Oktoberfest Munich – is it all about human-horse relations?

Why would we write about the Oktoberfest on this blog? It turns out that there is an aspect of it that is closely related to the interest in one of our current projects – Arctic Ark – where we are interested in the genetic diversity of agricultural animals and the ways in which people make use of specific animal breeds’ traits. It turns out that a lot in the Oktoberfest is about – human-horse relations, because it goes back to a horse-race on 17 October 1810, as our PhD student Markus Przybyl writes below.

But first some of the basics:

Basic numbers on the Oktoberfest, from the Norwegian inflight magazine September

Here below is Markus’ report, sort of a historical ethnography, with some interesting links to Arctic and Sámi traditions. All opinions expressed below are his, and comments here are welcome!

The Oktoberfest in Munich lasts every year from 22.09.-07.10. and is the biggest beer festival in the world.  6,5-7 million people from all over the world visit Munich.  The Oktoberfest generates an average annual turnover of one billion euros over the two weeks. The first Oktoberfest was on the occasion of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Bavaria on 12 October 1810, numerous private and public celebrations took place in Munich, including a horse race on 17 October. The Oktoberfest goes back to this.

Not only Bavarian folk costume clubs, but also folk costume clubs from all over the world take part in the parade. At the beginning the Bavarian traditional costume associations come and then traditional costume associations from other countries. Those not familiar with the traditional costumes can hardly distinguish them from each other. From an anthropological point of view the diversity of costumes and traditions in each region is amazing – and has been studied by our Volkskunde colleagues. Each traditional costume speaks its own language in a certain social context.

It is worth mentioning at this point that the Bavarian natives and the Fennoscandinavian Sami have some things in common. Both peoples wear a hut with decorations, they smoke pipes or sniff tobacco, use a shepherd’s staff at work, they ski to move faster, both peoples practice transhumance (they change pasture areas seasonally), pasture areas and waters are family-controlled, they use sledges in winter to transport loads or ride ritually on a sledge, the mountains and forests are inhabited by both peoples, both in Bavaria and in Sapmi cranberries grow and they are used by both peoples for their dishes, both have a unique way of singing, the Bavarians’ yodel and the Sami yoik, there are common forms of subsistence such as farming, hunting, the keeping of domestic animals, bells are tied to the necks of farm animals, herding dogs are used to protect the herd, both peoples have particularly colourful and different costumes, both peoples have their own languages, which vary dialectally from region to region, the Sami reindeer herders and the Bavarian shepherds wear a cape/poncho, i.e. a sleeveless cape made of wool (in Bavarian Wettefleck) you can see this traditional Bavarian clothing in this film . There are certainly still many similarities, but many differences.

The history of the move in of the beer tent landlords of the Oktoberfest and breweries as a solemn prelude to the Oktoberfest goes back to 1887, when the landlord at the time, Hans Steyrer, moved for the first time from his inn in the Tegernseer Landstraße to the Theresienwiese with his staff, brass band and a beer load. In its present form, the move has essentially taken place since 1935, when all breweries took part in the move together for the first time. Since then, the procession has been led by a woman in a yellow and black monk’s robe representing the Munich Kindl. Since 1950, the acting mayor of Munich has followed him in the carriage of the Schottenhamel family. They are followed again by the splendidly decorated horse carriages and floats of the breweries as well as the carriages of the other innkeepers and showmen. The train is accompanied by the music bands of the pavilions.

The horses that pull the brewery carts are southern German cold-blooded horses that are widespread in Bavaria. The South German cold-blooded breed originated from the Noriker cold-blooded breed. Both breeds share one origin. This is to be located naturally in the alpine region, in which there was a need for horses, which functioned for example as mule-horses, also because of the sometimes inhospitable environment . Parts of the Austrian and German Alps formed the Roman province of Noricum. The influence of the Romans also referred to the horses of the region: it is very likely that the Romans’ horses were crossed with native horses in the course of time, whereby a new type could emerge.

Southern German cold-blooded horses often reach a height of between 160 and 165 centimetres and can weigh up to 1000 kilograms. The cold-blooded breed can therefore be classified as medium-sized, which also gives it a certain manoeuvrability. Particularly in recent times, more emphasis has been placed on a more elegant appearance of the South German cold-blooded breed. This results from the fact that the animals no longer work, but must be rather versatile companions in the spare time.

Due to its stature the South German cold blood proves to be strong and persevering. This benefits the cold blood, for example, when it comes to pulling wagons. In the Bavarian agriculture the South German cold blood found in former times much work. Nowadays, its use as a draft horse is rather for leisure . You will come across a team of South German cold-blooded horses at many parades and processions in Bavaria.

At the end of the wedding celebrations in 1810, which lasted for days, a horse race was held on 17 October. It was organized by the banker Andreas Michael Dall’Armi.

The fairground, which at that time was outside the city of Munich, was chosen because of its natural suitability. The Sendlinger Berg (today Theresienhöhe) served as a grandstand for the 40,000 spectators of the race. The Festwiese remained undeveloped except for the king’s tent. The tasting of the visitors took place above the grandstand on the hill where “Traiteurs” offered wine and beer. Before the race began, a tribute was paid to the wedding couple and the royal house in the form of a procession of 16 couples of children wearing traditional costumes representing the possessions of the Wittelsbacher dynasty, the nine Bavarian districts and other regions. Afterwards a choir of holiday pupils sang, before finally the festive race with 30 horses on an 11 200 shoe (3270 meters) long racecourse followed. The winner was the horse of the presumed initiator of the event, Franz Baumgartner, who crossed the finish line and received his gold medal from racing champion and Minister of State Maximilian Graf von Montgelas.

Among the highlights of the historic Oktoberfest were the horse races held daily at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. on the Great Ring, which visitors could follow from a tribune. The spectacle was reminiscent of the historic gallop race held on the Theresienwiese in 1810 in honour of the royal wedding couple.

In addition to the historic race, one, two and four horses competed in several slalom courses and also a ten horse carriage, a Hungarian hunting car and a Roman fighting car took part in the races. More videos here

The decision to repeat the race in the following year created the tradition of the Oktoberfest. As early as 1811, the first agricultural festival (of the Landwirthschaftliche Verein in Bayern, founded in 1810) was held as an exhibition of domestic cattle breeding.

In 1812, the national festival approved by the king for the encouragement and promotion of agriculture was planned for 18 and 19 October, and a horse race was held within the framework of this festival. The races of the Centralfest provided trial races for two classes:  Bavaria and foreigners. A total of 37 horses were named, 15 of which were foreign.

The first carousels and swings were set up in 1818. In 1890 Buffalo Bill appeared with a group of Indians, cowboys and animals on his European tour. The first large beer tents were built in 1896.