Hornussen is one of the most significant national sports of Switzerland, besides wrestling and stone tossing.
It is a team sport commonly played in rural areas. Yet, while hornussen is an ancient discipline, it has only been considered a Swiss national game since the 19th century.
Here is our comprehensive guide to the Swiss sport of hornussen:
Why hornussen became a Swiss national sport
Important anniversaries are often graced by congratulatory words of politicians. This was the case in 1952 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Eidgenössischer Hornusserverband.
Former Federal Councillor Rudolf Minger, a representative of the conservative party, wrote at the time:
“Hornusser are men with a unique character: they are grounded in their nature, genuinely patriotic in their attitude, and determined in their actions. They are cut from the same wood as wrestlers and yodelers […] And they are bearers of those same qualities that made the first Confederates successful in their fight for freedom.”
Just 200 years earlier, the messaging was quite different. The Bernese upper class would often publish regulations concerning “playing, swinging, and hornussing.” They criticized that “on Sundays, several hundred people would gather to disrespect this day by exerting physical labor.”
As a consequence, playing hornussen was prohibited on Sundays. And since the elites were afraid that common people would turn away from religion due to this sport, they instituted fines for non-compliance.
It was only in the 19th century when hornussen was legitimized. This alleged threat to public order was now a national sport that embodied genuinely Swiss values. The change of mind came about because political and cultural elites were defining typical traditions and characteristics for their own nations.
In doing so, they would often claim local or regional customs by nationalizing them after the fact.
How hornussen was “invented”
Hornussen and wrestling were popular pastimes of peasants and herdsmen since the Middle Ages. But it was city folks who turned them into national sports disciplines.
By organizing public festivals and competitions that also featured yodeling, alphorns, and stone tossing, the elites were able to project their ideologies onto these sports.
These events were intended to bring together spectators from towns and the countryside, meanwhile creating a Swiss national feeling that continues to have an effect to the present day.
These events were intended to bring together town and countryside, meanwhile creating a Swiss national feeling that continues to have an effect to the present day.
And it was likely no coincidence that sport was a pivotal factor in all of this: on their surface, games may appear apolitical. But they naturally attract media interest and crowds. In short: sports offer an ideal stage – for athletes and politicians alike.
Q&A about the Swiss sport of hornussen
How do the rules of hornussen work?
In hornussen, two teams compete against each other. The attacking team hits the hornuss, which resembles an ice hockey puck, with a metal whip in the direction of the opponent’s field, called the “Ries.” The hornuss can gain speeds of up to 300 km/h.
The defending team reacts by “killing” the flying hornuss with wooden boards called “Schindeln.” The farther away from the launching pad the hornuss is intercepted, the more points are awarded to the attacking team. If the hornuss lands directly in the “Ries,” penalty points are awarded to the defending team.
Once all players of the attacking team have had their turn of hitting, they switch to the position of the defending team. Games typically last between three and four hours.
In recent times, some players in the defending team have started to wear helmets. This safety precaution is a reaction to an increase in head injuries.
When was hornussen first mentioned?
The exact origins of hornussen are not entirely clear. The first known mention of hornussen dates from 1625 when a Bernese court issued a warning for hornussers.
Frederick V of the Palatinate, at the mail game in The Hague. Watercolor by Adriaen van de Venne 1626 (via wikimedia commons)
It is likely that hornussen was being practiced before 1625, however. The game resembles rounders games that were already widespread in the Middle Ages and throughout Europe.
Where is hornussen played in Switzerland?
These days, hornussen is played mainly in the cantons of Bern, Solothurn, and Aargau. Altogether there are about 7 400 active Hornussers. (For comparison: the top Swiss sport, gymnastics, has 311 000 active athletes.)
Similar forms of the game used to be widespread in the Swiss Alps, especially in Valais and Graubünden. In some variants, body and head hits are counted as well. This leads historians to the conclusion that hornussen was originally also a war game.
And this is what hornussen looks like in action:
This article was kindly contributed by Swiss Sports History, a digital platform about sports in Switzerland.