In central and northern Europe the closing days of April and commencement of Spring converge on Walpurgisnacht, a bonfire festival based on both pagan and Christian traditions. On the eve of May 1, the canonization day of Saint Walpurga, an English Christian nun and missionary based in southern Germany in the eighth century (and presumably was so named to replace a pre-Christian harvest goddess also named Walpurga), witches gather to fly off to the highest mountain (in the case of Germany, Brocken Mountain in the Harz mountain range) to pay homage to the Devil with a night-long bacchanalian celebration. Newly-empowered and inspired, they fly back to society, on broomsticks or goats, to continue their demonic service.
Fireworks over the Rhine on Walpurgisnacht, 2012, and Hermann Hendrich’s vision, 1901.
Like Halloween, exactly six months later, Walpurgisnacht is a perfect example of early medieval assimilation, in which a saint’s day is grafted onto an existing “calendar” and there is a clash of evil and good, or perhaps a last hurrah for evil before good prevails in the merry new month of May. Evil is always very, very close–but the actual ritual by which the witch enters into the pact with the devil–described and perceived as in inverse Sabbath–happens far away, in a remote place that one could only access through flight. As I wrote about in an earlier post, fears about a conspiratorial demonic force intensified in the sixteenth century along with the Reformation, resulting in over 100,000 trials for witchcraft in the early modern era. Two hundred years later, after the Devil had lost much of his power, he was revived by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic and tragic Faust (1808-1831), with its vivid scenes of Walpurgis Night.
Title page of the 1908 Hayward/Hutchinson translation of Goethe’s Faust, with illustrations of Walpurgis Night by Willy Pogany.
Goethe, along with his near-contemporaries the Brothers Grimm and a host of other authors and artists, was both reflection and inspiration for an intensifying interest in German folklore in the nineteenth century. Witches became more fanciful than fearful; even if it was with or for the devil, they still danced. Given its long association with the witches’ sabbaths, the Brocken and its adjacent Hexentanzplatz (a plateau long referred to as the “witches’ dancing floor”) became popular tourist destinations. A hilltop hotel on the Hexentanzplatz drew a steady stream of visitors from 1870 on, and the addition of an open-air theater and the Walpurgishalle, a museum dedicated to Goethe and Walpurgis Night, increased their number after the turn of the century. The Hexentanzplatz became a place where everybody could come to dance, on the eve of St. Walpurga’s Day, Beltane, May Day, or simply Spring.
The focus is clearly on the Hexentanzplatz hotel in postcards from the 1890s and 1911 (along with the now-naked witches); a century later the more generic Wulpurgisnacht is celebrated in Meissen (photo by Tobi_2008@ Flikr).