By The Lore Keeper
You’ve likely heard of Halloween, and perhaps you have heard of May Day. But, have you heard of Walpurgisnacht? Also known as Hexennacht or “Witches’ Night” it is a lesser known holiday whose core celebration is in the Harz mountains in Germany. This obscure holiday is perhaps one of the most fascinating I’ve ever seen and opens an intriguing window into German mythology. The same mythology that features figures like Wotan singing the dead up from below the mountains clad in bear skins, or The Lord of the Mountains managing his kingdom of gems, and even the Wild Man calling the storms in ecstatic glee. Yet it is none of these tempestuous and mighty gods that form the focal point of Witches’ Night. It is in fact a goddess, one obscure enough to go unnoticed, yet important enough to have a habit and a saint slapped atop her. That of Walpurga, the Lady of Summer.
In general German mythology is a hodge podge. Filed with saints, sinners, witches, monsters, gods, heroes, magicians, and much more. Different parts housed different tribes and differing mythologies. The impact of Slavic, Celtic, Norse, and Roman mythologies provide a sort of seasoning to an already fascinating landscape, just as Yule has amassed a large complex mythology and bunches of traditions, so too has Witches’ Night. Just as with Yule the Wild Hunt plays a prominent role, though unlike Yule it is not the coming of the hunt that highlights the traditions, but its departure. The fertility gifted, the hunt ends, the furious host goes home again, the veil thins only to thicken back up once more, but not without a “black mass” atop a mountain. This time their quarry is no stag, or storm caught child, or tree spirit, no….. This time Walpurga, a goddess, is the quarry. Should they catch her they may hunt forever in everlasting winter.
Yet like much of German mythology, there is no book containing a massive amount of myths for this or that god, the folklore, folk customs, legends, ballads, and christian propaganda hides the pieces of this puzzle. A puzzle containing many gods, a divine marriage, the wild hunt, a witches sabbath and much more. The first piece in all its jagged edged glory is that of Saint Walpurga.
Many deities were hidden as Saints or devils in German mythology. Notburga being another notable one, or Mother Mary hiding Zisa and Holle, and a woodwose style Mary Magdalene hiding a wild woman goddess of which many exist in German myth. St. Nicholas disguises Woden, Wotan is the devil, Perchta is the Christmas Belly Slitter, the list goes on and on. Walpurga herself falls into a category shared by both St. Brigid and St. Ursula; the church didn’t even bother to change the name.
Walpurga “Ruler of the Fortress” is a rather thinly veiled fertility goddess. Her role in the hunt is a sort of queen of plant spirits, just as the hunt pursues Moss Maidens and other spirits of the next summer all winter, they try to finish with this powerful prey. She runs clad in firey shoes, golden crown, a flowing white dress, and a three sided mirror across the land. The windows left open for her to flee into them behind protective walls and totems. One story even tells of her fleeing to a farmer where she begged him to give him a hiding place. He pointed to grain or hay and she dove in. The Hunt then passed her by, realizing who she was the man looks beneath the hay and finds Walpurga gone, but in her place lay golden grains.
Goddesses leaving gold for those who helped them is fairly common in German mythology, however the idea of “Golden Grains” makes me wonder if wheat itself or similar crops like Rye were not her original gift.
Especially given the symbolism of the wheat held in depictions of Saint Walpurga. This would fit with the fertility facet and the wild hunt, as wheat can be planted in Mid-Spring or fall if overwintered. Though now I must return to the myth. With Walpurga escaped summer can truly begin. This is but one facet of the mythology of Walpurgisnacht, and the one with the most blatant reference to the spring Wild Hunt.
There are other myths that tie into the holiday that are just as fascinating and in many ways just as tied into The Wild Hunt, if less conspicuously. Yet before I can go into the folklore I must take a detour through one of the most famous German legends, Faust. Specifically the version penned by Goethe.
In it Faust and Mephistopheles take a journey to the Brocken mountain in the Harz where the Witches’ Sabbath is taking place. Rather than journeying physically, Faust is sleeping and is instead on a spiritual journey of sorts. While the tale is blatantly christian. Mentioning the Devil, Mammon, Lilith, and other demonic christian beings. The tale contains many elements that are a part of the holiday and just like Mephistopheles himself they find their roots in German mythology and the gods within it. In this spiritual plane Faust even comments on the feel of spring in the air while Mephistopheles feels only winter, a possible throwback to the same conflict taking place in the mythic landscape around them, winter and summer, day and night, and in the case of Faust enlightenment vs depravity.
