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Pagan Holidays: Walpurgis Night and how a British lady went from Catholic saint, to Germanic goddess, to witch and gave us a second Halloween

“Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad—when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.”

Bram Stoker, “Dracula’s Guest

“There is a mountain very high and bare…whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis night.”

Jacob Grimm, 1883

In the Germanic countries of central Europe, there is what is essentially a second Halloween, Walpurgis night, or as it’s often referred to in its German form,  Walpurgisnacht, falling exactly six months from All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain.

Many of the ancient cultures divided the year into just two seasons, summer and winter. The dividing line between the two seasons were Beltane and Samhain, with Beltane being one of eight solar Sabbats in the pagan calendar, its date based on the sun.

In Britain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Beltane often begins at sunset on April 30 and continues through May day. Since the medieval era at least, it was believed that the veil between the world of the living and dead is thinnest on both the night of Halloween and the night before Beltane.

As a result, not just the ghosts of the dead, but fairies, shapeshifter and in regards to Walpurgis, witches were at their most powerful and could more easily cross between the two worlds.

Walpurgisnacht and Beltane

Despite sharing the same date and many customs, there is a distinct difference between Walpurgis and Beltane. At its most basic, Beltane is primarily Gaelic and celebrated on May 1, whereas Walpurgis is Germanic and often celebrated the night before Beltane. If you were able to go back in time however, you’d realize you’re dealing with rural customs, in areas quite often cut off from much contact with the outside world. From that perspective you’d likely see little difference between the two holidays.

The primary difference between the ancient times and more modern history, is Walpurgis has developed a distinctly witchy flavor. Walpurgis in the Middle Ages concerned itself with protecting yourself from or driving away witches.

Today, as the fear of the craft fades slowly into the past, it’s all about celebrating witches.

Walpurgis throughout Europe

Walpurgis celebrations have continued unabated throughout Europe, in its homeland of Germany, as well as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland and Estonia.

Germanic folklore is ripe with tales of witches, and there the holiday is also known as Hexennacht, from the Dutch (Heksennacht) meaning Witches’ Night.

In Sweden, which has a particularly vibrant association with the holiday, it’s knowns as Valborg, and heavily tied to a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It has very little to do with religion and everything to do with the arrival of spring. In Sweden typical holiday activities include the singing of traditional spring folk songs and the lighting of bonfires.

“The first of May is a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all the hills and knolls.” 

Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

There is a practical reason as well as religious or reasons dealing with folklore, for celebrating on this day. During the Middle Ages, the legal or administrative year ended the last day of April. As a result, it was treated as a community wide holiday, celebrated with bonfires, trick or treating for the children, as well as traditional dances and songs relating to the beginning of spring.

In Sweden, the bonfires can only be traced back to the early 18th century, but they are in all likelihood a continuation of ancient ceremonies, the original purpose long since forgotten.

Both Beltane and Samhain relate to agriculture, but these two specifically to herding, rather than growing crops. It was at this time that the animals were let out for grazing, or brought closer to home for the winter. Bonfires has an added benefit of frightening away predators.

Trick or treating, in a fashion, was once celebrated on Valborg in southern Sweden. Though no longer popular, children went to the woods and collected branches of greenery to decorate the village houses, where they were paid in eggs.

In Finland, Walpurg is referred to as Vappu (or Vappen), and borrows the Germanic tradition of celebrating witches. It’s one of the four biggest Finnish holidays and is the biggest carnival day of the year, celebrated in no small part by excessive intake of alcohol.

Estonia too once looked on Walpurgis as the date when witches gathered, and referred to it as Volbriöö. It preceded the day of  Kevadpüha which was celebrated as the arrival of spring. Volbriöö still sees carnivals, celebration and drinking, often by people dressed as traditional witches.

It’s worth noting that unlike many of today’s modern witches and pagans, there is no desire to pretty up witches. Instead the tendency is to go with the old stereotype witch as hag. These are countries where witches were once feared after all.

In the Czech Republic, winter is brought to an end on May 30 in a festival called pálení čarodějnic (“burning of the witches”) or čarodějnice (“the witches”). Witches made of rags and straw are burned, sometimes just a broomstick, though in the modern era it’s more of an excuse to get drunk around the fire.

When a burst of black smoke is emitted from the blaze, a cheer goes up as the witch is said to fly away. As the fire dies down and midnight approaches, it’s off to the woods to search for cherry blossoms. It’s thought that a young woman kissed under a cherry tree that night, and ideally through the next day if one has the stamina, will keep both the tree and the young lady from drying up. To Czechs, it’s a day all about love.

