They’re very witchy and slightly kitschy, but spring festivities in eastern Germany’s Harz Mountains have deep roots in the region’s prehistory
At the end of every April, the quiet, half-timbered towns of Saxony-Anhalt, in eastern Germany, are suddenly overrun. A vast coven of witches, warlocks and minor devils descend in a blur of brooms and face paint for one of Europe’s oddest celebrations: Walpurgis Night.
By mid-morning on the last day of April, the cobbled streets of picturesque Wernigerode are thronging with people in costume. An informal parade snakes up the steep path to the central courtyard of the town’s castle, which was founded in the 12th century. A band called La Marotte (The Crook) is playing a version of medieval funk, while people dressed like extras from Game of Thrones eat bratwurst and drink mead. Pallid with white make-up, Frank Wilhelm from Berlin is here as his alter ego, Necronomos, a warlock who carries a horned skull on a long staff. “It’s cos-play. It’s fun,” he tells me. “It’s like World of Warcraft, but in real life.”
A pair of tiny horns sprout from Rico Bernhagen’s crimson forehead. Rico comes from Hamburg and works in logistics. He’s walking arm in arm with a green-faced witch who’s wearing a six-inch branch on her nose that’s so realistic you expect robins to perch on it. “It took us five hours to get ready,” says the witch, who’s a hairdresser called Carolin Blank. Carolin has to tip her head back so she can sip her beer without getting her prosthetic nose wet.
“She likes to make potions,” says Rico. “She grows herbs in the garden. You know rune stones? She’s very good at those.”
Carolin may dabble in the magical arts, but for most people, Walpurgis, like Halloween, is just a one-day commitment to the supernatural. The event has more to do with drinking beer and having a good time than any real interest in the occult.
From a lookout point on the castle wall, I can see the rounded top of the Brocken, the highest mountain in the Harz range, eight miles to the west. A version of Walpurgis Night is observed in many parts of northern Europe, but the inhabitants of the Harz Mountains claim the Brocken is its epic entre. According to custom, its summit is where Germany’s real witches meet in order to consort with the devil, dance round fires and do unspeakable things with goats.
In fact, the details of this legend don’t go back much further than Germany’s most famous national poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his masterpiece, Faust, Goethe dramatises a Walpurgis Night celebration taking place on top of the Brocken. Goethe’s Walpurgis Night is funny and quite rude: more Carry On than Aleister Crowley. Clearly, it was never Goethe’s intention to inspire a group of middle-aged motorbike enthusiasts from Berlin to dress up as devils and put on novelty contact lenses. But if his story has proved unexpectedly compelling, it might be because it tapped into a vein of authentic folk belief that predates the coming of Christianity.
Saint Walpurga’s day, 1 May, happens to fall exactly halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Before the church named it after a saint, it was a pagan spring festival, celebrated across Europe with dances, maypoles and ceremonial bonfires. To the Celts, it was the feast of Beltane. Up in the remoter corners of the Harz Mountains, winter tends to cling on for a while and so, perhaps, did old customs. It’s not hard to imagine the region’s newly Christianised inhabitants muttering, ‘Witchcraft!’, when they saw the spring bonfires of their mountain neighbours. Until relatively recently, the suggestion of something uncanny swirled around the ancient woods and those who lived there.
“Harz comes from the Old German word hardt,” says Maik Thiele, who is dressed in monks’ robes and carrying a huge staff. It’s a mountain forest. It means: “Attention! Go not in or you come not out!”
In fact, you’d be foolish not to venture into the forests of the Harz Mountains. They have some of the finest hiking trails in the whole country, with more than 5,000 miles of marked paths through extraordinary scenery. I spent a happy afternoon following the route of the Bode River as it descends from the tiny village of Treseburg.