Friday, October 30, 2009
Walpurgis Night - The Other Halloween
There's a penetrating chill in the wind. The bright moon rises behind the shivering, nearly naked trees. A profound sense of foreboding permeates the darkness. This is the night, after all, when witches ride their broomsticks through the sky, and the natural world is forced to confront the powers of the supernatural.
No, it isn't October 31 and this is not Halloween. It's April 30 and it's Walpurgis Night.
Like Halloween, Walpurgis has its roots in ancient pagan customs, superstitions and festivals. At this time of year, the Vikings participated in a ritual that they hoped would hasten the arrival of Spring weather and ensure fertility for their crops and livestock. They would light huge bonfires in hopes of scaring away evil spirits.
But the name “Walpurgis” comes from a very different source. In the 8th Century, a woman named Valborg (other iterations of the name include Walpurgis, Wealdburg and Valderburger) founded the Catholic convent of Heidenheim in Wurtemburg, Germany. She herself later became a nun and was known for speaking out against witchcraft and sorcery. She was canonized a saint on May 1, 779. Since the celebration of her sainthood and the old Viking festival occurred around the same time, over the years the festivals and traditions intermingled until the hybrid pagan-Catholic celebration became known as Valborgsmässoafton or Walpurgisnacht – Walpurgis Night.
The Other Halloween
Although not widely known in the US, this May-Eve night shares many of the traditions of Halloween and is, in fact, directly opposite Halloween on the calendar.
According to the ancient legends, this night was the last chance for witches and their nefarious cohorts to stir up trouble before Spring reawakened the land. They were said to congregate on Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains – a tradition that comes from Goethe's Faust. In the story, the demon Mephistopheles brings Faust to Brocken to consort with the coven of witches.
To ward off the witches’ evil, the citizenry would burn bonfires, sprinkle holy water and adorn their homes with talismans of blessed palm leaf. One of the best ways to keep evil at bay, they thought, was through noise. This is an idea that probably dates back to early man. On Walpurgis Night, the citizens would ring bells, bang drums, crack whips and beat blanks of wood onto the ground. As technology advanced, they would shoot firearms into the air.
Walpurgis Night even features its own version of Trick or Treat in some parts of Europe, especially Germany. In Bavaria, for example, where the celebration is known as a Freinacht or Drudennacht, the young might roam the neighborhoods pulling mischievous pranks, such as wrapping cars in toilet paper and smearing doorknobs with toothpaste. In Thueringen, Germany, some of the little girls dress up as witches, wearing paper hats and carrying sticks.
In Finland, where the holiday is called Vappu, the ordinarily reserved Finns run screaming through the streets wearing masks and carrying drinks.
Halloween-like scarecrows make an appearance, too. Life-size or smaller strawmen are created and ritually imbued with all the back luck and ill will of the past year. They are then tossed on the Walpurgis bonfires along with worn-out, burnable household items.
A Time of Magic
Some believe that Walpurgis, like Halloween, is more than a time of ritual spellcasting – that it is a time when the barrier between our world and the “supernatural” is more easily crossed.
Winifred Hodge writes in Waelburga and the Rites of May, “Since this is a turning-tide when the season is not quite one thing or another – a ‘between-time,’ it is very suitable for occult divination and spellcraft: a time to take advantage of the thinner veils between the worlds and the fact that our minds are temporarily focused away from everyday affairs and onto the magical energies of Nature's spring tides. This is a time for looking into that which is coming into being and which should be, for seeking deep roots of life-knowledge and life-mysteries, for love-magic and spells of growth and change, conception and birth – in fact, for almost all the elements of what is often called 'women's magic.'"