The Roots of Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgis: The story behind the name

The first known mention of S. Walpurgis Nacht or (S. Walpurgis Abend) is to be found in the Calendarium perpetuum of Johann Coler (1603). It was also mentioned in the writings of Johannes Praetorius in 1668. Translated into English and stripped of its Catholic connotation, Saint Walpurgis Nacht becomes Walpurgis Night.

If you want to get technical, the holiday is called Walpurgisnacht [valˈpʊʁɡɪsˌnaχt], which is used in both the Dutch and German Language. In English it’s translated to Walpurgis Night, as it is the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurga.

Saint Walburga

Saint Walburga was an English nun, born in Devonshire in 710, sent as a missionary to Germany to start churches. She died in Heidenheim on February 25, 777 as best as we can tell.

As Walpurga’s feast was held on May 1, she became associated with May Day, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars.The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurgisnacht.

She is the patron saint of Eichstadt, Oudenarde, Furnes, Antwerp, Gronigen, Weilburg, and Zutphen. She also might be of assistance against hydrophobia, and in storms, and also by sailors, if you’re into that kind of thing.

She first seemed to have landed on the European continent in Mainz, under the care of her uncle, St. Boniface. Named abbess of Heidenheim, she was aided by her brother, St. Winibald, who governed an abbey in the same town. You think you have trouble living up to the expectations of your family? Try competing with your brother who is a saint.

When Winibald died, she took over the monastery he governed as well.

How does a Catholic saint become the namesake of a holiday dedicated to witches? It’s in part because of the name of Heidenheim. The abbey itself was called Heidenheimer Kloster, which translates to Heathen-home Cloister. Heidenheim it seems was named after a holy spring there, Heidenbrunnen, which was famous for having been where many heathens, or pagans as we like to call ourselves now, were baptized.

The name stuck, even if the meaning for the name was lost to time.

She became associated with May 1 because she was canonized as a saint on that day. The reason she became a saint was in no small part due to a strange occurrence on her burial. Her rock tomb began oozing a healing oil, and it was declared a miracle. So much so that her body was chopped up and sent all over France and German to spread the miracle.

People, still clinging to their pagan traditions were already celebrating May 1 in their heathen manner. This was of course frowned upon by the church, but under the auspices of celebrating St. Walburga’s feast day, the celebrations were able to continue.

If one inspects the stone carvings found in chapels dedicated to Walburga, you’ll find certain recurring symbols, typically a bundle of grain and a dog.

“Nine nights before the first of May is Walburga in flight, unceasingly chased by wild ghosts and seeking a hiding place from village to village. People leave their windows open so she can be safe behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her roaring enemies. For this, she lays a little gold piece on the windowsill, and flees further. A farmer who saw her on her flight through the woods described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head; her shoes were fiery gold, and in her hands she carried a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future, and a spindle, as does Berchta. A troop of white riders exerted themselves to capture her. So also another farmer saw her, whom she begged to hide her in a shock of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye in his grain stook. Therefore, the saint is portrayed with a bundle of grain.” 

E.L. Rochholz, 1870

This is of course less like a matronly Catholic saint, and more like the tale of a Germanic goddess. The connection grows when one looks at the dog symbol in relation to Walburga. German goddesses were often associated with dogs, the Hilfstier, which is something quite like a witch’s familiar. It was thought that speaking the name Walburga could tame an angry dog.

The Windhound is frequently tied to fertility and abundance in the home and fields, and in some places is called the Nourishment-Hound or Nahrungshund. The Windbound also rears its canine head particularly during the spring fertility festivals.

The spindle and the grain noted in Rochholz’s writings are both associated with Germanic gods and the celebration of the coming of spring.

This miracle reminded men of the fruitful dew which fell from the manes of the Valkyries’ horses, and when one of the days sacred to her came on May first, the wedding-day of Frau Holda and the sun-god, the people thought of her as a Valkyrie, and identified her with Holda.

Like a Valkyrie, she rode armed on her steed, she scattered, like Holda, spring flowers and fruitful dew upon the fields and vales.

Even the slime oozing from her tomb becomes an association with pagan goddesses, as it tended to remind  people of the dew which dripped from the manes of the Valkyries’ horses. May 1 was also the birthdate of Holda, whom Jacob Grimm claimed was a Germanic goddess, though that might be a bit of a stretch.

There is no denying Holda’s connection to the supernatural. Her art was spinning and weaving, which formed another connection to Walpurga and the spindle. Spindles and thread were often thought to be essential ingredients for love spells cast during the heathen May celebrations, when love and fertility seemed to be on everyone’s mind.

