Belief systems often determine our fate.
Belief systems often determine our fate.
And so. Another Yuletide ends. But not so fast! Before we take down the mistletoe and finish off the sugar plums, there is one more celebration which should be recognized. This is the legend of Frau Perchta, Witch of Twelfth Night.
Perhaps you have never heard of this obscure character. But if you happened to be living in Bavaria or Austria during the Middle Ages, you might have been quite troubled as the Christmas season came to an end. During this time Frau Perchta would be on the loose, doling out punishments and rewards for the naughty and nice, respectively.
The “official end” of Yuletide in many traditions is January 6th, also known as Twelfth Night or Feast of the Epiphany. It was on this night that Frau Perchta would drop in for a visit. If you had been good over the past year, you would be rewarded with a piece of silver. But if you had been bad – watch out! Frau Perchta was a stern distributor of justice. In fact, she was also called “the belly slitter” because punishment for bad behavior consisted of Frau Perchta cutting open the offender’s stomach, removing the inner organs, and replacing them with straw and pebbles. Ouch!
In Christian traditions, January 6th is Feast of the Epiphany. It commemorates the visit of the Magi to the manger where Christ was born. According to the Bible, three mages from Persia, following a bright star, made their way to Bethlehem to greet and bestow gifts upon the baby Jesus. Webster defines “epiphany” as “an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being.”
The Twelfth Night is a time of great wonder and revelation. So why all the terror and judgement associated with Perchta? I wondered how Frau Perchta got such a bad rap.
The True Goddess
I did some sleuthing and found out that Perchta has a very interesting story. She wasn’t always an evil witch. In fact, she was at one time a greatly loved Germanic goddess. She is also called Berchta or Bertha. The name Bertha literally means “bright” or “shining one”. In ancient, pre-Christian times, Berchta was a powerful figure, worshiped by both Celtic and Germanic tribes. It was her job to protect babies, women and children. She was associated with birch trees (in Old High German birch is birka which also means “bright”.) She was a protector of forests and wildlife. She was also a “psychopomp” – that is, a spirit who guides the dead into the Afterlife.
Pretty impressive stuff.
Berchta was associated with the cycle of life, death and rebirth. She was depicted as a beautiful woman with long hair. She wore a white gown and was often called the White Woman or the Lady in White. She was considered a triple goddess (perhaps because of her association with life’s cycles) and was able to take on forms of the maiden, mother and crone.
As a guide into the Afterlife, Berchta was a tender and caring figure that helped souls in their transition. There is one tale in which a grieving mother sees an apparition of her recently deceased little son. He is with a group of children along a hillside. The children are following a woman in a white gown. The little boy breaks away to speak to his sorrowful mother. The boy tells his mother not to weep, for he is safe and under the watch of the White Lady.
Berchta also had shapeshifting abilities. She was described as sometimes having the feet of a goose, and she also took on the form of a swan. As the protector of animals, she was called “Guardian of Beasts”.
A Tainted Image
In the later, scary tales of Perchta, she is represented exclusively as a crone – more specifically, a scary old hag. She wears a disheveled dress, has a face made of iron and a nose like a beak.
She carries a knife beneath her cloak (in case she needs to slice open someone’s belly!) And of course, she has those strange looking goose feet.
So how did Berchta become Perchta? How did this benevolent goddess get demonized and transformed into an evil witch? Three words: The Medieval Church.
Christianity became powerful in Bavaria in around the 6th century. The Pagan cults that had evolved around Berchta were pretty strong and set in their ways. Worshippers of Berchta refused to be absorbed into the new Christian traditions. And so, for conversion purposes, the Church resorted to fear.
Her name was changed, among other things. The word “perchten” means scary monsters, so Berchta became “Perchta, leader of the Perchten.” Berchta, the wise white lady, was thereafter known as Perchta, a crooked-nosed, belly-stabbing hag.
