Cold winds rattle still-naked tree branches The edges of dark and foreboding clouds are aglow in the moonlight. Doors are locked and windows shuttered. Terrified eyes scan the skies expecting legions of witches atop their brooms to suddenly burst from the tree line. It’s a frightening vision. Yet, despite how it sounds, it’s not about Halloween. It’s April 30th, Walpurgis Night, translated from German, Walpurgisnacht [välˈpo͝orɡisˌnäKHt] or Hexennacht [Hẹxennacht]. To the layperson, it’s simply called the night of the witches.
Ancient Norse Origins of Walpurgisnacht
Walpurgisnacht originally was a Norse/Viking ritual practiced thousands of years ago in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. After the long winter, prayers were offered to expedite the coming of spring and ensure fertility for livestock and crops. People would hang bundles of foliage around their property to ward off evil spirits. Offerings of mead and food were left for the spirits of the dead which they believed walked the earth that night. Fires would burn all through the night and families would gather in warded places until the morning. This practice was nearly identical to actions taking place on Samhain, which ironically is exactly 6 months opposite Walpurgisnacht on the calendar.
As it happened with most pagan traditions, the introduction of Christianity either eliminated or changed the. There was a distortion of the core celebration furthered by an eventual hijacking altogether, including changing the name. This ritual of of spring (there are no records of what the Vikings called this celebration prior to the Christianized term) morphed into celebration of a Catholic Saint; Saint Walpurga. She was a nun from the Heidenheim monastery in Wurtemburg, Germany who died in 779. Walpurga was later canonized a saint by Pope Adrian II on May 1st, 870, the day her mortal remains were moved to Eichstätt, the seat of the Catholic Diocese . At Eichstätt, her bones were placed in a rocky niche. This niche allegedly began to exude a miraculously therapeutic oil, which solidified her sainthood in the eyes of the believers.
Her name has many translations including Valborg, Walpurgis, Wealdburg and Valderburger. Many of these coincide with some of the other cultures, which still celebrate the holiday in earnest. Walpurga was a healer and known for speaking out against witchcraft and sorcery during her living years. As a Saint, Walpurga was the advocate of coughs, famine, plague and storms. As the influence of the church grew, the traditional festivals intermingled with the Christian celebrations and the hybrid holiday became known as Valborgsmässoafton or Walpurgisnacht.
The Brocken (also known as the Blocksberg) is the highest mountain peak of the Harz range in Northern Germany. Although not tall by Alpine standards, the peak stays very cold and is shrouded by mist and fog most of the time. The surrounding land is inhospitable with gnarly trees and strange moss-covered rock formations. Some of them have been given foreboding names such as Devil’s Pulpit or the Witch’s Altar. The Brocken has always played a prominent role in German legends. Especially those stories which were associated with witches, witchcraft, and even the devil. On Walpurgisnacht, according to writings from the 16th and 17th century, witches were purported to hold a large gathering. According to some accounts, it was the last chance for several months to create trouble before Spring arrived to renew and reawaken the land. Witches from all around were purported to gather and engage in a highly sexual. debaucherously magickal rite.
The people who lived around the mountain were in fear of the unknown rituals. They would perform many actions to ward themselves and their property from the witches nefarious intentions. Bonfires would be lit, sprigs of greenery from trees such as the ash, hawthorn, juniper, and elder, along with other talismans would be hung at the corners of the buildings and on fences. Some people would even sprinkle holy water around. Additionally, people would make noise; lots of noise. The idea that loud noises kept evil away dates back for centuries, and on Walpurgis Night, villagers would bang drums, ring bells, shout, sing, and even clap wood blocks together as a way to keep the witches away.
Many practitioners of the magickal arts believe that Walpurgis Night is more than just a time of ritual spell work. It’s considered a day that equals Samhain; when the barrier between the worlds is thin and easily crossed. Witches and sorcerers were more powerful on this night than any other night except Samhain. The night would be filled with ghosts of the dead, faeries, shapeshifters, lesser demons, and all sorts of feral beasts. It was nothing short of a nightmare in ancient times and people were terrified by all sorts of “what if’s.”
The Brocken Spectre
True believers point to one topic most often as evidence of the gatherings. It is the story of the Brocken Spectre. It is a strange phenomenon often observed in mountainous regions. Even though modern weather science claims it is a natural occurrence, some are still skeptical. Regardless, people seeing the vision centuries ago would have been completely unsettled. The mountain is almost always shrouded in a misty fog. Water droplets are suspended in the air and sunlight reflects through them much differently than in other places. If someone was observing another person higher up on the mountain with the sun behind them, that person will appear to have a rainbow halo surrounding their shadow. Additionally , their shadow will appear much larger than usual, which gives it a spooky, almost supernatural appearance.
