Walpurgis Night – Halloween in April?

 

I know, I know.  All you ghost and goblin lovers feel neglected at this time of year.  Horror aficionados begin lamenting as early as November. “Let’s plan for next Halloween!” they tell me.  However, you don’t have to wait that long! There is a holiday going on right now to appease your ghastly self, and it should not be ignored.

We all know of Beltane, the fire festival celebrated on May 1st. But the night before Beltane, called May Eve, Walpurgis Night or Walpurgisnacht, is a notable time for spooky celebration in its own right.

Just as Halloween/ Samhain marks the turning of the seasons, so does Walpurgis Night/ Beltane. In the Northern hemisphere we see the changeover from winter to summer, and in the Southern hemisphere from summer to winter. The cross quarter festival of Samhain corresponds exactly with Beltane, six months later in the wheel of the year.

It is a shoulder-season, marked by the quasi-reality of one thing merging into another.  Nature blooms or nature dies, depending on what side of the world you are on. During this time the veils are lifted, leaving us particularly vulnerable to the influences of all things other-worldly.  This includes, of course, the dead, the faeries, the vampires, the werewolves, etc. We should therefore prepare ourselves for hauntings, divination, costuming, scary movies and general mayhem.

What are the origins of Walpurgis Night, and what exactly IS a Walpurgis?

Well…

The festival of May Day was probably first celebrated by the ancient Romans.  At the beginning of summer,  the goddess Flora, a deity of vegetation and fertility, was honored with a five day festival.

The celebrations ended in a blood sacrifice offered to Flora, as a way of ensuring she would make the land prosperous all summer long. The Vikings also had a version of this feast, as did the ancient Celts, Picts and Goths.

Later, in medieval Germany, May Eve was called Hexennacht or “night of the witches”. On this night the local wise-women would gather on the Brocken, the uppermost point of the Harz mountain range. There they would call upon spirits to bless the land and prepare it for summer. Hexennacht was a wild time of dancing, bonfires and fertility rituals, as well as spells and divinity.

As Christianity spread through Europe, the Church began to merge Christian and Pagan holy days.  May Eve became known as Walpurga’s Night. This was a festival to honor the Saint Walpurga, an abbess who was canonized on May 1st, 870.

It seems Walpurga herself was a great health advocate who protected people from rabies, pestilence and all sorts of diseases. She was not so different from the witches at Hexennacht. The two festivals were probably a bit interchangeable and may have coexisted side by side. Some Scandinavian stories even describe Walpurga as a type of Valkyrie, and have her joining Odin in his ‘wild hunt’ through the sky.

However, in around the sixteenth century, when the Church decided to go crazy with witch hunts, they created a new legend and apparently appointed Walpurga as their guard dog against witches. The wise-women who had called for land blessings now  suddenly became suspect, as the Church linked them to the devil and Satanic myths. And of course, Walpurga’s feast day “just happened” to correspond to Hexennacht. The lines between good and evil were clearly plotted. Traditional bonfires became a tool to ward off ‘demonic’ witches. People were encouraged to fear, rather than embrace, the other-world and the lifting of the veils.

In later years, Saint Walpurga’s Night became known as “Walpurgis Night”, inextricably bound to evil and chaos. Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust (1808) in which the main character sells his soul to the devil, takes place in the Harz mountains on Walpurgisnacht.  Bram Stoker’s short story Dracula’s Guest (1914) also begins on this fateful night:

‘The dead travel fast.

There was something so weird and uncanny about the whole thing that it gave me a turn and made me feel quite faint. I began to wish, for the first time, that I had taken Johann’s advice. Here a thought struck me, which came under almost mysterious circumstances and with a terrible shock. This was Walpurgis Night!

Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad—when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. This very place the driver had specially shunned. This was the depopulated village of centuries ago. This was where the suicide lay; and this was the place where I was alone—unmanned, shivering with cold in a shroud of snow with a wild storm gathering again upon me! It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright…”

You get the idea.

In modern times, Walpurgis Night is celebrated in many European countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia and Finland. The festivities include bonfires, dancing, dressing up in costumes, parades, feasting and music.

If it’s scary enough for Bram Stoker, it’s scary enough for me!

And so, if you find yourself  longing for a Halloween fix, despair no more!  Walpurgis Night is the perfect time to watch frightening films or create some witchy rituals of your own.  Go to the woods, light a bonfire, don a mask, bless the land. Whatever you do, feel free to celebrate April 30th with some good old fashioned horror, hallucinations, and of course hexes 🙂

 

 

 

 

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A Mad Tea Party

 

Today, April 21 is “National Tea Day” in the UK.  It also happens to be the 92nd birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. It seems a day could not be more authentically British. In honor of this I am wishing all my friends in the UK (and tea drinkers everywhere) a Happy National Tea Day!