As centuries went on, the worshippers of Berchta proved a stubborn lot. They were not willing to give up their goddess. The Church took further action. According to a religious document known as the Thesaurus Pauperum, the cult of Berchta was outlawed in 1468. This document specifically condemned the practice of leaving food and drink offerings for Berchta during the Christmas season.
You might be wondering, as I did, what the heck is a Thesaurus Paupernaum?
Well, it had nothing to do with a thesaurus as we know it. Rather, it was a collection of recipes and natural medicinal cures, presumably for the benefit of poor people (paupers/ paupernaum) who could not afford expensive doctors. Interestingly, this document is cited as containing such information as: medicinal values of precious stones, herbal medicines for childbirth, astrological charts and a table for the uses of precious metals.
Hmmm. Magical crystals, herbal medicines and astrology. Sounds kinda Pagany to me…
The Thesaurus Paupernaum was written by prominent church officials such as Pope John XXI and Saint Albertus Magnus, with contributions from mineralogist George Frederick Kunz. Its recordings span a period of about seven centuries, and it is included in the Library of Congress Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts Collection.
So, for Medieval folks it was a big deal. Something they had to pay attention to.
Yuletide was her special time and Frau Perchta became a figure akin to Krampus, the evil counterpart of Saint Nicholas.
Propaganda and the Burning Times
There were tales of Frau Perchta capturing children and eating them. There were tales of Frau Perchta as the Christmas hag, who would stuff the bad kids into her giant sack. She would visit on Twelfth Night expecting food as an offering, but if she was displeased with what someone left, she would slit the person’s belly open and stuff him or her with garbage. She was also a stickler for clean homes, and the completion of spinning. So if women had neglected their housework or their flax, they could expect the belly slitting as well.
The repression of Berchta and subsequent scary tales of Perchta took place during an interesting period. In Europe, the years between 1450 and 1700 are known as The Burning Times. During these years, Protestant Reformations began, splitting the Christian Church into various factions. Instability caused even more paranoia. It is estimated that around 100,000 men and women were put to death for witchcraft, many of them burned at the stake.
Germany, a major proponent of the Reformations, was one of the worst offenders. Historians report that entire populations of women in towns and villages were sometimes eliminated.
Keeping Berchta Alive
Despite the church’s attempts to get rid of Berchta, she lives on. A Halloween like celebration in which children would dress as demons (Perchten) during Yuletide was observed in some parts of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some families would prepare a porridge called “Perchtenmilch.” Part of the porridge would be consumed by the family, with a portion set aside as an offering for Perchta and her Perchten.
In the 19th century, even the Brothers Grimm had their say about Perchta. According to Jacob Grimm, who translated texts from Old High German, she was spoken of as Frau Berchta, a white-robed goddess who oversaw spinning and weaving and was sometimes the leader of the Wild Hunt.
By honoring her as a scary witch, we keep the name of Perchta alive. She, along with Krampus and other monsters have enjoyed a rejuvenation in recent years. Some folks prefer a bit of horror in their Christmas.
The goddess Berchta will never be forgotten. Her bright beauty is evident in Yule’s return of the sun, in the new fallen snow, in white swans and in the magnificence of the Alpine Mountains she hails from.
This Twelfth Night, you may want to take some time out to honor Berchta/ Perchta. An altar could include white candles, birch branches, or white feathers. You can meditate on loved ones who have crossed over and ask Berchta for a safe passage. You may want to leave her an offering of cake or porridge. And – it might be wise to keep the house clean – just in case!
“In a chariot of light,
from the region of the day,
the Goddess of Liberty came.
She brought in her hand,
as a gift of her love,
the plant she named Liberty Tree.”
— Thomas Paine, American patriot and Founding Father of the United States
“Give me liberty,
or give me death.” — Thomas Paine
Have a safe, happy, healthy and blessed Fourth of July! 🙂
On the night of December 13th, the dark witch Lussi (counterpart to the benevolent Santa Lucia) flies on her broom with the Wild Hunt of Odin.
