Harz Mountain Stories

Two years ago, my summer wanderings took me to the Harz Mountains in eastern Germany. As is my habit, I found a couple books of regional folk-lore, and one very detailed sort of “Folk-Lore Road Guide to the Harz.” In German, and no, I’m not up to translating it, at least not at the moment. But once I found a detailed enough map, or could match the locations to where I was going that day, I found a wonderful treasure trove of stories, and patterns. The patterns . . . Very different from what I’d found in the mining areas of Austria.

First, a bit of history. The Harz Mountains have been mined for copper, lead, and other things for at least 3000 years. For that reason, the Holy Roman Emperors (Ottonian version) made Goslar one of their major capitals in the late 800s-900s. The Ramelsberg and other mines provided the bulk of money for the emperors, and proximity was important. Also important was the wee, tiny problem of Saxons who refused to stay Christian. As my maternal grandmother used to phrase it, “Their dippin’ didn’t take.” And several sites in the Harz remained in use as pagan worship sites, as well as being associated with Attila the Hun and other colorful characters. For a while, the Ottonians stationed soldiers near those sites, on order to keep the Saxons from worshipping their former gods.

In contrast, the eastern Alpine mining areas came to Jesus earlier, during the later Roman Empire, and returned to Jesus in the 600s-700s, after the Slavic migrations. There, the big shift occurred in the 1500s, with the Reformation. Most of the miners, engineers, and skilled workers in what is now central and southern Austria converted to Lutheranism, and were later driven out of the country when they refused to re-convert to Catholicism. No, this was not good for the Habsburgs’ economic situation. No one has ever accused that family, in aggregate, of financial savvy.

The folk-lore of mines and the region in the Alpine mining belt in Austria lacks saints or figures like elves. There is the King of the Mountain, the Grey (or sometimes Grim) Monarch, and Old Scratch – the Devil himself. A few ghosts, and the Wild Hunt also haunt the landscape, along with a figure who might be considered a dwarf who drowned the population of the towns purported to be under Lake Wörther (the Wörthersee). Almost no obviously Christian saints or other holy figures appear in the stories that I’ve found, aside from the occasional answered prayer and divine intervention. Many of the stories are about people who got greedy, or who didn’t listen to warnings, and met bad ends. The Grey Monarch set limits on what miners could take from the workings, and woe betide those who overstepped his bounds.

In the Harz, I found lots of stories about Hunnish princesses and miraculous escapes, horses leaping chasms and leaving hoof-prints behind, ghostly monks and monasteries, ghosts, and a White Lady who haunts several locations. Dwarfs appear in a number of the mining stories, and in other tales as well, but no “great fay,” none of the elves of Celtic tradition. Often, no reason is given for haunts. They just are, the reasons lost in the mists of time.

The one story that most people know, if they have heard of the Harz at all, is about Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken, the highest peak in the range. Witches have an unholy sabbath on the peak on the night of April 30/May1, flying in from all over the German (and possibly other) speaking lands to engage in unholy rituals as the devil presides. Today there are tourist trains, complete with “witches” that go there around that time, weather and snow permitting. However, the traditional site of the witches’ dance, the Hexentanzplatz, is away from that peak and is now an amazingly kitschy combination of hiking supply places, petting zoo, “witchy” attractions for kids, and a NSFW statue of a most buxom Hexe (witch). A cluster of granite boulders that were probably part of a prehistoric tomb or other feature forms the core of the original site. From the Hexentanzplatz you can see several other folk-lore locations, including the Hun’s Leap. You also have a lovely view out over the flaaaaaat land around the mountains.

One of those places Saxons were supposed to leave alone.

