I was born in Germany not far from the Harz Mountain in an ancient village where you can still see the remnants of an earthen wall erected in the Middle Ages. It’s a place steeped in the folklore that fueled the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and inspired Russian composer Mussorgsky to write the unsettling and dramatic Night on Bald Mountain.
A treeless summit above the Bode Gorge is known as the Hexentanzplatz, literally “the Witches’ Dance Floor.” Pre-Christian celebrations in honor of the forest and mountain goddesses are presumably the source of this name. The highest peak on the Harz Mountain, the Brocken, is rumored to be the site where Europe’s witches gathered on Walpurgisnacht. The Brocken is the setting for one of the most famous scenes in Goethe’s Faust, when “the mountain’s mad with magic.” While the US associates Halloween with the season of the witch, the opposite side of the seasonal cycle, May Eve, is when the ancient Saxons gathered for celebrations of mad magic.
This was the trysting time of witches and a time to drive out the darkness of winter. The nine nights before May Day belong to the Wild Hunt, a ghostly troop of riders representing winter. Walpurga, goddess of woods, springs, and fertility who lends her name to Walpurgisnacht, is hounded by these spectral hunters. Villagers leave windows open to the white lady of May, so she can find safety and bring summer to a winter-weary land. Christian influence sought to stifle these older rituals. The goddess was transformed in the eighth century into Saint Walpurga, and the rites of Spring became a way to dispel the forces of pagan darkness from the villages.
Despite this effort to erase the vestiges of older religions, there remains a generational memory. Because of a thick growth of dark hair when I was born, I was dubbed the Black Witch by hospital staff. In my childhood home in the US, a small kitchen witch hung on the wall near the stove to bring good luck and “keep roasts from burning, pots from boiling over, and sauces from spilling.” I was brought up on stories of the hands of misbehaving children growing out of their graves and of a pirate who struck a deal during his execution. He asked the mayor of the town to release as many of his men as he was able to walk past after he was beheaded. The headless body arose and walked past eleven men before it was tripped by the executioner, who went on to renege on the deal and put all the pirate’s men to death. When asked by town officials if he was not tired after all this, the executioner unwisely replied that he could easily execute all of the town officials as well. For this, the executioner was himself sentenced to death.
The village where I was born harbors its own tales. As an adult, I was fortunate to be able to visit and see the conserved structures from hundreds of years ago that keep the old stories alive.
A gate tower originally built in 1343 burned down in 1424 and was rebuilt over the course of 12 years. The structure seen today has a very distinctive twisted roof. One folk tale that explains this architectural feature claims that when the devil caused the men of the village to drink in excess, the women drove him away. While fleeing over the town’s wall, the devil grabbed the tower and twisted it while making good his escape.
The earthen wall surrounding the village today was contracted by the town fathers in 1506. A man named Andreas was appointed overseer of the project. Because farmers from the surrounding area would also be protected by this wall in times of danger, they were conscripted to work on its construction.
When I was told this story, Andreas was described as the “party-hearty” guy who bribed the farmers with beer and cajoled them into doing the back-breaking labor to create a high, heavy pile of earth to protect the village. In another telling of the story, Andreas was a cruel taskmaster and the farmers detested him. They blamed the townsfolk for their plight and took to calling them “Anreischke”, after Andreas, which was pronounced “Anreis” in the low German dialect. In retaliation, the townsfolk had a wooden bust of Andreas created and mounted in a clock. The dreaded Andreas would come out every two hours and nod to the farmers coming to market, reminding them of both their loathsome taskmaster, as well as their dependence on the village. This clock still operates today and you can see the Anreischke Man peek out right on schedule throughout the day. Given that Germans invented the word “schadenfreude” to describe the pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune, I tend to believe the latter story.
Like the Brothers Grimm before me, I’ve been inspired by the history and the stories of this ancient German village and the Harz Mountains. I like to think that something of these tales bleed into the stories I write.
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For a good source of information on things to do on Walpurgisnacht, see Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night by Linda Raedisch.
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2 thoughts on “The Introvert and the Witching Hour”
I was born with black hair too, like a number of Apgars. Story I got was that we have Mongol heritage. Works for me.
I came by my dark hair through my father, a Filipino. A bi-racial child born in the sixties in a small village would not have gone over well. My mom probably let the hospital staff hold on to the witch idea. ; )