Beware gentle humans! For if you encounter this merry band of hunters, they just may abduct you to the Underworld.
But hey, it might not be a bad thing… 🙂
In Norse mythology, the Underworld was known as ‘Hel’ or ‘Helheim’ (Hel’s realm.) It was presided over by a goddess, also called ‘Hel’. But don’t confuse the Norse Hel with the Christian concept of Hell. Although the names have the same Germanic language roots, the two places have nothing in common. Nordic Hel was definitely NOT a place of eternal suffering.
In Hel, you’d get to hang out with Odin, eat, drink, fight, love, celebrate and practice magick. In the Norse underworld, life apparently continued in much the same way as it was known to Vikings on earth.
Nordic pagans had several different forms of the afterlife, including Valhalla, Folkvang (Freya’s realm) and the underwater abode of Ran. However, no afterlife community was a place of punishment, nor of reward. The afterlife was, in fact, teeming with actual life. The dearly departed would dwell there indefinitely. Eventually they might be reborn as one of their own ancestors, or as an elf.
So if Lussi and her band of hunters do happen to carry you off tonight, have no fear. It’s sure to be a win -win situation! (Cue diabolical laughter. Mwuah-ha-ha!)
Happy Lussi’s Night!
She is our chaperone to the Underworld, the keeper of the keys, a deity of dream states and liminal spaces. Hekate is one of the most powerful dark goddesses, with ancient roots tracing to Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor. She is the patron of witches, mothers, fishermen, soldiers, sailors, virgins and the restless dead. She presides over crossroads, entrance-ways and turning points in life.
November 16 marks her feast night. It is a perfect time to honor her!
Who is Hekate?
This goddess has a complicated history, and a job description that is equal to no other! In brief, she is generally thought of as a goddess of the Greek/ Roman pantheon. There are, however, conflicting stories about her origin.
Some legends say Hekate was the daughter of the Titans Asteria (Goddess of the Stars) and Perses (God of Destruction.) She is therefore considered a direct descendant of Gaia (Mother Earth) and Nyx (Goddess of Night.) She appears in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter, and in Hesiod’s Theogony where she is promoted strongly as a great goddess. There is also evidence that she had popular followings in ancient Thrace, which includes what is now Bulgaria and Turkey.
When Hades kidnapped Persephone and took her to the Underworld, her mother Demeter went searching for her, and it was Hekate who led the way with her torches. Hekate has always been a helper, a guide and a teacher.
She was important enough to have her face on coins! This one dates back to 30 BC. It is part of the Vatican collection and is described as: “Bust of Hekate, with crescent on forehead”.
Hecate was one of the main deities worshiped in Athenian households as a protective goddess and one who bestowed prosperity and daily blessings on the family. In the “Chaldean Oracles” — a group of spiritual writings dated from the 3rd century, Hekate is regarded as a powerful deity with a hand in ruling over the earth, sea and sky as well as the nether worlds. She was greatly favored by Zeus, who reportedly bestowed her with some of his holdings… One story claims that Hekate supported the Olympians in a battle against the Titans (thus “switching sides”) and gained favor with Zeus. When helping us with practical problems, Hekate is known to switch sides in order to see every aspect and help us reach a decision.
She is most often depicted in triple form, to represent the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Her vision is all encompassing. The triplicity she embodies is also her ability to see the past, present and future all at once.
Hekate is, by nature, a Jill-of-all-trades. She doesn’t fit neatly into one pantheon, and for this reason many eclectics have come to regard her as a “go to” goddess. According to the Oxford Classical Dictionary: “she is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.”
Hekate is associated with all wild animals, but her favorites are dogs, snakes, crows, lions, horses, bears, wolves and frogs.
