Strum and Drang: Walpurgisnacht
Walpurgisnacht approaches April 30th. Celebrating the holidays of my ancestors has provided a lot of healing for me. Sinking into a space, though not entirely perfect, authentic or completely unbroken in its lineage, of ancestral lifeway is one of the many tactics I see for helping to heal the emptiness that can inhabit whiteness. Where a cultural void lives, things will come to fill it, and we can become much more apt to cause harm to minority and oppressed cultures as we seek to fill that painful void. As you may know from my other work, I am passionate about facing cultural appropriation, and while things are complex, nuanced and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for any problem, nor do I hold any real “truth” or “authority”, this is how I am choosing to deal with the ways in which oppression has erased my own access to a cultural legacy… I am looking into the pre-Christian past of my ancestors, and allowing the Old Ways to meld back into my current Lifeway. One of those Ways, is observing the Old Holy Days.
The lesser celebrated holidays are often the most special to me, perhaps because they have retained more of their original meat. I’ve enjoyed celebrating this special night and watching the strange parallels during this markedly un-spooky time as we stand across from Samhain, All Hallows… The ways in which the eve of April 30th and October 31- Nov 2nd are rife with omens, the frightening of spirits and divinations is uncanny, and delightful I must say. I hope this brief foray into the lore of this special night will tantalize you...
This forgotten Germanic holiday is defined by Sturm and Drang or “Storm and stress”. They say March is, “in like a lion, out like a lamb,” and this is reflected in the energetic flavor of this season. Both Celts and Germans valued what we know now as Beltane, their cultures often overlapped in sacred observances. They both observed this night before May Day with bonfires in which they burned Fennel, Rue, Chevril, Thyme, Chamomile, Pennyroyal, and Geranium for Celts, and Rosemary, Juniper, Rue, Hemlock, Blackthorn, and Wild Caper for Germans. Goethe used the wild night as a backdrop for Faust, revealing this obscure night to a much broader audience, thus reigniting an interest in this wicked holiday.
This night, as often is the case, is named after the St. Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess of Francia, and is celebrated on the night of 30 April and the day of 1 May. This night celebrated the canonization of Saint Walpurga and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt, both of which was said to have occurred on 1 May 870. Saint Walpurga was hailed by the Christians of Germany for battling "pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft." In Germanic folklore, Hexennacht, literally "Witches' Night", was believed to be the night of a witches' meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of woodland in central Germany. As is often the story, this saints day superseded the festivities of May Day and supplanted the Old Pagan celebrations. However, call it what you may, they cannot erase the Old Ways entirely, no matter how hard they try.
In eastern Europe, pitchforks of burning hay were waved about this eve to impart the power if the sun to the fields in an act of imitative magic. As in many Scandinavian traditions, people made noise with loud gun firing and noisemaking to drive out evil. In medieval Europe, the night of April 30th represented Queen May’s 11th hour bid to take back forest and field from king winter before he was driven off, one can see a reflection of this more modern pagan mythology in the Pagan stories of the Oak and Holly king.
At this time, protection bundles of Elder leaves hungover animals stalls and wild roses in Bohemia and in North Europe crosses of Hawthorne, Rowan, Birch crosses were nailed to lintels of house and barns. Essentially, this Germanic Walpurgisnacht celebration resembles Celtic Beltane. In other European countries, sprigs of Ash, Hawthorn, Juniper, and Elder, once sacred to the Old gods, are now used as a protection against them. Horseshoes are nailed prongs up on the threshold or over the door. Holy bells are hung on the cows to scare away the witches, and they are guided to pasture by a goad which has been blessed. Shots are fired over the cornfields to frighten away ill spirits. If one wishes, they can hide in the corn and hear what will happen for a year. It is also a night to look for signs and omens, for on Walpurgis Night, they have more weight that at other times of the year save for on St. John's Day, or Midsummer.
There are many lovers omens on this eve, just like in Scotland on All Hallows. They say if you sleep with one stocking on, you will find on May morning in the toe a hair the color of your sweetheart's. Girls try to find out the temperament of their husbands-to-be by keeping a linen thread for three days near an image of the Madonna, and at midnight on May Eve pulling it apart, saying:
"Thread, I pull thee;
Walpurga, I pray thee,
That thou show to me
What my husband's like to be."
They judge of his disposition by the thread's being strong or easily broken, soft or tightly woven.
Dew on the morning of May first makes girls who wash in it beautiful.
"The fair maid who on the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be."
A heavy dew on this morning presages a good "butter-year." You will find fateful initials printed in dew on a handkerchief that has been left out all the night of April 30th.
On May Day girls invoke the cuckoo:
"Cuckoo! cuckoo! on the bough,
Tell me truly, tell me how
Many years there will be
Till a husband comes to me."
Then they count the calls of the cuckoo until he pauses again.
If a person wears clothes made of yarn spun on Walpurgis Night to the May-shooting, they will always hit the bull's-eye, for the Devil gives away to those he favors, "freikugeln," bullets which always hit the mark.
On Walpurgis Night it is a spooky time, similar to the flavor of Halloweentide. From the Book of Hallowe'en:
Zschokke tells a story of a Walpurgis Night dream that is more a vision than a dream. Led to be unfaithful to his wife, a man murders the husband of a former sweetheart; to escape capture he fires a haystack, from which a whole village is kindled. In his flight he enters an empty carriage, and drives away madly, crushing the owner under the wheels. He finds that the dead man is his own brother. Faced by the person whom he believes to be the Devil, responsible for his misfortunes, the wretched man is ready to worship him if he will protect him. He finds that the seeming Devil is in reality his guardian-angel who sent him this dream that he might learn the depths of wickedness lying unfathomed in his heart, waiting an opportunity to burst out.
Both May Eve and St. John's Eve are times of freedom and unrestraint. People are filled with a sort of madness which makes them unaccountable for their deeds.
"For you see, pastor, within every one of us a spark of paganism is glowing. It has out-lasted the thousand years since the old Teutonic times. Once a year is flames up high, and we call it St. John's Fire. Once a year comes Free-night. Yes, truly, Free-night. Then the witches, laughing scornfully, ride to Blocksberg, upon the mountain-top, on their broomsticks, the same broomsticks with which at other times their witchcraft is whipped out of them,--then the whole wild company skims along the forest way,--and then the wild desires awaken in our hearts which life has not fulfilled."
--SUDERMANN: St. John's Fire.
Stay tuned for an Herblore of Walpurgisnacht e-book in the works... and have a wonderous and windy Walpurgisnacht...
The Book of Hallowe'en By Ruth Edna Kelley
Night of the Witches by Linda Raedisch. 2017.
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