I won’t be calling it Walpurgisnacht next year. In its modern incarnation its origins are Christian. Like Halloween, there’s a lot of devilry, but look closely and you’ll spot the witches on top of the bonfires, not dancing around them. (banner photo Heidelberger Thingstätte by AndreasF)
The reason for Walpurgisnacht falling on April 30th was to counter Hexennacht, a belief that witches gathered on the eve of May Day. St Walburga, an 8th Century English saint from Devon, was believed to counter witchcraft and so it seemed the natural choice to celebrate her and counter the effects of four and twenty thousand witches turning up on the summit of the Brocken, deep in the Harz mountains, hell bent on curdling everyone’s milk.
It’s all very straightforward according to Wikipedia, but reading between the lines Walpurgisnacht couldn’t exist without Hexennacht, so how did a belief in the latter event come about in the first place?
There are few communities in Europe that didn’t celebrate the changes of the seasons, particularly the hardship of winter changing to the warmth and production of spring. It was a time to clear out, burn the old rubbish and start afresh. Old traditions, formalised by pagan beliefs, began to overlap with an expanding Christianity bringing its own practices which weren’t always compatible.
Before the 16th Century witchcraft as a phenomenon wasn’t the evil practice painted by Christianity, it wasn’t even called witchcraft. And in Germany a woman with the skills to heal was respected not burned at the stake. The criminalisation of sorcery accelerated between 1560 and 1660 leading to the superhunts of witchcraft we’ve read about.
But again, the matter wasn’t one of widespread executions. Six out of seven witches in this period were German speaking. This isn’t to be confused with modern day Germany, but territories and jurisdictions covered by the Holy Roman Empire. Within this area there were concentrations of activity such as Cologne and Bavaria, and within Bavaria further concentrations in Franconia. (Over five thousand perished in Wurzburg and Bamberg.)
Many accusations of witchcraft were thrown out by the courts, and particular scorn was levelled at evidence that associated witches with black masses and encounters with the Devil; an accusation that had its roots in Sweden where equally virulent persecutions were taking place.
Early 20th Century historians have attempted to explain witchcraft in this period as a psychological ailment and that societies were equally afflicted for taking the practice so seriously as to criminalise it. But more recent studies have considered the witch hunts as a symptom of the Protestant/Catholic split and the maelstrom of the Reformation.
Walpurgisnacht/Hexennacht as both celebration and threat diminished in importance until Goethe published Faust, a Fragment in 1790 which described a witches’ sabbat. Fascination with the old craft was momentarily revived, ornamented by that old but discredited association with devil worship. Goethe painted a fanciful picture of activity that would have been a strain on the old court trials pushing back against the influence of Prince Bishops and witch hunters.
Today, for many people, Walpurgisnacht is an excuse to get merry or protest against capitalism, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this celebration pre-dates its own name, the origins lost and confused by recorded history. And in a final irony, the Brocken summit is now the location of a communications tower.
One by one the brittle besoms snapped, each collapse met with a rasping hiss of fire and glowing ash. When the eighth figure fell into its own embers Liza turned to me.
“Your biologist friend could have explained the science of death in more detail, but I fear academics prefer to hold a little knowledge back for themselves, maintain the upper hand so to speak.”
The Fine Art of Necromancy is released on April 30th, free to download from this website.