The highest peak in the Harz mountains has lent its name to a peculiar natural phenomenon.
The climbers amongst you will know of the Brocken Spectre, but few will know where it originates. The Brocken is the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, effectively the only mountain range in northern Germany (although it also has a foot in the east). At 1,141 metres this round-shouldered beast is hardly an alpine peak, but it does have winter skiing, and it also has a wonderful old steam railway that runs scheduled services, winter and summer, up and down the mountain and across from one side to the other. Around the mountain’s base are pretty towns such as Osterode, Wernigerode and Goslar, which have a fairytale feel to them, particularly in the snow.
But the top of the mountain is a different matter. Bare, barren, windswept and once the site of a Soviet listening post (this was East Germany not so long ago), it is mist-shrouded and cloud-wrapped for a staggering 300 days in the year, and it is this which has given rise to so many of its legends. There’s a long tradition of witches up here, perpetuated by Goethe who described the Brocken as a centre of witchcraft revelry in his Faust. One of his scenes is of Walpurgisnacht, (Walpurgis Night, 30th April) when witches meet on Brocken to hold revels with their gods, and there are still bonfires lit on the mountain to this day.
The Brocken is mist-shrouded and cloud-wrapped for a staggering 300 days in the year
Up here, it is easy to think you’ve seen a shape in the mist, and often you will have, but it will have been your own, and it’s called a Brocken Spectre. This natural phenomenon occurs when a climber or hiker is back-lit, usually by a low sun, and his shadow is projected onto the mist in front of him, distorted and often with a rainbow halo. This result looks like a ghost from the sixties, for it is surrounded by rainbow colours and has very flared trousers.
In moments of tiredness it is easy to assume the apparition is something other than it is, particularly because the spectre can appear to move of its own accord, depending on air currents within the mist or fog. You can imagine how such occurrences could be misconstrued by a weary and superstitious imagination.
Of course the phenomenon is not just limited to the Brocken, but the mountain is usually a fair bet, either during winter time or at the beginning or end of the day. Don’t come here expecting to see much of the surrounding landscape, however, as the poet Heine found out when he climbed the Brocken. Popular tradition has it that he wrote the following in the visitors’ book on the summit: “Viele Steine, müde Beine, Aussicht keine, Heinrich Heine”. Lots of stones, tired legs, no view. But no mention of any spectres.