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Heksennacht: The Witches' Night

This Night of the Witches (heks, meaning “witch” in Dutch and nacht meaning “night”) was created originally out of the need to overlay a Christian rite onto a Pagan festival that was hard to abolish. In Germany it was called Hexennacht, in Scandinavia Walpurgis Night. At the end of winter, people wanted to celebrate and hurry on the coming of spring, and bonfires would be lit to drive out the spirits of winter and also reflect the return of the light and warmth of summer. However, this became the fires that would burn the witches, or at the very least keep them at bay while they travelled on to a night of revelry on The Brocken in Germany.

For on this night, the Christians said that the witches gathered on the Hexentanzplatz (the Witch’s Dance Floor) which is a high plateau in the Harz mountains of Germany. Some believe this place to be an old Saxon gathering place/cultic site, which was later banned by the Franks and given its current name. According to the Christians, after the witches gathered at Hexentanzplatz they then travelled to The Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz to dance away the night with the Devil. This is thought to reflect an old Saxon custom of leaving animal and possibly even human sacrifices on the mountain to the god Odin (or Wotan, as he was probably known then).[1]

Known as Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) in the Christian calendar, this festival was created to commemorate the English nun, Walpurga and her mission to Christianise the heathens. She is said to have been canonised on 1 May 870AD. Thus Walpurgis Night fell around the same time as the pre-Christian festivals, and thus transformed them, at least for a time.

In the period of Romanticism, after the hysteria of the witch burnings died down, there was a revival across Europe of the old folk customs and lore. This brought Heksennacht, the Witch’s Night back to many countries in various forms, falling on the 30th April.

Today, across Germany and other European countries,as well as throughout Scandinavia, this festival is still celebrated.

Some countries move it to later in the year, when the weather is better, such as in Denmark. Also in some of these countries, such as Denmark, an effigy of a witch is often burned in the bonfire.  The Christian fear of women’s power is still there, lingering even as people laugh as she is set alight or thrown onto the flames (and yes, it’s always a she). 

In modern day Germany this holiday is celebrated as a “second Hallowe’en” of sorts, with people dressing up in scary costumes, having parades and fireworks and just generally being noisy whilst having a good time. In particular, the towns and villages near The Brocken mountain in Germany have festivals to celebrate (while some still burning an effigy of a witch).

The Brocken itself is now a tourist attraction, with many trails leading up, as well as a steam railway. You can walk a 62 mile (100-kilometre) path appropriately named “Harz Witches' Path” which runs from the Brocken eastwards to Thale and westwards via Torfhaus and Altenau to Osterode. There is also the "Bad Harzburg Devil's Path" which runs from the Brocken to Bad Harzburg.

In contrast, on the 19th of May each year in the Netherlands there is the Heksennacht marches all across the country. This is a “Take Back The Night” type of women’s march which began in the 1970s and which still happens to this day. This march protests violence against women, the right to safety and calls for an end to the objectification of women and the dangers associated with that mode of thinking. Women march the streets at night in order to take back their power and been seen and heard.


[1] G.G.BredowUmständlichere Erzählung der merkwürdigen Begebenheiten aus der allgemeinen Weltgeschichte. Sechste Auflage, Hammerich-Verlag, Altona 1817, p. 526–528

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Joanna van der Hoeven is the author many books, including The Path of the Hedge Witch: Simple, Natural Magic and the Art of Hedge Riding, as well as The Book of Hedge Druidry: A Complete Guide for the Solitary Seeker. She has another book coming out in March 2025, entitled The Old Ways: A Hedge Witch's Guide to Living A Magical Life. Find out more through her website at www.joannavanderhoeven.com

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 Joanna van der Hoeven is a Hedge Witch, Druid, and a best-selling author. She has been working in Pagan traditions for over 30 years. She has written many books, including The Path of the Hedge Witch: Simple, Natural Magic and the Art of Hedge Riding, as well as The Book of Hedge Druidry: A Complete Guide for the Solitary Seeker. Find her channels on social media at YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.


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