Season of the Witch
Walpurgisnacht in Germany's Harz
andering through Germany's Harz Mountains, it's
impossible not to realize that you have entered a domain of
enchantment, a place where landscape conspires with legend to
sense of lurking
mystery. A terrain of craggy peaks, gloomy forests, and river
valleys banked by towering cliffs, the mountains remember folk
beliefs dating from pre-Christian times.
Spookiness emanates from a bizarre rock formation in the
former border between East and West Germany, they are steeped in
tales of witchcraft, magic, and apparitions. Stories collected in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries show that the region's
mythic reputation reached beyond Germany. From France to
Scandinavia, countryfolk traded fireside yarns of strange happenings
on the Brockenberg (Brocken Mountain), the Harz's highest peak at
3,747 feet. Rumor had it that Europe's witches gathered there on
Walpurgisnacht, May Eve.
throughout the Harz region, Walpurgisnacht is rooted in the pagan
Frhjahrsfest, or Spring Festival. Directly opposite Allhallows Eve
in the seasonal cycle, it was once widely celebrated among all
Germanic peoples. Whereas North America associates witches and
sorcery with Halloween, April 30 is when things get spooky in
Germany. Legends tell of blue flames igniting above buried treasure,
ladies flying on broomsticks, and the ghostly Wild Hunt pursuing the
goddess Walpurga through snowstorms and hail. "There is a mountain
very high and bare, whereon it is given out that witches hold their
dance on Walpurgis Night," writes folklorist Jacob Grimm in his
Teutonic Mythology about the Brocken, sometimes shown on old maps as
the Blocksberg. "Our forefathers kept the beginning of May as a
great festival, and it is still regarded as the trysting time of
witches." Chillingly, he notes that witches invariably resort to
places where justice was formerly administered, or blood was
spilled: "Almost all witch mountains were once hills of sacrifice."
Visiting the witches
hen travelers don't act as if the Harz Mountains are
imbued with ancient magic, local tourist authorities are dismayed.
They do their utmost to evoke a sense of otherworldliness. Even
hotel brochures display a logo depicting a crone riding a
broomstick. In the days leading up to Walpurgisnacht, shops do a
brisk trade in Harzhexen, miniature felt witch puppets that ride
straw broomsticks (hexen is the German word for witches). Postcards,
beer steins, and wooden carvings glorify the season of the witch.
Little old ladies cheerfully pressure shoppers into pointy black
hats, tarot cards, and devilish horns that glow in the dark.
the Brocken's granite bulk, the village of Schierke attracts around
six thousand Walpurgisnacht revelers. The day begins with a parade
of kindergarteners dressed as witches and pitchfork-wielding devils.
Festooned with witch puppets, even the railway station joins in the
fun. The local steam train becomes a Hexenexpress, chugging down
from the Brockenberg's summit to Wernigerode--the quintessential
"fairytale" town of half-timbered houses and gothic turrets.
In the village,
an old apothecary's shop called Zum Roten Fingerhut (the Red
Thimble) is stocked with
Schierke Feuerstein, a potent spirit concocted from a secret recipe
of herbs and bitters. A local druggist, Willi Druber, first brewed
it in 1908. The inscription on Herr Druber's grave warns travelers
to flee, before the amateur brewer rises from his tomb and joins
them for a drink.
Quedlinburg has over twelve hundred Fachwerk
things start to resemble a casting session for a horror movie,
though the atmosphere is tongue in cheek. Valkyries (virginal shield
maidens), kobolds (goblins), vampires, and witches come "dressed to
kill." The grassy expanse of Schierke's Kurpark becomes a medieval
fairground. Food, drink, and craft booths are set around a giant
bonfire, a pantomime is enacted on a woodland stage, and a fireworks
display explodes in the midnight sky. In Schierke's rival for May
Eve celebrations, the village of Thale, a huge Walpurgisnacht
bonfire blazes on a plateau above the Bode River chasm. This plateau
is known as the Hexentanzplatz, the witches' dancing
Women of the mountain
lthough the Harz hilltops are buried in all seasons
beneath snowy eiderdowns, witching hour on May Eve is the
transitional time when winter becomes spring. Winter's forces have
made their final assault, and Dame Holda must summon her witches or
wisewomen to dance the snow away. In m?chen (nursery tales), Dame
Holda generally appears as a benign figure, a combination of
motherly hausfrau, white lady or moon goddess, and sky goddess.
Also known as
Frau Holle, she busies herself checking that people aren't
neglecting their household tasks. In the preindustrial age, her main
concerns were flax cultivation and spinning. It's said that falling
snowflakes are a sign that Holda/Holle is shaking her featherbed. It
is interesting to recall that the Greek chronicler Herodotus noted a
link between snow and feathers and that the Scythians, a nomadic
people of what are now the countries of Romania and Ukraine,
believed the northern lands were
inaccessible because they lay under feathers.
