folklore · Holidays · Walpurgis

Walpurgisnacht Part Two

Carrying on from part one of this series, we have seen a fair amount of evidence suggestive of the fact that the celebration of St. Walpurga was mapped onto a pre-Christian goddess associated with “the miracle of the grain”. Let’s see what else we can glean on this major-yet-still-enigmatic holiday. Specifically, it’s most famous association; witches.

Grimm tells us that it is possible to join the witches who are out and about on Walpurgisnacht by the act of ritual inversion. That is, one put’s one’s clothing on inside-out, and moves backwards towards a crossroads. Then one is, presumably, picked up by the witches to join them in their sport at the Brocken. (Grimm IV, superstition #1082)

In Sweden, the day is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks, with the belief that these might frighten off the witches who were known to fly to their gatherings on this evening. This is echoed in Grimm IV, supersitition #138, where he says that witches cannot hurt the corn in a field, if the farmer fires a shot over it.

In Germany and Sweden, they were said to meet at Mt. Brocken, which is the highest peak in the Hartz Mountains (the name Brocken seems to go back as far as the 12th century, when “Broken” is mentioned as the name in the Saxon World Chronicle, but the etymology of the name is not known with 100% certainty). 

While there’s a wealth of information on the day in German sources, this English source (Aubrey, Remains of Gentilisme) encapsulates it well:

‘Tis commonly say’d in Germany that the witches do meet int he night before the first say of May, upon an high mountain, called the Blocksberg, situated in Ascanien, where they, together with the devils, do dance and feast; and the common people doe, the night before the said day, fetch a certain thorn, and stick it at their house-door, believing the witches can then doe them no harm.

The detail of the thorn to protect the house of course recalls the Biblical account of the Hebrews, who painted their door jams with the blood of a lamb in order to be passed over by the Angel of Death who was visiting the firstborn of Pharaoh’s subjects (Exodus 12). 

In Ditmarschen (just to the northwest of Hamburg, Germany), we are told:

…they kindle great fires on the hills and crossways, which they call ‘baken’ (beacons). The boys and young people bring straw and dry boughs from all parts, and the night is passed amid rejoicing and dancing about the flames. Some of the larger youths take bundles of burning straw on a fork, and run about swinging them until they are burnt out. On the island of Femern (which was peopled from Ditmarschen they in like manner celebrate the 30th April with the lighting of beacons (bakenbrennen). (Northern Mythology, Benjamin Thorpe, vol III, p. 6)

From the same source we see that “If a man desires to know what sort of a wife he shall have, he must ride on Walpurg’s night on a broomstick to the stable, and knock thrice, then go to the pigstye and hear what pig grunts, whether an old or a young one. His wife will be old or young accordingly. (Hassleben [central Germany])”

Also, “…no persons should go to bed, lest the witches should come and bewitch them. (Rauen [just east of Berlin])”. Nor may  cat be allowed into the house, lest it be a witch.

It is also the case that witches are not limited to the Brocken. Grimm tells us “At the end of the Hliss, as thou nearest the Duier (Duinger) wood, is a mountain very high and bare, named uf den bloszen sollen, whereon it is given out that witches hold their dances on Walpurgis night, even as on Mt Brocken in the Harz.”

Llwellyn Lloyd, in his wonderful Peasant Life In Sweden (1870) gives us a wonderful description of the fire-related element of the evening’s celebrations:

Huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flint stones together, blaze on all the hills and knolls. Every large hamlet has its own fire, so that one may at times see from twenty to thirty within the same parish. The youth of both sexes assemble from all parts of the country at these fires, when, forming a ring (two or three rings, the one within the other, if the company is numerous), they dance around them until the night be well advanced. Whilst the young are thus enjoying themselves, the old folk take note of the several fires, and carefully mark if their number be odd or even; as also if the flames incline to the north or to the south. ‘In the former case, they believe the spring will be cold and backward; but in the latter, genial and mild.’ (Lloyd, p. 234)

Here we note the connection of bonfires with the Walpurgisnacht celebration, and the connection (in Sweden, at least) with weather-prediction and the sort of Maypole Dance mingling of the sexes that we see in Germany and elsewhere on the Continent (although usually the practice in Scandinavia is transferred to Midsummer). 

In his 1913 work “Balder the Beautiful: The Fire-Festivals of Europe and the Doctrine of the External Soul”, J.G. Frazer (this was Volume 10 of the third edition of The Golden Bough) makes note of several fire-related customs attached to the night:

Similarly, in Bohemia, on the eve of Fires on May Day, young people kindle fires on hills and eminences, at crossways, and in pastures, and dance round them. They Day in leap over the glowing embers or even through the flames. The ceremony is called ” burning the witches.” In some places an effigy representing a witch used to be burnt in burning the bonfire. We have to remember that the eve of May the witches. Day is the notorious Walpurgis Night, when the witches are everywhere speeding unseen through the air on their hellish errands. On this witching night children in Voigtland [on the modern border of Germany and the Czech Republic] also light bonfires on the heights and leap over them. Moreover, they wave burning brooms or toss them minto the air. So far as the light of the bonfire reaches, so far will a blessing rest on the fields. The kindling of the fires on Walpurgis Night is called “driving away the witches.” The custom of kindling fires on the eve of May Day (Walpurgis Night) for the purpose of burning the witches is, or used to be, widespread in the Tyrol, Moravia, Saxony, and Silesia.

Frazier gives us another fascinating tidbit in a later footnote (on p. 171):

The Blocksberg, where German as well as Norwegian witches gather for their great Sabbaths on the Eve of May Day (Walpurgis Night) and Midsummer Eve, is commonly identified with the Brocken, the highest peak of the Harz mountains. But in Mecklenburg, Pomerania, and probably elsewhere, villages have their own local Blocksberg, which is generally a hill or open place in the neighborhood; a number of places in Pomerania go by the name of the Blocksberg.

It’s interesting to note that the connection between the name “Blocksberg” and witches is still current in the German collective consciousness, as the audio and later TV cartoon series Bibi Blocksberg demonstrates. Frazier provides yet more detail with the following quote from R. Kuhnau, Scheslichen Sagen, p. 69:

In the county of Glatz [in Lower Silesia, now in Poland, but then in Germany] the people believe that on Walpurgis Night (the Eve of May Day) the witches under cover of the darkness seek to harm men in all sorts of ways. To guard themselves against them the people set small birch trees in front of the house-door on the previous day, and are of opinion that the witches must count all the leaves on these little trees before they can get into the house. While they are still at this laborious task, the day dawns and the dreaded guests must retire to their own realm.

Something similar is known in Marsala, Sicily, where witches are said to be compelled to count the grains of salt that might be placed before them. 

I think it’s safe to assume we have a connection between May Eve (aka Walpurgisnacht) and witches, as well as an association with fire (specifically bonfires, which seems to echo the same traditions as we see at Midsummer). There are recurrent patterns mentioning the need to protect against these witches; whether it be the house itself or the fields of grain. The (presumably unprotected) grain fields are also held to be a place where the witches can be contacted and the individual can even join their company. So we do now see a connection of the grain goddess with the witches who go about on this night.

Next we’ll see if we can tie this back more specifically to figures or myth-complexes we see in Norse and other Germanic pre-Christian culture.

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