Praetorius Blocksberg Verrichtung. Witches’ Sabbath by Johannes Praetorius.
Walpurgisnacht or Hexxennacht or May Eve, is celebrated from the evening of April 30th to the evening of May 1st. It is considered a second Samhain, as it is exactly 6 months away from October 31st. Basically it has all of the same characteristics as Samhain, or Halloween. The veil is thinner so spirits of the dead can roam. It’s a wonderful time for spellwork and divination.
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A Very Brief History
It was believed that witches would fly to the top of the Brocken in Blocksberg, the highest peak in the Hartz Mountains, by broomstick or goat to dance the night away by the light of bonfires welcoming Spring.
Traditionally this was the time pre-Christians would conducted blessing and protection rituals on their livestock as they moved them out to summer pastures. Bonfires were lit and people would dance and make noise around the fire to scare away predators.
During the 19th and 20th century, Walpurgisnacht became popular in art and literature, most notably in Goethe’s well-known play Faust. It is even mentioned by Bram Stoker in “Dracula’s Guests.”
It started as part of festivities of witches and pagans to welcome back spring but morphed into a night to scare away those witches.
Painting by the Master of Meßkirch, c. 1535–40.
May 1st is also the feast day of Saint Walpurga (also known as Valborg, Wealdburg, or Valderburger). Saint Walpurga was an English nun. She was summoned by her brother Winebald, to serve as abbess at his double monastery of monks and nuns at Heidenheim, in modern day Germany. After the death of her brother she became the main abbess. Most of her work in Germany was baptizing pagans. After her death in 779 AD, her tomb started oozing healing oil. This was seen as a miracle and she was canonized by the Catholic Church. May 1st became her feast day because it was when her relics were transferred to Eichstätt in the 870s. This worked out for German pagans however because most of her symbolism was taken from traditional German goddesses. She is considered the Patron Saint of Coughs, Storms, Hydrophobia and Sailors. St Walpurga symbols are the spindle, grain and a dog (that’s where the hydrophobia ie. Rabies comes in). For the traditional pagans, grain symbolized a good harvest. Dogs were considered the “familiars” for German Goddesses. The Spindle is associated with Frau Holda (or Holga) of Grimm’s Fairy Tale fame. They were able to continue their pagan customs have a feast day to work on this spring just in the name of a saint so no one would get in trouble. St. Walpurga was from then on intertwined with witches.
- Dressing up in costumes
- Making lots of noise (the banging was believed to scare away which is an evil spirits ), ring bells, bang drums, crack whips and beat blanks of wood onto the ground. Later it would be shooting firearms into the air.
- Bread and butter and/or honey were left in the fields to ensure a good harvest or to feed phantom hounds that wondered the countryside that night
- The lady of the house would jump over a broom and any old brooms would be burned
- Blessed sprigs of Juniper, Hawthorn, Ash and Elder trees were hung around the home and barn.
- Trick or treating, emphasis on the trick. In Bavaria on Freinacht or Drudennacht, youths roam the neighborhoods pulling mischievous pranks, such as wrapping cars in toilet paper and smearing doorknobs with toothpaste. In Germany, there’s a lot of trash can flipping and stealing plants from gardens, as well as garden gnomes.
- In Finland, where the holiday is called Vappu. People run screaming through the streets wearing masks and carrying drinks.
- Strawmen, basically scarecrows, would be dressed in peoples’ old clothing in and imbued with all the bad luck, illness, negativity from the last year and then thrown into the bonfire.
- In Germany, young girls will dress as witches and carry broomsticks through the streets.
- In the Harz Mountains, bonfires are lit, and thousands of people dressed in costumes come from all over to dance and celebrate on a plateau called the Hexentanzplatz near the town of Thale. That is where the video of the witches dancing that went viral is from.
Other fun things
A single woman could place a linen thread near a statue of the Virgin Mary, then at midnight onWalpurgis Night, she would unravel it and recite the poem:
“Thread, I pull thee;
Walpurga, I pray thee,
That thou show to me
What my husband’s like to be.”
The Morning dew on May 1st 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.”
On this night, anyone encountering a witch on the way to their meeting or an unwitting traveller was likely to encounter ghosts and mischievous elementals, mysterious lights and music, witness the celebratory cavorting of witches and other beasties, and even be at risk of permanently losing their shadow.