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The Witches’ Well, Gleichenberg, Styria, Austria

Count Trauttmansdorff was presiding over a case of witchcraft, in the great hall of his fortress at Gleichenberg. We may imagine the scene: the Renaissance chairs, the rough medieval masonry, the rich tapestries hanging suspended from rings set in the walls, the narrow windows, the torchlight glimmering on dark wood. One corner of the room was occupied by a kind of stone tower, with a small opening and a dome. Gleichenberg was less of a private dwelling than the residence of the emperor’s representative, and its disposition reflected the coldness of administrative power.

Before the gilded throne occupied by Count Trauttmansdorff stood a group of peasant women, shackled to each other. They numbered about twenty, and were all dressed in gaudy tatters and cheap jewelry. Their matted hair was studded with flowers and feathers, and they were protesting loudly, threatening to call havoc down upon the heads of their tormentors. Their curses were truly horrible to hear.

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Count Trauttmansdorff had read the charges against them in detail. In the great hall of the castle at Gleichenberg, everybody was terrified, from the subtlest freethinking lawyers to the most grizzled veterans of the wars against the Turks. All were ready to believe that these women could summon the devil himself into their midst. Only the count himself was unaffected; he saw the frightened looks passing between the women, even as they spat their threats and insults. He also saw the hate-filled faces and naked weapons of the guards glittering in the torchlight. He remembered that it was a Gypsy woman, not unlike these young women, who had saved his life and the lives of many others long ago. He was far from convinced that they would harm a fly.

Yet the church, the emperor, and the law demanded savage retribution against all such suspected daughters of the Evil One. In particular, a failed priest and his advocate succeeded at creating a psychosis of terror in the great hall. As the count listened to the detailed descriptions of their practices, he began in spite of himself to feel a creeping dread of the unknown. The women then pleaded their case, admitting to the count that their spells were never anything more than mere child’s play, that they were simply bored with their daily lives and so took to the woods to mix fruitless and impotent potions. That is, until one day, when a true witch appeared, one who understood the possibilities offered by their innocence and led them into the world of darkness without revealing her true purpose or intent. They would gather in the woods and through them the witch would invoke the Evil One, who would manifest himself as a yellow dog, or a goat, or some monstrous animal. When this witch caught wind of the suspicions against them, she fled, abandoning the young women without notice.

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But it was too late; the count had made his decision. Around him, the tension had reached a breaking point. All those present wished to rid themselves of the menace the witches represented, to wake from the nightmare they had induced. They must be annihilated as swiftly as possible, and were damned to be thrown alive into the well shaft in the corner of the great hall. The count made a sign to the guards. The executioners were undoubtedly more afraid of the witches than they were of the headsmen. Naturally, the young women refused to leap to their death, so the guards pushed forward, stabbing at them with their swords and halberds. Some where run through and killed, while others, sorely wounded, flung themselves out of despair into the black hole.

The trial was a great boon for the advocate who had won the fatal sentence. At first his career was meteoric, but later, puffed up with pride, he overstepped the mark and dared to defy the great ones he had formerly obeyed. For this he was once again hurled back into obscurity, and so died. Count Trauttmansdorff never forgot the cruel execution he had ordered. He became convinced that he had perpetrated a great injustice, for which he incessantly implored God’s forgiveness, until he too went into the grave.

Ever since the famous witchcraft trial, the history of Gleichenberg has been a tragic litany. The first—and perhaps the worst—horror was that of the Countess Trauttmansdorff, who during the war with the Turks witnessed the arrival at the castle of twenty-one corpses, the entire complement of her sons and nephews. Century upon century afterwards, ghosts proliferated in the castle with the clear intention (or so it seemed) of driving out its living inhabitants. But the living remained stolidly indifferent to everything the ghosts could do. Countess Annie, Gleichenberg’s present owner, remembers her grandfather, for example, in whose bedroom there was such a continual din of slamming doors, crashing windows, and lids of chests opening and shutting that when the poor man retired to his palace in Vienna, the silence made him so jumpy he couldn’t sleep a wink.

The father of Countess Annie finally decided to rid himself of the witches once and for all, but without arousing the suspicions of the villagers, who were thoroughly superstitious. With this in mind, he brought several workers from a distant city, who on his instruction excavated a whole pile of debris before coming upon a score or so of skeletons. A cursory examination showed that all of these bones were female, and many bore easily recognizable traces of wounds inflicted by blades. On the orders of the count, the workmen buried all of the skeletons in a far corner of the forest, and covered them over with a layer of concrete followed by another layer of soil. They operated at night so that nobody could see what they were doing, and in order that the exact burial site would remain a secret; after which, having sworn to say nothing, they dispersed.

