Walpurgisnacht, Walpurgis Night, celebrates Germanic Christians battling “pest, rabies, whooping cough, and witchcraft” and is the eve of the celebration of Saint Walpurga – an English born nun who was a successful Anglo-Saxon missionary and abbess canonized by Pope Adrian II and responsible for converting Germans to Christianity. She is often depicted as similar to the pagan Grain Mother in statue form.
Let’s take a step back in time though. Although the date of celebration is associated with the April 30 – May 1 time frame because of Saint Walpurga, it was most likely chosen because of the pagan celebrations of spring. Much like other pagan originated holidays, church law allowed for both celebrations without fear of backlash, many times so that the people would convert to Christianity.
Like Halloween, Walpurgis has its roots in ancient pagan customs, superstitions, and festivals. At this time of year, the Vikings participated in a ritual that they hoped would hasten the arrival of Spring weather and ensure fertility for their crops and livestock. They would light huge bonfires in hopes of scaring away evil spirits.
Since the celebration of her sainthood and the old Viking festival occurred around the same time, over the years the festivals and traditions intermingled until the hybrid pagan-Catholic celebration became known as Valborgsmässoafton or Walpurgisnacht — Walpurgis Night.
For the ancients, May Eve and May Day would have been a time-between not unlike Samhain. A time when spirits walked the land as the veil thinned. But as we know, when the new religion took hold, old beliefs merged with Christian teaching.
In German folklore, Walpurgis Night was when witches celebrated sabbath and their powers were at their strongest. Witches would meet on the Brocken (also known as the Blocksberg), the highest peak of the Harz Mountains. To ward off this “evil” and protect themselves, and more importantly their livestock, people would light fires on the hillside, dress in costume, and make loud noises.
The lighting of bonfires, which, according to one tradition, was also a means of warding off witches. This again dates back to pre-Christian times. During that period, the pagan Germans would leave their livestock to graze around the spring equinox. In order to scare away wild animals, they would light bonfires, dance around them, and make a lot of noise. When Christianity arrived, the bishops found that these activities were a little too pagan. Instead of banning it, however, the bishops decided to shift it to Walpurgis Night, so that it could be associated with the Christian saint.
Additionally, the German people would also hang blessed sprigs of foliage from houses or barns, or leave offerings of bread with butter and honey (known as ‘ankenschnitt’) for phantom hounds.
The celebration of Walpurgis Night is depicted in many popular forms of entertainment: from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust to Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Disney’s Night on Bald Mountain section in Fantasia to Bram Stoker’s short story Dracula’s Guest.
In Bavaria, the holiday is known as a Freinacht or Drudennacht – and people dress up, set off fireworks, dance, and play loud music, all in the hopes of driving away the winter spirits and witches. The night has many other names across the world. In the Czech Republic, it’s Pálení čarodějnic (“Burning of the witches”), in Estonia, it’s Volbriöö, in Sweden Valborg.
Although Saint Walpurga was never associated with Scandinavia, in Finland Walpurgis night is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus – Midsommar). There Walpurgis Night and May Day are basically one neverending day referred to as Vappu. Although it was initially celebrated by the upper class, during the late 19th century it became popular amongst university students.
Much like Samhain, which is set six months later, Walpurgisnacht is a time to communicate with the spirit world. Today, some Pagans in central and northern Europe still celebrate Walpurgisnacht as a precursor to Beltane. Although it is named for a martyred saint, many Germanic Pagans try to honor the celebrations of their ancestors by observing this traditional holiday each year.
Some believe that Walpurgis, like Halloween, is more than a time of ritual spellcasting, but a time when the barrier between our world and the “supernatural” – the living and the dead – is more easily crossed.
Winifred Hodge writes in Waelburga and the Rites of May, “Since this is a turning-tide when the season is not quite one thing or another — a ‘between-time,’ it is very suitable for occult divination and spellcraft: a time to take advantage of the thinner veils between the worlds and the fact that our minds are temporarily focused away from everyday affairs and onto the magical energies of Nature’s spring tides.
Sounds like a day/night to celebrate for many reasons.
Artwork: Luis Ricardo Falero, 1878, Walpurgisnacht. Der Aufbruch der Hexen “Walpurgis Night”