|The Harz Mountains -
Witch Country in Germany
© Copyright 2020 by Eva Bell
From Bonn where I was staying, it took me about five and half hours to reach the Harz Mountain ranges in North Germany, very close to the old Eastern German border, which covers an area 98 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide, rising to a height of 1000 meters.
My first stop was at Wernigerode a quaint medieval town by the Holtemme River. It is called ‘The Pearl of the Harz’ and is on the eastern edge of the mountains. I booked into a Youth Hostel which was affordable and comfortable. My sightseeing began at the Wernigerode Castle, a neogothic structure. It was first built as a hilltop fort. Later it was remodeled as a romantic castle. A guided tour of the castle took tourists through many rooms which have retained their original furnishings. From this height one could look down into Wernigerode town with its old fashioned half timber houses or look beyond at Brocken in the distance, which is the highest peak of the Harz Mountains.
There are many things to see in this town. It holds the smallest house in Saxony. This house standing between two towering buildings was built in 1782 and was renovated at a cost of 100000 Deutsche Marks, as a Heritage site. The entrance fee is one Euro. The house was lived in until 1976 and was occupied by a couple who had seven children. It is just 10 feet wide and 13.8 feet in height. The front door is only 5.6feet high and one has to bend and enter. One wonders how seven children slept in that attic. A witch sits in front of the lavatory outside. This house is now a folklore museum.
A walk through the town is like entering fairyland with its pretty little half-timbered houses. It is really a fach work town. Tourists like to travel through the town in a horse buggy. The Town Hall (Rathaus) has beautiful architecture with narrow soaring towers. A miniature park has 50 miniature models of castles, railways, Brocken peak etc. There is a small workshop alongside, where one can try one’s hand at model making. The Harz museum has a collection of fossils, rocks, minerals excavated from the mountains. There is also an interesting section on the history of Wernigerode. I met the Harz Highlanders – a group wearing Scottish costumes and playing on their bagpipes. They were interested in telling people about Scottish culture.
Wernigerode has the main depot and terminus of the Harz narrow gauge railway that goes up to Brocken, which is the highest peak in Harz at a height of 1141meters. It passes through green conifer forests and rolling hills, treacherous cliffs and deep valleys, massive boulders and spooky rock formations. The scenery lends itself to myths of witches, goblins and ghouls, making one’s skin break out in goose pimples. The trip is 12 miles long and takes one and half hours to reach the top which is flat. There is a circular walkway to a hotel, which used to be an old TV tower, with a restaurant and a viewing platform. Nothing much could be seen because of the fog. Brocken used to be under the East German government. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, it has become a popular haunt for hikers as there are many hiking trails leading up to the peak. Someone pointed in the direction of Goethe’s way, which used to be frequented by the writer. In fact Goethe has mentioned Brocken in his drama Faust, where the devil Mephistopheles chases Faust around on Walpurgis Night. The Brocken Garden has about 1600 rare Alpine flowering plants. If not for the fog, this would have been a wonderful trip. It made me wonder if it was worth the 45 Euros I spent on my ticket.
The next day I travelled to Thale, which is pure witch country in the Saxony-Anhalt region, on the eastern side of the mountain range. The Saxons were heathens steeped in myth and superstition. Thale transports us into this world of Saxonic make-believe. Sculptures of Germanic gods dot the landscape. The Well of Wisdom near the Town Hall is presided over by Wotan the father of Gods. Horse shoe impressions on the pavements lead through the town via sculptures of dragons, serpents and winged horses. An ancient sacrificial stone for fertility rites can be seen en route. There is a beautiful museum with five large paintings in the interior of the building, which depict scenes from local folklore like Dance of the Will O the Wisp, Mammon’s cave, Witches Dance, Birds of the Wind and Gretchen’s appearance. This was painted by an artist Hermann Heinrich in 1901. The Harz witches trail beings here and runs for 100 kilometers across the Harz.
