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The Lure of the Witch

Schlern Massif
Photo © 2004 Dawn Work-MaKinne.
larger view of image

One of the interesting side-effects of life as a researcher is that research questions breed. A good Imbolc word, breed, Brighid. Research questions take on a life of their own in the dark and light recesses of my mind, they mate, they cross-pollinate, they create new questions out of old. I've read of neurotransmitters being called a "witches' brew," probably by Kay Jamison, one of my favorite nonfiction writers. (Jamison 1996) At any rate, the research cauldron is always bubbling.

This semester for my doctoral work, I designed a course called Women in Germanic Folklore. In all truth, this is my idea of a really good time. I love folklore, I love the Grimms' fairy tales, I love legends, myths, urban legends and really bad puns. I'm just beginning work on my final project for the course, an introduction to die Schlernhexen, the Schlern Witches. I have written a bit about these witches and this landscape before, so bear with me. Since this column is charting the growth and (we hope) eventual graduation of a newly-minted Ph.D. Goddess Scholar, you'll find that the journey goes deeper and deeper into a selected set of questions instead of ranging far and wide over every Goddess on earth.

The Schlern Massif is a striking mountain in the Dolomite range of the Alps, in South Tyrol, northern Italy. The village of Völs am Schlern, where I've visited twice now, is nestled in rolling fields partway up the mountainside, and is a famed ski resort in winter. Völs am Schlern is known from written records as far back as 888 CE, and habitation and use of the Schlern as a sacred site go back at least as far as the Bronze Age. From one's first startled glance at the Schlern, one can become enchanted, and easily believe that our ancestors found this land as sacred as we do now. And like many striking mountainous landscape features in Europe, the Schlern Massif has attracted its tales of witches.

Breitenstein Village Logo (detail)
© Breitenstein Im Harz Web Site

Perhaps more well-known to American audiences is the Brocken, in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. This mountain raised itself to great fame in Goethe's Faust. Goethe knew of the folklore of Walpurgisnacht, a night of the witches, which took place every year on May Eve, April 30. The witches were reported to ride wildly around the Brocken, stopping to light mountaintop fires and dance with the Devil. Some towns even use the witch and Walpurgisnacht as a lure for tourist dollars. Look, for instance, at the website for the village of Breitenstein, in the Harz region of Germany, with its large smiling witch, by clicking on the thumbnail image at the left. (

I was surprised at first when the Goddesses flew me (via Lufthansa Airlines rather than broom service) to a little town in the Italian Alps, in the shadow of an awe-inspiring mountain where tales of witches abound. Just like the Brocken, the Schlern is an imposing landscape feature that spires up out of everything surrounding it. Story after story tells of die Hexen, the Witches, riding around the Schlern by the thousands, making good and bad weather, mostly bad, but lighting fires and dancing wildly under the full moon. And like their counterparts in Germany, the Schlern region's tourist boards selected die Hexe, the witch, as the tourist mascot of their region.

The Hexe Who Flies Through the Stairwell of a Guesthouse in Vols am Schlern, Italy
Photo © 2004 Dawn Work-MaKinne.
larger view of image

y readings for this semester's folklore course taught me a new word: folklure. Folklure is the use of folklore for selling and decorative purposes. (Priscilla Denby, quoted in Zipes 2002, p. 120) Both the Schlern region and the Harz Mountain region have found the cheerful hag witch on her broom, with associated festivals, costumes, masks, dancing and running, to be a potent brew for drawing tourists, and money.

So what does this have to do with research questions? I've found myself wondering recently, what does it take for a locality to move from historic witch burnings (with the attendant village projections of hate, cruelty and violence) in the fifteenth century to a grinning, broom-riding witch as the central symbol of their region in the twenty-first? I am thinking about the vast changes in belief that would accompany this transformation. Between 1506 and 1510, the people in our idyllic village killed nine women as witches, and I want us to hear their names: Anna Jobstin, Anna Miolerin, Juliane Winklerin, Katharina Haselriederin,

Katharina Moserin, die Mesnerin von St. Cristanzen, Anna Oberharderin, Magdalena Astnerin, Kunigunder Bodenlangin. These women were accused of causing harm to others, causing the death of children, flying, creating bad weather, and cursing their neighbors. In my own mind, as part of my own political struggle, I am refusing to name this period "renaissance."

I wonder what it was like for our European ancestors, especially our foremothers, who went through the cataclysmic changes of the Protestant "reformation," the scientific and philosophical "enlightenment," and the wars and revolutions of developing nation-states. By the 19th century in Germany, where the Brothers Grimm collected and wrote their Nursery- and Household-Tales (Grimm and Grimm 1812), the witch was becoming a fixture of the Victorian-era fairy tale. While still retaining some of her former fearsomeness, she could also be a trickster, or even a helper in disguise. And as Goddess women ended the twentieth-century, most of us far from the land of our ancestors, we remembered the women who were killed, and the women who were accused, and those who survived, all those who were wise, and skilled, and crafty.

The Schlern Hex Witch on Restaurant Signage
photo (detail) © 2004 Dawn Work-MaKinne

The figure of the witch is a potent scholarly and historical problem for the student of European paganism, especially the feminist scholar. It will take a lot of patient untangling to find and separate all the threads. There are some great books that can get us started: Katherine Morris' Sorceress or Witch? The Image of Gender in Medieval Iceland and Northern Europe (Morris 1991); Walter Stephens' The Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex and the Crisis of Belief (Stephens 2002); Miriam Dexter's The Frightful Goddess: Birds, Snakes and Witches (Dexter 1997); Carlo Ginburg's Ecstacies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. (Ginzburg 1991).

I may come back to this topic again in this column. Because I have to tell the truth: I have joined those who are lured by the witch. Because I freely admit that when I saw her holy, crazy mountain, and saw her haggishly riding her broom in houses and shops and restaurants and books, I fell in love with her. Her images, brought back from these lands, fly now through the rooms of my house, and I find myself praying to her. The shopkeepers in Italy tell me that she will bring luck, and blessing. Die Hexen are still riding, and still dancing, and at some point in the magical future, I will climb onto my scholarly broom and go riding with them, seeking their stories.


  • Dexter, Miriam Robbins. 1997. "The Frightful Goddess: Birds, Snakes and Witches." In Varia on the Indo-European Past: Papers in Memory of Marija Gimbutas, pp. 124-154. Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man.
  • Ginzburg, Carlo. 1991. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. New York: Pantheon Books.
  • Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. 1812. Kinder- und Haus-Märchen. Berlin: in der Realschulbuchhandlung.
  • Jamison, Kay R. 1996. An Unquiet Mind. New York: A.A. Knopf.
  • Morris, Katherine. 1991. Sorceress or witch?: The Image of Gender in Medieval Iceland and Northern Europe. Lanham: University Press of America.
  • Stephens, Walter. 2002. Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Belief. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Zipes, Jack David. 2002. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Graphics Credits

  • Schlern Massif, Guesthouse Witch, Witch on Restaurant Signage. © 2004 Dawn Work-MaKinne. All rights reserved.
  • Detail, Breitenstein Village Logo. Breitenstein Im Harz Web Site. All rights reserved.
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