The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Calendar of Revelry and Sacred Days
See also Floralia, May Day, and Beltane.
Walpurgisnacht, Walpurgis Night, is the Germanic celebration of May Eve. Walpurga is a Germanic woman’s name, sometimes given as Walburga or Waldborg. The earliest Walpurga was a spirit or goddess. Walpurga manifests as a beautiful white lady with long flowing hair wearing a crown and fiery shoes. She carries a spindle and a three-cornered mirror that reveals the future. Her memory survives in the popularity of spindles and thread used in divination and love spells on the night named in her honor.
Once upon a time, Walpurga was involved in rituals intended to evade the forces of winter and allow the emergence of summer. For nine days before May Day, the Wild Hunt pursues Walpurga. She is their quarry. Walpurga, in turn, seeks refuge among local villagers who leave their doors and windows open so that the Lady of Summer can find safety from frost. According to one legend, Walpurga begged a farmer to hide her from the Wild Hunt in his stack of grain, which he does, not realizing she’s the goddess. By the next morning, she’s gone but he finds grains of gold sprinkled amongst his rye crop.
Under Christian influence, Walpurga’s Night eventually transformed into a time to drive out the forces of paganism rather than the forces of winter. In the eighth century, Walpurgis Night was remade into a holiday honoring a saint, not a goddess or summer.
St Walpurga or Walburga, the niece of St Boniface, was an English abbess who founded religious houses in Germany during the eighth century, and is believed to have been born in approximately 710 in Wessex. She became a missionary-abbess in St Boniface’s church and presided over a community of nuns in the German town of Heidenham. This Walpurga was canonized as an official saint of the Church following her death in 779.
After St Walpurga’s body was interred at Eichstadt, miracle-working oil is said to have begun to trickle from her tomb. Her relics were eventually distributed amongst various churches across Europe. St Walpurga assumed many of the functions of Pagan Walpurga. She offers protection against plague, famine, crop failures, and the bites of rabid dogs. The matron saint of the city of Antwerp, St Walpurga is often depicted carrying a sheaf of grain. Above all, St Walpurga protects and defends against witchcraft.
German witches defied her by riding to their sabbats on the night before her feast day on May 1st. Villagers lit bonfires that night, allegedly to prevent the witches from landing. Others shot guns into the air so as to blast witches. According to pagan tradition, residences and barns were ornamented with certain special May Eve botanicals. Once upon a time, these plants carried the powerful blessings of witch-deities. Ornamentation with these same botanicals continued post-Christianity, only now, allegedly, these identical plants warded off witchcraft and prevented witches from visiting.
Elder wood was hidden in barns or homes ostensibly to protect against witchcraft, although the original reasons for these practices may be forgotten.
Others placed alder branches against their home to keep witches away on Walpurgis Night. (Alder is known as the Walpurgis tree.)
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea or Nepeta hederacea) allegedly breaks magic spells. It’s woven into garlands and worn on Walpurgis to protect from witches with evil intent.
Walpurgis Night was the witches’ major sabbat. Mass convergences of witches allegedly took place on high mountain peaks identified with the witch goddess Freya.