What is Walpurgis?
Walpurgis Night is an annual festival based on traditional pagan celebrations that sees people dress up as witches, devils and demons for a night of merrymaking in late April. In northern Germany, it takes place primarily in the Harz Mountains, with the biggest celebrations in Schierke (29–30 April), Thale (29 April–1 May) and the Hexentanzplatz (30 April), with festivities in more than 20 towns and villages in the region (harzinfo.de). There are variants in other countries, such as the Prague, Czech Republic’s Bonfire Nightesque Pálení carodejnic (Burning of the Witches; czechtourism.com) and Sweden’s Feast of Valborg, with the huge Cortège parade in Gothenburg a focal point (goteborg.com).
Towards 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.
Travel Testimonial by Marcel Theroux,
Author of the thriller “Strange Bodies”
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 LaMarotte (“The Crook”, in French) – und das Mittelalter groovt! 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.’
Traveling to Walpurgis from the U.K.
Airlines including Air Berlin, BA and Eurowings, fly from London to Hanover, a 90 minute drive from Wernigerode. Air Berlin also flies from Birmingham and Manchester (from $80 ~ €74 ~ £64; eurowings.com).
Traveling within Walpurgis
To retrace this itinerary through the Harz Mountains, you’ll need to hire a car (from $237 ~ €220 ~ £190 per week; avis.co.uk). For a more whistle-stop trip, trains link Hanover and Wernigerode (from $63 ~ €58 ~ £50; two hours; bahn.de), and Wernigerode and Thale (from $25 ~ €23 ~ £20; one hour).
Travel Testimonial by Marcel Theroux Continues
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 epicentre. 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.
The Brocken, also sometimes referred to as the Blocksberg, is the highest peak of the Harz mountain range and also the highest peak of Northern Germany.
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 or Walburga (Old English: Wealdburg, Latin: Valpurga, Walpurga, Walpurgis; c. AD 710 – 25 February 777 or 779), also spelled Valderburg or Guibor, was an English missionary to the Frankish Empire. She was canonized on 1 May ca. 870 by Pope Adrian II. Walpurgis Night (or “Walpurgisnacht”) is the name for the eve of her day, which coincides with May Day.
Saint Walpurga’s Day, 1st of 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.
I felt I would be content lose myself for weeks here, hiking through the silent forest, eating picnics on the emerald moss and hoping to catch sight of one of the lynxes that were reintroduced to the Harz in 2001. Further down the valley, anemones were carpeting the forest floor and in the hamlet of Königsruhe, a Hansel and Gretel cottage was offering food and lodging.
The Bode carves a deep gorge through the granite of the Harz as it emerges from the mountains into the town of Thale. On either side of the water, the rocks have taken on strange sculptural forms and there is something undeniably eerie about the landscape. Hexentanzplatz – the Witches’ Dance Floor – is a plateau overlooking the steep drop to the valley bottom. According to tradition, this is where the witches gather before flying to the summit of the Brocken.
Nowadays, the witches tend to arrive by cable car from Thale. Up on Hexentanzplatz, the traditions of Walpurgis Night are enthusiastically observed with a witch museum, the Witch’s Cauldron café, a Devil’s Grill Barbecue, an outdoor theatre, a year-round toboggan run, and stalls and shops doing good business in witch trinkets.
This area has long been exploiting its connection with Goethe’s legend and visitors to the sites he mentions have been arriving since the 19th century. In 1901, Walpurgis Hall was built to exhibit paintings that illustrate the story.
In a strange case of life imitating art, the workers who dug the foundations unearthed an ancient, possibly Bronze Age, stone sacrificial altar. It’s now on display in the hall’s entrance. A 20-minute drive from Wernigerode, along winding mountain roads, sits the tiny village of Schierke. Perching on the Bode and surrounded by woodland, it has the distinction of being mentioned by name in Faust. The hero, Faust, and the devil Mephistopheles, to whom he’s sold his soul, pass through it on the way to meeting the witches on top of the Brocken.
