Mother Nature and Our Self-Portraits: The Brocken Spectre

A Different Kind of Self-Portrait: Mother Nature and Brocken Spectre, aka Brockengespenst or the Ghost of Brocken


Nowadays we live in a world of selfies. But Mother Nature, amazing as She always is, offers us a new kind of self-portrait…the image of our shadow surrounded by a rainbow, an optical illusion known as the Brocken Spectre, Brockengespenst in German or the Ghost of Brocken, named after the mountain it was first spotted on.

Three elements need to be present, simultaneously, for this optical illusion to happen:

* sunset – or the sun to be low in the sky

* high altitude – like the top of a mountain; some books mention only three locations in the world where the Brocken Spectre can be visible–the Brocken Mountain in Germany, Scotland mountains, and Haleakala National Park, Maui, Hawaii

* fog, clouds or rain to make the rainbow possible

* a fourth element would be you, the subject, standing on a mountain, with the sun behind you

So what is the Brocken Spectre and what’s the history of this optical illusion?

Brocken Spectre goes by many names, including Brocken Bow, Gravity Rainbow or Brockengespenst. They all define an optical illusion originally observed and described by Johann Esaias Silberschlag (16 Nov 1721 – 22 Nov 1791) in 1780 on Brocken Mountain, Germany.  [Silberschalg was a theologian and natural scientist. A lunar crater is named after him.]

Brocken Mountain is part of the Harz Mountains (highest peak is Bocksberg), located in Northern Germany, near Schierke, in Saxony-Anhalt, Wurnberg, between rivers Weser and Elbe. Brocken Spectre appears as a “halo-like ring of glory,” also called a “saint’s halo” or “god-shadows.” The spectre is an enlarged shadow of the observer surrounded by the rainbow. This hallo becomes visible on mountain regions, usually at sunset, definitely when the sun is low in the sky, and also when clouds, fog or rain are present. The Brocken Spectre images posted below were taken on top of Haleakala crater (10k ft or 3048 m above sea level) in Maui, Hawaii.

Brocken Spectre. Haleakala, Maui. Photo Copyright 2010 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Close-up of Brocken Spectre. Haleakala, Maui. Photo Copyright 2010 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

Famous visitors on Brocken Mountain include Goethe, who mentioned the Spectre in Faust, and poet Heinrich Heine, who mentioned the spectre in Harzreise (1826). There’s an quote that says: “Viele Steine, müde Beine, Aussicht keine, Heinrich Heine.” The phrase relates to the difficult mountain climb in foggy conditions.

That brings me to my bucket list. I’ll have to add a visit to Brocken Mountain in Germany. There’s more to it than ghosts….

And while still on the subject of Heinrich Heine, recently I revisited his poem about a mermaid called Lorelei, when reviewing Brad Gooch’s new book, Smash Cut. The review was published in the July issue of A&U Magazine. Check it out!

Thanks for stopping by,
Alina Oswald

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