You climb to the top of the hill and notice there are other witches there waiting. The moon is high in the sky and a wolf howls somewhere in the forest. Down below, the town is asleep, unaware of the powerful magic that’s about to be conjured. A woman in flowing black robes stokes a massive bonfire and passes out broomsticks to all witches present. Then, someone passes you a drinking horn, and you drink, allowing the sweet honey liquid to quench your thirst and send your mind into a relaxed, astral state. Tonight is the Witches’ Night, also known as Walpurgisnacht, and it’s a time of ancient witchcraft and mystery. Come with me on a journey to the Brocken, and let’s learn all about the history of Walpurgisnacht and how to celebrate it today.
Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, is a German holiday that likely originates in ancient times. It is celebrated on the eve of May 1st through the following night, at exactly the same time as the Celtic fire festival known as Beltane. Walpurgisnacht is likely named for Saint Walpurga, a female saint from Medieval Times who was born in England in the eighth century. So one would wonder how an English saint became popular enough in Germany to have a holiday named for her. According to the church’s history, Walpurga became a missionary to the Frankish empire and became an abbess of a monastery in Bavaria, Germany in 751CE. Walpurgisnacht has been used as a holiday to commemorate Walpurga’s canonization and the movement of her relics to a town in Bavaria called Eichstatt on May 1st, 870CE.
There’s some speculation by modern pagan scholars that Walburga might have been an ancient earth goddess long before the Saint was ever born. And, similar to how the Celtic goddess Brigid lived on in the form of Saint Brigid, this Germanic earth goddess might have been transformed into the Saint Walpurga. Remember it was much easier for the Church to reform the most powerful of the old pagan gods than to eradicate them entirely from the people’s minds. Conversely, if this sort of adaptation didn’t work, they would demonize the deities and essentially scare the people from believing in them. As was the case with the goddess Berchta, whose cult the church outlawed in Medieval Times, and of whom thereafter became a kidnapping, child-eating hag.
Dating to the time of Walpurga, the German people would pray to the Saint for protection over their crops, children, and livestock. They would particularly focus on protection from witchcraft, since the witch hunts were raging through the country during Medieval times. If folks weren’t in church on Walpurgisnacht, they were maintaining large bonfires which were believed to ward off witches, devils, and ghosts. Interestingly, this is another tradition that likely dates back to ancient times, long before Walpurga was born. Bonfires are a common practice of purification, not just on continental Europe but insular, as well. Here we see a definitive similarity between Walpurgis night in Germany and Beltane in Ireland.
The fires served not only as a spiritual means of purification, but also as a physical means. The smoke from fire was used to clear out pests in the home and on the body, including fleas, lice, and other parasitic infections that might have taken hold over the long Winter months. You have to remember, Winter was a time when everyone was inside and close to one another. And often the livestock would be in the same place as the humans, allowing an easy transmission of pests. This is also why people in those times would walk their livestock near a bonfire or between two large bonfires for purification. They believed the fires purified the body and spirit of places, humans, and beasts.
Why is Walpurgisnacht also called the Witches Night? This was a time when people believed witches were at their most powerful. Again, we see a link to older pagan festivals which would come to be demonized by the church. Since at least Medieval Times, people believed witches would meet on top of the Brocken, which is the highest mountain peak in the Harz Mountains. Even Jacob Grimm, the German folklorist, claimed the people believed Valkyries would meet on the Brocken. Perhaps this is a link to the belief in Freya being the leader of the witches on Walpurgisnacht, as well.
Before meeting for their mischief on the Brocken, witches would shapeshift and fly up the chimneys on this night. So, folks were warned to never leave their broomsticks near the chimney, lest a witch steal it and use it to fly to the Brocken and meet with others on this night. There’s mention of witches celebrating the arrival of Spring, which again ties this holiday to Beltane in Ireland and other Spring fertility festivals worldwide held around the same time.
This holiday isn’t just celebrated in Germany, however, but also through countries in Central and Northern Europe. In the Czech Republic, this festival is called the “Burning of the Witches” and is celebrated by burning witch effigies in large bonfires today. Once, I imagine this holiday might have been a bit grimmer, sadly. They do not associate this festival with Saint Walpurga, but rather with Saint Phillip or Saint Jacob. For centuries, Slovakian people have held the tradition of putting the Queen of Winter, known as Morena, to death. A procession walked her effigy to an icy river, lit it on fire, then threw her in. This symbolized the end of Winter and the beginning of Spring/Summer.