Holda also rode through the night, albeit on distaffs, which was much like a witch’s broom. She was believed to have presided over all female spirits, who became known as Hulden. According to the Canon Episcopi, the Hulden would slip ”out through closed doors in the silence of the night, leaving their sleeping husbands behind”. They would travel vast distances through the sky, to great feasts, or to battles amongst the clouds.

The Catholic church of course frowned on such behavior and made it known that flying through the night on broomsticks was not only forbidden, but punishable by penance of a year. The ninth century Canon Episcopi came down on ladies who claimed to consort with a “crowd of demons.” In the later De arte magica, the church went even farther, “Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda [or, in some manuscripts, strigam Holdam, the witch Holda], who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company?”

To go even farther down this path, farmers who had yet to plough their field by May 1 were often given a straw doll, called a Walpurga. This was an identical practice connected to not only Holda, but another goddess as well, Berchta, only theirs were given out during Yuletide, and to women.

And so it seems that Walburga became merged with Holda, which isn’t all that surprising, and the B in her name changed to a P. Germanic goddesses were often known by different names in different places. The Catholic church even went as far as to associate Holda with Diana.

“On Walpurgis Night as on Hallowe’en strange things may happen to one. Zschokke tells a story of a Walpurgis Night dream that is more a vision than a dream. Led to be unfaithful to his wife, a man murders the husband of a former sweetheart; to escape capture he fires a haystack, from which a whole village is kindled. In his flight he enters an empty carriage, and drives away madly, crushing the owner under the wheels. He finds that the dead man is his own brother. Faced by the person whom he believes to be the Devil, responsible for his misfortunes, the wretched man is ready to worship him if he will protect him. He finds that the seeming Devil is in reality his guardian-angel who sent him this dream that he might learn the depths of wickedness lying unfathomed in his heart, waiting an opportunity to burst out.”

“Wild desires, woken in our heart, which life has not fulfilled”

“For you see, pastor, within every one of us a spark of paganism is glowing. It has out-lasted the thousand years since the old Teutonic times. Once a year is flames up high, and we call it St. John’s Fire. Once a year comes Free-night. Yes, truly, Free-night. Then the witches, laughing scornfully, ride to Blocksberg, upon the mountain-top, on their broomsticks, the same broomsticks with which at other times their witchcraft is whipped out of them,–then the whole wild company skims along the forest way,–and then the wild desires awaken in our hearts which life has not fulfilled.”

Suderman, St. John’s Fire

In our pagan past, there were certain days and nights where the normal restraints of society were loosened, and people were free to revert back to nature. Some celebrations loosened the libido, some broke down social barriers that separated the various classes of society, such as the Roman Saturnalia. Walpurgis night and Beltane was such a time as well.

Is it now? Certainly in some quarters, yes. And perhaps that’s how it’s always been, for Walpurgis, though a night celebrated together, was also a night celebrated in isolation and secrecy. Is it any wonder that sexual fascination has taken hold with these holidays, for nothing is known of the facts of the past. Just whispered rumors that might have never been anything more than suppressed Victorian sexuality run amok in the mind.

It was common practice for the church to attempt to plaster over society’s pagan roots. So Beltane became a feast day for Walburga, a Christian saint. In the same vein, pagan sites were rededicated to Walpurgis. There are a wealth of sites in the Netherlands, Belgium, Saxony, and other regions of northern Germany dedicated to her – temples, wells and springs, features of the landscape like mountains and hills, as well as trees associated with heathen worship.

But rather than the saint making these days and sites more Christian, Walburga became more pagan.

According to Rochholz, “The greatest number of the oldest churches in lower Germany are dedicated to this same saint.” Jacob Grimm wrote “The witches invariably resort to places where formerly justice was administered, or sacrifices were offered. …Almost all the witch-mountains were once hills of sacrifice, boundary-hills, or salt-hills.”

Walpurgis Witches Postcard

The Brocken

“The Witches’ excursion takes place on the first night in May…they ride up Blocksberg on the first of May, and in 12 days must dance the snow away; then Spring begins… Here they appear as elflike, godlike maids.”

– Jacob Grimm.

In the book Harzreise, or A Harz Journey, Heinrich Heine, wrote in 1826 “The mountain somehow appears so Germanically stoical, so understanding, so tolerant, just because it affords a view so high and wide and clear. And should such mountain open its giant eyes, it may well see more than we, who like dwarfs just trample on it, staring from stupid eyes.”

The Harz Mountains lie between the rivers Weser and Elbe in center of Germany. Of those wooded hills, the tallest peak, standing at just over 1,140 meters tall, is Blocksburg. How it came to be called the geographic epicenter of Walpurgisnacht is a tangled tale.

