Tomorrow, April 30 is the official Halfway to Halloween point on our modern calendars, which is more than enough reason for us here at HDN to celebrate, but it is also Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht), which shares some very similar origins and enough of the same customs to earn the title of The Other Halloween.
Like the Halloween holiday we know and love, Walpurgis also has its roots in ancient pagan customs, superstitions, and festivals, as the Vikings participated in a ritual that they hoped would hasten the arrival of Spring weather and ensure fertility for their crops and livestock by lighting huge bonfires in hopes of scaring away evil spirits. Sound familiar?
As Thought Co. recounts, the name “Walpurgis” comes from a woman in the 8th Century named Valborg (other iterations of the name include Walpurgis, Wealdburg, and Valderburger), who founded the Catholic convent of Heidenheim in Wurtemburg, Germany. She herself later became a nun and was known for speaking out against witchcraft and sorcery, and she was eventually canonized a saint on May 1, 779. Since the celebration of her sainthood and the old Viking festival occurred around the same time, over the years the festivals and traditions intermingled until the hybrid pagan-Catholic celebration became known as Valborgsmässoafton or Walpurgisnacht, which translates to Walpurgis Night.
Falling directly opposite Halloween on the calendar, the ancient legends say that the May Eve night of Walpurgis was the last chance for witches and their nefarious cohorts to stir up trouble before Spring reawakened the land.
To ward off the witches’ evil, the citizenry would reportedly burn bonfires, sprinkle holy water and adorn their homes with talismans of blessed palm leaf, as they would ring bells, bang drums, crack whips and beat blanks of wood onto the ground, they would eventually shoot firearms into the air to help keep the evil at bay.
Walpurgis Night even features its own version of trick or treating in some parts of Europe, such as Bavaria, Germany, where the celebration is known as a Freinacht or Drudennacht and the young might roam the neighborhoods pulling mischievous pranks, such as wrapping cars in toilet paper and smearing doorknobs with toothpaste. In Thueringen, Germany, some of the little girls dress up as witches, wearing paper hats and carrying sticks.
In Finland, where the holiday is called Vappu, the ordinarily reserved Finns run screaming through the streets wearing masks and carrying drinks.
Halloween-like scarecrows make an appearance too, as life-size strawmen are created and ritually imbued with all the bad luck and ill will of the past year before being tossed on the Walpurgis bonfires along with worn-out, burnable household items.
Some believe that Walpurgis, like Halloween, is more than a time of ritual spellcasting, but a time when the barrier between our world and the “supernatural” – the living and the dead – is more easily crossed.
Winifred Hodge writes in Waelburga and the Rites of May, “Since this is a turning-tide when the season is not quite one thing or another — a ‘between-time,’ it is very suitable for occult divination and spellcraft: a time to take advantage of the thinner veils between the worlds and the fact that our minds are temporarily focused away from everyday affairs and onto the magical energies of Nature’s spring tides.
“This is a time for looking into that which is coming into being and which should be, for seeking deep roots of life-knowledge and life-mysteries, for love-magic and spells of growth and change, conception and birth — in fact, for almost all the elements of what is often called ‘women’s magic.'”
In his book Real Ghosts, Restless Spirits and Haunted Places, Brad Steiger adds that “Walpurgis Night has traditionally been regarded as one of the most powerful nights for ghosts, demons, and long-legged beasties… [It] has an even greater potential for smashing the barriers between the seen and unseen worlds.”
So there you have it. Now go out and celebrate accordingly.
And Happy Walpurgis Night!
For more Halloween news, follow @HalloweenDaily.