origins of Walpurgis night

Walpurgis night is a traditional european Feast, celebrated on April 30 (or rather in the night of April 30 to May 1). Today it is still celebrated as “Dancing into May”-events, an opportunity to dance, drink and have fun with lots of other people.

Freudenfeuer in der Nacht zum ersten Mai auf Calton Hill 2008, von Roger Griffith, Public Domain

Walpurgis night bonfire on Calton Hill 2008, by Roger Griffith, Public Domain

Beltane

Many pre-Christian religions celebrated the return of springtime at this date. The Celts called this feast “Beltane” or “Beltaine” and it was celebrated in the first night of full moon between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

Beltane was a cheerful feast. Bonfires were ignited and the cattle was driven between two fires to “clean” and bless it. Houses and barns were decorated with fresh greenery.

Johannes Praetorius: Blockes-Berges Verrichtung, Leipzig 1668, Lizenz:Public Domain

Johannes Praetorius: Blockes-Berges Verrichtung, Leipzig 1668, licence:Public Domain

the Blocksberg

In the Harz mountains, where I grew up, the people say, that the witches meet in the Walpurgis night on the “Blocksberg”. In the Harz mountains this “Blocksberg” was the “Brocken”. Different regions of Germany had different “Blocksbergs”, the Blocksberg is generally the name for the “dance floor” of the witches and not the name of a real existing mountain.

A booklet from 1863 about Sankt Andreasberg explains this with the flight of the Saxons from Charlemagne. They were fleeing into the impassable areas of the mountains and the Brocken was their holy mountain that was consecrated to Wodan.

An Old Saxon prayer mentions Charlemagne and human sacrifices on a mountain in the Harz that was devoted to Wodan:

“Hilli kroti Woudana! ilp osk un osken Pana Uuittekin ok kelta of ten aiskena Carlevi, ten Slaktenera! ick kif ti in our un tou scapa und tat rofe. ik slakte ti all fanka up tinen iliken Artesberka.”
“Holy great Wodan! help us and our commander Widukind and the captains against the ugly Charlemagne the butcher. I give you an Aurochs, two sheep and the booty. I slaughter all captives for you on your holy Harzmountain.”

Ancient Romuva, by the Prussian historian Christophorus Hartknoch (1644-1687), 1684, Public Domain

Ancient Romuva, by the Prussian historian Christophorus Hartknoch, 1684, Public Domain

Maypole

The Germanic peoples had sacred groves, in which single trees were consecrated to gods. Loranthus Europaeus was a holy plant and used to decorate sanctuaries. In Jütland was a sacred grove of Thor, with a tree that was consecrated to Thor. The tree was cut 1441.

The Balts had a sacred oak in in Romuva. They made sacred necklaces from the small branches and leaves of the oak. Those necklaces were said to help against illnesses. The tree was consecrated to Perkwunos, Picollus and Patrimpas.

The Celts had sacred trees too. Sometimes an altar was carved into the tree. This custom is conserved in Normandy until today. In front of many churches are huge yew trees. Sometimes an altar is carved into them, like in Saint Pierre des Ifs. In the town of pilgrimage “Saint Benoist des Ombres” it is custom to get a sacred yewbranch, which is said to keep cattle and house safe from the evil eye.

Die Heilige Walburga um um 1535/40, vom Meister von Messkirch, Public Domain

Saint Walpurga around 1535/40, by Meister von Messkirch, Public Domain

Saint Walpurga

It is said, that the name of the Walpurgis night derives from Saint Walpurga. Walpurga was abbess in Heidenheim in Franconia. She was born in England around 710 and died on the 25th February 779 (or 790) in Heidenheim. Her bones lie in Eichstätt. Catholics liked to carry bones of Saints here and there and worshipped them.

In popular belief Walpurga did a lot of miracles. Her tomb slab detaches drops that are called “Walpurgisoil”. The Walpurgisoil gets sold to believers that credit the oil with healing powers.

“Walpurgiskraut” is another name for St. Johnswort. In popular belief it helps to save milk from the evil eye and makes cattle fertile.

Walpurga died on 25 February 779 and that day still carries her name in the Catholic calendar. On the last Sunday in April Catholics celebrate the anniversary of her canonization. That day is not always on April 30 but nevertheless Walpurgis night was named after her. There is no direct connection between her and the date. So why the heck was it named after her?

Walpurgis was a very famous and idolized Saint, after all it’s possible that chosing her as patron for this feast might have been just to be able to continue to celebrate the pagan feast.

“Walpurga” is a Germanic name, “wal” meant “massacre, battlefield, dead soldier” it is part of the term “Valkyrie” too. The Valkyries chose the dead soldiers that would be brought to Wodan. Valkyrie wasn’t the name of a special entity, there were 3 valkyries with different names.

“Purg” means “castle, city”. Thus “Walpurga” means something like “castle of the battlefield or castle of the dead” and means that she is giving shelter to the souls of the dead. Walpurga and the valkyries are not related. The only thing they have in common is the root “wal” (or val) in their names.

In the Vogtland people were putting sods on the doorstep in the Walpurgis night, because popular belief said this custom was guarding against the witches. Sods on a grave bring dead people peace… That’s because the witches automatically start to count the blades of grass. It is possible that the witches of Walpurgis night are somehow deformed valkyries. Sadly it’s not possible to ask pre-Christian Pagans.😉 Anyway, there were lots of similar customs about guarding cattle and houses during the Walpurgis night from the witches.

Sources:
Walpurgisnacht – Hintergründe und Ursprung (Walpurgis night background and origin)

Der Kurort St. Andreasberg, 1863, Seite 62 (the Spa town St. Andreasberg)

Ausgewählte historische Schriften von Heinrich Zschokke, 1830, Seite 94f (selected historical writings)

Handwörterbuch der Mythologie der deutschen, verwandten, benachbarten und nordischen Völker von Christian August Vulpius, 1826, Seite 163-166 (concise dictionary of the German, related, neighbour- and Nordic peoples)

SAINT BENOIST DES OMBRES

SAINT PIERRE DES IFS

Walburga (Saint Walpurga)

Johanniskraut (Hypericum perforatum)

Der böse Blick und Verwandtes von Siegfried Seligmann, Seiten 64, 78, 91, 113, 218, 238 (the evil eye and related things)

Creative Commons License
This work is in the Public Domain.

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