The Mountain With A Devilish And Ghostly Rainbow Illusion

“I keep a mountain anchored off eastward a little way, which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep.” —Henry David Thoreau

In A Nutshell

The Brocken is the highest peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains, and it’s long been the center of stories of witches, warlocks, and secret meetings with the Devil. That’s partially because of the eerie optical illusion that often happens there: the Brocken Spectre. When the Sun casts the shadow of a climber into the mists below, the image is turned into a surreal giant surrounded by a circular rainbow. Even today, it’s the site of a Faustian rock opera and the annual celebration of Walpurgisnacht.

The Whole Bushel

The Harz Mountains in Germany are steeped in folklore and fairy tales, with many centering on the tallest peak in the range, the Brocken. The mountain has long been said to be the meeting place of witches and devils for centuries because of an unearthly illusion that gets its name from the infamous peak.

The Brocken Spectre is similar to the fata morgana in that it’s a complicated coincidence of refracting light and atmospheric conditions that causes it. While the fata morgana happens over water, the Brocken Spectre happens on land, and it occurs when a person’s shadow is cast on misty air beneath them. When the image reflects through water droplets, it casts the illusion of a giant, specter-like shadow usually surrounded by a circular rainbow.

Sometimes, when conditions are right, you can see the same effect out the window of a plane. That shadow is plane-shaped, but even if you know the science behind its appearance, it’s no less breathtaking.

The name was given to the phenomenon in 1780, and since then it’s been picked up and used by the likes of Charles Dickens and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, the phenomenon was seen long before that.

It’s no wonder that the common appearance of the Brocken Spectre on the German mountaintop helped build its eerie reputation that came to a climax as the meeting place between Goethe’s Faust and the Devil. It’s still the site of the rock opera version of the story, and the location of their meeting place is the aptly named Devil’s Pulpit Crag.

It’s also the location of Walpurgisnacht, first officially celebrated in 1896 when it was a male-only gathering to usher in the month of May. Before that, celebrations were unofficial, associated first with pagan rites and a gathering of witches to welcome in the spring and meet up with the Devil.

Later, when the holiday was appropriated by Christianity, it was associated with the patron saint of protection against evil spirits, Saint Walpurga. Canonized on May 1, 870, Walpurga was a British nun who went to Germany and became associated with the legends of the Valkyries.

Rumor had it that she once rode with the Valkyries on the evening of May Day and guarded the old rites, rituals, and beliefs in secret. Walpurgisnacht celebrations are steeped in those old rituals. It was once believed that witches targeted cattle on that night and that any dreams that came that night were visions of the past, present, and future.

A whole host of fairy tales grew up around the mountains, like the old tale that tells the story of a miner who condemned any man too weak to fight off one of the witches that were known to haunt the mountain. His elderly neighbor overheard his comments, and that Walpurgisnacht, he found himself mobbed by old hags. Reporting the neighbor as the witch she’d revealed herself as, they saw her burned at the stake.

There’s another that tells of a man who, suspicious of the nighttime activities of his bride-to-be and her mother, drank a concoction that transported him to the top of the Brocken, where they were dancing with the Devil. The man was turned into a donkey for his actions. He only turned back (and learned his lesson, apparently) when a parish priest poured baptismal water on his back.

The mountain’s notorious specter seemed very real for a recent time, too, as the mountain was on the front lines of the Cold War.

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Brocken Inaglory
Met Office: Brocken spectre
Telegraph: Germany: fairytale highs in the Harz Mountains
The Book of Hallowe’en, Chapter XIII, Walpurgis Night
Voyage: Walpurgisnacht
“Witchcraft Legends,” translated by D.L. Ashliman

  • OldBoris

    Shame. Been up and down the mountain by train, but that was on a rare clear summer’s day.

  • Xan Xan