Helga Patscheider


(two case-studies: the club "Motorcycle-Witches" and the migrants in Transylvania)

This article is about the barriers, created through symbols and rituals by people themselves, as well as by organisations and clubs. To illustrate this, I will give a few examples from everyday life, like the "Motorcycle-witches", which is the women motorcyclist club in Austria and which culture and the way of life I am researching at the moment. Furthermore, I will discuss the Landlers (old Austrians who were exiled to Transylvania) and the Saxons in Transylvania/Romania, whom I have been studying for several years now in a research group with Prof. Roland Girtler during the course of a number of field excursions. This article is based on my practice, my observations and the theory from Roland Girtler´s book "Smugglers - Boundaries and those Who Overcome Them", (Girtler, 1992).

The reason why humans create barriers

Humans create barriers to establish a personality and an identity and to fence themselves from others. Moreover, humans are creatures that strive for recognition and approval from their fellow beings (Girtler, 1992:9,13). They want to have respect and need a certain distance, whether of a physical, time-related or social nature, to attain this sense of respect and distinction. Humans are beings, who do not only want to distinguish themselves from others, but also need to stand out from them. By creating barriers, they emphasise how special they are as individuals, and by establishing a distinguished distance, they confirm their sacredness. A person feels safe within the boundaries he or she creates. Boundaries provide a certain degree of protection, both in a physical and psychological sense. Boundaries guide the individual in social situations, they offer a frame of reference for actions and behaviour.

The way how humans create boundaries and their means to do this

Humans create boundaries through symbols/signals, which have been culturally established by them. The continued existence of these boundaries is secured by rituals and actions, which have been firmly defined for a particular situation and are continually repeated. Symbols and rituals are not static, but are subject to constant changes. A Person organises his or her life, with the help of symbols/signals and in this way creates his own symbolic world.

A symbol signifies something. What this symbol signifies is shown by the way the protagonists act in a particular situation. This way, its significance is made socially apparent. Humans use symbols as a means of orientation for their actions in a particular situation. The term "situation", however, is to be regarded here in a wider sense, as the condition, which enables social behaviour to occur, for example, other people's reactions. Someone who wants to create a barrier between him and others adopts, for example, an especially dignified mode of behaviour, which is expressed in the language, intonation, words and gestures he uses. In this way, he creates a distance between himself and less dignified people and emphasises his sacredness (Girtler, 1992:12). Symbols can help to define not only people's mode of behaviour and their actions, but also the respective situation. Clothes, a particular hairstyle, jewelry, language, gestures and badges, to name but a few, are all symbols which distinguish one persons" social status from that of another, which the protagonists use, together with the local and social environment, to define a specific situation. This happens as a result of the fact that a particular significance is attributed to the symbols and specific situation. The significance placed on the symbols and situation are made socially apparent by the protagonists through their actions. These actions can then be observed and interpreted by others. Humans use symbols/signals and rituals to establish and secure boundaries between themselves and others.

What happens if these boundaries are crossed?

Humans are only accepted in their social environment if they recognise the cultural symbols of the society, that is the boundaries and their significance, and are able to appropriately conduct their behaviour, according to these criteria. If their actions or behaviour are not appropriate, they will be verbally or non-verbally reprimanded by sanctions of other people, admonished, banished or taught to behave otherwise. They will be shown the boundaries.

Certain rituals often accompany the crossing of boundaries of any kind. This way, it is made socially apparent that a new situation and a different new status are being encountered. This new status gives people new rights and duties, which they are introduced to by means of the rituals. The rituals act as an aid in the transition from one world to another and make the newcomer and others aware of what is expected from them in this new world. When thresholds and boundaries are successfully crossed, this is often celebrated in a certain style. At these celebrations one will find a large number of rituals and symbols. School, special organisations and elitist clubs have entrance tests, with special conditions for admission and admission rituals. These ritual ceremonies distinctly show that a threshold has been crossed. The graduation from school or university is ritually, extensively, and often excessively, celebrated, as well as when someone leaves a company or retires. And the crossing of these thresholds is also ritually and specially celebrated.

The various types of boundaries

Roland Girtler differentiated three types of boundaries. The first-degree boundaries or Boundaries of Fear and Control are real barriers, where truths, ideologies and rigid views of the world cannot be passed from one side to the other. Examples are the former Iron Curtain that divided the world into East and West truths. Another example is boundaries, walls and enclosing, fences of monasteries and prisons.

