The Brocken Experiment
In 1932 Harry Price travelled to the Harz Mountains in Germany to take part in the centenary celebrations of the poet Goethe. Accompanied by C.E.M. Joad, he carried out a magical ritual which was contained in a manuscript that had been obtained by the National Laboratory the previous year. The following is the part of Chapter XX 'Pale Black Magic' of Price's Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter in which he describes the events of his trip to the Brocken in June 1932.
Among the peasants of certain parts of Germany - especially the Harz district - witchcraft is still accepted as a fact. In the spring of 1932 I did my best to enlighten the natives by introducing into the Goethejahr celebrations a magical experiment known as the 'Bloksberg Tryst'.
In the autumn of 1931 I acquired a manuscript which is an early nineteenth-century transcript of a page of the so-called
'High German Black Book' -a hand-written volume of magical formulæ which is preserved in one of the German museums. The 'Black Book' dates from about the fifteenth century, and contains much ritual for the practice of transcendental magic; and amongst the experiments is one called the Bloksberg Tryst. Bloksberg is the old name for the Brocken, highest of the Harz Mountains. The MS. I acquired is a copy of the Brocken experiment.
In 1932 was celebrated throughout Germany the centenary of the immortal poet Goethe. The Harz Goethe Centenary Committee (the Harzer Verkehrsverband), hearing that I possessed a copy of the ritual of the Bloksberg Tryst, invited me to reproduce the experiment as part of the Goethejahr celebrations. I consented. Another reason why I decided to go - quite unofficially - was that I wished to emphasise the absolute futility of ancient magical ritual under twentieth-century conditions.
Goethe made an intensive study of magic and witchcraft, and his classical scene of the Walpurgisnacht in Faust has done much to immortalise his 'divine comedy'. That Goethe studied the original of the Bloksberg Tryst is almost certain, as several correspondences between the old MS. and the Walpurgisnacht are apparent.
The MS. is written in an early nineteenth-century hand in faded brown ink, almost illegible in places. In the centre of the MS. is the magic circle painted in two colours (red and blue) with the usual symbols. On the reverse of the MS. is an engraving (undated) of the town of Bacharach, on the Rhine, by the German artist, R. Püttner. The verbatim translation of the original 'Tryst' is as follows, with my annotations in square brackets:
The Bloksberg Tryst
This is a true faire and perfect means of excelling over Nature and has been truefully proved in the presence of the writer
after many trials during his travels in the Low Countries. Exact conditions will prove that all things are possible to the God of Nature if all instructions are obediently obeyed with a good heart. What is related here I have seen with mine own eyes - Vita si scias uti longa est [Life is long if we know how to use it]. On the foremost peak of the Bloksberg [Brocken, one of the Harz Mountains, 3733 feet high] the test must be made with a pure heart and mind and selfless intentention [intention]. The time between one day before to one day after the Moons fullness is neccesary but best in the Winter season. He that seeks the Almighty power must place himself on the foremost Peak of the Bloksberg at the time appointed. His servants must be a mayden pure in heart in fair white garments and a virgin He Goat. Let thy mouth and heart be free from foulness. Let the student test my words by the light of a Pine fire which is necessary. Neer the Granit Altar let the Student set the following Magic Symbols which must be sette out in white of a bigness suitable for his test. [Here comes the magic circle.] The apex of the Triangle must direct to the Tower of Kassel the base will then cover the Hexentanzplatz [a village in the Eastern Harz Mountains; a rocky plateau, 1480 feet high] so named of the witches who dwell there. Haveing set his symbols demanded by ye Black Booke as prescribeth above in all their correctness he taketh his servants into the inner House of the Triangle within the Circle of Power. The Goat he putteth before him the Mayden taketh her place by the side of the Goat which she leadeth on a white silken cord. He then lighteth a bowle of faire incense which burneth for 15 minutes the Student repeating the following in all lowliness Mutare et insignem attenuat deus obscura promens [Should be: Valet ima summis Mutare, et insignem attenuat deus, obscura promens (Horace), i.e. God hath the power to change the lowliest with the loftiest, and He maketh the great men weak, bringing to light things hidden in gloom]. At the end of the appointed time the Mayden anointeth the Goat say-
