Walpurgis Night is the ‘other Halloween’, only saluting the start of summer, rather than winter.
It’s held exactly six months before the better-known festival. Let’s call it Spring-o-ween.
On these two nights, it’s believed that the veil between the living and the dead, the seen and the unseen weakens.
In the U.K., the 30th April or Walpurgis Night was the original ‘Mischief Night’.
Normal rules of society did NOT apply and friends would get together to play pranks, start fires or hold ‘Satanic’ rituals.
In the Czech Republic, huge bonfires are lit on hilltops for the ‘Burning of the Witches’.
Evil dealt with, the next day – May 1 – is set aside for lovers.
It’s carnival time in Scandinavian countries, while in Estonia people dress up as witches and parade in the streets.
Witches have supposedly been gathering in Germany’s Harz since the mid-17th century to light fires and “hold revels with the devil.”
They frolic on Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, surrounded by vast forests and often covered in thick mist.
This tradition comes from Goethe’s Faust.
In the story, the demon Mephistopheles brings Faust to Brocken to consort with the coven of witches:
When the stubble yellow, green the grain.
The rabble rushes – as ’tis meet –
To Sir Urian’s lordly seat.
O’er stick and stone we come, by jinks!
The witches f…, the he-goat s…
The broomstick carries, so does the stock;
The pitchfork carries, so does the buck;
Who cannot rise on them tonight,
Remains for aye a luckless wight.
To ward off the witches’ evil, locals burned bonfires, sprinkled holy water and covered their homes with charms of blessed palm leaf.
They avoided crossroads at the risk of witnessing scandalous cavorting of witches and other beasties – or even permanently losing their shadow.
Blessed bells were hung from cow’s necks. Stable doors are locked and sealed with three (yes, three) crosses.
Exits and entryways were protected in a similar way – sometimes with crosses fashioned from the magical rowan or hawthorn tree.
One of the best ways to keep evil at bay, though, was through noise: a LOT of noise.
On Walpurgis Night, muggles would ring bells, bang drums, crack whips and beat pots and pans.
Once they were invented, they shot guns into the air.
If (like me) you wouldn’t want to miss out on the witches?
Put on your clothes wrong side out and walking backward would help you see them.
So would wearing a wild radish around your neck or on your person.
Love potions were thought to be exceptionally potent on Walpurgis Night.
You slept with one stocking on and checked it the next morning.
If you found a single hair, that was the hair color of your future spouse.
Keep a linen thread near a statue of the Virgin Mary on Walpurgis Night.
At midnight, unravel it and recite the following:
“Thread, I pull thee;
Walpurga, I pray thee,
That thou show to me
What my husband’s like to be.”
His temperament would depend on the thread’s being strong or easily broken, soft or tightly woven.
There is a practical reason as well as folkloric, for celebrating on this day.
If you ever doubted it, administration is eternal.
During the Middle Ages, the legal or administrative year ended the last day of April.
To celebrate, it was a community-wide holiday, celebrated with bonfires, trick or treating and Springtime traditional dances and songs.
The real witches
The witches were likely just people celebrating the old religion, worshiping the pagan gods.
The remote, rocky location is a good spot for worshiping when discovery could get you burned at the stake.
Then there’s the terrifying ghost of the Brocken.
Walking on the mountain at sunset, your shadow becomes massively magnified.
It’s projected onto the low lying clouds or mist, with a rainbow or halo around the head.
The first victim of the specter was a climber, who lost his balance when he became frightened of a haloed figure coming towards him from the mist.
He literally died from being afraid of his own shadow, falling to the rocks far below.
Saint Walpurga was famous for battling “pest, rabies, and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft.”
She became associated with May 1 because she was canonized as a saint on that day.
A very strange thing that happened at her burial.
Her rock tomb began oozing a healing oil, and it was declared a miracle.
So much so that her body was chopped up and sent all over France and German to spread the miracle!
This English lady seemed to have landed on the European continent in Mainz, under the care of her uncle, St. Boniface.
She came from a brood of over-achievers: her father was King St. Richard of Wessex; Ss. Winnebald and Willibald were her brothers, and her uncle was none other than St. Boniface.
Saint Walpurga became abbess of Heidenheim.
So how does a Catholic saint become associated with witches?
It may be partly because of the name of Heidenheim. The abbey name translates to Heathen-home Cloister.
Heidenheim was famous for having been where many heathens, or pagans, were baptized.
The name stuck, even if the meaning of the name was lost to time.
People were already celebrating May 1 in their heathen manner.
The Catholic church allowed the celebrations to continue – as long as they called it celebrating St. Walburga’s feast day.
Flying through the night on broomsticks, though, was not only forbidden but punishable by a year’s penance.
The ninth-century Canon Episcopi came down on ladies who claimed to consort with a “crowd of demons.”
In the later De Arte Magica, the church went even farther:
“Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda [or, in some manuscripts, strigam Holdam, the witch Holda], who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company?”
Fun fact: Saint Walpurga inspired Walburga Black, one of the witches in the Harry Potter books.
Walburga is best known as the mother of Harry’s animagus godfather, Sirius Black.
Her portrait shows up from time to time, muttering or screaming from behind a velvet curtain.