Grus vigilans

Thu, 27. Feb. 2020
In the church of Rougemont (Helmuth Gehlken)

It is almost a year ago that a daily newspaper published a report on an annual meeting of the village organisation Saanen, which was about the ”Saanen heraldic animal – the Saanen goat” receiving more presence in public. The heraldic animal, the Saanengeiss? There must have been a misunderstanding.

By chance, this recently crossed my mind again. As we all know, “Die Kryen uff dem bergen”  (the crane on the mountain), as the old writings say, is still the heraldic bird in the Saanenland and in almost all villages along the river Saane to Gruyères and Bulle.

As a heraldic bird, the crane has been depicted in many different ways. One of them is of particular interest and can be found sporadically throughout Europe and – in our region – on the gable of the Salzhüsi in Saanen. It shows the bird standing on one leg, with the other foot holding a stone.

I know this representation from northern Germany, from the Kranichhaus (crane house) in Otterndorf, near the mouth of the Elbe. There is a large sculpture of this Vogel mit Stein (bird with stone) on the roof of the house. The building bears the following inscription:

The crane holds the stone,
to resist sleep.
He who surrenders to sleep,
never comes to good or honor.

This representation, also known as grus vigilans (watching or watchful crane) since ancient times, is intended to highlight the well-known vigilance of the shy birds. The Sámi people, original inhabitants of northern Scandinavia, say, for example, that the crane has an eye on each feather.

A quotation from a naturalist from around 200 B.C. gives the following explanation for the bird’s behaviour: “When they are tired and meet land somewhere, the others rest at night and sleep; but three or four watch over the others and, so as not to fall asleep during the guard, they stand on one leg and, with their foot raised, hold a stone firmly and carefully with their claws, so that if sleep should creep over them, the noise of the falling stone will wake them up!”

The Greek scholar Aristotle debunked this theory as early as the 3rd century B.C. but the crane with a stone or grus vigilans has remained a symbol of caution and vigilance over the centuries, even if this attributes more intelligence to the birds than is due.

In addition to the depiction on the Salzhüsi in Saanen, the grus vigilans is represented on a coloured heraldic disc in the church of Rougemont and on an inn sign at the Hôtel de Ville in Rossinière.

Based on AvS/Helmuth Gehlken

Also see Isabelle Fregevu's illustration

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