WALPURGISNACHT: HALFWAY TO HALLOWEEN

 

As you stand beneath the darkened sky on the eve of May, you may hear the rushing of bird or bat wing overhead, or witness the momentary blotting out of a constellation or two as they take flight. These are neither bird nor bat - for tonight is Walpurgisnacht, and the sky is full of  witches .  It was once unquestionably understood that witches lived among us, ever cunning and watchful. Good Christians, or at least those wishing to appear as such, lived their lives in recognition of this belief, and an awareness that one must be ever vigilant and abide by the many rules and rituals that helped to safeguard good, God-fearing people. Extra care and protections were even more necessary on the night of April 30th, Walpurgisnacht, or Hexennacht (Witches’ Night) - the night that belonged to the witch.  Once defined as an individual who voluntarily entered into a pact with the devil and travelled by flying broomstick upon the backs of goats or, rather unfortunate men. On Walpurgisnacht a witch's business would be exclusively conducted during the hours when darkness reigned. According to the fear-fulled legends, this "business" primarily consisted of killing and feasting on children, however they also took time out to desecrate a few Christian symbols and take advantage of those who were careless or ill-prepared.

As you stand beneath the darkened sky on the eve of May, you may hear the rushing of bird or bat wing overhead, or witness the momentary blotting out of a constellation or two as they take flight. These are neither bird nor bat - for tonight is Walpurgisnacht, and the sky is full of witches.

It was once unquestionably understood that witches lived among us, ever cunning and watchful. Good Christians, or at least those wishing to appear as such, lived their lives in recognition of this belief, and an awareness that one must be ever vigilant and abide by the many rules and rituals that helped to safeguard good, God-fearing people. Extra care and protections were even more necessary on the night of April 30th, Walpurgisnacht, or Hexennacht (Witches’ Night) - the night that belonged to the witch.

Once defined as an individual who voluntarily entered into a pact with the devil and travelled by flying broomstick upon the backs of goats or, rather unfortunate men. On Walpurgisnacht a witch's business would be exclusively conducted during the hours when darkness reigned. According to the fear-fulled legends, this "business" primarily consisted of killing and feasting on children, however they also took time out to desecrate a few Christian symbols and take advantage of those who were careless or ill-prepared.

How did Walpurgisnacht come to be? No one is certain, however, the day has been influenced and molded by many different cultures and beliefs throughout the centuries and some modern day observances can still be found, particularly in Germany.  Celts referred to the eve of May as Cet Samhain - the opposite of Samhain or Halloween, as April 30th falls exactly six months after  Samhain  which falls on Halloween. It is believed that on these two nights the veil between the worlds separating the living and the dead - the seen and the unseen thins; allowing devils, demons and witches to mingle openly among us as they travel to their meeting places. Many of them will be on their way to The Broken, the highest mountain peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains, surrounded by a deep, dark and wild forest that is often shrouded in thick mists and inhabited by otherworldly beings.   Mayday (May 1st) and All Soul's Day, (November 1st), are known as cross quarter days, as they roughly fall between the equinox and solstice - a crossroads of the year, as it were. Since the days of Ancient Greece it is Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, who stands guard at these cross roads. There, an unwitting traveller was likely to encounter ghosts and mischievous elementals, mysterious lights and music, and was able to witness the celebratory cavorting of witches and other beasties, or even be at risk of permanently losing their shadow.  The classic German book for children, "The Little Witch," provides us with a rundown of exactly which witches were among Walpurgisnacht celebrants. There are mountain witches, wood witches, mist witches, marsh witches, storm witches, wind witches, flower witches and herb witches. Each region seems to have their own witchy figure who presides over this important night.

How did Walpurgisnacht come to be? No one is certain, however, the day has been influenced and molded by many different cultures and beliefs throughout the centuries and some modern day observances can still be found, particularly in Germany.

Celts referred to the eve of May as Cet Samhain - the opposite of Samhain or Halloween, as April 30th falls exactly six months after Samhain which falls on Halloween. It is believed that on these two nights the veil between the worlds separating the living and the dead - the seen and the unseen thins; allowing devils, demons and witches to mingle openly among us as they travel to their meeting places. Many of them will be on their way to The Broken, the highest mountain peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains, surrounded by a deep, dark and wild forest that is often shrouded in thick mists and inhabited by otherworldly beings.

Mayday (May 1st) and All Soul's Day, (November 1st), are known as cross quarter days, as they roughly fall between the equinox and solstice - a crossroads of the year, as it were. Since the days of Ancient Greece it is Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, who stands guard at these cross roads. There, an unwitting traveller was likely to encounter ghosts and mischievous elementals, mysterious lights and music, and was able to witness the celebratory cavorting of witches and other beasties, or even be at risk of permanently losing their shadow.

The classic German book for children, "The Little Witch," provides us with a rundown of exactly which witches were among Walpurgisnacht celebrants. There are mountain witches, wood witches, mist witches, marsh witches, storm witches, wind witches, flower witches and herb witches. Each region seems to have their own witchy figure who presides over this important night.