Witches were associated with Blocksberg since Charlemagne was emperor, though in truth they were likely just people celebrating the old religion, worshiping the pagan gods which held sway before the coming of Christianity. The remote, rugged location afforded privacy, which was important during the years when worshiping the gods of your choice could get you burned at the stake.

Blocksburg is snow covered for much of the year, melting off in May. It’s perpetually shrouded in mist and fog, up to 300 days out of the year. With frigid temperatures, it’s not a hospitable place. Today, trails wind through the the forest and up the mountain. The winds have caused the trees to twist and grow gnarled and moss covered. Strange rock formations break through the forest and have such poetic names as the Devil’s Pulpit and the Witch’s Altar.

And then there’s the specter of the Brocken, Walking on the mountain when the sun begins to set, your shadow becomes magnified and is projected onto the low lying clouds or mist, with a rainbow or halo around the head. The first victim was a climber, who lost his balance when he became frightened of a haloed figure coming towards him from the mist. He literally died from being afraid of his own shadow, falling to the rocks far below.

Old pagan myths say that on the night of April 30th a devil named Wotan married his love Freya on the Brocken in Schierke, on the slopes of the Broken on the night before Beltane. This myth and others became the seeds of scenes from the musical drama, Faust, written by Johann Wolfgangvon Goethe

Through Goethe’s poetic use and incorporation of these myths into his famous play, this myth remains today. There are two scenes of interest here, in Faust Part One, Walpurgisnacht, and in Part Two, Classical Walpurgisnacht.

Now to the Brocken the witches ride;
The stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Goethe may have gained inspiration from two rock formations on the mountain’s summit, the Teufelskanzel (Devil’s Pulpit) and the Hexenaltar (Witches’ Altar).

Goethe was drawing on folklore and legends for these scenes, and they give us a glimpse into a world where witches and demons were feared by everyday people. His sources spoke of a bevy of witches who came by night to the top of the Brocken, to celebrate and show their devotion to Satan in ways incredibly sexual, which culminated in each kissing the ass of a goat.

Goethe tempered the legends quite a bit in the end, downplaying the sexuality considerably. And Goethe wasn’t the only writers of the age to tell of the mysteries of Walpurgis Night.

Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, the book that spawned a zillion films, also wrote a short story along the same theme, Dracula’s Guest. In the story, an Englishman en route to Transylvania arrives in Munich on Walpurgis Night. The owner of the inn where he stays warns him against going out in the evening, advice the gentleman ignores. He abandons his carriage and sets off on foot towards an abandoned village, believed to be unholy.

“Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad – when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel…It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.” 

Bram Stoker, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Tales

Walpurgistide Customs

Like May Day celebrations, dancing or even leaping about, particularly in conjunction with fire is one of the staples of Walpurgis Night. The lady of the house would customarily leap over her broom. Grain would grow as high as the farmer could jump on Walpurgis Night.

In addition to leaping over or dancing around, Walpurgis Night fires had other uses. It was considered good luck to burn anything that had worn out over the previous year in that night’s fires. Straw men were made and endowed with things like illness and disease, melancholy, even downright bad luck and burned in the fires as well.

If you wanted to avoid bad weather and ensure good crops, you might put out bread with honey and butter for the Ankenschnitt, or Windhound.

There were many things thought to go bump on this night, in addition to witches. To keep them at bay, children would gather greenery from ash, hawthorn, juniper, and elder, which was then hung around the house and barns. Ironic that this was once done to appease the goddesses, then later to scare away the witches.

On Walpurgis Night precaution must be taken against witches who may harm cattle. Blessed bells were hung from cow’s necks. The stable doors are locked and sealed with three crosses.

Not everyone wants to miss out on the witches. Put on your clothes wrong side out and walking backwards to a crossroads might make them visible to you. So would wearing a wild radish around your neck or on your person.

Love potions were thought to be exceptionally potent on Walpurgis Night. Divination worked better as well. Sleeping with one stocking on, you checked it the next morning, and if you found a single hair, the color would indicate the hair color of your eventual spouse. Keep a linen thread near a statue of the Virgin Mary on Walpurgis Night, and at midnight, unravel it and recite the following:

“Thread, I pull thee;
Walpurga, I pray thee,
That thou show to me
What my husband’s like to be.”

They judge of his disposition by the thread’s being strong or easily broken, soft or tightly woven.

Dew on the morning of May first makes girls who wash in it beautiful.

“The fair maid who on the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be.”

