings, choir girls or old Germanic terms to thank for their names – we all agree on one thing: the trio just looks really cool.
Photos: Jungfrau Region, Jungfrau Railways
Story: André Wellig
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