Hornussen festival in Studen, Bern, 1985.
Hornussen festival in Studen, Bern, 1985. ETH Library

Hornussen – the “invention” of a national sport

Along with Schwingen and Steinstossen, Hornussen is one of Switzerland’s national sports. Many people think of Hornussen as an ancient and typically Swiss game. Hornussen is indeed very old, but it’s only since the 19th century that it’s been considered a Swiss national game.

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

Commemorative publications usually feature solemn greetings and forewords written by leading politicians; the special volume issued to mark the 50th anniversary of the Federal Hornussen Association in 1952 is no exception. Rudolf Minger, a representative of farmers and the conservatives and a former Federal Councillor sent congratulations loaded with patriotic pathos: “Hornussen players are men with their own, unique character: rooted to their native soil, down-to-earth in their nature, genuinely patriotic in their attitude and purposeful in their actions. They are cut from the same cloth as the wrestlers and the yodellers [...] They all have those attributes to which the very first Swiss owed their magnificent successes in the fight for freedom.”
Federal Councillor Rudolf Minger saw Hornussen as an ancient and quintessentially Swiss sport.
Federal Councillor Rudolf Minger saw Hornussen as an ancient and quintessentially Swiss sport. Swiss National Museum
That’s all quite different from the stance taken by Minger’s predecessors in government 300 years earlier. Hornussen was not considered to be in the interests of the state at all. In those days, the men in charge in Bern regularly issued “Edicts against Spielen, Schwingen and Hornussen” and complained “that on Sundays [...] several hundred persons [...] gather and proceed to disgracefully profane the Sabbath with Hurnaussenschlagen (which is a certain physical exercise).” Playing Hornussen on Sundays was banned, and violations of the rule were punished. The authorities feared that playing Hornussen would lead their subjects to drift away from the church, which was an important part of public order for the noble gentlemen.
17th century edict issued by Bern banning Spielen, Schwingen and Hornussen.
17th century edict issued by Bern banning Spielen, Schwingen and Hornussen. Burgerbibliothek Bern
From ostensible threat to public order, to national sport touted as representing genuinely Swiss values – this radical image change dates back to the 19th century, when the idea of the nation state spread across Europe. Every country, or more precisely, each country’s political and cultural elites, defined “typical” traditions and idiosyncrasies for their nations. Local or regional customs and cultures of remembrance were often adopted for this purpose and then subsequently “nationalised”. In Switzerland these were mostly rural traditions, such as the alphorn. Even Switzerland’s national story about the covenant of 1291 is actually a remembrance tradition from central Switzerland. Schwingen, Steinstossen and Hornussen have been popular Sunday entertainments for farmers and herdsmen in the Swiss Alps since the Middle Ages. Even today, Hornussen is really only played in those areas, especially in the Bern region and in central and eastern Switzerland. Similar types of game called “Tsara” and “Gerla” used to be widely played in the Valais and Grisons.
The legendary Unspunnenstein flies through the air – here in 1993.
The legendary Unspunnenstein flies through the air – here in 1993. Swiss National Museum
The Alphorn as a national trademark: Swiss delegation at the World Exhibition in New York, 1964.
The Alphorn as a national trademark: Swiss delegation at the World Exhibition in New York, 1964. Swiss National Museum
But despite the rural and alpine provenance of these folk games, it was mainly urban dwellers who, in the 19th century, framed Schwingen, Steinstossen and Hornussen as national sports and charged them with ideological significance. They organised federal festivals that featured this triad of national sports, but also included yodelling, blowing the alphorn and Fahnenschwingen. These events were intended to bring together town and country, the urban and the rural, and they created a sense of Swiss identity that can still be felt today.
The “national sport” of Hornussen is the perfect vehicle for bringing together, in one flag-waving patriotic package, the domains of sport and tradition, rivalry and cohesion, urban and rural.
The “national sport” of Hornussen is the perfect vehicle for bringing together, in one flag-waving patriotic package, the domains of sport and tradition, rivalry and cohesion, urban and rural.
The “national sport” of Hornussen is the perfect vehicle for bringing together, in one flag-waving patriotic package, the domains of sport and tradition, rivalry and cohesion, urban and rural. Dukas / RDB
The label “national sport” thus implies that the Swiss people alone have been merrily “hornussening” since the days of the old Confederates – but studiously glosses over the fact that Hornussen is very similar to the ball-and-mallet games that were already widespread in the Middle Ages and throughout Europe, particularly the French game palemaille. There is also “hornussening" outside Switzerland, albeit only on a very small scale in Germany and South Africa. The two German organisations have their own tournament, while the South African clubs (they call Hornussen “Swiss Golf”) can be traced back to Swiss immigrants, and therefore take part in Swiss Hornussen festivals on a regular basis.
Frederick V of the Palatinate, playing “pell-mell” in The Hague. Watercolour by Adriaen van de Venne, 1626.
Frederick V of the Palatinate, playing “pell-mell” in The Hague. Watercolour by Adriaen van de Venne, 1626. Wikimedia
In the words of Federal Councillor Minger reproduced above, however, the “international” sport of Hornussen is nonetheless framed, with the use of the term “vaterländisch” (patriotic), as representing the interests of the state – a notion that still features in political speeches today. Historical categorisation plays havoc with the patriotic Sunday preaching, which seeks to emphasise the “collective” and turn it to account. The sport also provided Minger with an ideal platform for his message: sport in general is popular and has a superficial appearance of being apolitical, but at the same time it attracts massive media interest and pulls in vast crowds of spectators – so it’s an innocent societal domain that Minger and politicians like him therefore used, and continue to use, to convey their messages.
Report on the sport of Hornussen. Trans World Sport

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at sportshistory.ch

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