In some european countries it is Holda who rules the skies this night, as she files over the spring fields in the company of a horde of unbaptized children.  Many tales and traditions point to the figure of Walburga who bears a crown and shoes of fire. It is said that she hides among the newly growing things in the fields or even within the small grains of wheat. In the days leading up to Walpurgisnacht, the spectral riders of the  Wild Hunt  have been seen pursuing her.  In France, there is Dame Blanche, accompanied by her entourage of cats and owls. This white lady haunts bridges, thorn filled ditches and smaller waterways. Incur her wrath and she will push you over a cliff, adorn your flesh with thorns, or simply allow her kitties to devour you.  Through the years, many Springtime festivals have contributed and influenced Walpurgisnacht, such as the Roman's Floralia - a Medieval forest battle that waged between King Winter and the May Queen. As dawn approached, the queen was triumphant and as legend has it, human sacrifices were burned. In later years, effigies crafted from straw are thrown into the flames. Such rituals were practiced as a guarantee of wealth, health and prosperity. To forego them would mean certain doom for you, your family, your livestock, and crops.  Livestock were painted with crosses and adorned with bouquets of herbs in hopes of repelling mischievous fairy folk and witches who would often enchant the beasts and fly to their meeting place at the Brocken on their backs. Exits and entryways were protected in a similar vein - sometimes with crosses fashioned from the magical rowan or hawthorn tree.  In parts of Eastern Europe pitchforks of hay were set ablaze and waved about to frighten unwelcome spirits. Meanwhile, in Scotland great bonfires were set in each village. Here, people gathered to dance around the fire commanding the flames to rise high enough to burn the witches flying overhead.

In some european countries it is Holda who rules the skies this night, as she files over the spring fields in the company of a horde of unbaptized children.

Many tales and traditions point to the figure of Walburga who bears a crown and shoes of fire. It is said that she hides among the newly growing things in the fields or even within the small grains of wheat. In the days leading up to Walpurgisnacht, the spectral riders of the Wild Hunt have been seen pursuing her.

In France, there is Dame Blanche, accompanied by her entourage of cats and owls. This white lady haunts bridges, thorn filled ditches and smaller waterways. Incur her wrath and she will push you over a cliff, adorn your flesh with thorns, or simply allow her kitties to devour you.

Through the years, many Springtime festivals have contributed and influenced Walpurgisnacht, such as the Roman's Floralia - a Medieval forest battle that waged between King Winter and the May Queen. As dawn approached, the queen was triumphant and as legend has it, human sacrifices were burned. In later years, effigies crafted from straw are thrown into the flames. Such rituals were practiced as a guarantee of wealth, health and prosperity. To forego them would mean certain doom for you, your family, your livestock, and crops.

Livestock were painted with crosses and adorned with bouquets of herbs in hopes of repelling mischievous fairy folk and witches who would often enchant the beasts and fly to their meeting place at the Brocken on their backs. Exits and entryways were protected in a similar vein - sometimes with crosses fashioned from the magical rowan or hawthorn tree.

In parts of Eastern Europe pitchforks of hay were set ablaze and waved about to frighten unwelcome spirits. Meanwhile, in Scotland great bonfires were set in each village. Here, people gathered to dance around the fire commanding the flames to rise high enough to burn the witches flying overhead.

Noisemaking was often employed to scare away evil spirits, demons and witches. Such practices are incorporated into various traditions throughout the world - from China with its fireworks, or the North American tradition of tying cans to a newly-wedded couple's car, to Western Europe with the reveling and banging of pots and pans to ring in the New Year. These traditions, along with pounding wooden boards on the ground, ringing the church bell and the firing of guns are still widely practiced, although their purpose is largely forgotten.  Homes would also be protected against witchcraft and deviltry. All brooms must be hidden away on Walpurgisnacht, lest a witch come and take it from you. Of course, you are never to allow a strange woman who knocks on your door inside the house. Instead, it was recommended to keep a witch busy by commanding her to count every blade of grass beyond your doorstep before you grant her entry.  My own definition of a witch is an individual who wields wisdom, strength and knowledge - all qualities equaling power - a magic in and of itself. So, on this Walpurgisnacht, I ask you to remember, honor and respect witches and their place in the world, in our imaginations and most importantly, in ourselves.

Noisemaking was often employed to scare away evil spirits, demons and witches. Such practices are incorporated into various traditions throughout the world - from China with its fireworks, or the North American tradition of tying cans to a newly-wedded couple's car, to Western Europe with the reveling and banging of pots and pans to ring in the New Year. These traditions, along with pounding wooden boards on the ground, ringing the church bell and the firing of guns are still widely practiced, although their purpose is largely forgotten.

Homes would also be protected against witchcraft and deviltry. All brooms must be hidden away on Walpurgisnacht, lest a witch come and take it from you. Of course, you are never to allow a strange woman who knocks on your door inside the house. Instead, it was recommended to keep a witch busy by commanding her to count every blade of grass beyond your doorstep before you grant her entry.

My own definition of a witch is an individual who wields wisdom, strength and knowledge - all qualities equaling power - a magic in and of itself. So, on this Walpurgisnacht, I ask you to remember, honor and respect witches and their place in the world, in our imaginations and most importantly, in ourselves.

Resources   1. Raedisch, Linda.  Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions and Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night  Llewellyn Publications, February 8, 2011  2. Cooper, John Michael  Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis Night    BOYE6, September 1, 2010  3. Jones, Prudence.  A History of Pagan Europe  Routledge; Revised ed. edition, March 14, 1997   4.  Grimm, Jacob.  Teutonic Mythology. Volumes I-III, 1883  Nabu Press September 13, 2010   Images    Witches on the Sabbath, Luis Ricardo Falero    Photographs by William Mortensen    Witches Flying To Sabbath , Bernard Zuber   Gif from Disney’s Fantasia, Night On Bald Mountain

Resources

1. Raedisch, Linda. Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions and Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night Llewellyn Publications, February 8, 2011

2. Cooper, John Michael Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis Night BOYE6, September 1, 2010

3. Jones, Prudence. A History of Pagan Europe Routledge; Revised ed. edition, March 14, 1997

4. Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. Volumes I-III, 1883 Nabu Press September 13, 2010

Images

Witches on the Sabbath, Luis Ricardo Falero

Photographs by William Mortensen

Witches Flying To Sabbath, Bernard Zuber

Gif from Disney’s Fantasia, Night On Bald Mountain