Encyclopedia of Superstitions

Speaking of garments and material, clothes worn on May Day, made from thread spun on Walpurgis night, would bring luck in the next day’s shooting competitions. To those he holds in high regards, the Devil turns his ammunition to freikugeln, which are bullets that always hit their mark.

Now, George was a good straight boy to begin with,
but there was bad blood In him;
someway he got into the magic bullets and that leads straight to Devil’s work, just like marijuana leads to heroin;

You think you can take them bullets or leave ’em, do you?
Just save a few for your bad days
Well, now, we all have those bad days when you can’t shoot for shit.
The more of them magics you use, the more bad days you have without them
So it comes down finally to all your days being bad without the bullets
It’s magics or nothing
Time to stop chippying around and kidding yourself,
Kid, you’re hooked, heavy as lead

And that’s where old George found himself
Out there at the crossroads
Molding the Devil’s bullets

Now a man figures it’s his bullets,
so it will hit what he wants to hit
But it don’t always work that way
You see, some bullets is special for a single aim
A certain stag, or a certain person
And no matter where you are, that’s where the bullet will end up
And in the moment of aiming, the gun turns into a dowser’s wand
And point where the bullet wants to go

(George Schmid was moving in a series of convulsive spasms, like someone with an epileptic fit, with his face distorted and his eyes wild like a lassoed horse bracing his legs. But something kept pulling him on. And now he is picking up the skulls and making the circle.)

I guess old George didn’t rightly know what he’s getting himself into
The fit was on him and it carried him right to the crossroads

Cross Roads, from The Black Rider, written by Tom Waits and William Burroughs

Witches' Sabbath, a woodcut by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484:85-1545What Does This All Mean?

In days of old, winter was a damned hard season to survive. A good crop or the goodwill of your neighbors was essential. If you had neither, less work in the fields and pastures during the snows left you working to stay alive. It’s no wonder people went a bit bonkers come the arrival of spring.

Walpurgis Night was the kissing away of all of that, in preparation for the celebrations of Beltane. It was the last gasp of darkness over the land before the light started shining a bit more bright.

Both Walpurgis Night and Beltane contain an element of raw, unbridled sexuality. It was the ideal time to mate after all. A woman who found herself with child conceived during this time would only be five months along at the beginning of October, when the crops were brought in, which meant you didn’t have to struggle through a summer’s worth of work, laden with child.

Fertility celebrations are often thought of as a time for licentiousness of all sorts. Excessive drink goes along well with unbridled sexuality, and so even if the sexual overtones are downplayed, Walpurgis Night is still celebrated in many places as a time for drinking.

Goddesses revered for their abilities to aid in fertility were celebrated at this time. The fertility of the crops were magically transferred to people, or perhaps it was the other way around.

The arts of the cunning women, or wise women of the forest were especially potent during this time. Their magic often revolved around love, sexuality and fertility, and this is the ideal time for it, as seeds begin to sprout, animals started to mate, and the world around them passed from the darkness of winter into the light of spring.

One of the drawbacks of having an illiterate populace, is that people tend to learn by oral tradition. Storytellers in other words. As anyone who has studied the history of oral tradition, or even had a grandfather who was fond of tall tales can attest, that while poetic in a sense, oral tradition begets a range of themes. We see the importance of an event in different ways, based on our own loves, fears and prejudices. And so depending on who tells the story, we can get the same story told in a variety of ways. Which imparts a variety of meanings.

As the old gods faded into the background, the collective memory of the people called out by nature for substitutes. The church provided these in the forms of saints and their holy days. And so on a day once celebrated in the name of a goddess, we find the same attributes of that deity transferred onto a Catholic saint, mainly because their holy day shared the same date.

We find that St. Walburga takes on the mantle of an ancient deity, be it Nehalennia, Nerthus, Holda, Berchta, and over time becomes along with Walpurgis Night, the celebration of the witch. The woman behind the saint is forgotten, except for a handful of anecdotes and historical records, lost to time. When the pagan goddesses were shoved back even farther into disrepute, those who still worshipped the old ways had to go further afield to celebrate.

And Walpurga, an English woman who went to Germany to do god’s work, takes on the memory of Holga, a Germanic goddess, and is branded as a witch.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Mike October 27, 2016, 5:43 pm

    Cool.

  • Virginia Miller April 25, 2017, 4:07 pm

    Long hair symbolizes fertility, and brooms resemble hair. So brooms also symbolize fertility.
    Read The Dancing Goddesses by E W Barber (2012).

  • Stuart April 30, 2017, 1:38 am

    Superb. Fascinating. You have cleared up years of “I must look up….” ignorance for me.

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