The second-degree boundaries are flexible ones. Flexible boundaries are boundaries, which people or groups of people need to preserve in order to protect their individuality, culture or certain other interests (Girtler, 1992:22).

A characteristic of these flexible boundaries is that they are used to signify social areas where a common culture, that is a common code of behaviour and common knowledge is emerging. Such boundaries may also be able to tell something about the social position and status of a person. People use a variety of symbols to give them the feeling that they and their family are protected and respected within exactly drawn boundaries (Girtler, 1992:51). The existence of the boundaries offers people a certain degree of security. Within these boundaries, a person feels physically and psychologically secure and enjoys a kind of freedom, which he or she is prepared to defend and to fight for.

Yard gates, the front doors of the houses and flats and room doors form the threshold of the flexible boundaries. A gate and a door can serve to represent the dignified house occupants and show the status and social position of the house-owner in the community or society. In all cultures there are rooms and places which cannot simply be entered or vacated by any man or woman, for example, women's cafes, staff rooms in schools, separate rooms in restaurants, the club rooms of certain clubs etc. For certain people it is forbidden to cross this boundary. The boundary shows the end of a world within a specific culture. What is characteristic of these rooms or places is that mostly a different code of behaviour and scale of values reigns here. A distinguished, exclusive environment is being sought here where people can cultivate their own culture, without being disturbed by the outside world and for this reason build barriers to prevent entry (Girtler, 1992:31).

These sacred rooms may only be entered after expressed permission has been obtained to do so and after one has been inspected by the guards, who can take the form of porters, doormen, bodyguards, escorts and secretaries. The border guards pay a special attention to the fact that the rituals involved in crossing the boundary are strictly and explicitly adhered to. On the other hand, the dignity or sacredness of a person closely relates to his or her ability to enter certain rooms and to occupy certain areas in them.

Boundaries, barriers, guards etc. show that within the society the new world is beginning, with its own culture, that is, with specific standards, values, modes and codes of behaviour. It is the guards' duty to ensure that the people staying here are left in peace and undisturbed. The people who live within these boundaries see themselves as special. Certain rituals and symbols distinguish them from an outsider and distance then from the general public. For example, elitist clubs and organisations usually exclude others, do not allow others to join their clubs or attend their meetings. People form organisations or clubs which make them aware of their own exclusivity, where only like-minded people are allowed to participate and where they dissociate themselves from other people and clubs to cultivate their own ideals, hobbies and philosophies of life, in peace, in the company of like-minded people. A person strives for barriers, where he can build a new world, according to his wishes (Girtler, 1992:31).

Role of symbols

On the territory of the organisation or a club, people make it symbolically clear to one another that they have consciously distanced themselves from the "normal" world. When a new club is founded, like the women's motorcyclists' club, "The motorcycle-witches", which I am studying, sometimes also each of its members, is given a name. The name is a means for the club members to introduce themselves to others, to fellow human beings, other clubs, the media or society in general. The club members must also be able to identify with the name. The name therefore also serves to integrate the club members.

Usually an emblem, the symbol of the club, is carefully designed and acquired. Particular attention is paid to the sign, its shape, colour, lettering and its significance. Organisations and clubs, like the "Motorcycle-witches", use symbols such as stickers, badges, t-shirts, sweatshirts, scarves, headgear, flags, visiting cards, stamps and writing paper etc. to make their existence socially apparent, to distinguish themselves from other people and clubs and to help their members to identify with the organisation. This way, the clubs are ritually proclaiming to the world their independence and desire for the boundaries (Girtler, 1992). The club members often wear special clothing, sometimes also a particular hairstyle, have their own standards of behaviour and code of honour. By wearing the same clothes, that is a uniform, a boundary is being symbolically and ritually drawn between one culture and another. This boundary is apparent to everyone. In order for a group to continue to exist, it is essential for them to create signs, which make it socially apparent that a boundary has been drawn between club members and others by means of symbols.

Club members in the women's motorcyclist club "Motorcycle-witches" are now being asked to use bigger and clearer signs, than when the club was just founded in order to illustrate that a boundary has been drawn and to make their belonging to a group more apparent, especially when riding their motorcycles. Wearing a black leather waistcoat over the leather jacket, with the club's name inscribed on its back in big, white letters, has been a topic of discussion at several club meetings.

