Move over, Halloween!
We all know that Halloween (or Samhain) is the ultimate festival of the witches, as this autumnal night of spooky shenanigans seems intrinsically connected to the darker, occult side of life. But did you know that there’s another festival which is explicitly dedicated to witches? This is the German Walpurgisnacht, which is still celebrated in the Harz Mountains on April 30th every year. Let’s dive into this fiendishly delicious festival of witches…
What is Walpurgisnacht?
Named for Saint Walpurga, Walpurgisnacht is German festival that has a very specific legend attached to it. For centuries, it has been said that, on this night, witches dance on Brocken Mountain, conducting wild rituals and having congress with the Devil. The tallest peak in the Harz Mountains, Brocken is surrounded by a dense evergreen forest, with strange rock formations jutting out from the slopes and meteorological phenomena creating auras around its summit — so it’s no wonder that Brocken came to have such mystical associations.
“There is a mountain very high and bare… whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis night.”Jacob Grimm, 1883
Like most festivals, Walpurgisnacht’s origins stretch back through the centuries, and it is likely connected to Beltane (May Day), occurring six months before Halloween and marking the time when the veil between our world and the next is thin. In the home of Grimms’ fairy tales, stories of witchy activities abound — and these folk legends concern the kind of witches you wouldn’t want to cross on a dark night, far from home, with naught but your torch to protect you.
So how did this witchy festival become associated with a Catholic saint? Born around 770, Walpurga was an English nun who was sent to Germany as a missionary. She became abbess of Heidenheim with her brother, St Winibald, and that’s probably how her association with paganism began. Heidenheim loosely translates as “heathen-home”, thanks to the spring located there, which was considered sacred by the pre-Christian people of the area, and was therefore connected to various pagan festivities, traditions, and folklore. These pagan celebrations were able to continue under the guise of various Christian festivals and holidays (sound familiar?), and as Walpurga died around May Day, so Walpurgisnacht became as good a reason as any to light bonfires, welcome the coming summer, and just generally have a heathen good time (all to venerate the late, great, saint, of course).
How Walpurgisnacht became “Witches’ Night”
Walpurga soon got her own folklore as a healing saint who flew around the countryside bestowing gifts upon those who prayed to her. These tales line up with the pre-Christian Germanic goddess Holda, a winter deity who is also linked to Midwinter and Yule. And on May Day, Frau Holda is married to the sun god Belenos — a marriage that is echoed in other European Beltane celebrations and is linked to the crowning of the May Queen and King. Around and around we go, with ancient tales repeated and refracted in each region’s current theology. But I digress.
As she was the goddess of spinning and fertility, Holda flew around the world on a spindle, later a broomstick, and presided over female spirits that flew in a similar manner. This folk tale laid the groundwork for our perception of witches riding broomsticks, which is also thanks to the Church briefly canonising this idea in the 10th Century — the Canon Episcopi were women who would slip away from their husbands by night, take to the skies, and join various pagan goddesess to feast beyond the clouds. The Church warned local ministers to stamp out witchcraft and other pagan activities, lest the Episcopi become too powerful in their region. It was an interesting time in history, wherein the Christian Church was still working out whether pagan deities existed, or whether to brand them as catch-all terms for Satan. The latter attitude obviously won out, and the legend of the Episcopi paved the way for the witch trails that the Church would conduct over the subsequent centuries.
Because of Walpurga’s association with Holda and pagan traditions, various sacred sites throughout Germany and Northern Europe, like wells, springs, and mountains, became dedicated to her instead. Walpurgisnacht became a secretive inversion festival, a night of revelry in which you could truly let loose. Mountain peaks especially were associated with Walpurga, and witches, because they were sites of ancient, pagan justice, where sacrifices would take place. The memory of what these sites signified seeped through the generations, and under the lens of Christian good behaviour, became viewed as dark connections to a wilder, more magical past.
And so we return to Brocken mountain, some 277 miles away from Walpurga’s own Heidenheim. As one of Germany’s highest points, right at the centre of the country, it was long revered as one of these wild, magic places — especially as the frozen peak is perpetually battered by high winds, not to mention shrouded in snow for much of the year. It’s really the perfect place for an annual witches’ summit!
Now to the Brocken the witches ride;From Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The stubble is gold and the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Squire Urianus will come to preside.
So over the valleys our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.
Today, the various townships of the Harz Mountains take great pride in the legends associated with Brocken mountain — and you can even buy postcards with the famous “farting” line from Goethe’s Faust written in German. (My mother proudly displays her own souvenir postcard on the fridge!)
What happens on Walpurgisnacht?
If you believe the legends, it’s when witches from all across the land congregate to have dark, sexual rituals all in worship of the Devil… but in reality, every year people flock from all around to party on the mountain-top — especially from Berlin, which offers a special direct train to the festivities. People will dress in witchy costumes and light fireworks, to truly revive the spirit of the ancient Hexentanzplatz, or “witches’ dance floor!”
Also called Hexennacht, Walpurgisnacht isn’t just celebrated in Germany, but across Northern Europe. It’s very similar to Halloween, with people dressing up in costumes and playing pranks. The Brocken celebrations are much more like a modern festival, with music and dancing through the night — this is called the Tanz in den Mai, a dance party that continues over midnight to ring in the next month. But in other regions, traditional bonfires are lit, witch effigies are burned, and sometimes couples will perform a “corn jump”, leaping over flames together. Simply put, it’s a folk festival! Celebrations vary according to regional customs, and much of them bleed over into May Day, like erecting a Maibaum — or Maypole — for yet more dancing the next day.
So, if you want to celebrate Walpurgisnacht, the best way is to mimic these traditions. Find the highest hilltop you can, light a fire, invoke witchy deities like Holda, Hecate, Freja, or even Walpurga herself, and dance the night away!