No tea celebration would be complete without stopping by what is perhaps the most famous tea drinking occasion in history – Alice’s Mad Tea Party.

After chasing the White Rabbit down his hole, Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat,  who tells her she will definitely be meeting up with mad people. It’s unavoidable.  ( “We’re all mad here,” the Cat assures Alice. “I’m mad, you’re mad.”) Alice  asks the Cat how he knows she is mad. “You must be,” he replies, “Or you would not have come here.”

Alice then wanders upon a tea table in the middle of the forest.

There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house, and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it: a Dormouse was sitting between them, fast asleep, and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head. `Very uncomfortable for the Dormouse,’ thought Alice; `only, as it’s asleep, I suppose it doesn’t mind.’

*** We know right away there is going to be trouble. The March Hare is a wild animal, known for his crazy antics during mating season. The sleeping Dormouse seems pretty benign, but watch out for the Hatter, as they were known at the time to have some mental deficiencies due to mercury exposure involved in the process of making hats.

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s plenty of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

***  Alice is only seven years old. Good thing the Hare did not actually have any wine to offer her. Today he might be arrested for child endangerment.

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

*** Again, the mercury exposed Hatter is known to be wacky.

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’

*** The study of “meaning what you say” and “saying what you mean” is an interesting one. Carroll shows us how just a few words of juxtaposition can give a completely different meaning. Try it yourself, just for fun! “I know who I am — I am who I know? I believe what I see — I see what I believe? We are what we eat — we eat what we are?” Yes, it should drive you a bit mad 🙂

`Have you guessed the riddle yet?’ the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

`No, I give it up,’ Alice replied: `what’s the answer?’

`I haven’t the slightest idea,’ said the Hatter.

`Nor I,’ said the March Hare.

*** The riddle is never actually solved, but I heard a possible answer: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because Poe wrote on both.

What follows is a discussion of time in which the Alice states she must beat time in order to learn music. The Hatter insists that time is a ‘he’ not an ‘it’. Furthermore: ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

Finally Alice can take it no longer. She gets up and leaves.

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

Contrary to Alice’s belief (and providing we don’t dine with Hatters) more tea drinking would probably be good for us. Tea is full of anti-oxidants and is known to boost our immune systems. According to sage wisdom, tea with honey is great for soothing sore throats. Besides that, many cultures celebrate tea drinking with particular rituals and ceremonies.

A tea ceremony is like a meditation — time set aside for rest and contemplation. In fact, tea drinking could probably bring about more civility, peace and sanity for us all.

Whatever you do today, take some time out to enjoy a nice cup of tea 🙂

a mad tea

 

 

 

 

 

Rusalka and the Titanic

 

I boarded the ship at Southampton, on England’s southern coast, a city they called Gateway to the World.  It was appropriately named. New worlds would indeed open to those that dared sail on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

Southampton was seafaring town of busy docks, commerce and fishermen who, given half the chance may have recognized me for what I was. Yet I went ably and quietly about my business, our custom being to operate in stealth. My disguise was well put together, a simple blue dress, lace up boots and one bag of luggage that contained only my combs, mirrors, candles and an ancient grimoire. For all the crew and passengers knew, I could have been any normal woman, a widow perhaps, traveling alone with a full purse and a certain destination.

My nature necessitated a room in first class, where I could have daily baths in the salt water swimming pool. The engineers had designed it to provide diversion for wealthy passengers with plenty of leisure time. Little did they know it was my mainstay of survival. Without it I could never have attempted my feat.

I socialized moderately, took dinner with new acquaintances, but left my comments to such mundane topics as the weather and other non-committal matters.  This was my strategy, to avoid drawing attention to myself. Until of course, the very last.

The captain, one Edward John Smith of the Royal Naval Reserve, was a stately man, well-seasoned and of good capabilities.

When I inquired of the ship’s dimensions, her tonnage and resistance, Captain Smith looked at me funny. He must have thought it strange, a woman interested in such things. Still it was important I establish this knowledge. Else all my plans could go afoul.

We traveled for four days, stopping at Cherbourg Harbor in France and Queenstown in Ireland where more passengers boarded. They were a grand sight; well-heeled women in dresses of silk and gabardine, with enormous steamer trunks that held entire wardrobes. Scruffy emigrants in fisher caps and babuskas, with only hobo sacks of clothes. Excitedly they took their bunks in steerage. No matter that the class was third, for this was an ocean voyage. Poor innocents, all of them! They had no idea of their fate. Yet they sought new lands and opportunity. Those were things I could well provide.

On the night it happened the ship rounded the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The moon was new, providing no extra light to the blackened sky. I had planned it as such, the first new moon after the spring equinox, when my powers of sorcery were at their ripest.