Thale is also the gateway to the Bode Gorge and the Hexentanzplatz (Witches Dance Floor), a plateau above the Bode Gorge. I took a cable car to the top of the mountain which is 451 meters high. It soared over craggy mountains that are 300 million years old. The last stretch to reach the top had to be done on foot. En route there is a wooden statue of a witch who beckons the tourist to the witches’ dance floor. This is an old Saxon cultic site where celebrations were held in honour of forest and mountain goddesses (Hagedesen) on the night of April 30th/1st May. In pre-Christian times the Celts and later the Germanic tribes believed that witches from all over the Harz would congregate here on Walpurgis Night (April30th/1st May) for a time of revelry. In October they would once again gather here for a special ceremony called ‘the long night of the witches,’ after which they would take off on their broomsticks to Brocken for their winter hibernation. The cult was banned by the Christian Franks who posted Frankish soldiers to enforce the ban. But the Saxons dressed as witches and riding on their broomsticks chased them away. Even so, the Catholic king executed 18000 witches.
The top of the Hexentanzplatz is flat and the ‘circle of evil’ is encircled by white boulders. In 1996, a local sculptor Jochen Muller added to the spookiness of the place by installing large sculptures in black stone on the periphery of the dance floor. Uria the devil now presides over Hexentanzplatz with his friends a pig, a rodent and a dragon. On another rock is a witch with a pointed nose and hypnotic eyes bent over the rock exposing her shapely butt on which her beauty spot a spider is visible.
Walpurgis Night is still celebrated on April 30th, when nearly 30,000 revelers gather here for a night of fun. They light a bonfire and dance and frolic all night. On this plateau there is an open air theatre built like a Greek amphitheatre which can seat 1350 people. It was built in 1903. Operas, concerts and dramas are held here during the tourist season from April to October. There is also a Walpingshalle Museum with many paintings of the surrounding Harz Mountains. The paintings were done by the same Hermann Heinrich whose paintings hang in the museum at Thale. Over the gable of this museum is the head of the one-eyed God Wutan flanked by two ravens.
The zoo on this plateau is another place worth visiting. There are 70 species of animals like a bear, wolves, wild boars and deer. But all of them are caged. There is also a convent Wendhausan, which was the oldest religious centre in Germany and was the starting point of Christianity in Germany in the 9th century. The inmates did not have an easy life. The Saxons dressed up as witches and ghouls would harass the poor nuns. Today the convent is a Museum of History of the region, its medieval tournaments, and records of its various cultural activities.
At the edge of the Hexentanzplatz one looks down into the Bode Valley. The Bode River is250 meters deep and is visible only as a thin stream. The Bode Gorge is a ten-meter long narrow ravine which is part of the Bode Valley. Looming into the skies opposite the gorge is the 403 meter high rock formation called Rostrappe. Standing at this perilous height, the story of Princess Brunhilde comes to life. The princess wedded to an ugly giant called Bodo, escaped on horseback on her nuptial night and jumped across the gorge to Rostrappe. Her horse’s footprint on the rocky peak gave it the name of Rostrappe which means footprint of the horse. Those who climb up to the peak can see the footprint. The giant Bodo could not jump across but fell into the gorge and was transformed into a hound, which is supposed to guard the princess’s crown that had fallen into the valley. The gorge gets its name from Bodo the giant.
The whole area leading to the Hexentanzplatz is commercialized, with theme parks, mini coaster rides, souvenir shops and eateries. Witches are everywhere on signs, in windows, as trail markers, or as souvenirs. The rows of shops sell witches of different sizes. If one claps hands in front of them, they cackle and set one’s nerves on edge. I bought a miniature witch (harzhexan) on a broomstick. It was a nice souvenir to carry home. The sales lady said I should keep it in my bedroom. On April 30th every year I’d hear the cackle of the witch, or if she didn’t like something I did, she would berate me with a curse (hexenschuss).
From here I travelled down to Quedlinburg in the western part of the Bode Valley. This is a beautiful Fach work town and a well maintained Heritage site. The Fach museum is spacious and shows half timbered houses of five different centuries, including one from the 14th century.
There is also an old castle. What was so delightful was a walk through this fairy tale town with its quaint witches houses perched on rocky elevations.
I was happy that I could travel through a small part of the witch country and acquaint myself with mystical German folklore that has survived through the ages. Germans don’t celebrate Halloween but they still observe Walpurgis Night on the night of 30th April every year.
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