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How The Alps Defines Cultural Europe

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

The Alps: Rome and Greece

The Greeks were not much charmed by the Alps nor did they notice it much. Though the Greek gods dwelled on mountains such as Olympus and Parnassus, their history and stories settled and meandered on the plains and the sea. Romans saw the mountains as natural fortresses that either protected them or stopped them from their military pursuits; they had a utilitarian view of them. Around 2300 years ago, the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps and led his soldiers to attack Rome, and started the second Punic war. He and his army had to travel from Catalonia to the Pyrenees which was a distance of 1000 miles. The crossing of the Alps took him five months. Crossing the Alps was no small feat and this episode of history ignited the minds of many writers and painters who created many books and works of art on this topic.

The Medieval Period

Medieval Europe saw the birth of ballads in the late 16th century. A popular ballad was, ‘Robin is to the greenwood gone.’ This is the story of Robin Hood, the wandering outlaw/hero and the Greenwood in this ballad is a mysterious forest of romance, the setting of knightly adventures, somewhere in the geography of the Alps. Robin Hood is assumed to have lived in the 13th century. In pagan England, Robin Hood and Green Robin were interchangeable names and represented the human connection with nature and the mystery and protection that nature offered. Some historians think that Green Man was a Celtic and Saxon plant and fertility deity. Greenwood was the home of the Green Man. On May Day, which is Midsummer’s Day, pagan England celebrated the myth of the Green Man and sent their maidens to the forest, to be initiated into their first sexual experience by the youth dressed as Robin Hood. Shakespeare’s character, Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has a huge resemblance to the Green Man.

Grindelwald: An Alpine Glacier



Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon mythical poem by an anonymous author dated to around 500 CE. It is about a mythical Scandinavian hero, who slays monsters and dragons. The poem reflects the fear that people felt towards nature and the forests that surrounded their tiny villages. The forests were seen as the abode of monsters and other evil creatures whom only a hero such as Beowulf could defeat. Again, the fearsome forests mentioned in this poem are none other than the Alpine wilderness.

The Alps: Geography

The Alps extend as a string of hillocks rising from near Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, and ends in Nice, France. The mountain is a natural heritage to the countries, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Italy, Montenegro, and Albania. Switzerland and Austria are purely Alpine countries. The Alps have the shape of an arc and separate Europe from the Mediterranean region.

Early Writers and the Grand Tour of the Alps

In his book, Italian Journey, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the legendary poet and writer, wrote these lines about the Alps, “These zig-zags and irritating silhouettes and shapeless piles of granite, making the fairest portion of the earth a polar region, cannot be liked by any kindly man”. Obviously, not all the writers of Europe liked this mighty mountain. In 1764, Edward Gibbon, the celebrated author of the book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, crossed the Alps to reach Florence and settled down there to write this magnum opus. In those days, for the educated and upper-class youth of Europe, it was fashionable to make a tour of the Alps, adeptly named the grand tour. It was a coming-of-age kind of journey, one that was supposed to complete the education of the young men who participated. An experienced guide would accompany the uninitiated young adventurer on this tour. A tour across Europe with Italy as the final destination, this trekking trip introduced the youth of that age to the cultural heritage of Europe’s antiquity art and renaissance.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Others

Jean-Jacques Rousseau chose the Alps as the setting for his novel, Julie. The story unfolds in the valley of the Alps and it could be counted as one of the first-ever romantic views in European literature of nature. This was also the end of a literary tradition, says Stephen O’Shea in his book, The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond; a tradition that saw the mountain as a treacherous place with hidden monsters and unknown evils.

Alphorn: A Musical Instrument of the Alpine Culture


Music of the Alps

Alpine folk music is the traditional music that one comes across in many Alpine countries. They are sung with the accompaniment of alpenhorns to harmonicas. Many local bands in Europe play this music. In 1915, the German composer Richard Strauss composed The Alpine Symphony, a tone poem, which is about an adventure trip to the Alps. In 1913, the Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky composed a ballet titled, ‘The Rite of Spring’, which was about the pagan rituals during the festival of spring. Edmund Burke, an eighteenth-century British philosopher called the mountain sublime in his book, ‘Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.’ He wrote, “The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.”

Caspar Wolf was among the first painters who discovered the charm of the Alps. His Alps paintings depicted the beauty of the mountain in all its terrifying yet mesmerising detail. Alps (study) 1923, is a Nicholas Roerich painting that embodies the charm and grace of this mountain stretch.

Poets and Alps

Oliver Goldsmith, the 18th-century poet in his poem, ‘Alps’, wrote,

“…Alpine solitudes ascend,

I sit me down a pensive hour to spend;

And placed on high above the storm’s career,

Look downward where an hundred realms appear;

Lakes, forests, cities, plains extending wide,

The pomp of kings, the shepherd’s humbler pride.”- The Traveller.

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The poem, ‘Prelude’, by William Wordsworth paints a fearsome picture of the Alps mountain and reads as below-

"The stationary blasts of water-falls,

And everywhere along the hollow rent

Winds thwarting winds, bewilder'd and forlorn

The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky".

Chillon Castle


Frankenstein and the Alps

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, was inspired by the Alps in many ways. She had visited the medieval Chilean castle on Lake Geneva along with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord Byron. It was Byron who suggested that each of them should write a horror tale in the backdrop of this Alpine geography but only Mary Shelly followed it up. The next year, she wrote Frankenstein, in which Victor Frankenstein, the protagonist flees to the Alps to escape his creation, a monster he gave life to. Mary Shelly’s prose is quite fluid and sublime when she describes the Alps through the words of Frankenstein, “the unstained snowy mountain top, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine- the eagle, soaring amidst the clouds- they all gathered round me and bade me at peace”.

Manfred by Lord Byron, Heidi by Johanna Spyri, Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, and A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway- all these well-known books have an Alpine setting. The equally petrifying and enticing presence of these mountain stretches is eternal and sure to spur much more cultural churning in future too.


How (and where) did Hannibal cross the Alps?, Franz Lidz, Smithsonian Magazine.

Greenman legend and mythology,

Under the Greenwood tree,


Grand Tour,

The doctrine of the sublim,

Ten of the best: Alps, John Mullan,

The Alps: A human history from Hannibal to Heidi and beyond, Stephen O’Shea, 2017.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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