Just before midnight I slid from my bed. I combed my hair carefully, leaving it loose over my shoulders, but untangled. I took one large hand-held mirror with trimmed decorations of pearl and abalone. I also took three candles and my book of spells.  Naked and in bare feet I tiptoed across the deserted deck. Facing starboard, I lit the candles, then dangled my mirror toward the rushing ocean below me. I recited these words:

“Raise me an iceberg, unbreakable and dense, 

Black as this night, an invisible fence!

Raise me an iceberg, impenetrable and true

Black as this night, unseen by the crew.

Raise me an iceberg, grown from the sea

Black as this night, to set them all free!”

I then shattered the mirror and flung it overboard, crystalline shards drifting in the wind and falling like glittering stars to the churning water.

It was done.

Black icebergs are a rare phenomenon that neither the captain nor crew were familiar with. When my mountain arose from the water none could see it at first.

By the time the watchful lookout man spotted the iceberg, it was too late. The great Titanic hit the dense rock, damaging her hull. The sea began to seep in. Soon all five of the ship’s watertight compartments were flooded. This meant certain disaster.

Or did it?

I was elated. As the water rose I could contain myself no longer. Rushing below deck, I shifted to my mermaid’s body. I swam through the hallways, through the ever-rising tide of the elegant and soon to be flooded rooms.

The passengers, already in a state of shock, saw me and turned a whiter shade of pale. They were helpless.  I tried to talk to them, to reassure them that all would be well. But they were so frenzied, in such throes of panic, they could not hear my words. One shipmate grabbed a pistol and attempted to shoot me, bludgeoning a bloody hole through my tail. However, the sea’s salt water, now slowly immersing every floor, quickly healed me. As a Rusalka, I was immortal.

I finally perched myself upon the rail of the deck, curling my tail beneath me. In amusement I watched. Crew and passengers scurried about, securing lifeboats. There would never be enough. The captain, in his foolishness of believing the Titanic was unsinkable, had only equipped her with half of what was necessary. This was all the better!

“Women and children first,” called the first mate. I smiled. Yes, they would save the women and children first, as was human protocol.

From flooding corridors and slippery decks the men ran. Handsome, swarthy sailors, savvy men of business, emigrants in rags. All unsuspecting. All clueless.

Finally the ship cracked in two, her bow submerged, her back end rising upright like a serpent in the water. The remaining passengers slid to their death.

I balanced on my tail, stretched my arms before me and called out in my voice, loud as any canon: “Undines! Rusalki! Sirenas! Come forth!” I then dove off the rails.

Down, down I plunged into the ocean’s depths. There, rising on the crests of waves, my Mer-sisters emerged.

“Make your choices ladies,” I shouted. “This cargo is ripe for the picking!”  It was a welcome gift.  We had heretofore been sadly lacking in male companionship.

I grabbed a young sailor, his skin gone translucent blue, his eyes open in the cold stare of the dead. I pulled him to my breast, kissed him boldly on the mouth. His eyes then flickered in a strange and frightened recognition. He was the one who had attempted to shoot me with a pistol. Blood rushed to his cheeks.

“I should not forgive you,” I chided. Yet he was handsome and able, and in that instant I determined to make him mine.

My Mer-sisters followed suit, awakening the sea’s dead with kisses of life. One by one, the drowned became conscious, still in shock, but alive.

“Take heart, gentleman,” I said.  “Although you will never return to your earthly homes, you will now have refuge in our sea, in the abode of the Rusalki. As time passes you will come to love us and the ocean shall provide you with grand adventure.”

The men were new in their surroundings, but, being sailors, most had immense love of the water. At the very least they were grateful for their renewed life.  I was confident they would be happy. And if not? Well — I had more mirrors and candles and more spells to cast,  didn’t I? Not the least of which might bring love.

My mission was complete.

 

** HISTORICAL NOTE: On this day, April 15, 1912, the real RMS Titanic, headed on her maiden voyage to New York City, sank off the coast of Newfoundland. She had hit a “black” iceberg which caused irreparable damage to her hull.

The massive ship was 882 feet long with a breadth of 92 feet. Her total height, measured from keel to bridge, was 104 feet.  She weighed 46,328 tons. Among her more novel features, available only to first-class passengers, was a 7 ft. deep saltwater swimming pool, a gymnasium, a squash court, and a Turkish bath.

Because of her gargantuan size, the Titanic was considered virtually unsinkable.

Whether out of carelessness or limited storage capacity, the ship only held enough lifeboats to carry about half the passengers. These were quickly depleted.

