Walpurgisnacht/Beltane Eve

In Celtic tradition, the last night of April was thought of as the darkest of the year.  The transition between winter and summer is a liminal point, a time between times, and therefore surrounded by danger and supernatural forces. It was believed that evil spirits and witches flew to frighten people, spawning evil throughout the land. The bad fairies of mischief and the winter spirits make a last foray, for at dawn tomorrow, the good fairies will emerge and claim the land for summer completely. [1] In Britain and Ireland people pounded on kettles, slammed doors, cracked whips, rang church bells and made all the noise they could to scare off the corruption they imagined to be moving on the air. They lit bonfires and torches, and hung primroses or rowan and red thread crosses on the barns and byres to protect the animals. Such vigils were kept throughout the night until the rising of the May dawn, when the forces of bane would have been finally defeated and the summer safely delivered.

In Germany, 30 April is Walpurgisnacht, named after St Walpurga, an eighth century Englishwoman who became the abbess of a German monastery. She was renowned for battling pests, sickness and witchcraft, so it is not surprising that people called upon her intercession to protect them from evil spirits and pestilence on this, one of the most dangerous of nights of the year. It is said that for nine nights before the first of May, Walpurga is in flight, chased by the Wild Hunt, going from village to village. People left their windows open so she could shelter behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her enemies. In thanks, she lays a little gold coin on the windowsill, and flees further.[2] One farmer described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head, and shoes of fiery gold, while in her hands she carried a spindle and a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future. A troop of white riders chased and tried to capture her. Walburga begged another farmer to hide her in a sheaf of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye. [3] The stories would seem to be an analogy of summer fleeing from winter at this time of year. The Walburga-processions enacted around the villages and fields in Germany and France are supposed to protect the lands against strong winds and bad weather in the coming month.

It is safe to assume that the folk practices around St Walpurga’s Eve pre-dated the saint, and were subsequently associated with her, meaning the real Walpurga took on the attributes of an earlier fertility goddess, or possibly the combined characteristics of several. Churches in Germany and at Antwerp, and an eleventh century manuscript from at Cologne, show St Walpurga with ears of grain, like earlier mother goddesses. [4] She is represented with a dog, like the Celto-Germanic fertility goddess Nehalennia, [5] as well as Frau Gode and Frau Frick (Frigga).   There may be some connection with the Windhound, a mysterious dog connected to fertility left behind by the Wild Hunt, which must be fed in order to ensure good crops. Others illustrations show her with a staff. The Gothic word walus appears to be an epithet of someone (usually female) who carries a magic staff of office, a sybil or diviner, like the historic Waluburg of 500 years earlier, a woman of the Germanic Semnonii tribe who served as a mystic adviser to a Roman governor of Egypt in the second century CE. [6] It is possible that there was originally a goddess called Walburga, Waldborg or Walburg, as several Pagan websites and books suggest, though there is a distinct lack of direct evidence for it.

Walpurgisnacht is also known as Hexennacht or ‘Witches’ Night’ in Germany, when witches are abroad, many flying up to revel on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, an eerie place featuring two rock formations called The Devil’s Pulpit and The Witch’s Altar, as well as the Brocken Spectre – weird halos of light seen around the mountain.  According to Grimm, some mountains were once the residence of Dame Holda, the crone of winter, and her host, the ‘night-women’ who rode through the air on certain nights, and did men kindnesses. It was Holda herself who led the revels on the mountains to dance the snow away.

Tomorrow, summer will have arrived, but tonight the forces of winter try to make their final assault, and have to be fought back. May-Day festivals traditionally included a fierce battle between the forces of winter and summer.

May Eve Ritual

It was traditional to burn all worn-out household items such as brooms, cloths, and wooden implements in the Walpurgis Night fires. Life-size (or smaller) strawmen were made and ‘loaded’ with the ill-health and ill-luck of the past, then burned in the fires on Walpurgisnacht. This is the forcible casting-out of winter, illness and that which is worn out, so the May-King and May-Queen and their green-bedecked and licentious troops, can bring in the fertility of crops, beasts and mankind.

Prepare a figure of paper or straw, and load it with worn out items to represent the old season, and things you wish to be rid of to be burned on the bonfire or brazier. (If you can’t do this, take an old piece of paper, perhaps something on which you have written old ideas and things you no longer believe n. Write on it other things you wish to be rid of, and this can be burned in a candle flame.) Say:

I cast out winter, I cast out illness, I cast out ill luck, I cast out all that has passed its time. Let it be gone, so I may greet the summer anew.

[1] Anna Franklin, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Paper Tiger, London, 2004

[2] Rochholz, E.L. Drei Gaugöttinen: Walburg, Verena und Gertrud, als deutsche Kirchenheilige. Sittenbilder aus germanischen Frauenleben. Verlag von Friedrich Fischer, Leipzig, 1870.

[3] Rochholz, E.L. Drei Gaugöttinen: Walburg, Verena und Gertrud, als deutsche Kirchenheilige. Sittenbilder aus germanischen Frauenleben. Verlag von Friedrich Fischer, Leipzig, 1870.

[4] Nigel Pennick, pers comm

[5] Hilda Ellis Davidson, Roles of the Northern Goddess. Routledge, 1998

[6] Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick, A History of Pagan Europe, Routledge, London, 1995


Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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