There are myths concerning the wearing of colours without permission. Colours are club emblems, which cover a large area on the back of a jacket. A colour is worn without permission when a colour-bearing motorcyclist club forbids members of another club to wear a colour on his territory, that is, the province where the colour-bearing motorcyclist club is based. This means that if you wear colours without the expressed permission of the colour-bearing club you must accept severe physical sanctions, which are designed to drive you out from that territory. The terrible threats circulating in this respect in the biker's scene, together with fear-instilling examples, have had such a dramatic effect on some of the members of the women's motorcyclist club that they have not yet been able to acquire all visible signs of club membership. Not everyone is allowed to wear traditional dress, a uniform or emblems. Others attempting to cross the boundary are prevented from doing so by the myths, legends and sagas that have been established, and which warn about what will happen if the boundary is crossed. In extreme cases, people will resort to physical violence and bloody deeds, to degrade, intimidate and drive others away.

Boundaries between ethnic groups (case Landlers and Saxons in Transylvania/Romania)

Another example I can quote to illustrate that myths and legends serve to secure boundaries comes from our yearly field trips to the Landlers and Saxons in Transylvania/Romania. It relates to the conubium³, the marriage laws, and the comensality³, which are the rules with respect to the daily and friendly relations between the Landlers and Saxons in Transylvania on the one hand and their neighbours Romanians and Roma (the Gypsies) on the other. I have examined the marriage behaviour pattern of the Landlers and Saxons and the mixed marriages with Romanians and Hungarians more closely. I noticed a distinct difference between what was said about marriages between different cultures and what difficulties the married couples actually encountered in such a case. The up-and-coming young generation is told terrible myths and is confronted with fear-instilling threats from their family, neighbours and the village community to ensure that they will only consider a Landler or Saxon as their marriage partner. I had a number of conversations with a variety of people and discovered from Landlers women, who had married Romanians or Hungarians, that both parents and their relations were not at all thrilled about their choice of partner. For some time, they had to face the contempt from their neighbours and other villagers. But as time went by, the people got used to the partner from the different culture, became closer acquainted with him, and now think highly of him as a good husband and neighbour. In practice, the punishment for violating a marriage law or crossing the boundary between the two communities is not nearly so severe, as is threateningly prophesied in myths and legends. Myths, sagas and legends serve to support the boundary, which has been drawn, and to ensure that it is heeded, by issuing threats and instilling fear (Girtler, 1992).

A further example of a flexible boundary, which, however, has been very strictly adhered to, is the ethnic barrier between the Landlers and Saxon population on the one hand and the Romanians and Roma on the other. This can be seen in the village of Grosspold in Transylvania/Romania, which we studied.

First of all, I would like to elaborate on the historical background of the Landlers and Saxons. In the twelfth century, the Saxons voluntarily migrated from the overpopulated area around Cologne, known today as Nordrhein-Westfalen, Luxembourg and Central Germany, to the country nestled with the crescent of the Karpathian Mountains. They were free settlers, who being on the royal land, were not under the control of any Hungarian feudal lord, but were directly answerable to the King himself and enjoyed immense freedom with respect to their way of life, religious practices and administration.

In the fifteenth century, the Saxons voluntarily converted to the Protestant faith A. B. (the Augsburg denomination). The Landlers were forced to leave the Austrian Salzkammergut (Upper Austria, Carinthia, Salzburg and Styria) in the eighteenth century because of their Protestant faith. Emperor Karl the Sixth and his daughter Maria Theresia deported them to Transylvania and banished them to a place far away from the Court of Vienna, to the far corners of the Austrian monarchy so that they could ward off attacks from the East. As time passed, marriages took place between the Saxons and the Landlers, but the Saxons and Landlers have not given up their boundary to this day.

Both languages (Saxon and Landlerisch³) still exist. And the Germans still make a point of differentiating themselves as a Saxons or Landlers. They accept each other now, but the barrier between the Saxons and Landlers is still made verbally clear.

Over the centuries, the Saxons and Landlers, in unison, have clearly and firmly distanced themselves from the Romanians, Hungarians and Roma. Consistently and collectively cutting their own culture off from these different cultures surrounding them, it was possible for the culture of the Landlers and Saxons to remain more or less unchanged until 1990. To help the Saxons and Landlers to maintain the boundary drawn between them and the other ethnic groups, they founded joint organisations, such as fellowships, brother- and sisterhoods, neighbour groups, choral societies and bands. Various institutions to support internal integration, such as a joint church, school, their own teacher training programme, German newspapers, publishing houses etc. were found as well. Strong religious belief, worshipping together, speaking their own language, tireless efforts to keep their customs such as their songs, poems and dances alive, their stories and legends, and their continuation of old traditions also helped to maintain this boundary and to bring the Saxons and Landlers closer together.