ing Terra es terram ibis [Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return]. Ye Goat is then to be turned round three times against ye sunne and ye incence rekindled. The Student then handeth the Mayden a vessel of fair red wine saying Si Deus nobiscum quis contra nos [If God be with us, who shall be against us?]. The pine fire is then dampeth by ye servant of the Student outside ye Circle of Power and the incence is dampeth by ye Student. All should now be of a blackness except for ye light of ye moone. The Mayden now taketh ye vessel of wine and poureth it slowly over ye head of the Goat at the same time repeating Procul O procul este profani [Begone, begone, ye profane ones]. At the ending of the words a blackness obscureth the moone and a pin light cometh from the Tower of Kassel. At this moment the Mayden quickly covereth and completely hideth the He Goat with a faire white cloth when an apparatation [apparition] is seeneth within the Triangle. Instanter the cloth is removeth by the Mayden and a faire youth of surpassing beauty is seene in the stead of ye Goat. This have I witnesseth myself. From ye High German Blacke Booke. The ungent [unguent, for anointing the goat] is prepared from ye blood of bats caught before ye midnight hour scrapings from a church bell to be mixed with soot and bees honey into a fair ointment. Not for melancholic persons.
* * * * *
The magic of the Bloksberg Tryst is not nearly so black as it has been painted - in fact, it is white magic, because no diablerie enters into it. The ritual itself is familiar to students of mediæval necromancy, and the components we recognise as old friends: a magic circle with the usual symbols, a triangle, a pine fire, a bowl of incense, a 'pure virgin', a 'he-goat', Latin incantations, and a noisome unguent made of bats’ blood, scrapings from church bells (obtained for me by a friendly bell-ringer from the belfry of a Sussex church), soot and honey. All these essentials
can be found in a hundred magical formulæ. No one can deny that the ancient sorcerers loved the picturesque.
Where the Bloksberg Tryst differs from similar experiments is that it can be effective only at a certain spot (on the Brocken 'neer the Granit Altar') and only during a full moon. And the apex of the triangle has to point to the Tower of Kassel and its base to the Hexentanzplatz - a famous plateau opposite the Brocken where tradition has placed the scene of the witches' orgies. So we journeyed to the Brocken as the guests of the Harzer Verkehrsverband, determined to carry out the experiment with scientific exactitude in order to forestall any criticism by the remaining devotees of the Black Art. I was accompanied by Mr. C. E. M. Joad, whose interest in magic and psychic matters is well known.
We arrived on the Brocken on Friday evening, June 17, 1932, and found everything in readiness except the moon. A ‘magic circle’ accurately designed in mosaic had been laid down 'neer the Granit Altar', and a white kid, specially chosen at birth, was trotted out for our inspection. The 'maiden pure in heart', in the person of Miss Urta Bohn, daughter of Dr. Erich Rohn, of Breslau, was awaiting us, and her spotless white dress did not seem out of place at a magical experiment.
What did seem out of place at such a test were the forty-two photographers, seventy-three Pressmen and a 'talkie' set-up. These professional gentlemen comprised almost our entire audience at the first trial, which was merely a rehearsal. To the clicking of cameras, and by the light of magnesium flares, the rehearsal proceeded more or less smoothly. We found that our pine fire was too fierce and it was impossible to extinguish it in the time prescribed by the ritual. The 'maiden' was not word-perfect as regards the Latin incantations - and imprecations - and some minor details of the experiment were inaccurately staged. But all these defects were remedied the next evening. We finally arrived at the stage where the maiden had to cover
Harry Price (extreme right) and C.E.M. Joad (next to him) in the Magic Circle on the Brocken. Next to Joad is Fräulein Urta Bohn, who took the part of the 'maiden pure in heart' in the Goethejahr experiment.
the goat with a 'faire white cloth', the metamorphosing effect of which was to convert the goat into a 'youth of surpassing beauty'. The Press reports of this rehearsal rather stressed the point that the 'goat remained a goat', as if the reporters really anticipated the appearance of the magical Adonis!