On the night the Titanic sank, conditions were calm, clear, dark and cold. The black sky held a new moon, the ocean lit only by the stars. The “invisible” iceberg, a rare phenomenon, seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Approximately 1500 passengers lost their lives. Due to the “women and children first” rule, most of the deceased were men.

 

 

 

 

 

Hans and the Scary Fairy Tales

 

He was a weaver of tales who brought us The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Emperor’s New Clothes and the Ugly Duckling.  In the course of his lifetime he wrote novels, travelogues, and over three thousand fairy tales which have been translated into 125 languages. His stories have universal appeal, transcending age and nationality. He created a unique mythology which continues to  haunt us and remains part of our collective consciousness.

Hans Christian Andersen was born on this day, April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark. His own life story is a classic rags to riches that could have been one of his fairy tales.

His father, also named Hans, was a struggling tradesman and his mother Anne Marie a washerwoman.  Hans Sr. died in 1816. Two years later Anne Marie remarried. It was then decided that  Hans Jr. should no longer remain in the house. At the tender age of eleven, Hans was sent away to a boarding school. (Evil stepfather, banishment. Do you see a pattern here?)  Although the family was poor, Hans was somehow allowed to study and receive a good education. (Fairy godmother perhaps?)

At boarding school, the boy was expected to fend for himself and he earned money as a tailor’s apprentice. He showed a natural talent for singing and at age fourteen, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theater.  However, as luck would have it, Hans hit puberty that year, experienced the voice change, and could no longer sing the soprano part he has been assigned.  But all was not lost — Jonas Colins, the theater director, saw something special in Hans and made arrangements that he could  attend prestigious school in Elsinore. (Another fairy godmother?)

Young Hans might have been considered privileged, but his story goes a bit dark here. He was sent to live with a school master who routinely abused and bullied him and discouraged him from writing. He went into a deep depression, and later wrote that his days at Elsinore were the darkest of his life.

The story, however, has a happy ending. Andersen graduated school in 1827 and almost immediately became successful writing short stories, plays and poetry. King Christian VIII of Denmark was so impressed with his work that he gave Andersen a grant to travel around Europe. Hans felt most comfortable on the road and later wrote, “To travel is to live.”

All these fairy godmothers may not have been an accident. There was a rumor that Hans Christian Andersen was actually the illegitimate son of King Christian. This rumor, however, has not been substantiated by any reliable source. (If true it would make a great story!)

It was during his travels across Europe that Andersen began writing fairy tales. While his early stories were not greatly received, he continued. In 1838 he wrote Fairy Tales Told for Children. New Collection. First Booklet. This book earned him immense popularity when, in 1845 it was translated to English and other languages. It became a best seller.

Andersen’s tales were often dark and creepy. His heroes and heroines often go through enormous difficulties. Although the endings are usually happy, they pay great prices for that happiness, often undergoing physical, mental and spiritual changes. For example:

— Karen, the protagonist in The Red Shoes, loves to dance and wear her beautiful shoes. However, it gets to the point where she cannot stop dancing and eventually her feet must be cut off!

 

 

— The Little Mermaid trades her fish tail for human legs. In the process she undergoes excruciating physical pain,  is betrayed by  a handsome prince, and even commits suicide before she is freed to the Daughters of the Air.

 

— In The Wild Swans,  Eliza wants to free her brothers from a terrible curse, but to do so she must knit sweaters made of poisonous nettles that cause her fingers to bleed.  To make matters worse, she has taken a vow of silence! During this time she is arrested for witchcraft and thrown in the dungeon.

And the list goes on. These stories remain popular because they entertain in a way that enables problem solving — while giving kids the scare of their lives! 🙂 The message is always that virtue will be rewarded.

Andersen never married, although he courted several women and wrote a few love letters to men as well. Some historians believe he was bisexual. He seems to have harbored terribly romantic ideas about love and often chose partners that were either unavailable or inappropriate.  At one point he proposed marriage to the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.

She turned him down, but this did not stop Hans from writing a fairy tale which was inspired by her. It was called The Nightingale, about (you guessed it) a precious and beautiful bird that serenades the emperor.  After that, Jenny Lind was given the nickname “The Swedish Nightingale.”

Andersen had a long and prosperous life. He died in Copenhagen on August 4, 1875,  His death is thought to be caused by complications of liver cancer and other injuries.

Andersen’s stories are still widely read. Many have been adapted as Disney features, including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and Frozen — adapted from The Snow Queen. In the original story the Snow Queen was an evil kidnapper, nowhere near as kind as Elsa!

Tribute statues to Andersen have been built all over the world, including New York’s Central Park, California, Sydney Australia and Rosenborg Castle Gardens in Copenhagen.

And of course, if you ever happen to be at the Langelinie promenade in Copenhagen, you can say hello to The Little Mermaid herself!

Happy Birthday Hans!