Let’s talk a little more about the “goddess” Walpurga. According to Judika Illes in The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Walpurga manifests as a “beautiful white lady wearing a long gown, flowing locks, a crown and fiery shoes. She carries a spindle and a three-cornered mirror that tells the future.” Illes goes on to say that according to folklore, Walpurga is chased by the Wild Hunt for nine days before Walpurgisnacht. And wherever she goes to hide, she leaves gold and treasures for good folks in her wake. I can’t help but notice the uncanny similarities between Walpurga, Berchta, Holda and even Freya herself. What once was a night to celebrate the driving out of Winter and rebirth of the Earth, the church turned into a day of driving out paganism and witchcraft.
Obviously we know the connection between the ancient spirit or goddess Walpurga and Walpurgisnacht, but what are the other goddesses present at this time? Believe it or not, Freya the Norse and Germanic goddess is said to take part in the Witches Night. One of her sacred places is the Brocken, and in Medieval Times the Church appointed her as a leader of the witches. And therefore, the witch leader of Walpurgisnacht. In addition, the Germanic goddess Holda is also known to be a leader of the witches in Germanic lore.
It’s interesting to note that Walpurga’s name is also seen in an ancient Germanic seeress’s name – Waluburg. Whose name translates to “Magic Staff Protection”. We know this woman existed because of the discovery of an ostracon, an inscribed pottery shard, in Egypt that mentions her name in service to a governor. It was surmised that Waluburg was the name from the Semnones tribe, a Germanic tribe, and she was likely a seeress who had somehow found herself on Elephantine Island in the second century BC. Some theories state Walpurgisnacht may be named for this famous seeress, while others believe she was likely named for a goddess instead.
I believe this is a holiday that should be celebrated by modern witches, particularly those who have Germanic, English, or European roots in general. Though, truly, anyone who’s drawn to celebrate The Witches’ Night should be able to! Let’s start spreading the news that witches meet on the Brocken on Walpurgisnacht. Even if you live nowhere near the Brocken, we can mimic it on a local hilltop, can’t we? And couldn’t we meet on the Brocken in astral form? Let’s learn of some other ways to celebrate Walpurgisnacht in modern times.
In Germany, The Witches’ Night on April 31st is akin to the American Halloween. People dress up in costume, play pranks, and engage in all sorts of revelry. Not unlike the Witches’ Nights of the past, I would assume. If you’d like to celebrate Walpurgisnacht with your friends or coven-mates, consider throwing a witch’s costume party. Your guests can come dressed in their most elegant, most hideous, or most gothic witchy costume in their wardrobe. Then have a costume competition.
Bonfires were traditional and still are. Consider having a bonfire to honor the Walpurgisnachts of the past AND to purify your space and yourself. Just don’t make them so big they burn the bristles on your friends’ brooms. Throw herb powders and bundles into the bonfires as offering to the spirits of Winter and Spring.
Probably the simplest way to celebrate Walpurgisnacht is to listen to Faun’s song Walpugisnacht. You can find it on Spotify, YouTube, and many other music apps. It’s a fun and jaunty tune that will literally whisk you away to the Brocken.
Consider working with or honoring some of the Germanic goddesses linked to this special festival. Walpurga, Berchta, Holda, and Freya all await to lead you up the chimney and into the night sky on Hexenacht. Erect temporary altars for them, provide German meals as offerings, and invoke their wildness and primal pagan ways.
Since May Day, Walpurgisnacht, and Beltane are all traditionally associated with purification, you should cast your own cleansing spells as well. Spend the day and evening cleaning and cleansing your home of any clutter and negative energy. Don’t forget to cleanse yourself. Fire and smoke are best for Walpurgisnacht purification rituals, as these are traditional. Rue, rosemary, and juniper can be burned to cleanse and ward.
Walpurgisnacht was known as a night when witches caused mischief and flew about casting spells. So the people believed it was appropriate to make protective charms and keep other traditions to ward off any evil spirits, dark magic, or witches who might seek to harm them otherwise. You can use this custom for your own and cast protection spells on Witches’ Night, make protective charms, and more.
According to Linda Raedisch in Night of the Witches, one traditional beverage for Walpurgisnacht is known as May Wine or May Punch. There are many different recipes for this alcoholic drink, but most have a base of white wine and sweet woodruff. In addition, make German green soup, which is a traditional Spring soup made of leek, potato, and fresh herbs. Truly, any traditional German meal will do.
One thing is for sure, witches and muggles alike have used certain herbs on Walpurgisnacht for centuries. Angelica, flax, rosemary, juniper, and rue all have their place at the Witches’ Night ritual. Elder flowers were hung above doors of homes and barns to ward off bad magic in the past, yet elder was and is a beloved herb to the witch. Flaxseed was once gathered on the Dark Moon and added to love potions in centuries past. Rosemary was burned to ward off illness, dark magic, and pests. And, in Medieval Times, was a favorite herb in many households. Weave any of these herbs into your magic on this witchiest of nights.
There’s a crisp hint of magic in the air. And a sense of warmth and …September 21, 2023