Frogs: In ancient Egypt, the frog represented fertility. There was a powerful midwife called Hekit (a prototype of Hekate) who aided in the birth of the gods. Frog amulets were used to ensure a safe birth. Frog amulets were also used in death. People placed them on mummies in the belief that this would help guide them in the afterlife. Hekit had one such amulet which bore the words “I am the Resurrection.”
Snakes: Snakes shed their skin, which is also a physical representation of rebirth. Hekate is often pictured with a snake entwined around her neck or arm.
Dogs: It is believed that women were the first to domesticate dogs, because dogs were companions of the Goddess in many cultures. As nurturers and keepers of the hearth, women saw the potential of a new best friend, and took the animals in. Dogs always accompanied Hecate. Some people believe that dogs are able to see the dead (ghosts) and other spirits. The ancients were also very impressed with canine keenness of other senses, particularly the sense of smell. Hekate is often pictured with the three-headed Cerberus (another Triplicity!) the dog who guarded the gates of the Underworld.
If Hekate is calling you, it is said that a black dog may cross your path, so be on the lookout!
Plants associated with Hekate are roses, poppies, garlic, mandrake, saffron, yew, and willow.
Gemstones are onyx, hematite, lapiz lazuli, moonstone and topaz.
Her colors are black, orange, red, silver and gold.
Her foods are apples, raisins, currants, dates, figs, cheese, wine, bread and cake.
She is associated with knives, swords and daggers (possibly because as a Goddess of change, she is known to “cut” unwanted things from our lives.)
She is pictured often with torches, presumably to help guide in dark spaces and navigate the Underworld.
She carries keys, a symbolic representation of entering new phases.
She is often found at the crossroads – a symbolic place of choice, decision and change, as well as the gateway to the other world, other dimensional realities, dream states and liminal spaces.
How can you honor Hekate?
At sundown on November 16, devotions to Hekate can begin. (Other days to worship Hekate are at the new and full moons, August 13, November 1, and the 29th day of each month.)
The ancient Greeks made offerings of food and wine to Hekate. They would take their gifts to the crossroads, say a prayer or invocation, and leave them there for her. In modern times we can do something similar. Create an altar to Hekate. Decorate it with her favorite colors and stones. Leave gifts of apples, raisin bread, wine, cheese, cake or anything you think would appeal to her. Like dark chocolates! 🙂
If you are ambitious, and happen to have a good crossroads in your neighborhood, you may even want to leave the offerings outside. It is believed that if a homeless person, or an animal eats the offerings, they are also under Hekate’s protection. She will be pleased and bestow many blessings upon you!
Have a beautiful and blessed Hekate’s Night!
Happy Halloween to all you beautiful ghouls, goblins, horror fans, heretics and lovers of the macabre! Today for your viewing entertainment I have a special surprise!
Long before ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project’ terrified movie goers, there was this 1922 silent movie gem, called Haxan ( German for ‘The Witch’.)
IMDb describes it as : “Part history lesson followed by re-enactments with actors, this film takes depicts the history of witchcraft from its earliest days through to the present day (in this case,1922 or thereabouts). The result is a documentary-like film that must be among the first to use re-enactments as a visual and narrative tool. From pagan worship to satanic rites to hysteria, the film takes you on a journey through the ages with highly effective visual sequences.”
It is a thoroughly entertaining and interesting film. Luckily I found a beautifully restored version on youtube. Hope you enjoy it! Running time is approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes. Have a delightful Halloween!
He came to me as an infant. Washed like driftwood in the sea’s tide, from which his own grandfather, King Balor, had thrown him. O, it was a vile act! An attempt to drown the poor boy! The old king had his reasons. Years before, a Druid had prophesied: “Any grandson of Balor will cause the death of him.”
Such a warning was not to be taken lightly. Druids were the seers, the soothsayers of all things known and unknown. Yet Balor’s solution was foolish! The most foolish thing I had ever heard in my life. Imagine preventing a pregnancy by holding your daughter hostage in a tower, thus keeping her from all male contact. Even one with the brains of a sheep should know such a plan would never work!
