Walpurgisnacht: Origins and Celebrations

In honor of my German heritage, I did some research in order to better understand the origin of the Teutonic version of the Celtic holiday, Beltane. Not surprisingly, there is some conflicting information on the internet regarding this subject so I kept pursuing it until a clearer vision of Walpurgisnacht emerged. The most helpful site on this subject was http://www.friggasweb.org/walburga.html. Here’s my theory on the origin and development of this May fertility festival.

walpurigsnacht01

Modern celebration of Walpirgisnacht

According to Llewellyn’s Beltane: Rituals, Recipes and Lore for May Day, “the earliest mention of Walpurgis Night is found in a 1603 edition of a text called Calendarium Perpetuum by Johann Coler, but the holiday likely has earlier origins.” I have no doubt this is true and the best info I can put together is that the night of April 30th was a night when witches (wise women, healers, etc) gathered on the mountaintops in Germany to light sacred bonfires, dance and cast spells in order to drive away the spirits of winter and welcome the arrival of spring. These ancient rituals have their roots in the worship of fertility goddesses such as Nehalennia and also have ties to the theme of the Wild Hunt. I believe these rituals were seen as a positive thing by the villagers who were sick and tired of winter and welcomed the help of the Wise Ones to banish the cold and snowy weather.

stwalburga

Icon of St. Walburga with grain shock

Opinions toward this ancient pagan festival began to shift with the arrival of Christianity in Germany. Walpurga (a.ka. Walburga,  Waluburg, Waelburga, Wealdburg, and Valderburger) was an 8th century abbess who came from England with St. Boniface in order to convert the German “heathens” to Christianity. As is often the case, they tried to Christianize this festival while demonizing some of the old rituals connected to it.  Apparently they succeeded because eventually Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis’ Night) was viewed as a time when witches meet on the Brocken mountain to cavort with the Devil. (Sigh!) Meanwhile the “good Christians,” believing it was dangerous to be outside on this night, lit fires and danced wildly in order to deter the witches from coming too close to them or their homes. Another beautiful Pagan ritual ruined!

The interesting thing, however, is that some of the attributes of the Pagan goddess became grafted onto Walpurga after she was canonized as a saint on May 1st around the year 870 CE. We see this same pattern with St. Brigid in Ireland (see my posts on Imbolc). Walpurga’s symbols, as shown in the oldest stone carvings in her chapels, are a dog and a bundle of grain. The dog has often accompanied the goddess in early art including the regional incarnation of the goddess, Nehalennia, who is also pictured with a dog on her altars and votive sites. The shock of grain hearkens back to the Grain Mother and all the old fertility rites of spring.

I think the reason why this happened is because some of the Old Ways of celebrating this holy day never went out of fashion among locals.  Attaching these ancient symbols to the St. Walpurga were an attempt to make it easier for them to convert to Christianity. Thankfully, the Old Ways survived and modern Germanic Heathens celebrate Walpurgisnacht with bonfires on mountaintops, feasting, dancing, and a toast to the god Wotan (Odin) and the goddesses of magic. Some modern fireside rituals also include purification rites, thus reincarnating the way this holy day was originally celebrated.

faun

Walpurgisnacht video by Faun

If you haven’t seen it, there is an amazing music video by the German band Faun entitled Walpurgisnacht. You can easily find it on YouTube. The imagery is absolutely stunning in its stylistic portrayal of Walpurgisnacht. There are several English translations of the lyrics online but here’s my attempt at it using the English translations of others, my limited understanding of the German language, and my heart as a poet:

Walpurgisnacht by Faun

In the evening sky tonight climb the enchanted ones,
Wild folk and Lilith’s kind lurking, secretly riding the winds.

Let us wander to the bonfires, whispering, reaching for the stars.
Both the good and bad news we carry today will fly away.

In the meadows our dreams will ring and the wind will sing our songs.
Let us jump with the sparks over the fire on Walpurgis Night!

Hear the fiddles, hear the fiddles, the fires are kindled!
Follow the circle dance, follow the circle dance on Walpurgis Night.

Boisterously the fiddles play. Our nocturnal circle dance is spinning,
And we step wildly and freely with this old magic.

Only once in this great circle will we dance in this way,
Until the early morning light breaks through our web of dreams.

In the meadows our dreams will ring and the wind will sing our songs.
Let us jump with the sparks over the fire on Walpurgis Night!

Copyright ©2017 by David Taliesin, http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com

About David Taliesin

My name is David Taliesin. I'm an writer, teacher and retreat leader who explores the connections between Christian and Pagan Spirituality. E-mail me with any personal comments you'd like to share and I will do my best to answer them. You can also contact me through my Facebook page www.facebook.com/davidtaliesinauthor
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7 Responses to Walpurgisnacht: Origins and Celebrations

  1. What a wonderful post! I too am of German heritage and found this very interesting 🙂

    Like

  2. Anne says:

    Hi David,
    Thank you for the lovely post. I live in Germany and speak fluent German, so let me know if I can be of any help.
    Best,
    Anne

    Like

    • Thank you. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Faun song “Walpurgisnacht” but if you have any suggestions regarding the lyrics, let me know. The original German lyrics are easy to find online. As you know, translation is difficult sometimes! Bright blessings to you!

      Like

  3. hocuspocus13 says:

    Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:
    jinxx⭐xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

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