Walpurgisnacht: 30th April
The forests, mountains and ancient towns of Germany’s Harz region whisper of fairytale – and nightmare. It’s no coincidence the most common figure you’ll see is that of a hideous, cackling crone. She may be comic now: a neon sign over a kitsch bierhaus, a portrait made in slate on a hotel wall or a miniature Harzhexe dangling alongside her weird sisters in souvenir shop window in some grotesque parody of what used to happen to her kind, but she was once a deadly serious threat; albeit helped on her way by one JW.von Goethe…
Since reunification those small felt and papier-mache witches, riding their straw brooms are no longer fashioned by little old ladies by the firesides of their log cabin cottage industries. Mass-produced in the same factories churning out plastic policemen’s helmets, foam rubber Statue of Liberty masks and Eiffel Tower snowglobes, they’ve lost some of their charm, but this is still a land that spawns legends.
Science has explained some. The Brockengespenst or ‘Brocken Spectre’ is a natural phenomenon where, under certain atmospheric conditions, someone’s shadow becomes gigantic, gains a sort of halo and looks like it’s a long way away. As they move, the shadow moves with them, making it look like the bugaboo is following them. The ‘spectre’ has strange lights surrounding it, where the sun is being diffracted through water drops in the clouds.
Yeah, and the rest. Try telling that one to the medieval peasants. They had a much simpler explanation: it was obviously monsters. And if there were monsters, why not dwarves, demons and witches?
German folklore is full of pine forests, streams, rocks and mountains. The Harz is the archetypal land of myth, of Hansel and Gretel, of dwarves down mines and witches on mountains. Of poor woodcutters, wandering princes, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. The Brothers Grimm were mainly active further west, around Kassel, but, as Vladimir Propp proved, Fairy tale, folklore and legends range far.
It’s not hard to see where some of them come from, either. Rapunzel had to let down her hair. Many buildings in the Imperial City of Goslar didn’t have lower entrances or stairs; precautions against sacking during some of the turbulent times in the town’s history. They’re still to be seen today.
Princes really did wander – albeit with giant entourages – between fairytale castles. King Heinrich I began his magnificent hall, the Imperial Palace at Goslar, in 1005 and he considered it his favourite residence.
It was built on the wealth of the nearby Rammelsberg mines, continuously worked for a thousand years. The miners were almost certainly not dwarves, but working deep into the bowels of the earth, tales sprung up around the spirits that lurked in the shadows oil lamps couldn’t penetrate. Miners were superstitious. They knew the perils that lay under the earth. In 1376 more than 100 colliers were buried alive in a rockfall.
One visitor was particularly fascinated by the dripping blue shadows of disturbed copper ore. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, working as a civil servant, visited the mine and was particularly impressed with the fire-setters – men who lit wood fires in the caves, to crack the stone, making the ore easier to extract. It made him think of the devil.
Goethe’s imagination saw his creation Faust being led up Brocken Mountain by Satan on Walpurgis Night, where he sees witches and their familiars in a crazed orgy and is tempted to join in.
St Walpurga is an 8th Century English saint; a well-born nun who travelled to France and Germany as a missionary. When it comes to celebration though, she gets a bit confused with a much earlier, pagan goddess, Walpurga, aka Holda aka Holle. In German folk tale, when it snows, Holle is shaking her eiderdown.
Her feast day is Walpurgisnacht, 30th April, the eve of May Day, sometimes known as Beltane. It’s the spring version of All Hallow’s Eve, the day before the Feast of All Souls, or as we call it, Halloween. Both nights see the witches dance, and nowhere more than on Brocken Mountain.
We don’t have the devil to take us there, but we have something better, that spits fire and spews steam. The Brocken railway has been chugging to the mountain’s summit since 1898, on a fantastical tour through spruce forests and half-timbered fantasy towns.
Witches have not always been welcome in the Harz Mountains. In the middle ages, witches were persecuted across Europe, as enthusiastically in Germany as anywhere. In 1589, 133 ‘witches’ were sentenced to death in Quedlinburg, mostly by burning.
It’s all rather cuddly these days. Primary school tinies, dressed in rubber noses and straggly wigs; teenagers with green faces and blacked-out teeth climb aboard the ‘Hexenexpress’ for a ride to the summit in bright sunshine.
Once upon a time, though, in this land far, far away, people believed in witches – and acted on it.
I leave you with the Disney interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Night On Bald Mountain. If this isn’t Brocken I’ll eat my pointy hat.
Rail Discoveries offers a 7-day escorted group holiday The Harz Mountains from £795pp. Price includes all rail and coach travel, hotel accommodation with Maritim Hotels, excursions to UNESCO sites Goslar and Quedlinburg, a steam-hauled journey on the heritage Brocken Railway and a journey on the Selketal narrowgauge railway.