Star light, star bright –

dark and sombre the night?

In the evening, darkness envelops the earth like a blanket. Gazing up at the night sky creates stories – not just telling of the stars, but also of those observing them. Before the world’s all-encompassing illumination, people were only surrounded by a starlit night sky. These watching it were deeply moved by the enigmatic lights of the cosmos: What determines the rhythm of the heavens? Chance or fixed rules? What is hidden in the depth of the universe? A darkness solely lit by stars stimulated the human imagination, posed questions and awakened inquiring minds. This was the trigger to try and understand the night.

Divine darkness – the myth of the night

IIn the earliest times, people could not explain the processes underlying the alternation of day and night, the eternal struggle between light and dark. On all continents, cultures read the night sky as the cosmic dance of their gods and goddesses. Personifying the night gives it a more tangible form. Our ancestors then believed they knew who populates the night and who brings the darkness. With rituals and prayers, they tried to propitiate the gods and gain their favour.

© Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Vorderasiatisches Museum, Foto: Olaf M. Teßmer

Astronomy – A clear view of the skies

Where do awe and mythology end, where does astronomy begin? For years, there was a fluid border between observing and explaining. Our view of the night became clearer, at the latest, with Nicolaus Copernicus’ doubts over a geocentric universe, Johannes Kepler’s calculations of planetary movement, and Galileo Galilei popularising the telescope to observe the skies. Soon our view was so clear that we could photograph nebula 1350 light years away.

© Greaves & Thomas, London

Witches – Between folklore and persecution

Incantations, flying brooms and magic potions – the popular image of witches is heavily influenced by the Walpurgis Night on 30 April. Then, witches supposedly meet on the Brocken peak in the Harz mountains. In Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles looks forward to “A bit of thievery, a bit of rutting”. The reality behind that literary image was grim. In central Europe in the early modern age, it was mostly women who were accused of making a pact with the devil and executed after mock trials. This mass hysteria had many different causes, but can be seen as rooted in ideas about gender and superstitions.

© Carnovsky, Mailand

Werewolves – A person in wolf’s clothing

The idea that a person could be transformed into a wolf by looking at the full moon already existed in ancient Babylon. In most legends, the werewolf entered a pact with the devil or was cursed by the gods to lead this double life. The individual’s animalistic side is released and expressed in the dark of the night. Hybrid creatures reflect the ancient fear of, but also the desire for, bestial powers. It is no coincidence that numerous deities combine these qualities. Human-animal hybrids can be found from cave paintings in the Stone Age to the Harry Potter novels.

Vampire – Bloodsucker or scapegoat?

Vampires have supernatural powers – immortal, able to transform into a bat, and incredibly strong. They hunt their prey at night, craving the blood of the living to give them new energy. Daylight weakens or even destroys them. Vampire literature draws its inspiration from southeast Europe, both in the figure of Vlad III Dracula, said to have been especially keen on impaling his enemies on stakes, and from folk beliefs in ‘the living dead’, sinful wrongdoers revived from the dead to haunt the living.

Knoblauch, Holzpfähle und christlich geweihte Gegenstände: Der Vampirjägerkoffer aus dem Jahr 1880 beinhaltet unterschiedliche Utensilien zur Bekämpfung von Vampiren.

© Museum für Kommunikation Berlin, Foto: Philipp Jester

Nightmares – Bitter dreams

We all know the bewildering, terrifying experience of having a nightmare. Could this really be caused by an alp, a small night-time creature like a goblin or demon? In German folklore, the alp sits on the sleeper’s chest, creating a crushing weight that steadily intensifies. The sleepers’ unconscious suffering is mirrored in their dreams. For scientists, the triggers for nightmares are found in psychological or physical states. In these puzzling dreams, usually occurring in the second half of the sleep cycle, we work through what we have experienced.

© OOO-Films, Foto: LIGA 01 Computerfilm, Design: AKIZ