But I get ahead of myself.
My name is Tailtiu. I served the land, the grain and the harvest. It was I who made all of Erin’s Isle green, bringing rain and wind, making the fields fertile.
It was I who ripened the wheat, sprouted the potatoes, made the apples fall and the berries go plump. I had ample work — enough tasks of my own, just to keep the land in good order so people would not starve. The last thing I needed was a baby at my breast to complicate my life.
And yet it was.
King Balor was a giant, a mighty sorcerer who was able to cast many spells and kill with his evil third eye.
Few things frightened him, but when he heard the Druid’s prophecy he was taken aback. The Druids were never wrong. And for this reason, Balor decided; it must be arranged that his grandson would simply never be born.
Balor had but one daughter, a beautiful lass by the name of Ethlin. So lovely was she that every lad for miles around offered his fortune for her hand in marriage. Yet Balor refused them all.
“Given the slightest opportunity, that girl shall get herself with child and birth an evil whelp,” he said. “One that would as soon take a dagger to me as blink an eye. O no! I shall prevent it at all costs! The fair Ethlin will be locked in a tower, where no male will ever get to her. There she shall live, forever barren. In doing this, I shall retain my own power and wealth.”
And so it was.
The girl Ethlin was locked in the Mor Tor, a crystal structure that one could neither climb nor descend into. Its walls were thick as a citadel, made of pure diamond, the hardest glass, which could not be broken with pick nor hammer. It had but one key for entrance which Balor kept only to himself, hidden in the darkest depths of his castle dungeon, its location known to him alone.
There, in the tower, Ethlin lived out her days in solitude, attended only by the twelve midwives who served her. Balor had commanded that there be no talk of men, and his daughter should forget they ever existed.
She had no sunlight, no fresh air, no diversions, no pleasure. Only the steady work of needlepoint, such to make her eyes bleary and her fingers numb. ‘Tis a wonder the lass did not go mad with boredom! A life such as that was no life at all.
“When am I to be free?” she would ask, to which her midwives would be silent, for they feared the wrath of Balor.
Far out in the glen, in the land of dusk and faerie, where time and space cross and all things are possible, there is an Otherworld. In that Otherworld dwell the The Tuatha Dé Danann – the Tribe of the goddess Danu. And in that tribe there was a lad. Brave and handsome he was, and young and strong, with a will of his own and much admiring of Ethlin. His name was Cian.
“How difficult could it be,” Cian asked me, “to climb that tower, to enter into it, to rescue the lass from her condemnation?”
“Not difficult at all,” I answered.
It was a mere sleight of the body. Balor, in his anger and scheming, had deeply underestimated the likes of me, the likes of Cian, the likes of the entire Tuatha Dé Danann. We are, you see, present in one place, and then we simply are not. This is the nature of our Otherworld. I gave Cian a potion of magic herbs with a drop of dragon’s tears; as he drank it I uttered these words:
“Eye of thistle, heart of drake
Through this charm a lover make
A path to his desired space
Full of lust and full of grace
With this potion may you prove
Dedication and true love!”
In an instant Cian had taken to the sky; in another instant he had entered through the walls of the crystal tower.
The very sight of him set Ethlin’s heart a-flutter, for the girl was young and ripe. She had never known the touch of a man. And such a man Cian was! Strapping and stunning, with chiseled cheekbones, dazzling eyes and locks of hair that put Samson to shame. His manners were impeccable, and chivalry graced every bone in his body. The Mor Tor quickly became their love nest. Within weeks Ethlin was with child.
Balor, for his part, had no concern for his daughter. Foolish man! He never visited, left all dealings to her midwives. But now! The surprise that awaited him would be one most displeasing.
Nine months later the child was born. We named him ‘Lugh’ for Light. No other name could suit such a child, for he was radiant as the sun itself. As the offspring of the two most gorgeous beings in Eire, he was bound to be beautiful – but the baby Lugh far exceeded mere beauty.
