The Daily: 30 April 2023

Walpurgis Night

The last day of April has been a fraught time for millennia. This is a night when pranks are pulled, when spells are cast and wishes are granted, when the Good Folk pass through the veils to walk the woodlands, and when witches dance. The Beltaine fires were lit at midnight on May Eve and allowed to burn through the night so that cattle could be led through the ashes before climbing to the mountain pastures in the morning. Young people would steal away into the woodlands to ‘bring home the may’, a euphemism that didn’t even bother to hide their real intentions.

Today, there may be a maypole or a Morris dance in the town square or perhaps the doorways are garlanded with yellow flowers, but few other traditions have been preserved. However, there is one that seems to be gaining in popularity, not waning, and that is Walpurgis Night. From Norway to Switzerland, children don witch and fairy costumes and go trick-or-treating on this night. There are parades and craft fairs and quite a lot of drinking. But the epicenter of the fun is the Brocken, a forbidding lump of rock in the Harz mountain range in northern Germany.

Goëthe was responsible for telling the rest of the world about the unholy gatherings on this inaccessible peak. His Faust and Mephistopheles attend a Walpurgis Night gathering of witches, demons and others on the Brocken. But this tradition was already old when Goëthe was writing. The first record of the connection between infernal spirits and the Brocken dates to the early 16th century, and even at that time it was deemed an ancient custom. The Grimm brothers noted old lore that named the Harz Range and particularly the Brocken as the crossroads of the Wild Hunt and a covening ground for kobolds, valkyries and witches. They also told the story of Toot Osel, a cloistered chorister who, in death, becomes an owl in the Harz and whose mournful hooting announces the arrival of the Black Huntsman, the local guardian of the wild.

What all these stories have in common is the untamed and untamable nature of this mountain. It is not easily scaled, and though it is only a few thousand feet high, its northerly location means that it is covered in snow from September to May. Many are those who have been lost in the dark, trackless woods that cloak the lower elevations. Because the Brocken sits much higher than any other peak in the Harz, its weather is fierce. Storms sweep the bald crest all year long, and the mountain gets more precipitation than any other point in north central Europe. Today, the peak is home to radio transmitters and a national conservation park, but it is still wild, a brooding Otherworld in the middle of industrial Germany. The stories of the old gods still haunt this mountain, and there are still gatherings of witches who ‘fly’ up the mountain on May Eve to ring in the summer with debauchery.

There is an old belief in waking the summer with noise and high emotional energy. The Vanir, the fertility gods of the North, demanded these gatherings at the start of summer. The growth of the warm months is contingent on the fertile forces that come from death. Both seeds and decaying bodies shelter deep in the soil. Both feed into creation each summer. Both need to be awakened, helped along with human fertility magic and ritual. Once upon a time, these parties happened everywhere, part of the May Day revelries. But puritanical rules forced the revelers into hiding. So there are parties on the mountain, out of reach of the rulers.

The name of this day is seemingly irrelevant. Walburga was an English princess and niece of St Boniface who lived in the 8th century. She moved to the continent to help convert the Saxons. Her miracles included calming the seas and healing many hurts. She was also one of many holy women who are associated with grain and a particular story of finding shelter in a grain field. In that story, Walburga is fleeing tormentors and runs by a field where farmers are sowing grain. As she passes, the grain leaps from the ground and grows as tall as the surprised field workers. A short time later her pursuers come by. They ask the farmers if a woman was seen going by, to which the farmers truthfully reply that they did see a woman pass. She ran by as they were sowing the grain which now stands tall in the fields. Thinking this meant a long time had passed, Walburga’s tormentors give up the chase and she goes free. In some versions of the story, she is not only hidden by the rate of growth but she is also hidden within the grain. It is probably significant that St Walpurgis official feast day is February 25th, a date that falls at the beginning of planting season in Germany.

This is not her feast day, yet this is the day that bears her name. The official line is that her remains were translated on this date. Her ghost, being upset by a remodeling project around her first tomb, came to many people in dreams and other supernatural messages demanding to be moved to a more peaceful resting ground. When this finally happened, she was so grateful her bones began weeping a healing dew that is still collected and bottled up each winter by dutiful attendants. Still, that seems a tenuous connection to the date — and no connection at all to most of the locations that celebrate Walpurgisnacht, including the Brocken.

This connection is made more clear if we look at her symbols. There we see the old gods in a new guise. First, she is tied to grain, especially oats. She is both represented by and representative of the harvest — in other words, a fertility god. But she is also associated with fate and the old sisters who weave destiny. Though there is nothing to connect her to spinning other than the fact that she was a woman in medieval times and therefore as engaged with constant craft as every other woman was, she is often portrayed carrying a spindle. The Wyrd Sisters, the sisters of ‘becoming’, the Norns, were also spinners. So was Bertha, the land goddess of the North and the sometime leader of the Wild Hunt. Walburga’s name could be derived from Bertha or they both could be variations of an older deity, one who ruled the fates of mortals and who brought the fertile seeds back from the underworld land of the dead. Walburga is also invoked against dog bites and is associated with dogs, as is the Old European fertility deity, Nehalennia (whose name is untranslatable in any European language family). Representations of Nehalennia were placed in a cart and rolled through the countryside at planting time to bring fertility to the fields — almost exactly like the story of Walburga and the grain field. Nehalennia is pictured carrying baskets of apples at planting time, but she is also associated with leading the hounds of hell in the autumn. Again, we see a fertility deity who is intimate with the Wild Hunt. And again we see echoes of much older stories behind both Walburga and this night.

The Irish name for May Day was not Beltaine, but Cetsoman, Cet Samhaine, meaning ‘opposite of Samhaine’. And here we get a deeper clue to what this night meant to our ancestors. This was the day that balanced the end of growth. As such this night of bright beginnings is tied to death, specifically the death of harvest. Without the decay of the preceding season, there is no fertility and there is no growth. There is no bright beginning that doesn’t have roots in the darkness of the underworld. There is no awakening that is not tied to death. And there is a gathering of wild forces at both liminal times.

We call it May Eve, the night before May Day. There are adorable children dancing round the maypole and baskets of flowers on doorsteps when the sun rises in the morning. But for tonight, the old gods are stirring, demanding that we remember them, that we remember our debts to the dead. It is a fraught time. And in some places it is still a time of wild revelry, a party to awaken the summer.

On the Brocken, the witches are dancing to awaken the dead.

For more stories of Walburga, the Brocken and all things witchy, I recommend Night of the Witches by Linda Raedisch (2011, Llewellyn Publications). Linda knows her lore and is a charming storyteller, but she’s also quite crafty. This book is chock full of tasty recipes and fun craft ideas. She even includes instructions for making your own broom… though, sadly, mine did not fly me to the Brocken…


we are the bonfire on the mountain
the light in the waning days
we are the chthonic mothers
the crones singing lullabies under dark moons
we are the eyes on trespass
the elder judges, pockets brimming with vindication
we are the keepers of truth
the guardians on the gates of futures unbroken
we are the warriors of mercy
the carriers of clemency from this forgiving earth
we are the circle dance
the hands conjoined in hope and laughter
we are the creators
the abundance of miraculously flowing life
we are the bonfire
and we are blazing our wisdom
in this ocean of nescience
the path is there to follow

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

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