Faust’s path is lit by Will-o-the-wisp’s, beings of elemental energy that can light the way in the spirit realm. When he is at the top the goats, devils, witches, possible debauchery and much more abound. Like Faust the witches themselves are also there in a sort of “astral” form and can experience all the hellish delights they desire at the Sabbath where they can commune with “The Devil” and dance.
The Christian influence here is plain for all to see. While Mephistopheles himself may not be a deity, he certainly took influences from them and here especially he seems to fulfill the role of a spirit guide and powerful god-like being. I mention this section for two reasons. The first is that this story can largely be credited as the reason the holiday did not die out, which leads me into the second. That the tale sets the tone and conception with which many will experience and consider Walpurgisnacht.
Having now set the tone, and told the tale of Walpurga herself, it is now important to establish the scenery. While the holiday is more spread out and impactful than one mountain, it is the at the Harz range and the Brocken especially that the focal point exists and it is this landscape that I must speak of before we may continue.
The Harz is known as one of the last places that heathen practices were able to continue against the encroachment of the church. Soon the rituals and celebrations of the heathens became known as a “Witches Sabbath” or “Black Mass” a place to consort with Satan and commit hellish acts. It did not help that heathens would often play into such fears to scare the Christians away. Such actions would eventually result in demonic cults that blended the two, such as the heathen rituals at Externsteine devolving into Goetia. Here in the Harz however it became embedded in the landscape.
The Harz mountains, and the Brocken especially have many myths and beings associated with them. Ostara had an active cult and even a sacred grove there before the coming of the church. The Toot-Osel (The Goddess Ursula) is said to stay there in the form of an Owl, heralding the coming of the “Black Hunter” a god of the woods and animals in the area. It is no wonder such myths still remain amidst the Harz. As the mountain range appears more like a fairy tale than a normal landscape. The mountain even has its own famous apparition the Glorious Brocken Spectre. A moving shadow crowned in rainbows. The mountain even contains notable landmarks like the Witches’ Dance Floor and the devil’s pulpit.
The Brocken’s peak is hard to reach, which is why heathen ceremonies were able to remain for so long there, why witches “fly” there, and why Faust required the aid of the Will-o-the-wisp to find his way to the peak.
The flight of witches to the Brocken is a “spirtual” journey though it was most certainly done literally as well, perhaps with less broomsticks and more walking sticks but people did congregate there certainly. Myths surrounding the witches and their sabbath often involve men in some way, shape, or form. Either as the devils or male witches engaged in the orgy, or as the hapless fool out too late on May Eve and forced to be the tool of “flight” for a witch who hopped atop him and flew him to the Harz just as she would a broomstick.
Other tales tell of men following their wives, who unbeknownst to them are witches, and trying to get them to leave such a place and lifestyle once they are made aware. One such story has the husband turned into an animal for such statements, only for him to be made human once more when they have made up. They are then married, a sort of fairy tale wedding with witch and lovely maiden in one figure. Another tale ties more directly into wild hunt mythology with the husband leaping onto his wife, who has turned into a horse, they ride into the sky and are forced to ride forever. The overtly sexual imagery may seem to be a demonized version of older tales and traditions. While this is certainly the case, I do not think it is the sexual nature that is the corruption. Instead it may be one of the most important remnants of the holiday.
Now I am not about to encourage orgies at the top of a mountain, but this imagery does not appear out of a vacuum. The time surrounding Walpurgisnacht and May Day is in fact one of the best times to get pregnant. The holiday is between Easter and Midsummer. In a time of fertility and new life . That is not the reason though, it is just part of a larger trend, rather it is because by the time the harvest is in and most of the work is done, the babe has not yet started to create a “baby bump” resulting in much of the more cumbersome times of pregnancy to be experienced in general rest as the work of Summer is over, the babe is then born around late winter-early spring. When the mother can breast feed the child and herself partake of food prepared and saved for winter. As a result it is not an exaggeration to say a bit of “fun” likely occurred around this holiday. That may or may not have resulted in a child born several months down the line. This is even more prevalent when Holle’s role in the holiday is looked at. As she is the keeper of infant souls before their birth, it makes sense that Holle would be part of a holiday known for some “Baby Making”.