On Walpurgis Night:
every hotel and guesthouse in Schierke is booked solid. Life-size plastic witches are displayed in gardens and dangle from lampposts.
A huge, two-day party is being held in the town park, along the banks of the Bode, where pigs turn on spits and a blacksmith with a beard like Thor is hammering belt buckles on his anvil. Local beer is drunk steadily all day and the regional food for sale looks like things a hobbit might cook: potato and plum dumplings from Thuringia; split pea and sausage soup; berry wines; sweet, fried cheese balls. From about midday, rock bands with a vaguely medieval flavour play on the big stage, while a cover band blasts out ABBA songs from a smaller one.
Outside town, silence reigns in the woods, broken only by the distant hoot from the narrow-gauge steam engine. There are still snowdrifts under trees and a chilly wind blows along the valley. Winter has the forest in its grip and it feels as if spring could do with some supernatural assistance.
At 4pm, 40 witches gather on the steps of Schierke Town Hall. They declare the building occupied, and invite people in for schnapps and sandwiches. Many in the crowd have gone to enormous effort to dress up, wearing robes, elaborate make-up, costumes and tinted contact lenses.
As dusk falls, the parade begins. Crowds line the route five deep as up to 400 villagers process up the main street. There are devils roller-skating, line dancing, playing bagpipes and throwing sweets to the crowd.
Leading the parade is a man in a sinister leather mask, who tells me he’s the chief devil and can only speak Devilish. In fact, his name is Michael Gebbert. He works in a local school and has been involved in organising the village’s Walpurgis events since 1995. At nightfall, as masked revellers crowd around a bonfire, Michael explains that, for him, Walpurgis is a celebration of victory over winter, but that it also has an added significance for his generation.
The first Walpurgis that Michael can remember being celebrated publicly was in 1990, the year of German reunification. Saxony-Anhalt was part of Communist East Germany and Schierke was just over a mile from the highly militarised border, within a no-go zone that you needed a special permit to enter. The Brocken was split between East and West, and there was no official Walpurgis Night during the years of Communist rule. Michael says friends and families met up quietly to mark it, but the event was discouraged in East Germany. One reason is that it clashed with International Labour Day, on 1 May. Another is that the Communist leaders feared its citizens meeting up en masse in case it led to political demonstrations.
There are some sore heads aboard the 9.40 train from Wernigerode as it heads up to the Brocken the next day. A conductor helpfully goes from car to car selling tiny bottles of berry schnapps as a pick-me-up.
The steam engines that ply the narrow-gauge track in the Harz Mountains are beneficiaries of the end of the Cold War.
Just as the East German government was preparing to replace them with diesel ones, the Berlin Wall fell. Now, the area has one of the largest steam-railway networks in the world, carrying a million passengers a year over its 87 miles of track. It’s a leisurely 90-minute journey up, switchbacking through deep forests that seem to press in on the train. The air is filled with the smell of coal and hot oil. Now and again, views open up towards the lowland of Saxony-Anhalt. As the train climbs, woodlands of beech and birch give way to spruce and fir.
When we reach the summit, it is bare of trees and in places covered with deep snow. The most unearthly thing is an old Cold War listening station: a golf-ball-shaped radar dome that’s now a museum.
In 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, a similar one went up on top of the Brocken, dividing East and West. The steam trains stopped running and any witch foolish enough to come here would have been seen off by the Soviet soldiers guarding the listening post. Today, the only remnant of that wall is in the museum.
On our way back down, the locomotive stops at Schierke. Here, Walpurgis festivities continue, though some people are heading unsteadily back to the shuttle buses that brought them. It might just be the contrast with the icy summit of the Brocken, but it does feel as though spring has gained a decisive foothold in the valley: the beech leaves seem to have unfurled all at once on the command of an inaudible abracadabra. Winter’s been banished for another year.