We love learning about all different type of Witchcraft here at Digital Coven and today we have the fabulous Tanja, sharing her insight into Walpurgis Night.
Take it away, Tanja!
Greetings fellow witches! You may or may not be prepping to celebrate Beltane this weekend, so I thought I would make you familiar with what I like to call its “German goth counterpart”, – Walpurgisnacht, or the Night of the Witches, which takes place on the night of the 30th of April.
As you may know, Beltane is the pagan festival held halfway between the spring and summer equinox, celebrating the blossoming of trees and flowers and the days getting warmer. It takes place between 30th of April and 1st of May and therefore traditionally includes May Day celebrations which span across many different cultures – Celtic, German, Hawaiian and Greek, to name a few. They include dancing around a May Pole, making flower crowns and crowning a May queen (not to be confused with the customs of Midsommar – neither the Swedish festival nor Ari Aster’s horror masterpiece).
The Fire Festival
Beltane, from the Gaelic Bealtaine, can be roughly translated to “bright fire”. On the eve of May 1st, Pagans would gather to light bonfires and dance around them – since fire typically stands for purification and new beginnings, this ties in with Beltane’s themes of renewal and summer returning.
Like on Halloween (Samheim) and Midsummer, the veil between the realms of the living, dead and spirits is supposed to be especially thin this time of year. It is therefore no wonder the night became associated with witchcraft, its literal Dutch translation being “Heksennacht”, the night of the witches, which in German folklore became associated with a night where evil witches gather to plan their mischievous schemes.
The History of Walpurgis Night
For this negative association, we can thank the Catholic Church – as pagan beliefs did not fit in with the Christian religious ideals, during the Middle Ages they attempted to stamp out any other religion’s customs, including those of Beltane, throughout Europe. Walpurgisnacht i.e. “Walpurgis Night” derives its name from the Catholic missionary turned Saint Walpurga, who was celebrated for succeeding at putting an end to “pagan sorcery”.
Ironically, the image I associated with Walpurga until researching this date stems from a popular German children’s cartoon about a teenage witch – In this, she is the leader of the coven and looks like this:
As someone who grew up Catholic, that doesn’t look very pious to me, which goes to show that Walpurga today is associated way more with witches than she would have liked. Sorry, gal!
To give her credit, Walpurga actually did see to it that the pagan rituals didn’t completely die out: She was canonised on the 1st of May, and therefore, likely by accident, Christian and Pagan customs became entwined. Pagans could continue their celebrations without fear of being condemned, by doing it under the guise of honouring Saint Walpurga (article).
So, these practices could be continued quite freely in Medieval Germany, until the 16th century, which saw a massive hysteria about witchcraft followed by one of the most gruesome and bloody witch hunts in history taking place in Germany.
During that time, hysteria led people to believe that witches would gather on Mount Brocken, the highest peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains, to have orgies, dance, and meet with Satan to discuss how they could bring the most mischief and evil to the coming year (no, really).
According to some legends, witches would gather in the valley and then ride up to the mountain’s peak – not just on broomsticks, but even on cats or goats!
In an attempt to protect themselves from evil spirits and witches, locals would gather on April 30th to light bonfires, burn straw men and make loud noises to chase away evil. The joyous pagan rituals for fertility and summer returning therefore morphed into a gathering driven by fear. Well done, Catholic Church!
Luckily, those superstitions began to gradually die out and Walpurgis Night celebrations carried on but became more light-hearted, as people would gather around the fire, celebrate, and sing folk songs. The festival might not still be part of the German Zeitgeist today had it not been for Goethe’s famous poem Faust, published in the 19th century, which sees the protagonist travelling to Mount Brocken and taking part in the witches’ celebrations.
This poem, loathed by German highschoolers throughout the country, re-popularised Walpurgisnacht and is likely to thank for why it is still popular today.
Modern Day celebrations
Today, Walpurgisnacht remains part of German popular culture, with many other stories about the Witches’ mountain gatherings having sprung up in the century following Goethe’s Faust.
As for the celebrations, most that remains of them is the lighting of and gathering around bonfires, although this is now being celebrated under the new motto of Tanz in den Mai – “Dance into May”. Turns out, pagans, legendary witches and normal human beings alike love a bit of revelry and dancing around a fire! Due to the first of May being a bank holiday, Labour Day, people still traditionally like to go dancing at clubs which do “Tanz in den Mai” themed nights. I have taken part in many of these club nights and regardless of alcohol levels, the night has always felt special to me. Maybe there is something to the veil between the worlds being more permeable. Or maybe I just feel very seen as a witch on this holiday which is, in a way, dedicated to us.
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Until next time,
Featured Image: “File:Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival 2012 – Bonfire.JPG” by Stefan Schäfer, Lich is marked with CC BY-SA 3.0.