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Season of the Witch

Walpurgisnacht in Germany's Harz Mountains

Steenie Harvey

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 create a
Spookiness emanates from a bizarre rock formation in the Brocken forests.
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.
        Straddling 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.
        Still legendary throughout the Harz region, Walpurgisnacht is rooted in the pagan Frƒhjahrsfest, 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.
        Huddled below 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
Quedlinburg has over twelve hundred Fachwerk (half-timbered) houses.
supplies of 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.
        Come nightfall, 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 place.

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,

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.

believed the northern lands were inaccessible because they lay under feathers.
        According to 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, Walpurga
Actors practice a play about Holda the Hexe for evening festivities in Schierke.
is also 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.
        E.L. Rochholz's 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.

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.

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 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.
        Despite many 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.
        After Walburga's 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.
        Walburga's "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 Mountain.
        If 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 atmospheric conditions,
May Eve begins with a parade of devilishly dressed youngsters.
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.
        Science explains 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

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.

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 roots.
        Above 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 Rƒbezahl who leads travelers astray. A male dwarflike figure who inhabits caves, the Rƒbezahl wraps himself in a large cloak to hide his face. He has the ability to control the weather, usually by summoning gales and rain.

Medieval town

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
In 1589, the ecclesiastical authorities of Quedlinburg's St. Servatius Abbey sentenced 133 "withces" to be burned at the stake.
through a crack in time. With its twelve hundred houses spanning six centuries, Quedlinburg is particularly lovely, but some disturbing history lies behind its fairytale facade.
        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.
        Drought, crop failure, and sickness in animals were invariably seen as evidence of spellcraft. Doctors diagnosed

The Reformation rejected many Catholic teachings but not those pertaining to witchcraft and demonology.

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. Between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops of two Bavarian towns, Wƒrzburg and Bamburg, ordered the burning of at least fifteen hundred "witches" between them. The victims of Wƒrzburg'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 as humans.
        Europe's last 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.
        Walpurga, golden 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.

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