The ensuing interlude of peace did not last very long. The count’s wife was sitting on the steps reading, when she heard the dinner bell sound and looked up to see an old woman grotesquely dressed in a green bolero and red skirt, drifting by on the terrace. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” she called out, but the woman continued to the battlements, swung a leg over the parapet, and vanished. The countess rushed in pursuit, sure that she would see a crumpled corpse at the foot of the rampart: but there was no one, alive or dead, to be found.

Several months later, while she was visiting a local church, the same countess was startled by a painting of a very old woman wearing the same clothes as the woman she had seen on the rampart. The picture was entitled Witch of Gleichenberg.

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We arrived by car one winter morning, after driving through the steep valleys and forests of Styria, on whose peaks rose stronghold after stronghold. The watering place of Gleichenberg, which is overrun in the summer season, was completely quiet. The big hotels were closed and the streets were empty of people.

Countess Annie received us in her charming house with the warmth, simplicity, and grace, which are so characteristic of central Europe. From the windows we could see the ruins of her ancestral home, whose shattered walls pointed to the sky like black fingers.

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Since the last fire, Annie had only set foot in the castle once. A prince of Europe’s greatest royal house, well versed in the occult, happened to pay her a visit and suggested that they should summon the witches in the basement beneath the great hall where the skeletons had been excavated. Those present had not been disappointed: lightning flashed from the floor, a knight in armor had seized the spiritualist prince by the shoulder and lifted him off the ground, and a huge yellow dog with horns, a well-known manifestation of the arch-fiend, had shown himself very clearly. Countess Annie is still perfectly certain that her old castle possessed every iota of its malign power; and from time to time visitors who dare to venture into its ruins confirm the fact.

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“People often come knocking at my door to complain that unseen children have been slinging stones at them from up there.”

There are no children at Gleichenberg.

The countess advised us not to go near the invisible inhabitants of the fortress of Gleichenberg; they were now the masters.

“They’re violent and aggressive,” she assured me. “Don’t go there—I’m frightened for you.”

But her affectionate attempts only increased my impatience. Fortified by her warnings—and I think her prayers—we took our leave.

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Along the path, the thorns and brambles grew thicker and more troublesome the further we progressed. The bridge was almost entirely collapsed, and the snow and mud made the narrow passage slippery and perilous. More than once we nearly fell into the moat. On the far side, we came up against a giant iron gate, at least three hundred years old, which creaked when pushed. We scrambled up a muddy slope, grasping at roots for balance and nearly falling into deep trenches covered over with ivy. By way of a second partially collapsed gateway, we entered the main courtyard, and here a surprise awaited us; in the middle of the rubble and shrubs a single façade remained intact, with its graceful arcades and loggias. This place was sweetly reminiscent of Italy, despite the desolation all around.

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The castle was otherwise totally devastated by fire and the toll of time and weather. There was silence, inertia, and lurking somewhere nearby an indefinable menace. The light began to fade, though the February sun still shone brightly. I climbed to the highest point I could reach, the lip of a wall overhanging a precipice. All around me the countryside stretched away for miles, its meadows and woodlands merging together in the long gray-blue winter shadows. On the horizon, the dark clouds were tinged with crimson. The tranquility of the evening enveloped me, and curiously I thought it not compatible with the possible presence of witches. Then I picked my way down through the snow-covered rubble until at last I found myself in the great hall, where long ago the witches had been judged and condemned. Like twisted arms, the roots of shrubs had begun to break through the walls. The high wall at the back of the room still held, towering behind the smashed open ceilings. Fifteen feet in thickness, this wall had once held out for several months under the incessant cannonades of King Ottokar of Bohemia.

In the most distant corner, despite the shadows invading the room, I could make out the silhouette of a little round turret, topped by a dome. This must be the famous witches’ well.

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I walked up and down across the desolate space, oppressed by a sense of utter solitude. I was far from everything and everyone else alive. The witches were by me. But I knew now that I had nothing to fear from them. On the contrary, there was someone else present who alarmed me. A soft noise made me jump; probably a pebble coming off the wall. I went on with my pacing, compelling myself to drive off the anxiety which was insinuating itself into my being. I could feel that wasn’t wanted here at all, but whatever force was rejecting me, it was not the witches.

I let out a cry. A great stone had fallen just beside me, passing close enough to touch my coat… I stood paralyzed, my heart beating like a jackhammer, until I sensed the danger slowly heaving itself away.

 

Excerpt from my book, Living with Ghosts: Eleven Extraordinary Tales, Norton, 1996.

All photographs by Justin Creedy-Smith


by  Prince Michael of Greece