"There is a mountain very high and bare...whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis night."- Jacob Grimm, 1883
Photo courtesy Don Heimburger
View from the summit of the Brocken in Harz National Park
Photo courtesy Don Heimburger
Travel with Witches and Devils
on Walpurgis Night
Photos courtesy German National Tourist Office, except as noted.
Walpurgis Night on April 30 is an old pagan festival, which borrowed its name from Saint Walburga, whose feast occurs on May Day. On this night witches are believed to ride on broomsticks to places of old pagan sacrifices in the Harz Mountains, especially to the Brocken, in Germany.
The Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, is considered the focal point of Walpurgisnacht. Also known as the Blocksberg, the 3,747-foot peak is often shrouded in mist and clouds, lending it a mysterious atmosphere that has contributed to its legendary status as the home of witches (Hexen) and devils (Teufel).
The writer Johann Wolfgangvon Goethe (1749-1832) writes in Faust that the witches come on Walpurgis night and sing: "Now to the Brocken the witches ride; the stubble is gold and the corn is green; There is the carnival crew to be seen, And Squire Urianus will come to preside."
Historically, it is most likely that the witches celebrating on the Brocken were ordinary humans who were forced to Christianity by Charlemagne. They still adhered to their pagan religion and went secretly in the mountains to worship their gods, hooded or masked to protect themselves.
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, 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. 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.
Forest pathways snake through Brocken National Park, shrouded in mist, their gnarled limbs dripping with moss and lichens, and 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.
Today in the Harz Walpurgis Night is a time for celebration and partying for the whole family. You will see witches and devils walking around the towns, people come from all over Germany and the world to celebrate this event. Booking ahead is advisable for this time. In Schierke over 20,000 gather on April 30. Children dress up in various costumes and the night has a very child-friendly feeling. At midnight the beginning of spring is launched with much noise and fireworks to drive the witches away.
Hexen Express Train
Photos of Hexen Express Train courtesy Don Heimburger
For more information, go to German National Tourist Office.