Anyone unaware of another person on the mountain would see this as ghostly apparition. A dark figure with an unholy light spilling forth from what like their unnatural body. Fear would have quickly overtaken them and they might overestimate the size and shape of the sight. By the time they shared the vision, the shadow could likely have become a fearsome beast sent by the witches to guard the mountain.
Walpurgisnacht Traditions Around The World
Today, throughout Europe and the United States, Walpurgis Night is still celebrated. One common tradition seen everywhere is a bonfire. It was considered good luck to burn anything no longer useful on Walpurgisnacht fires. In many cultures, small scarecrow-looking dolls are made during the day and ritually imbued with all the back luck and ill will of the past year. They are then tossed on the Walpurgis bonfires that night along with worn-out, burnable household items. Also, the arts of the cunning women, or wise women of the forest were especially potent during this time. Their magick often revolved around love, sexuality and fertility.
In Sweden, it seems as if the entire nation is ablaze to celebrate Valborg. Across the country, citizens gather around massive community bonfires to sing welcoming songs to Spring. As the night goes on, there will be drinking, dancing, and even fireworks. One old custom, though no longer popular, would send the children into the woods to collected branches of greenery to decorate the village houses.
In Finland, the holiday is called Vappu and people have picnics and drink homemade mead during the day, but can be seen running through the streets at night wearing masks, drinking, and screaming as loud as they can. The Finns borrow heavily from the Germanic tradition of celebrating witches. It’s one of the four biggest Finnish holidays and is the biggest carnival day of the year.
Germans often leave out a piece of bread spread with butter and honey called an Ankenschnitt. This offering is left outside to appease the phantom hounds and to order to protect people from bad weather or bad harvests. They also celebrate around great bonfires and some of the youth are known to play pranks similar to the “tricks” played at Halloween.
In Bavaria, Walpurgis Night is known as a Freinacht or Drudennacht. Young people roam the neighborhoods pulling mischievous pranks, such as wrapping cars or trees in toilet paper.
Estonia refers to the holiday as Volbriöö, and celebrates witches. It precedes Kevadpüha, the day which marks the arrival of spring. Volbriöö still sees carnivals, celebration and drinking, often with people dressed as traditional witches.
In the Czech Republic, Walpurgis Night is known as Pálení čarodějnic, which translates to the “burning of the witches” in English. Witches made of rags and straw are burned in bonfires amidst plenty of drinking. Whenever a burst of black smoke is emitted from the blaze, a cheer goes up as the witch is said to have flown away.
In America, many neopagans gravitate toward celebrating Beltane rather than Walpufgistnacht. It has a broader meaning and is more adaptable to non-witch audiences. There are still some covens who use Walpurgis Night for serious spell work or other magickal rites.
Walpurgisnacht and Beltane
Many modern neopagans have confused Walpurgis with Beltane; likely due to their proximity on the calendar. They share many similar customs but there are distinct differences between the two. Beltane is a Celtic festival held on the 1st of May to celebrate the beginning of summer and opening of the pastures to livestock. Walpurgisnacht is Germanic and occurs the night before Beltane. And while Beltane has kept it’s original focus, Walpurgis has morphed into a witchy occasion, which is ironic since it was originally focused on driving witches and their influences away.
Witches have been feared for as long as witches have existed; usually for the wrong reasons, but nevertheless feared. The so-called witch gatherings on the mountain were likely people who refused to relinquish their old ways and submit to the yoke of Christianity. They probably chose the location due to its remoteness to avoid persecution. The church made no secrets about their goals of destroying all of the ancient beliefs. History shows that they would often merge an old belief with one of theirs. Over time the old parts would be abandoned, allowing the church versions to dominate. What’s amazing about Walpurgisnacht is that instead of making a pagan holiday Christian, the church made it more pagan than ever.
So, this April 30th, get your witch on!
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R.J. Schwartz is the owner and creative force behind The Gypsy Thread website. Use this link to go to the main page and explore articles on the unexplained, witchcraft, pagan history, and to find Full Moon and Pagan Rituals (all of which are free to use).
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Updated in March, 2022, from the original publishing date of April 5th, 2018, by the author