Harry Price’s Brocken Experiment: Can a Goat be Transformed into a Boy?
In 1932 the famed psychical researcher Harry Price travelled to the Harz Mountains in Germany to conduct an experiment using transfiguration magic. Could one use Early Modern witchcraft to transform a goat into a boy?
SOURCE: Harry Price and his Ghost Hunting Equipment, 1947
The details of this experiment were documented in Price’s book, Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter from 1936.
SOURCE: Cover to Harry Price, Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, (Putnam & Co. Ltd., London, 1936.
Price had travelled to Germany with his friend the English philosopher, writer, and broadcaster C.E.M. Joad. Together they carried with them a printed version of an old hand-written German manuscript titled, The High German Black Book.
SOURCE: Caricature of C. E. M. Joad
According to Price’s account, the Black Book was originally written during the fifteenth century and contained a lot of information about transcendental magic and other occultic practices.
In this book there is a description of a ritual known as the ‘Bloksberg Tryst;’ a transfiguration ceremony used to transform a goat into a boy. It was so named after the highest peak of the Harz Mountains where - according to the information in the Black Book - the ritual needed to be performed.
SOURCE: Photograph of Harz Mountains
At the time of the experiment there was a festival going on in Harz, celebrating the life and work of the poet, naturalist, and philosopher, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
In conversation with the Harz Goethe Centenary Committee, Price and Joad arranged to perform the Bloksberg Tryst ritual as part of the festival.
Goethe had a keen interest in the occult, and studied magic and witchcraft throughout his career. Thus, the inclusion of the Bloksberg Tryst in the festival was to showcase some of Goethe’s less conventional interests.
SOURCE: Goethe at age 38, painted by Angelica Kauffman (1787)
Price included a transcription of the Black Book's description of the Bloksberg Tryst in Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter:
“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 the test must be made with a pure heart and mind and selfless intentention [sic]. The time between one day before to one day after the Moons fullness is necessary 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. The apex of the Triangle must direct to the Tower of Kassel the base will then cover the Hexentanzplatz 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 [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 saying 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 [sic] 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 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.” (Price, 1936, pp. 336-337)
Price and Joad, with the help of the festival organizers, fully recreated the proceedings of the Bloksberg Tryst ritual using the description from the Black Book. The alter (i.e., the magical circle) was created on the mountain, a virgin male goat was procured, and a local girl named Urta Bohn acted as the ‘maiden pure in heart.’
SOURCE: A Photograph of the Magic Circle on the Brocken captured during Price and Joad’s experiment in 1932. From Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, (1936), p. 339.
The recreation of the Bloksberg Tryst ritual at the Goethe festival in 1932 was extremely popular. However, it should come as little surprise that the goat did not transform into a boy.
That said, it was never really the aim of the experiment to succeed. Price was not actually trying to test the merit of the ritual to determine if it worked. Rather, he wanted to use the opportunity at the festival to show the local community in Harz that these old magical practices were nothing more than superstitious nonsense.
According to Price, even in the 1930s, occultic and folkloric beliefs persisted in the Harz Mountains.
Price's hope, therefore, was that by exposing an older ritual like the Bloksberg Tryst as bogus, perhaps some of the traditional surviving superstition of the region would wane. Price recognised in his book that “superstition is not so easily killed” but high-profile experiments such as the one he led with Joad in 1932 were certainly important exercises in combating what he saw as credulous belief.
Hall, Trevor H., Search for Harry Price, London: Duckworth, 1978.
Morris, Richard, Harry Price: The Pyschic Detective, Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2006.
Price, Harry, Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter, (Putnam & Co. Ltd., London, 1936.
Tabori, Paul, Harry Price: The Biography of a Ghost-Hunter, London: Athenaeum Press, 1950.