The real experiment was on Saturday, June 18, 1932, and fortunately the Pressmen and photographers had departed to their respective offices and dark-rooms, and we were left in peace. But the moon again deserted us. A few silvery gleams between the clouds earlier in the evening raised our hopes, but by midnight the mountain top was enveloped in mist and the first essential - according to the ritual - to the success of the experiment was absent. I had to point this out to the large crowd which had assembled on the Brocken. I emphasised the fact that as the moon was absent it was rather absurd to make the experiment. But I was persuaded to proceed with the test as so many persons had come to do homage to Goethe and his associations with the Brocken, and did not want to be disappointed. Still hoping that the moon would appear at the psychological moment, we proceeded with the Tryst, and this time everything went well, and there was no hitch. The spectators were intensely interested, and you could have heard the proverbial pin fall during the performance of the ritual. Again quoting the morning newspapers, 'the goat remained a goat'.
It is a reflection on the popular Press of this country that the chief items of the programme arranged for this unique evening have never been reported at all. Though our magical experiment was a fitting finale to the Goethe night arranged by the Harz administration, it was not the most important item. And I am sure that the majority of the great crowd which assembled in and around the Brocken hotel was present in order to enjoy the Goethe feast provided by the local authorities. A programme - as wonderful as it was interesting - was arranged as a suitable setting for our experiment.
The programme began at eight o'clock on Saturday, June 18, 1932, with a large dinner party, during which Professor Dr. C. A. Pfeffer, the distinguished Goethe authority, introduced the English visitors in their native language. Mr. C. E. M. Joad, Dr. A. vor Mohr of Göttingen, and the present writer replied. Mr. Joad's address dealt principally with magic, witchcraft and the raison d’ être of our visit. After the introductory speeches a band of players under Rudolf Hartig, director of the Wernigerode theatre, staged the Hexenküche scene from Faust, a well-acted representation of the famous witches' kitchen.
Then Professor Pfeffer delivered a brilliant address, Bedeutung von Goethes I. Harzreise für ihn und uns, which elicited tremendous applause, and which I hope will be published.
Then came what I considered the piece de resistance of the evening - the classical Walpurgisnacht scene from Faust performed by Herr Hartig and his players amidst the granite rocks of the Brocken, on the site which inspired Goethe to write the Brocken scene for his immortal poem. The lighting effects were a joy to behold, and the scene was weird in the extreme. Mephistopheles, Faust, Irrlicht, the Witches, Lilith, Gretchen, General, Minister, Parvenu, Author, Will-o'-the-Wisp, Procktophantasmit - all were there, and the magical lighting effects, softened by the evening mist, were truly wonderful. This was indeed real magic - the magic of the theatre. Afterwards came other scenes from Faust, the whole interspersed with Harz folk music by the peasants and miners in their ancient dress. It was well worth journeying to the Bloksberg to participate in such a Goethenacht.
Although our principal object in staging the Bloksberg Tryst was to ridicule the idea that magic ritual, under modern conditions, is still potent, we are not so foolish as to imagine that we have entirely succeeded: superstition is not so easily ki11ed as that! But the experiment was worth reproducing, as the investigation of such things is perfectly legitimate when
carried out in a scientific manner; and I consider that the result of our test has advanced us a stage in our knowledge of ancient magic ritual.
