BROCKEN MOUNTAIN, GERMANY – Pity St. Walpurga, an English nun from Devon. A night of “devil worship” atop a German mountain is not how she would have wanted to be remembered.
When canonizing Walpurga on May 1, 870, for converting pagan Germans, Pope Adrian II hoped to Christianize a much-loved heathen spring festival. The plan failed, but Walpurga’s name stuck.
Today Walpurgisnacht, or May Eve — the night of April 30 to May 1 — is an occasion for revelry and excess in much of Northern Europe, particularly in Germany’s Harz mountains, a remote region of dark pine forests, eerie rock formations and blustery peaks.
The beautiful villages of timber-framed houses and cobblestone streets snaking around the base of the Brocken and nestled in the valleys of the Harz are a huge tourist draw, each laying on bonfires, music and spectacle to mark Walpurgisnacht.
In the little village of Stiege, Satan is rowed across the lake in a flaming torch-lit boat after nightfall to lead dancing around the bonfire.
Elsewhere, with the help of cables, witches appear to fly overhead. In the town of Thale, men from around Northern Europe compete in a terrifying speed chain-sawing competition, carving diabolical creatures from logs of wood.
Down in the valleys, as devils dance with their plastic horns flashing — one hand holding a trident, the other a beer — Walpurga is toasted.
“I love dressing up, and I love all the myths and history attached to Walpurgisnacht,” said Waltraud Scheller, 63, from Hamburg, supporting a giant plastic raven on a staff. “And of course I know all about ‘Faust’ and Walpurga.”
The reference is to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Germany’s most famous writer. He climbed the Brocken in the dead of winter in 1777 and returned twice, writing a scene about Walpurgisnacht and the witches’ celebrations in his masterpiece, “Faust,” the tragedy of a man who sells his soul to the devil.
That helped imprint Walpurgisnacht further onto the German psyche and instilled the legend with new potency.
“The Harz mountains were a terra incognita; they were barely inhabited,” said Jochen Klauss, a Goethe expert at the Weimar Classics Foundation.
“It was one of those corners which were only discovered as a destination during the 19th century and at the start of the Romantic period, when people wanted to discover nature and experience the uncanny,” Klauss said.
The Harz mountains were one of the last places to convert to Christianity in the lands that later became Germany. Brocken Mountain, the highest peak, which is shrouded in fog 300 days a year, provides a natural stage for the supernatural and fantasies about evil.
The fog creates an optical illusion of magnifying the observers’ shadow — a phenomenon known as the “Brocken specter.”
A legend arose of witches mounting their broomsticks on the eve of May 1 and flying up the Brocken to commune with the devil. The fantasy inspired stories and drawings, each more grotesque and outlandish than the last.
Goethe took to the mountain to get over his sister’s death, to question whether his life was on the right path and to escape the constraints of Weimar society. The experience reinvigorated him.
Today a rock opera version of his “Faust” is staged every year in a hotel on the summit of the Brocken, and a vintage steam locomotive hauls an audience dressed as devils or witches up the narrow-gauge railway line that was opened in 1898.
For almost 30 years, however, during the time of Germany’s Cold War separation, the Brocken, which lay on the border between West and East, was closed.
“Back in East German times, there were no publicly organized Walpurgisnacht celebrations here and nobody dressed up. The mountain was closed,” said Thomas Hahne, 53, who works in the kiosk on the summit of the Brocken and grew up nearby.
Like the ninth-century pope, East Germany’s communist authorities frowned on Walpurgisnacht’s pagan associations and tried to focus on workers and trade unions on international Labor Day.
“We had ‘dance into the May’ events the night before instead,” Hahne said, adding that he finds today’s revelries too commercial and lacking in spirituality.
“There are no Druids, no religious aspects — this is just people dressing up,” he said.