As a spring festival, May Eve was originally dedicated
to Walpurga, a fertility goddess of woods and springs. She
rewarded human helpers with gifts of gold.
legend, Holda often rides throughout the countryside in a wagon,
leaving gifts for those who help her. Grimm's Teutonic Mythology
relates how a peasant carved a new linchpin for her wagon. Sweeping
away the wooden shavings, he found they had been transformed into
gold. Holda, however, can also ride the clouds. From this arose a
belief that witches travel in her company. Yet it wasn't Holda who
lent her name to Walpurgisnacht. That honor is shared by a pagan
deity and a Christian abbess. As a spring festival, May Eve was
originally dedicated to Walpurga, a fertility goddess of woods and
springs, originally known as Walburga or Waldborg. Interestingly,
she shares many of Holda's attributes, including a propensity for
rewarding human helpers with gifts of gold. And, just like Holda,
associated with spindles and thread. These commonplace items took on
a magical significance on May Eve, when they were used for
divination and love spells.
Actors practice a play about Holda the Hexe for evening
festivities in Schierke.
1870 folklore study, Drei Gaug?tinen (Three Local Goddesses),
describes Walpurga as a white lady with flowing hair, wearing a
crown and fiery shoes. She carries a spindle and a three-cornered
mirror that foretells the future. In the layer cake of northern
European mythology, the symbols strongly suggest connection to the
Three Norns, or Fates. These demigoddesses spun and wove the web of
life, casting prophecies into their triangular Well of Wyrd, which
watered the tree of life.
For the nine nights before May Day,
Walpurga is chased by the Wild Hunt, a ghostly troop of riders
representing winter. Hounded from place to place, she seeks refuge
among mortal villagers. People leave their windows open so the white
lady of May, harbinger of summer, can find safety behind the
cross-shaped panes. Encountering a farmer she implores him to hide
her in a shock of grain. This he does. The next morning his rye crop
is sprinkled with grains of gold.
Under Christian influence, Walpurga's rite of spring was
transformed into a day to drive out the forces of darkness,
rather than the darkness of winter.
influence, Walpurga's rite of spring was transformed into a day to
drive out the forces of pagan darkness, rather than the darkness of
winter. A Saint Walburga, now remembered on May 1, emerged in the
eighth century to battle with the old goddess. As it did with the
Celtic fire goddess Brigid, the medieval church often elevated the
elder deities to sainthood in its attempts to suppress paganism and
stifle older rituals.
similarities, Walpurga and Saint Walburga are entirely separate
characters. Believed to have been born around a.d. 710 in what was
then the English kingdom of Wessex, Saint Walburga was a
missionary-abbess in St. Boniface's Frankish church. She presided
over a community of monks and nuns in the German town of Heidenheim
and was canonized after her death in 779.
relics were interred at Eichstadt, historical writings claim a
miracle-working oil flowed from her tomb. The saint thus gained a
cult status, and her relics were eventually sent to various churches
across Europe. In medieval times, Saint Walburga was called upon to
defend the faithful against witchcraft and could offer protection
against plague, famine, crop failure, and the bites of rabid dogs.
She is also the patron saint of Antwerp in Belgium and was often
invoked to help sailors during storms.
"protectress of crops" aspect suggests an entanglement with the
goddess Walpurga. Iconography often depicts the saint carrying a
sheaf of grain, the usual symbol of fertility goddesses, not
Christian abbesses. Rochholz muses, "What kind of pairing is this,
the witches of the Brockenberg with a saint of the church, under one
and the same name!"
Phenomena up high
he scenes of Harz folklore have been enthusiastically
mined over the years. Brocken Mountain was where Goethe set the
witches' Sabbath scene in the story of Faust, who sells his soul to
Mephistopheles, the devil. The peak also inspired the Russian
composer Modest Mussorgsky to write his nerve-jangling Night on Bald
tales of goddesses, witches, and diabolism weren't enough, the
Brockenberg also engenders a meteorological phenomenon: the
Brockengespenst, or specter of the Brocken. Given the right
the mountain can produce an
eerie optical illusion. As the sun sinks, the shadow of a walker
cast from a ridge becomes magnified and an enormous silhouette
appears on low-lying clouds or mist banks below the mountain.
Although it's only a shadow, the distant "specter" appears to be
walking at the same pace, doggedly tracking the observer's path. On
some occasions, rainbow-like bands or rings may surround the shadow.