During the Communist period, the Landlers and Saxons cultivated their culture secretly underground and this culture has been maintained until today. The Landlers and the Saxons demonstrated extreme dexterity in the way they officially accepted their way of life under the Communist ruling, while at the same time continuing to cultivate their own culture in secret.

The third-degree boundaries are the disappearing boundaries. They are often not noticeable. They are almost transparent. The third-degree boundary is a common appearance in everyday life. These are the boundaries to a shop, to a department store, to public, semi-public or private institutions, such as for example to restaurants, post offices, various waiting rooms, to name but a few. A variety of signs, signposts and symbols, such as place name signs, boundary stones, signs on the walls of a house or doors, reserved signs in car parks, restaurants and trains or signs in waiting rooms on conduct etc. show the boundaries which are present there.

These areas are accessible to anyone, who has a reason to be there, but there are particular places, which are reserved for certain people and are therefore not accessible to everyone. Places, which have a disappearing boundary, are fenced off areas in which a certain code of behaviour is expected. Here too there are bodies of guards, such as receptionists, waiters, porters, doormen, secretaries, counter clerks, and recently private security firms etc. who prohibit certain people from crossing the threshold or throw them out again over this threshold /.../ The people crossing third-degree boundaries do not appear dangerous, do not disturb the peace or smuggle in dangerous items, such as noisy devices or poisonous substances (Girtler, 1992: 29,30).

However, the boundary between the ethnic groups of the Landlers and Saxons on the one hand and the Romanians and Roma on the other in Transylvania/Romania cannot yet be regarded as a disappearing boundary, but as a flexible one.

Due to the constant migration of the young German population, the older generation of the Landlers and Saxons, who have been left behind there, are dependent on the assistance and labour of the young Romanians and Roma.

Recently, the boundaries between the various ethnic groups, which were at one time almost rigid, have become more relaxed. Romanians are engaged in caring for the older German generation, attend to daily tasks for them, such as doing the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, as well as nursing them. They also partly manage the farms and cultivate the fields and gardens of the Landlers and Saxons for themselves. More and more Roma are working on the farms and land of the Germans as day-laborers (the Roma, however, work exclusively for the Landlers and Saxons. The Romanians refuse to have the Roma working for them.).

German culture, with its establishments, such as kindergartens, schools, boarding schools, holiday arrangements for German children from Transylvania, and teacher training programs can, with the migration of the majority of the German population, only be maintained if the Romanian or Hungarian children are admitted to these institutions and educated there.

Due to the fact that the Germans are dependent on the Romanians for their survival, they are becoming more open towards the Romanians and are showing a personal interest in the affairs and life of the Romanian population.

On a small scale, the Germans in the village are now slowly beginning to have a personal, neighbourly relationship with the Romanians in the village, some, for example, attend Romanian weddings and take a distant interest, at least, in the affairs of the Romanian villagers. An alteration in the external living conditions has brought about a change in the way an individual leads his life, and seen on a wider scale, a change in the culture in Transylvania.


As far as barriers are concerned, there is a remarkable degree of dialectics here. On the one hand, humans want barriers and create them, but on the other hand they are also interested in breaking through barriers, overlooking them and more or less cunningly crossing them or simply ignoring them (Girtler, 1992:10).

Barriers help us to survive to a certain extent; but they are also the source of conflicts and fears. We may misunderstand boundary markings and violate barriers. This can result in dreadful conflicts, insults and fights, even in someone's murder. (Girtler 1992:12) Barriers are not irrevocable, their form is subject to constant change and they can even completely disappear.

Barriers are represented by means of symbols and people co-ordinate their actions according to the significance they place on these symbols. If a different significance is attributed to these symbols, the barriers are changed as well. The symbolic nature of barriers and their artificiality means that they can be ignored or fought against (Girtler 1992:30) and are therefore changeable and can be changed.



Girtler, R. (1992) Schmuggler. Von Grenzen und ihren Ueberwindern. Linz: Veritas-Verlag