Now to the Brocken the witches hie,
The stubble is yellow, the corn is green;
Thither the gathering legions fly,
And sitting aloft is Sir Urian seen:
O’er stick and o’er stone they go whirling along,
Witches and he-goats, a motley throng.
The wind is hushed, the stars grow pale,
The pensive moon her light doth veil;
And whirling on, the magic choir
Sputters forth sparks of drizzling fire.
– Goethe’s Faust, lines 3744-2749 & 3781-3784 (trans unknown)
Walpurgisnacht (Walburga’s Night / Walpurgis Night) is a popular Germanic holiday celebrated at the same time as Beltane. It has a colorful history which, from what I can find, dates from after the Christian conversion in Germany making it one of the few holidays that pagans might have adopted from a Christian festival, instead of vice versa.* Now famous for the bonfires that light the hills of Sweden, the champagne toasts in Finland, and the pranks of southern Germany it has been known as both a witch’s holiday and the feast day of a saint.
St. Walburga was born in Devonshire in 710 and grew up in an abbey in England where she learned to write and studied Latin, rare training for a woman in her day. In fact, later in life she wrote a biography of her brother, making her one of England and Germany’s first female authors. She moved to modern-day Germany in 748 to help St. Boniface convert the heathens. (*Jax pauses to shake a fist at the sky before continuing the tale.*) She performed her first miracle on the boat over when she calmed a storm that threatened their journey. She lived the rest of her life in what we now call Germany and became an abbess before she died in either 777 or 779. She was canonized in 870. Her official Catholic feast day is the day of her death, February 25, but the more popular celebration is the day of her canonization: May 1st. In Germanic countries her celebration was conflated with May Day, and the evening of April 30th was turned into Walpurgis Night.
By the time the 17th Century rolled around, the Catholic saint’s holiday had taken on a darker tone. In Germany Walpurgisnacht was associated with the Christian version of witchcraft (with broom riding, person-to-newt turning, and carnal relations with demons), and it was said that on this night witches met at Bracken mountain to “dance with the devil.” The legend was so persistent, that Goethe, one of Germany’s most celebrated authors, included an entire scene in his retelling of the Faust legend set at a Walpurgis Night Sabbat on the mountain. I haven’t been able to find exactly how or why this transition occurred, but (alas) I don’t find it surprising that a holiday celebrating an educated, powerful woman became known as a day for witches.
Nowadays, most places celebrate Walpurgisnacht as a secular holiday to welcome back the summer with parties and bonfires. Some branches of Asatru, however, have decided to use this transitional festival to celebrate Odin’s death on Yggdrasil and his return to life with the knowledge of runes. Celebrants douse the lights at the first stroke of midnight in memory of Odin’s death and relight them again on the last stroke to symbolize his rebirth. Some people start their celebration nine nights earlier (nine is a sacred number in Germanic lore and is the number of nights Odin hung on the tree) which also happens to be Earth Day. It is then called Yggdrasil Day, after the tree Odin hanged himself on, and heathens celebrate the power of nature, particularly trees, in conjunction with their celebration of Odin’s sacrifice.
I have met some pagans that refuse to celebrate “Walpurgisnacht” because it is, technically, a saint’s day (and a missionary saint, no less).** Personally, however, with the Christian Easter named for our Ostara and Yuletide named for our Jul, I find it fitting to have a reverse holiday that we pagans celebrate named for their saint. The intermingling of terms like the intermingling of traditions speaks to how interconnected European paganism and Christianity have been throughout the centuries, even long after the conversion was supposedly complete. The spirit of who we were as a pagan people (what all Europeans once were) never died out entirely and is now being reclaimed in greater numbers – but with the hope that this time we can live side by side in harmony with our brothers and sisters of the “new” faith.
May Day, Beltane, Walpurgis – however you choose to celebrate this weekend, may the fires in your heart burn bright, may the light you carry be ever reborn, and may the bounty of summer be yours in wealth, health, and joy.
* The Celtic Beltane, however, is an ancient pagan festival. So… if my research is correct, the Catholic church adapted Beltane, a Celtic fire festival, into the Christian May Day which the Germanic peoples, after their conversion, began celebrating as a Christian holiday. Then, much later, it was adapted again into a Germanic pagan holiday. I’ve seen some websites that claim there is a Germanic goddess Walburg (or various spellings like that) which the holiday originally celebrated in pagan times, but I have found no evidence in historical documents that there was any such thing, whereas the evidence for Walpurga the nun is undoubted. Please remember though, that while I’m doing the best I can to provide accurate information, I am not a scholar, so please don’t quote me as a source on this. 🙂
** The month of May in the Germanic pagan calendar is called Thrimilci (from the Anglo-Saxon Ðrimilcemonað, according to Bede), and some Germanic pagans call their May Day celebration Thrimilci instead of Walpurgisnacht to give it a Germanic pagan name.
+ Featured image by Andreas Fink