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Witches & Warlocks

The Bode Valley was first inhabited by Celts, whose fortresses were conquered by Germanic tribes and used for pagan rituals before Charlemagne embarked upon campaigns to subjugate and Christianise the local population during the 8th-century Saxon Wars. Today, Harz mythology blends these pagan and Christian elements.

One popular – but misleading – explanation for the Walpurgisnacht festival (held on the night of 30 April, when everyone dresses up as witches and warlocks) is that it was an invention of the tribes who, pursued by Christian missionaries, held secret gatherings to carry out their rituals. They are said to have darkened their faces one night and, armed with broomsticks and pitchforks, scared off Charlemagne’s guards, who mistook them for witches and devils. In fact the name ‘Walpurgisnacht’ probably derives from St Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess, but the festival tradition may also refer to the wedding of the gods Wodan and Freya.

According to local mythology, witches and warlocks gather on Walpurgisnacht at locations throughout the Harz before flying off to the Brocken on broomsticks or goats. There they recount the year’s evil deeds and top off the stories with a bacchanalian frenzy, said to represent copulation with the devil. Frightened peasants used to hang crosses and herbs on stable doors to protect their livestock; ringing church bells or cracking whips were other ways to prevent stray witches from dropping by!

Head to the Harz on 30 April today and you'll be swept up in a sea of strange faces, dark-cloaked goths, squealing teens and spooky families: think Halloween on a mountaintop.