Walpurgis Night falls on the evening of April 30. In past times many people feared that witches were especially active on this day and evening (see also Easter Witches). Northern and central European folklore warned that these menacing figures prowled in the twilight dusk, waiting until the dark hours of the night to gather together for a wild feast and frolic. Rumors circulated as to the exact location of this fearsome gathering. Many believed that it might lie on Mount Brocken (Brockenberg), in Germany’s Harz Mountains. On Walpurgis Night people took extra precautions to prevent passing witches from harming their families, homes, and fields. Folk tradition taught that loud noises frightened away witches. Therefore, people rang church bells, slammed doors, hit pots and pans, and cracked whips. They also lit bonfires and torches, raised crosses, and decorated their homes with rosemary and birch boughs, all of which were thought to repel witches. Little remains of these Walpurgis Night beliefs today. In past times, however, they were so common that they inspired the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) to depict a Walpurgis Night witches’ sabbath in his famous play, Faust (1808-32). In the play the devil, who goes by the name of Mephistopheles, takes Faust to this sinister event. In addition, vivid images of a midsummer’s night witches’ festival on Mount Brocken spurred Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) to write his well-known piece, Night on Bald Mountain (1867), also known as Saint John’s Night on Bare Mountain.
The Scandinavian and German-speaking countries produced most of Europe’s Walpurgis Night witch lore. Nevertheless, in some other European countries the evening was also thought to have an eerie quality about it. In England and Ireland, old folk traditions taught special methods for protecting oneself from witchcraft on this night. Irish lore hinted that the fairies fought one another over the ripening crops on this evening.
Why April 30?
Some folklorists point out that Walpurgis Night falls on the evening before May Day, a day long associated in folklore with the death of winter, the birth of spring, and the celebration of nature. Walpurgis Night itself falls exactly six months from Halloween, another evening associated with uncanny forces and supernatural encounters in European folklore. Some folklorists speculate that in past times people viewed these two dates as turning points in the cycle of the year, and thus as times when the walls dividing the natural and the supernatural worlds waned thin.
In the Czech Republic people still light large bonfires on the evening of April 30. In the old days, people believed that the bonfires protected them from witches. Not only could witches harm people and livestock, but they also caused winter and cold weather to linger on. Czech folklore advised that burning an effigy of a witch – that is, a life-sized dummy made to resemble a witch – hastened the coming of warm weather. Today people no longer fear witches. Nevertheless, the old custom of lighting a May eve bonfire remains. People kindle the flames close to nightfall and sit close beside them, singing songs and roasting sausages in the flames. When it’s dark they toss an ugly effigy of a witch into the flames. In the Czech Republic this oncefearful evening has become an occasion for some outdoor fun.
Swedes still celebrate Walpurgis Night, although contemporary Swedish festivities have little to do with witches. Instead they commemorate the death of winter and the birth of spring. University students, in particular, participate in Walpurgis Night observances, sometimes by gathering for rallies at which a speaker solemnly and formally announces the arrival of spring. In Sweden the lengthening days serve as a better guide to the changing seasons than does the weather. In this far northern land snow may still blanket the ground on April 30. In keeping with ancient traditions, the Swedes continue to light bonfires on this evening, often on hilltops or on mounds. These days, however, the fires aren’t stoked by anxious farmers seeking protection from malicious witchcraft, but rather by young lovers hoping the flames will enhance the spell that attracts them to one another.
Finns celebrate May eve, which they call Vappu, with singing, dancing, and revelry in the streets. In Helsinki students, and former students, wear their traditional white caps for this night of lively street activity and parties. Some may even swim across the moat that surrounds the statue of Havis Amanda in order to adorn her with a cap. On May Day students and workers stage parades.
Finally, Walpurgis Night celebrations have become an important tourist attraction in Germany’s Harz Mountains. In a bid to attract travelers to the region, promoters have stamped the image of the witch on everything from hotel brochures to beer steins. The village of Schierke, located at the foot of Mount Brocken, hosts about six thousand people each year for their Walpurgis Night celebrations. The day begins with a children’s costume parade, in which kindergartners dress as witches and devils. Later that evening people assemble in a local park which takes on the appearance of a fairground, complete with booths selling local crafts, drinks, and foods. Fair-goers enter into the spirit of the event, dressing as witches, goblins, vampires, and valkyries, the magical maiden-warriors from Scandinavian mythology. The evening’s festivities take place around a huge bonfire and include a pantomime play as well as a fireworks display. Rival celebrations take place in other villages of the region.
Most writers state that Walpurgis Night takes its name from the saint whose feast is celebrated on the following day. St. Walburg or Walpurga (c. 710-779) grew up to become a nun and, upon the invitation of her brother, Willibald, bishop of Eichstätt (700-787), took up the post of abbess of Heidenhem, near Nuremberg, Germany. She died on February 25, 779, but on May 1, 870, religious authorities transferred her remains to Eichstätt, where a church had been built in her name. Her feast day is celebrated on May 1 in honor of this event. Walpurga is the patroness of the diocese of Eichstätt and also the city of Antwerp, Belgium. Folk belief has credited her with the power to ward off magical harms as well as the ability to protect the harvest.
A few writers suggest instead that a little-known minor deity, also known as Walpurga, gave her name to the mythical festival of witches on Mount Brocken. According to local folklore Walpurga, who was associated with the woods and springtime, could tell the future with her three-cornered mirror and carried a magical spindle and thread. These attributes may signify her to be a variant of Holde, or Frau Holle, another, more popular German goddess. According to one tale the Wild Hunt, a troop of ghostly figures that rides the night skies during winter, chased Walpurga during the last nine nights before May Day. Walpurga sought protection from mortals during these nights, often entering the homes of kindly villagers through a window thoughtfully left open. Like Holda, Walpurga was believed to reward those who helped her.
Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Casanova, Gertrude. “Walburga, St.” In Charles G. Herbermann et al., eds. The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Appleton, 1913. Available online at: Frazer, James George. The New Golden Bough. Theodor H. Gaster, ed. New York: S. G. Phillips, 1959. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Harvey, Steenie. “Season of the Witch.” The World and I 16, 4 (April 2001): 260. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Ince, Sarah. The Magical Year. Richmond, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992. Nollen, Tim. Festivals of the World: Czech Republic. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens, 1999.
This web page, part of German instructor Robert J. Shea’s site on German folk customs, offers additional Walpurgis Night folklore: . com/shea/germusa/walpurgi.htm
Another informative page on St. Walpurga, sponsored by Catholic Community Forum