Burn the Witch — Hexenbrennen

May 18, 2012

In Saxony, a province in eastern Germany, near the city of Bautzen lies the small village of Schwarznaußlitz.  It is the home of some family members of our friends Werner and Henny, whom we visited with them last September.  We enjoyed that time tremendously, and since we were passing by again on our way to Poland, we wanted to stop and say hello.  By coincidence, we happened to arrive the afternoon before the village’s annual witch burning.

Each year at this time Schwarznaußlitz and the surrounding villages burn their witches.  Rooted in antiquity, it is a major social event for the village and especially for the children.  Everyone gathers together after dark on the last night of April to burn a witch, and by doing so, usher out the bad spirits of winter before welcoming the spring.

Huge pile of branches and wood in a field

The witch pyre accumulating

The village saves all of its waste wood (tree trimmings, scrap lumber, etc.) throughout the year, bringing them to a designated space in a farmer’s field during the week before Hexenbrennen (‘witch burning’).  The wood is all pushed into a huge pile, upon which is placed the Hexen (witch).  Don’t worry, it’s not a real witch, but an effigy made of wood and fabric.  Sometimes, perhaps after a particularly bad winter, they burn more than one witch!

A 'witch' made of wood and fabric on top of the wood pile

The Witch and her Friends

Hexenbrennen is Saxony’s version of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis’ Night), a traditional spring festival that takes place on April 30th in large parts of Central and Northern Europe.  This date is exactly 6 months from All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween).  It is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who was canonized on May 1st (May Day) in the year 870.  The eve of May day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known in Germany as Walpurgisnacht. On this night, witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken (the highest mountain in the Harz mountain range) and await the arrival of spring.

The burning of people that were thought to be witches was common throughout Europe between the 15 and 18th Centuries.  Estimates vary, but perhaps as many as 50,000 accused witches (about three-quarters of whom were women) were killed in this manner.  The peak of the witch hunting phenomenon occurred in central and southern Germany from 1561 to 1670.   Hexenbrennen may be a carry-over from this legacy, but it has long left its tormented history behind, and despite potential misogynist undertones, it is now a fun family celebration that we looked forward to attending.

We arrived around sunset with our generous hosts Andreas and Regina after enjoying some warm-up beverages at their home.  They introduced us to their friends, including the man who owns the house that we stayed in when we visited last September.  Everyone was very welcoming and the whole village seemed to know that we were visiting Canadians (it’s a small village and word gets around).  Many were glad to speak with us, using their limited English and my extremely limited German.

Andreas with his arm around Diane in front of the witch pyre

Diane and Andreas

The local volunteer fire department was serving food and drink as a fundraiser.  We tried all of the food, washed down with generous amounts of German beer.  I enjoyed the herring sandwich (strips of pickled herring on a white bun soaked in herring juice), but it wasn’t to Diane’s likingWe both really liked the wurst (sausage, pronounced ‘vurst’) and delicious schaschlik (a shish kabob of pork).

A man cooking food on a grill with a customer in front of him

Great food!

Soon after nightfall, the children of the village were armed with flaming swords and marched up the hill in a procession.  They approached the huge pyre, circled it, and threw their torches into the tangle.

Children in the dark carrying burning torches

Village children carrying torches

The fire started slowly at first, but soon grew into a massive inferno.  The heat it threw off was overpowering, and it was necessary to stand at least 20 meters away.

The burning pyre with the remnants of a witch on top

The witch burning

At some point in the proceedings, we climbed the hill with Andreas to look out across the countryside.  In the distance we could see 8 fires burning in other villages, each casting an eerie orange glow. By tradition the villages compete to amass the largest wood pile, something that when lit will be seen for miles around and be the envy of all the other villages.  The people in Schwarznaußlitz seemed a little bit dismayed by the fact that their wood pile wasn’t larger, and talked fondly of the good old days when it was much bigger.  They spoke nostalgically of the grandest pile they’d ever seen, in which village it was located, and in what year.

Also by tradition, the young men of the villages compete in a related ritual.  They try to sabotage the other villages’ plans by igniting their wood piles before the big night.  As a result, it is necessary for the young men of each village to provide round-the-clock security for their own wood piles from their inception until the night of Hexenbrennen, which is typically about a week.

The young men of Schwarznaußlitz take this to a rather extreme level.  Each night they protect their wood pile while sitting beside it on old couches.  They also erect a massive guard tower equipped with high powered search lights to monitor the perimeter.

A tower made of scaffolding and plastic in the field near the witch pyre

The elaborate guard tower with Diane in front.

At night the farmer’s field where the wood pile is located resembles a prison camp, with scheduled watches, posted sentries, and foot patrols.  Armed with pellet guns, radios, adrenaline, and beer, they guard their pyre with paramilitary bravado.

Special forces flag with words 'Mess with the best, die like the rest'

Do you think they’re taking this a bit too seriously?