Overall, the sense I got from the Harz folklore was that some of it had deep roots, pun intended, and traced back to the pagan Saxons and near-universal mining lore (bad things happen if you get greedy). Other stories come from the Ottonians and even Burgundians, such as the Hun-related tales. The lack of fey/ Sidhe didn’t surprise me any more, after what I’ve read from other regions. I suspect Christianity drove those out of circulation, and the waves of religious war in the 1400s-1600s finished off a lot of lore. However, a few places remain uncanny, even on a warm, sunny day with other tourists hanging around. I got the sense that if I wandered too far into the woods around the Hexentanzplatz, especially at night, I might find more than just hiking trails. Or I might not.


13 thoughts on “Harz Mountain Stories

  1. It’s interesting how places such as that attract folklore around the world. Mountains seem to be a particular focus, from Ayers Rock in Australia, to the Drakensberg (Dragon Mountains) in South Africa, to the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, to the “Hall of the Mountain King” in Norway (thank you, Grieg!). I haven’t heard of much in that line in the USA, but South America has its own rich mythology centered around the Andes.

    I wonder how much of it was designed to warn intruders away from the mountains, so that those living nearby could shelter in them in peace in times of trouble?

    • West Coast Amerind tribes have a rich lore built around the Cascades volcanoes, several of which have been active recently enough that the tales survived into historical times. See, for example, the story of the war between Skell and Llao, which appears to be based on the cataclysmic destruction of Mount Mazama and birth of Crater Lake, or the tale of the maiden Loowit and her two lovers. They were all turned into mountains for their folly — Loowit became Mount St. Helens, and her lovers became Mount Hood and Mount Adams.

    • One problem with Indian lore in the Rockies is that so many peoples moved so often, sometimes before they could develop traditions related to places. The southern Rockies are a touch different, but even there peoples relocated from north and west, and their traditions were often about their “home lands” rather than what now surrounds their territories.

      • Well, I can be as slow as Ox before I get some Dragon-Sized Mugs of Coffee in me.

        But “not enough Coffee” isn’t the same as “Enough Coffee” let alone “Too Much Coffee”.

        However, all three can be very subjective especially when we take into consideration the Body Size of the Coffee Drinker.

        “Too Much Coffee” for a mouse is much different than “Too Much Coffee” for an Ox or for a Dragon.

  2. I’ve heard a couple for specific valleys in the Rockies, but hardly any lore of specific mountains.
    Some of which is understandable, as the Indians forcibly removed from their ancestral ranges would necessarily lose touch with the geography within a couple of generations.
    But there’s got to be more to it than that. For example Smoky Dome absolutely dominates the Central Snake River Plain. It is THE landmark you’d choose to navigate the region, and I know that farmers and ranchers carefully watch it for hints of what the coming winter will bring. But of folklore surrounding it? I don’t think I’ve even heard the rumor of a peep. What little folklore of the mountains I’ve heard is of relatively recent vintage, with no supernatural undertones at all–like how Helen-Dee Summit was named.
    I’ve heard some of Appalachia, but those were mostly generalized “don’t go there, you’ll piss off the Thunderbirds” variety.

    • I guess I owe you the story of H-D Summit.
      In the wake of the transcontinental railroad, a backwater mining town in nowhere Northern Nevada was suddenly becoming a commercial center. Miners brought their refined ore to the rail spur for transport of course, ranchers were happy to have a nearby place to ship cattle in a world rapidly becoming strewn with barbed wire, not to mention that the railroad itself needed maintenance, and the iron horse itself needed fuel, water, and repair.
      With this sudden prosperity, there came a desire for respectibility. And the wives of the town knew exactly where to start.
      The whorehouse had to go.
      They kicked up quite a fuss, and the city fathers dutifully voted for the ban.
      At which point, the madams running the cathouse revealed that they had quietly acquired nearly all the bonds the city had used to fund its expansion. Most had matured, and the city found itself looking at immediate payment of a bill they could in no way afford.
      The city fathers quickly reversed the ban, of course.
      But the madams were offended, and did not relent.
      Not even after watching the most powerful men in the area grovel before them.
      It was only when the city fathers decided to rename the mountain towering over the town that Helen and Dee relented.
      And thus has the history of the West been drawn upon the silent stones.

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