According to legend, every year on April 30, Walpurgisnacht, witches and warlocks descend on the Harz to fly up the Brocken on broomsticks and goats. Here they gather to exchange tall tales of recent evil deeds as foreplay to a Bacchanalian frenzy of fornication, including with the devil himself. The event was so vividly embellished that for centuries local peasants lived in fear of meetings with stray witches. By hanging crosses and herbs on house and barn doors they tried to protect themselves and their animals; church bells would toll and the most superstitious would crack whips to deter evil forces.

At some point this night became combined with age-old local festivals: the Celts celebrated this as the devil’s final fling before spring triumphs over winter in festivals similar to those in other Celtic lands, including Scotland’s Beltane, while Germanic tribes celebrated the wedding of the gods Wodan and Freyen. The name Walpurgisnacht probably comes from Waldborg, the pagan goddess of fertility. Over the centuries, as Christianity frowned on these celebrations, they became a highlight of the black-magic calendar: Goethe’s Faust joined a “whirling mob” of witches on the Brocken’s summit.

Today, gatherings by New Age pagans and revellers occur all over the Harz on Walpurgisnacht, but the most popular places are at the Hexentanzplatz in Thale where 35,000 arrive for an organized celebration; and the trek up the Brocken from Schierke in which similar numbers come together for a more rough-and-ready experience that lasts until dawn.

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