The scoffer will tell us that because we had no faith, the experiment was not conclusive; in other words, that the formula will not work automatically. That is all very well, but what sort of a state do we have to induce in order that the magical metamorphosis shall take place? The fifteenth-century scribe who compiled the Black Book says of the Brocken miracle: 'This have I witnesseth myself.' But in my opinion the old man had worked himself into such a condition of ecstatic enthusiasm that he was really in a state of auto-hypnosis or self-induced trance, and when he 'saw' the goat change into the 'faire youth' it was merely an hallucination. I think he wrote out the formula in good faith. Quite a different type of scoffer will tell you that belief in witchcraft and black magic no longer exists. This assertion is merely ridiculous. A short time ago a number of South German labourers were imprisoned for nearly killing a 'witch' alleged to have overlooked their cattle. In the Harz district - the last stronghold of paganism in Germany - the belief in witchcraft is still rife, as I discovered for myself during my visit.
The trip to the Brocken was not without its amusing incidents. I have already remarked that paganism died hard in the Harz country, and I was told there were still witches to be found amongst the mountains if one searched long enough.
We had made Göttingen our headquarters for the preparation of the Brocken experiment, and during a reconnoitre in the Harz country we heard that there was a 'real live witch' to be found in or near Wernigerode. Our informant was a German lady, and she told us that if we journeyed to Wernigerode she would undertake to get the witch there by hook or by crook.
Joad and I were elated at the thought of meeting a modem disciple of his Satanic majesty; and I had visions of sampling her
'brew', and perhaps filming her having a ride on her broomstick, as I had taken a cinematograph camera with me.
At very considerable trouble and with several hours' motoring we duly arrived at Wernigerode for the appointment - or rather disappointment, as we discovered that the Zauberin was a buxom young actress who had once played the part of a stage witch! Of course, we all had a good laugh and that was the end of our witch hunt.
But we heard some good news in Wernigerode. The lady who found us the 'witch' informed us that Halberstadt (where she resided) was much interested in our magical experiment and that our fame in that place was so great that it had been decided to confer on Joad and me the 'freedom of the city'. Would we accept the honour? Of course we said we would, and it was arranged that on the following afternoon we should motor to Halberstadt for the ceremony.
The question as to how we should dress for the 'presentation' did not worry us much as our wardrobe was extremely limited. Eventually Joad decided to put on his white drill suit which had created a sensation in Göttingen. I tossed up to see whether I would wear my dinner jacket and opera hat or a lounge suit. The latter won.
We speculated as to how the 'freedom' would be 'conferred' and I thought what a nuisance it would be to have to carry a golden casket around with us: the illuminated address we could post home.
We arrived on the outskirts of Halberstadt in good time, and slowed down our car in order to make an impressive entry. The streets were quite deserted and I thought it curious that the town band did not turn out to meet us. However, we reached Frau X's house as arranged and, after some refreshment, we set off to be introduced to the Bürgermeister. We found his representative in his shirt-sleeves, at his stationer's shop, doing a brisk trade. Introductions over, we all adjourned to the beauti-
ful Rathaus, where we were introduced to the mayor, who showed us his parlour and pictures of departed Bürgermeister, and welcomed us formally and officially. We then signed our names in the Visitors' Book. The ladies of the party were excluded from this part of the ceremony.
After about fifteen minutes' conversation about nothing in particular, the mayor saluted us and a clerk bowed us out. We had received the 'freedom' of Halberstadt! We forgot to inquire what the privileges were, but we were impressed with the simplicity of everyone concerned - especially ourselves!
The Brocken experiment was the means of establishing a newspaper, the Brocken-Post, the first number of which contained an account of our experiment. Speaking of newspapers, the Press of the world fully reported the experiment. A few journals, in order that they could make fun of the whole affair, pretended that we went to the Brocken with the firm conviction that the goat would change into the 'faire youth'. But most of the papers realised that the trial of such experiments is worth while, the Evening Standard remarking (June 18, 1932) that the 'investigation of them is a step forward in the progress of science .... The true scientist inquires into the meaning of all phenomena without prejudice.'
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