The Land of Witches and Grimm Tales - The Harz Mountains

The mysterious landscapes of the Harz Mountains have inspired many tales and horror stories, including the stories of the Grimm brothers and the Walpurgis Night set in Goethe’s Faust. The characteristic wooden beamed houses of the countryside create a truly fairytale-like milieu. In addition to fairytales, the cities around the Harz also have a rich and intricate historical past.


The Harz is the northernmost part of the German Mid-Mountains on the border of the highland and the North German Plain. It consists of granite mainly, which withstands the weather well. A national park was established in 1990, a popular tourist destination, its beautiful forests are visited by many hikers and its slopes attract mountain-lovers, mainly because it is the only mountain in northern Germany.

The highest point of the Harz and of northern Germany is the 1141-meter-high Brocken, which is also called Blocksberg. The peak has a special microclimate, characterized by much colder and wetter weather compared to its altitude, such as our Kékes of similar altitude. As a result, only a few plants live on the hilltop, and it is covered with thick snow during the long, extremely cold and windy winter. The peak can also be reached by a narrow-gauge railway towed by a steam locomotive. The Brockenbahn has been in operation since 1899 with some interruptions. For nearly three decades from the 1960s, the area was a direct borderline between the GDR and the FRG, and an important strategic point of high altitude and observation station, so tourists were not allowed to visit it.

goethe_180978.jpgWe can also meet the mountains many times in the history of culture. Carl Friedrich Gauss made experiments on mathematical triangulation between Brocken and two distant heights. Heinrich Heine wrote his experiences of hiking and mountaineering in his travelogue “The Harz Journey”. The location had a big impact on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In late 1777, the young poet made a trip to the Harz, as a kind of retreat that culminated in the poem “Winter Journey in the Harz”. In his main work Faust, the scene of the Witches’ Sabbath, the Walpurgis Night is the area around Schierke and Elend near Brocken, where Faust and Mephistopheles take part in the diabolical revelry. Naturally, Goethe also visited the Brocken, posterity named a hiking trail leading to the peak Goetheweg (Goethe Road) after the poet.

thale_652015.jpgWalpurgis Night is a pagan-rooted spring holiday held at the night of 30 April 30 to 1 May. Nowadays, it is held every year; people disguised as witches and devilish creatures have a parade, and travel to the mountain on the narrow-gauge railway. A huge cult of witches has developed in the towns of the area; the fairytale characters appear as decoration in the windows of houses, in the shop windows of souvenir shops, in thematic restaurants. Witch traditions are referred to by the names of natural formations, e.g. the sandstone rock formation near Thale, Teufelsmauer (Devil's Wall) and the Hexentanzplatz (Witch Dance Square), which can also be reached from here. The 450-meter-high plateau is the other most important pagan cult site in the area, next to the Brocken.

It must be mentioned that the name of Gellért Hill in Budapest was Blocksberg in German, so the German settlers named it. According to one explanation, it reminded the settling Germans of the Brocken, and according to oral tradition, Gellért Hill was also the scene of witch-gatherings, so the parallel was even stronger.

rammelsberg_238222.jpgGoslar is located on the northern side of the mountains. One of the cities where most timber-framed houses still stand today; the oldest one in the city, the St. Annenhaus, was built in 1488 (we wrote about the Fackwerkhaus in our earlier exhibition). Its old town is a World Heritage Site. The settlement was founded in the 10th century by King Henry I (the Fowler), and his reign was an important milestone in the history of the German kingdom. There is also a Hungarian aspect to the story: Henry the Fowler was in constant battle with the Hungarians invading Saxony. After nine years of ceasefire, the king, who paid tribute-money for peace, refused further taxation, and in 933, he finally defeated the Hungarians in the Battle of Merseburg with a strengthened German army. Henry's son, King Otto I (the Great) (later Holy Roman Emperor) also defeated the Hungarians in 955 in the Battle of Augsburg, which eventuated the end of the Western European campaigns; in connection with this, the legend of Lehel’s horn was also born.

Going back to the history of Goslar, the town grew rich due to the silver and lead ore mines on a nearby mountain called Rammelsberg. After nearly a millennium, mining activity ceased in 1988, and then the mine continued to function as a museum. One of the main attractions is the building of the Imperial Palace (Kaiserpfalz), as the town was an imperial seat due to the wealth of the settlement. The palace was built in the 11th century by Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, and his heart has since rested in the chapel belonging to the palace. Besides Goslar’s Old Town, Rammelsberg and the Imperial Palace are also World Heritage Sites.

gejza_69137.jpgQuedlinburg, located 60 km southeast of Goslar, another important city in German history, was the royal seat. It was fortunate enough to weather the storms of history, so its particularly large number, more than two thousand timber-framed buildings create a true medieval atmosphere. Today, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was first mentioned in a document of Henry the Fowler dating back to the 10th century. The final resting place of the king and his wife, St. Matilda of Ringelheim, is also here, under the Church of St. Servatius. At the peak of the reign of their child Otto I, the Imperial Assembly in Quedlinburg was held in 973, to which delegates came from all the Christian states of Europe - and even from the then pagan Hungarian Principality. Hungarian Prince Géza indicated to the emperor his intention to be baptized not long before that. Later, in order to establish good diplomatic relations, he asked for the hand of Gizella, the daughter of Henry II Duke of Bavaria (Henry the Quarrelsome), for his son Vajk (Henry the Quarrelsome was the grandson of the above mentioned Henry the Fowler and Matilda of Ringelheim).

The Grimm brothers’ Hansel and Gretel are connected to the town with one more thread (the brothers lived in Kassel and Göttingen near the Harz for many years). Illustrator Hans Traxler wrote his bestseller book The True Story of Hansel and Gretel under the name of a fictional writer Georg Ossegg in 1963. He redrew the case of Katharina Schraderin, a 17th-century witch trial of a baker in Quedlinburg. The woman’s colleague Hans Metzler accused her of witchcraft for her famous gingerbread recipe, and then he murdered her with the help of his sister. The book is a fiction story of course.

bad_harzburg_479237.jpgBad Harzburg attracts tourists with its closeness to nature; it is a real mountain spa town. The Harz Tree Top Trail (Baumwipfelpfad) is also an outdoor show-room; you can get to know the flora and fauna of the area here. If you walk along the trail, you can reach the top of the castle hill with a little extra ascent in the forest, where you can see the ruins of the former castle and an unparalleled view unfolds before your eyes. The medicinal water of the settlement has been used for medical purposes since 1852; however, it became a popular tourist destination with hotels and sanatoria at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.


Translated by Zita Aknai


Csaba Báthori: Titkos jóváhagyás (Johann Wolfgang Goethe: Téli utazás a Harz-hegységben). In: Műhely. Főszerk. Villányi László. 38 (2015) 3. Elektronikus Periodika Archívum

Sándor Dömötör: Szent Gellért hegye és a boszorkányok. In: Tanulmányok Budapest Múltjából. Szerk. Dr. Némethy Károly és Dr. Bodó Jusztin. 7 (1939) Elektronikus Periodika Archívum

Aki elhitette, hogy Jancsi és Juliska a valóságban egy 17. századi gyilkos pék testvérpár volt. Múlt-kor


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