Although it is a now a crime to burn another village’s wood pile before the big night (a huge uncontrolled fire, even out in a farmer’s field, could be dangerous), it does happen.  In a bold nighttime sortie, someone set fire to the couches of the security squad of the neighbouring village Singwitz.  The cunning perpetrators have yet to be apprehended.  I heard stories of the sneak attacks that the Schwarznaußlitz men had repelled, and how the assailants from other villages had repeatedly been denied.  At first I thought these stories were concocted or the result of overactive, beer-fired imaginations, but when on the final night I was told that they repelled 7 different groups of invaders, I started to believe.  Once again this year, the young men of Schwarznaußlitz were triumphant, and the wood pile survived until the time of its scheduled immolation.

Burning pyre with remnants of the witch visible in the flames

Burning pyre with the remnants of the witch

We greatly enjoyed our repeat visit to Schwarznaußlitz.  We would like to thank Andreas, Regina, Lilo, Stephan, and Juliane for hosting us.  We are very fortunate to know them, and it was great to visit them during Hexenbrennen and to participate in this unique event.

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Life and Death in Varanasi

October 3, 2009

Varanasi is an ancient city and perhaps the holiest city in India for Hindus. It is located at a confluence of the sacred Ganges and several other rivers. All Hindus wish to die in Varanasi to have a chance to end the cycle of reincarnation. If they aren’t lucky enough to die here, those who can afford it want to be cremated in Varanasi and have their ashes cast into the holy Ganges.

For tourists, one of the highlights of a trip to Varanasi is an early morning boat ride along the river to view the ‘ghats’, stepped platforms along the rivers edge where people come to bathe their sins away. There are about eighty ghats in Varanasi stretching for several kilometers along the river. In addition to people bathing, many others come to pray, make offerings, do yoga, wash clothes, hang out, or to sell things to people doing these other things.


We rose at 5 AM and were at the main Dasaswamedh Ghat by 5:30. We negotiated with a boat man for a one hour trip and shared the large rowboat with five people from South Korea. He rowed us up and down the river for an hour as day broke and activity commenced along the bank. The ghats of Varanasi are an unparalleled people watching opportunity. They are lively, bright, and busy places, with people of all ages participating in acts from the most mundane to the most sacred. It provides a rare glimpse into people’s private moments amid a spectacle of colourful pageantry.

There are also two burning ghats in Varanasi where Hindus are cremated. Bodies covered in brightly coloured shiny fabric and flowers are carried through the streets to the rivers edge on bamboo stretchers followed by family members. Diane and I spent an afternoon walking along the ghats and arrived somewhat unexpectedly at Harishchandra Ghat, one of the cremation ghats. We stopped to watch.

The corpses arrive at the river wrapped from head to toe in white cloth shrouds. All the work is done by outcasts called ‘doms’ who are considered unclean by other Hindus. The bodies are immersed in the Ganges before burning, then placed on piles of wood and covered with more wood. Their wrapped heads and feet stick out. Flammable liquid and powders are added, and the fires are lit using a bundle of straw. The shrouds turn brown then black as the fire rises.

There were five different cremations happening on the beach while we sat there. They were all in various stages of immolation. As the fires burned down men in bare feet with green bamboo poles pried the logs to stir the contents. No bones or skin were visible, but there was a lot of smoke and the smell of burning flesh. We sat upwind to avoid breathing it.

Male family members gathered around or sat nearby on the ghat to watch. There were no women in attendance other than Diane. The whole thing seemed very normal. It was surprisingly devoid of emotion. We didn’t see anyone crying.

We watch one corpse being rowed out into the Ganges on the bow of a boat and dumped into the water. This is the fate for those whose families can’t afford the wood required for cremation (each log is weighed to determine the total price). Yes, these bodies are dumped just upstream of the hundreds of people bathing at the ghats down river.

We were encouraged to depart by a man who claimed that we were sitting in a family-only area. He directed us to another area where he would be glad to explain what we are seeing, for a fee of course. Although this was likely a scam, we weren’t sure of the etiquette here, and didn’t want to do anything that might offend, so we decided to move on down the river.

We handled this whole scene surprisingly well. Although it was a bit disturbing, it seemed like a natural part of life here, and so it wasn’t really upsetting to see.

On a remotely related note…

Last night we were walking down a narrow dark alley when we heard a great commotion ahead. Dogs were barking and growling, people yelling, and there was a strange screaming noise. A few meters ahead we upon the scene. An Indian ‘saddhu’ (holy man) dressed in saffron robes was chasing a pack of dogs away from a small monkey that lay on the ground. It wasn’t moving. A man threw a bucket of water on the monkey, which he’d originally brought to throw on the dogs. It remained lifeless. Its monkey brethren were chattering and yelling from above, looking down on their fallen comrade. Eventually the saddhu lifted the dead monkey by the tail and removed it from the alley. The Indian people were cowering, staying back from the scene. We weren’t sure why until we passed by the crowd that had gathered. A monkey threw something down on us, just missing Diane as we scurried through. Even in the crowded lanes of Varanasi’s old city, life can be brutal and short.