May Eve begins with a parade of devilishly dressed
the Brockengespenst as the result of the diffraction of sunlight by
water droplets in the clouds. The phenomenon has been seen in
mountains all over the world and is also known as an anticorona or
glory. The name Brocken specter came into use among mountaineers
after a climber fell to his death on the Brocken. Not realizing that
he was observing his own shadow, the climber apparently lost his
footing after being startled by a rainbow-haloed figure emerging
from the mists. Of course, scientific theories weren't available to
the Harz miners and peasants from whom folklorists such as Grimm,
Rochholz, and Ey collected their tales. Sightings of a giant
spectral being with a ring of light around its head would have
helped confirm that the Brocken belonged
in the realms of the supernatural. In his
Antiquary of 1816, Sir Walter Scott recounts the tale of a charcoal
burner called Martin Waldeck who encountered the "tutelar demon" of
the Harz. A wild man "of huge stature," this demonic guardian seems
to be another manifestation of the Brockengespenst, albeit with
overtones of a Green Man--type vegetation spirit. His head and waist
wreathed with oak leaves, the giant haunts the lonely crags and
recesses of the mountains, carrying a pine tree torn up by the
Hid head and waist wreathed with oak leaves, the giant
haunts the lonely crags and recesses of the mountains,
carrying a pine tree torn up by the roots.
Schierke, forest pathways snake through Brocken National Park.
Shrouded in mist, their gnarled limbs dripping with moss and
lichens, the trees seem to close in behind the hiker. With names
such as the Witch's Altar and Devil's Pulpit, bizarre rock
formations rise from the forest floor. In the brooding green
half-light, the rocks take on a malevolent appearance, conjuring up
the story of the Rbezahl who leads travelers astray. A male
dwarflike figure who inhabits caves, the Rbezahl wraps himself in a
large cloak to hide his face. He has the ability to control the
weather, usually by summoning gales and rain.
rom the Rubeland Caves, where stalactites glitter as
wickedly as elfin swords, to the Teufelsmauer (Devil's Wall) near
Blankenburg, the Harz landscape could easily have provided the
blueprint for Tolkien's Middle Earth fantasies. Its storybook towns
are also likely to send the imagination into overdrive. An
architectural feast of Rapunzel-style turrets, secret courtyards,
and half-timbered houses leaning at crazy angles, places like
Wernigerode and Quedlinburg seem to have slipped
through a crack in time. With its
twelve hundred houses spanning six centuries, Quedlinburg is
particularly lovely, but some disturbing history lies behind its
In 1589, the ecclesiastical authorities of Quedlinburg's
St. Servatius Abbey sentenced 133 "withces" to be burned at the
In 1589, the
ecclesiastical authorities of Quedlinburg's St. Servatius Abbey
sentenced 133 so-called witches to death. Herbalism, folk healing,
and anything that smacked of heathen dabbling were crimes punishable
by execution, usually burning. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth
centuries, when witchcraft persecutions were at their height,
European "practitioners of magic" paid the ultimate penalty.
failure, and sickness in animals were invariably seen as evidence of
spellcraft. Doctors diagnosed
witchcraft as the cause of convulsions and
fits. The church hierarchy also regarded such ailments as the work
of the devil's henchwomen. From Scotland to Italy, witchcraft
hysteria raged like wildfire across Europe. Germany's bishops were
particularly zealous in their crusade to obliterate all traces of
pagan practices--and those who leaned toward them.
The Reformation rejected many Catholic teachings but not
those pertaining to witchcraft and demonology.
rejected many Catholic teachings but not those pertaining to
witchcraft and demonology. Between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops
of two Bavarian towns, Wrzburg and Bamburg, ordered the burning of
at least fifteen hundred "witches" between them. The victims of
Wrzburg's bishop included his own nephew, nineteen priests, and a
child aged seven. One reason why medieval Germany developed an
obsession with stamping out "witchcraft" may lie in the food that
was being eaten. If the weather is warm and damp, rye (then a staple
crop) can produce a poisonous fungus called ergot. Hallucinations,
fits, pinpricking sensations, muscle spasms: the symptoms of
ergotism are similar to the effects of LSD, which itself is derived
from ergot. The nerve toxins in ergot of rye affect animals as well
major outbreak of ergot poisoning happened in 1951, at
Pont-Saint-Esprit in France. Contaminated bread from the village
bakery resulted in over two hundred cases of illness and thirty-two
of insanity, including that of an 11-year-old boy who attempted to
strangle his mother. Four people died. Victims, whose delusions
included being attacked by tigers and snakes, often had to be
restrained with straitjackets. A few villagers even believed that
they were turning into wild beasts, a fact that may explain the old
werewolf legends. Despite advances in medicine and a better
knowledge of pharmacology, some people still turned to the
supernatural for explanations.
goddess of the grain, bequeathed her followers a deadly legacy. It
makes one wonder how her namesake, Saint Walburga, gained a
reputation for being a protectress of crops. From past events, her
protection seems to have been woefully ineffective. I don't know
about rabid dogs, but the saint isn't much help when it comes to
seeing off Harz witches, devils,and werewolves either. Well,
certainly not the ones who turn out for Walpurgisnacht celebrations
below the dreadful Brockenberg.
Steenie Harvey is a freelance writer based in Ireland and a
frequent contributor to The World & I. For more of her work, see
"Celtic Creatures," June 2000, p. 210; "Twilight Places," March
1998, p. 187; and "Mystic Water," June 1997, p. 202.