Aside from Walpurga it is Holle who holds the most sway this holiday. Holle is often seen in the form of a forest witch and her retinue is littered with them, both in human and animal form. It is her witches who dance on the Brocken’s “Witches’ Dance Floor” and bring the summer season to the earth, banishing winter. On May 2nd after May Day, Holle is said to sit on her pulpit and with shinning golden curls exclaim her “Morning Gift” to the world. This morning gift is the bright sun of summer. Two days after Walpurga is freed Holle’s gift is given.
It is notable that the two while similar are in many ways diametrically opposed. Holle does not flee the wild hunt, she leads it. A Wild Huntress with a retinue of infants, dogs, witches, faeries, imps, and more. Waluprga is the quarry, even though Holle is more at home among the members of the hunt who collect souls and corn spirits she still is not about to be hunted by those at her command, not like Walpurga. When the hunt leaves the fertility they have sown in their frenzy will bear fruit. I consistently mention fertility, as part of the holidays focus seems to truly be the joining of man and woman in fertile union. Before I dig too far into that point one more bit of lore is necessary to mention. A divine marriage that ends the hunt, and begins the summer in its full glory.
At the top of the Brocken “The Devil” is said to marry his bride on witches night. Once we remove the christian veneer it is instead Wotan who is the groom in this marriage. The bride is said to be none other than Freia, but who can say for sure. This is not the only marriage that takes place but it is the most notable one, the other involves Holle and a sun god, but we shall not go too far into that wedding.
So what does all this bring us to? Well like any holiday it is not one thing or the other, millennia of traditions and stories mingle and don’t always have to make perfect sense. Despite this, I think we can make some sense of this complex assortment of tales. To start with we have established the tone and scenery, both rich in myth and spiritual symbolism. However, it is the time I must now establish. It is the end of April, six months apart from Halloween (Samhain) when the dead are said to walk the earth. The spirit realm is said to be most active, but the veil is thin here too as the hunt leaves and gives back the plant spirits and calls to mind new life and spring storms. The land becomes flush with flowers and new life, in other words this entire time period is a very liminal one. Likely on par with Halloween. Though it is not the ancestors that have been that I believe concern us here. Instead it is the ancestors yet to come that likely should be the focal point of this holiday.
This time of year is a raucous one. While those that maintain May Day as a holiday may have the tradition of new life in the May Queen, others suffice with partying and some “party helpers” but suffice to say the feel in the air is there now as much as when Faust climbed the Brocken.
Whether done via spiritual practices or with the aforementioned “helpers” (no orgy required) the astral bodies traveled to the mountain and reveled. A sort of microcosmic divine marriage all their own. Consummated amidst a time of abundant new life, and who should appear on this day, but the keeper of infant souls herself, Mother Holle. If Halloween is a time to recall those who have been, Walpurgisnacht is likely the time to consider who is to come. The souls yet to be born, the grandchildren of children yet to come.
In this way behind the witches sabbath and wild hunt, is the birth of the souls of new life. The child growing in the womb, as the gods do so too do the people. New life spreads across the landscape eventually culminating in new born babes and a full pantry. It is likely no mistake that witches were often as not midwives as well as the tenders of the deceased. The keepers of the gateways of the living and the dead, the guardians of the cycle. What better time for the witch to be at the forefront, then when that very life is being made. A time of passion, bonding, love, and life. Both in the realm of spirits and in the realm of flesh. The wise ones and the old ones side by side ushering in the next generation, as those who live welcome those yet to come, before they too fall to ashes and become themselves old ones. A cycle eternal, beautiful, and instinctual. This by no means is to say that we cannot enjoy the Gothic feel of the modern holiday, but it is important to see behind the mist and magic, at the true wonder within and without. Behind that witches sabbath are new souls to be born, behind that pointy hat is a wise woman who ushered in generations long dead, behind that goat like devil is a god furious and paternal beside a goddess as brutal as she is beautiful, and from the mountain top they stand they witness the cycle unending of the souls of their kin.
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