The forests of Kočevje (Gottschee), with their beauty and mysteries, have often stirred human imagination. People have made up stories about natural phenomena and unusual events that they could not otherwise explain. With the chirping of owls, the cracking of branches in the forest and the change in the dormouse population, a story about Pilichmandle, a dwarfish creature that disturbed the dormouse hunters during their hunt, was born.
Pilichmandle as the protector of dormice
At night Pilichmandle frightened the dormouse hunters, made fun of them and triggered the traps they set. He also appeared when dormice were hunted en masse, and showed them the way to their hiding places in caves with his whip. Sometimes he even led the dormice into another forest. The dormice followed him while he struck each beech tree three times with his ax. In Carniola, similar deeds were usually attributed to the devil – let us remember, for example, the famous Valvasors graphic in which the devil drives the dormice to pasture – the Pilichmandle also belongs to these type of stories. The association of the Pilichmandle with the devil is evidenced by his appearance in the form of a small creature or dwarf, a red cap and a green coat that he wears, and the sounds (clapping and whistling) that accompany his arrival.
The stories about the Pilichmandle served mainly to explain the fluctuations in the number of the dormouse population, which scientists have not yet been able to fully explain. They found that the dormouse aligns its reproductive cycle with the fecundity of the beech tree, since the dormouse population also becomes more numerous when the beech richly bears. On the other hand, the dormouse hunters used the Pilichmandle to explain the voices they heard in the forest. It was believed that sometimes the cracking, clapping and whistling heard at night drove away a large number of dormice, which the hunters could catch right in their jackets and boots. The sounds that the dormice feared and that formed the basis for the stories were actually caused by owls that were blinded by the dormouse hunters’ torches and were trying to drive the intruders away. However, the sounds did not drive away the hunters, but the dormice, because owls are their natural enemies.
Dormouse hunting in the Kočevje region
From the Middle Ages until the Second World War, dormouse hunting was very important for the peasant population in Carniola, including the Gottscheers. The meat of the dormouse was an important source of protein, its ointment was used as a home remedy against frostbite, to heal wounds, to treat ear infections and even to cure pets, as well as to make hats, collars and coats – and to line winter clothing. Fat and fur were also sold.
Dormice were hunted in a variety of ways. Usually they were taken from the nest with a stick, or a box with an opening was placed next to the nest entrance. The dormouse crawled into a trap from which it could not escape. Today, this hunting method is no longer allowed, but the dormouse is still hunted with traps attached to hazelnut sticks and placed on trees near its nests. Since dormice are mainly active at night, hunters often spent the whole night hunting. They usually warmed themselves by the fire and roasted potatoes in the embers. They also liked to drink brandy or cider. Dormouse hunting still exists today, but its importance is mainly social.
The importance of the Pilichmandle today: the guardian of nature and the forest
In Slovenia there are four species of dormice, which differ mainly in size: Edible dormouse, Tree Dormouse, Garden Dormouse and Podlesek. With the exception of the Edible dormouse, the other three dormouse species are classified as endangered. This is due to changes in their habitat, especially deforestation, because dormice need dense tree canopies to survive. Today, Pilichmandle no longer reminds us of the inappropriateness of (excessive) dormouse hunting, but also makes us aware of the importance of preserving the forest and nature.
Children’s book Pilichmandle: a story from the forests of Kočevje
At the end of 2021, the Putscherle Institute published a children’s book Pilichmandle: a story from the forests of Kočevje, in which children and parents get acquainted with this typical Gottscheer narrative hero. The main thread of the story follows old legends, but also offers an insight into the mysterious world of the Kočevje forests and their inhabitants, as the book also introduces some endangered species. For the very curious, there is an accompanying epilogue, which is also suitable as teaching material for elementary schools. The picture book is marked as “bear-friendly“.
– Moric, Anja. 2021. Polšji možic: Zgodba iz kočevskih gozdov. Stara Cerkev: Zavod Putscherle.
– Moric, Anja. 2018. Vitrine spomina. Stara Cerkev: Zavod Putscherle.
– Tschinkel, Wilhelm. 2004. Kočevarska folklora: v šegah, navadah, pravljicah, povedkah, legendah in drugih folklornih izročilih = Gottscheer Volkstum: in Sitte, Brauch, Märchen, Sagen, Legenden und anderen volkstümlichen Überlieferungen. Ljubljana: Založba ZRC, ZRC SAZU.
– Hauffen, Adolf. 1895. Die deutsche Sprachinsel Gottschee: Geschichte und Mundart, Lebensverhältnisse, Sitten und Gebräuche, Sagen, Märchen und Lieder. Graz: Styria.
– Valvasor, Janez Vajkard. 1689. Slava Vojvodine Kranjske.
Our previous article is dedicated to Stolen Childhood, and memories of the (post) war period in the Dragarska Valley and the surrounding areas. .