by Elena Helfrecht

“Unternächte” is the term my grandmother and great-grandmother in Bavaria used for the time around the longest night and the shortest day, between Winter Solstice and Epiphany – a time known in other parts of Southern Germany and Austria as “Rauhnächte”. The main period of this time includes the last six nights of the old year, and the first six nights of the new year, neither of them belonging fully to one or the other. During this phase of the year, a circle closes, life ends and re-emerges. Darkness turns into light again. Here, life and death, light and darkness, good and evil are said to meet, and a door opens to the otherworld. This time, where the old has not yet entirely faded, but the new has not fully risen, is seen as empty, a vacuum, both dangerous and cathartic, requiring specific rules and procedures to ensure a safe transition from the old chaos into a new order.

Between the years, everyday tasks have to rest, and all generations move closer together around the blaze, often entertaining each other in the evenings with stories, collectively keeping the darkness at bay. The legends told during this time still serve as warnings and guidance. The “Unternächte”, marking the end and beginning of the solar cycle, are a tangible metaphor for our lives, a reminder, and an opportunity for introspection. Within these nights, magic is said to be the most efficient, and divination has a high rate of success. Especially the women in my family have practiced these customs and used oneiromancy to get a glimpse into the future year and to keep the family safe. According to my mother, she, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother had a sensitive intuition and were able to tell major events before they took place.

As a yearly ritual, I go on a hunt with my camera during the longest nights and visually examine this ancient lore and tradition while contemplating past events and new beginnings, and reconnect with my family, childhood memories, and my female lineage. Rather than just documenting this time, I want to invent new rituals and expand the myths I grew up with, following their quality of adding the fantastic to personal experience, to capture a greater matter. Local customs, family history, and experiences are woven into dreams and fantasy, attempting to grasp a full circle.

Elena Helfrecht