Walpurgisnacht, also known as Valborg, Rood Eve, and May Eve, is celebrated on the 30th of April. The current name comes from the Catholic St. Walburga, whose canonization day is May 1st (hence Walburga-eve on April 30). Because she was an historical figure, and is known to have lived (rather than being merely a mythological figure as some Catholic saints), the name of the celebration can thus be traced to no earlier than the 8th century, as she lived from 710-777 CE.
The saint herself has been identified with a broader tradition of pre-Christian “grain miracle” goddesses who were transformed into Christian saints. According to Pamela Berger’s book The Goddess Obscured , the earliest known representation of the saint shows her with stalks of grain, and later folklore associated her with good crops and the peasant class. Berger gives this very interesting folk-tale associated with the saint:
One night a farmer who feared it was going to rain was bringing his harvest home on a wagon. Suddenly he encountered Saint Walpurga. She was fleeing and asked the peasant if he would hide her among his sheaves of grain, for her enemy was following close behind. The peasant accepted and “hid the saint in a sheaf, for that reason was Saint Walpurga fashioned [or modeled] in a sheaf.” Hardly was the saint hidden when the fiendish white rider came by. The peasant quickly made the sign of the cross and was happy when the danger was past. Saint Walpurga climbed out of the grain sheaf (or out of the wagon on which the grain sheaves were piled), thanked the peasant, and told him to watch carefully over his grain. The peasant continued home, and the next morning he was overjoyed to find that his grain had turned to gold. – Berger, pp. 62-63
This translation of grain to gold as a reward for helping the goddess is known as “the miracle of the grain” and is a motif seen in the stories of several other saints, including Radegund (France, 6th century, so during the reign of the Merovingian Franks), Macrine (Carolingian France, 9th century), Brigid (Ireland), and Milburga (Anglo-Saxon (Mercian) England).
Grimm tells us that “On Wapurgis-eve let him that has cornfields fire his gun over them, and the witches cannot hurt the corn.” This is an allusion to the notion that witches, as a general class, would spoil crops out of malice, and might be related to the modern belief that noisy fireworks will drive off witches. The act of shooting a gun over the fields recalls the idea of casting a spear over an enemy to dedicate them to Odin (i.e., the act of firing the weapon over the field places it as the property of, and thus under the protection of, the Gods). (Grimm IV, superstition #138)
Walpurgisnacht, also according to Grimm, is a night when one can go into the green corn field in the hour before midnight and listen. One will then hear tidings portending the rest of the year. Again we see a connection with corn (a general term for grain), as well as a connection with divination. (Grimm IV, superstition #854)
All in all, there seems an excellent case for the notion that the celebrations around April 30/May 1 were originally dedicated to an agrarian goddess of Germanic provenance. The fact that we see the motif in Germanic cultures across northwestern Europe points to this. But are there any grain-goddesses in the Germanic conception that would fit the bill?
Many will say, “Sif, of course!” Based on the Victorian association of her golden hair with ripening grain, but that association has since been disproved by scholars based on a number of factors. Gefjon, with her links in the mythology to plowing, is a possibility. Frigg and Freyja are such catch-alls that I hesitate to put yet more associations on their respective plates, but they remain possibilities. Little is known about Nerthus, at least by that name, and she seems to have disappeared (again, by that name) shortly after Tacitus wrote about her. Jord/Fjorgyn fits the bill better than most, if only based on the “Earth mother” identification she shares with Nerthus.
That might be fertile soil in which to dig (sorry, I couldn’t resist) as we continue this series on Walpurgisnacht. We’ll see what comes of it.