When Balor got word of the birth he was furious.
In the dead of night, Balor slunk into the tower, whittling his dull key to the door and ascending the crystal staircase. He kidnapped the baby and whisked him away to the edge of the sea.
Balor stood on a monstrous cliff, overlooking the waves that crashed below like a liquid glacier. Without so much as a thought, he tossed the child in, hoping the ocean would crush him to a watery grave.
It was Manannan mac Lir, the god of the sea, who found the baby. The infant was near death, bobbing and thrashing in the cresting waves, his lungs waterlogged and breath scarce. Manannan mac Lir knew immediately this was a very special child. He cradled the baby in his sturdy sea arms, wrapped him in a cloth of clean cambric, then brought him to me.
“You, Tailtiu, are a goddess of the earth. If anyone can suckle this child and give him renewed life, it shall be you.”
He was right of course. And even though Ethlin was his natural mother, it was not safe that she keep him, for Balor would surely track her down and attempt to kill the child again. I bid Ethlin and Cian flee the isle. They were young and could produce many more for their family. Lugh would be mine.
And so I raised him. He became my foster son, the Celtic god of the Sun, a radiant and celestial being. Prince Lugh was much loved and much revered, known for his kindness and benevolence.
He was, in fact, so loved that the Tuatha Dé Danann eventually chose him as their king. As such he was obliged to fight great battles. It was in the Battle of Mag Tuired that the Druid’s prophecy once again came into question.
Lugh was required to fight Balor.
The two met on a battlefield of mud and weaponry, a wasteland of gouged bodies, severed limbs and rotting blood. Balor had managed to kill many a soldier with his tricks and spells and evil eye, but now his grandson confronted him.
Lugh hurled a great spear, all the while shouting, “Forgive me, Grandfather, for what must be done!”
The spear then hit Balor, smack in his third eye. Balor fell to the ground, flailing like a fish on a hook. Yet the spells of Balor were still viable, and he managed to kill more of the Tuatha Dé Danann with his magic.
Having no choice, Lugh then pulled his sword and in one swift stroke, beheaded his own grandfather. The Druid’s prophecy was complete.
It was victory for the Tuatha Dé Danann. Through this, Lugh was given sacred powers. He become the god of skill and craft, of honor, truth and law. He was granted eternal radiance and eternal youth.
As for myself, by this time I was growing old, my twilight years upon me. My endless duties had left me strained. I had cared for the boy. I had cared for the earth. As the years passed, the land became wild and ornery. Sometimes it would not even produce a potato for me, thus leaving the people in famine. Yet I did my best. Finally, in my feebleness, I could no longer serve the greenery, the plants and grain I loved so well.
My health fell ill and I began to wither back into the land from which all living things come. I, like a crone of autumn, faded into that golden haze that marks the end of the long summer. Upon the first day of August I breathed my last.
To mark my death, my foster son called for a great celebration. He saw this fitting, as he wanted to pay homage to me and all I had meant to him. There would be no funeral dirges, no veils of mourning, no maudlin processions. Instead, there was sumptuous feasting, a bounty from the harvest, dancing and song, all forms of revelry and games.
From far away in the spirit world I watched. And I was most pleased. So pleased, in fact, that I wished this feasting and revelry could occur every year, on the first day of August, as a holy day, not only for myself but for the land, the harvest, and the people.
My wish was granted.
Because the festivities had been orchestrated by Lugh, it was only proper that this holy day ever after be called “Lughnasadh.”
Violets are blue my dear, roses are red
Henry loved Anne but he chopped off her head.
They called her a witch and a sorceress too
Her web of six fingers as proof it was true.
She swore her own innocence till her last breath
Yet slice of the ax brought her to bloody death.
Some say she still haunts us, more angry than most
All guests at the Tower, beware of Anne’s ghost!
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?
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 🙂