As you stand under the darkened sky on the eve of May, you may hear the rushing of bird or bat wing overhead, or witness the momentary blotting out of a constellation or two as they take flight. However, they are neither bird nor bat – for tonight is Walpurgisnacht, and the sky is full of witches.

It was once unquestionably understood that witches lived among us, ever cunning and watchful. The good Christian, or at least those wishing to appear as such, lived their lives at the mercy of this belief. One must be ever vigilant and abide by the many rules and rituals that helped to safeguard good, God-fearing people. Extra care and protections were even more necessary on the night of April 30th, Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht (Witches’ Night) – the night that belonged to the witch.

Witches Sabbath - Francisco Goya
Witches Sabbath – Francisco Goya

Defined as an individual who voluntarily entered into a pact with the devil and travelled by flying broomstick, or upon the backs of goats, or, rather unfortunate men. On Walpurgisnacht a witch’s business would be exclusively conducted during the hours when darkness reigned. This “business” consisted of killing and feasting on children, but they also took time out to desecrate a few Christian symbols and take advantage of the careless or ill-prepared.

How though, did Walpurgisnacht come to be? No one is certain; however, the day has been influenced and molded by many different cultures and beliefs throughout the centuries and some modern day observances can still be found, particularly in Germany.

Celts referred to the eve of May as Cet Samhain – the opposite of Samhain or Halloween, as April 30th falls exactly six months after Samhain. It is believed that on these two nights the veil between the worlds separating the living and the dead – the seen and the unseen, thins, allowing devils, demons, and witches to mingle openly among us as they travel to their meeting places. Many of them will be on their way to The Broken, the highest mountain peak in Germany’s Harz Mountains, surrounded by a deep, dark, and wild forest that is often shrouded in thick mists.

Mayday (May 1st) and All Soul’s Day, (November 1st), are known as cross-quarter days, as they roughly fall between the equinox and solstice – a crossroads of the year, as it were. Since the days of Ancient Greece, it is Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, who stands guard at these crossroads. There, an unwitting traveller was likely to encounter ghosts and mischievous elementals, mysterious lights and music, witness the celebratory cavorting of witches and other beasties, and even be at risk of permanently losing their shadow.

Witches on the Sabbath - Luis Ricardo Falero
Witches on the Sabbath – Luis Ricardo Falero

The classic German book for children, “The Little Witch,” provides us with a rundown of exactly which witches were among Walpurgisnacht celebrants. There are mountain witches, wood witches, mist witches, marsh witches, storm witches, wind witches, flower witches, and herb witches. Each region seems to have their own witchy figure who presides over this important night.

In some European countries, it is Holda who rules the skies this night, as she flies over the spring fields with a horde of unbaptized children.

Many tales and traditions point to the figure of Walburga, who bears a crown and shoes of fire. It is said that she hides among the newly growing things in the fields or even within the small grains of wheat. In the days before Walpurgisnacht, the ghostly riders of the Wild Hunt have been seen pursuing her.

Photograph by William Mortensen
Photograph by William Mortensen

In France, there is Dame Blanche accompanied by her entourage of cats and owls. This white lady haunts bridges, thorn-filled ditches and smaller waterways. Incur her wrath and she will push you over a cliff, adorn your flesh with thorns, or simply allow her kitties to devour you.

Through the years, many springtime festivals have contributed and influenced Walpurgisnacht, such as the Roman’s Floralia – a Medieval forest battle waged between King Winter and the May Queen. As dawn approached, the queen is triumphant and as legend has it, human sacrifices were burned. In later years, effigies crafted from straw are thrown into the flames. Such rituals were practiced as a guarantee of wealth, health, and prosperity. To forego them would mean certain doom for you, your family, your livestock and crops.

Livestock were adorned with bouquets of herbs in hopes of repelling mischievous fairy folk. Exits and entryways were protected in a similar vein – sometimes with crosses fashioned from the magical rowan or hawthorn tree.

Witches Flying To Sabbath - Bernard Zuber
Witches Flying To Sabbath – Bernard Zuber

In parts of Eastern Europe pitchforks of hay were set ablaze and waved about to frighten unwelcome spirits. Meanwhile, in Scotland, great bonfires were set in each village. Here, people gathered to dance around the fire commanding the flames to rise high enough to burn the witches flying overhead.

Noisemaking was often employed to scare away evil spirits, demons, and witches. Such practices are incorporated into various traditions throughout the world – from China with its fireworks, or the North American tradition of tying cans to a newly-wedded couple’s car, to Western Europe with the reveling and banging of pots and pans to ring in the New Year. These traditions, along with pounding wooden boards on the ground, ringing the church bell, and the firing of guns are still widely practiced, although their purpose is largely forgotten.

Homes should also be protected against witchcraft and deviltry. All brooms must be hidden away on Walpurgisnacht, lest a witch come and take it from you. Of course, you are never to allow a strange woman who knocks on your door inside the house. Instead, keep her busy by commanding her to count every blade of grass beyond your doorstep before you grant entry.

My own definition of a witch is a woman who wields wisdom, strength, and knowledge – all qualities equaling power – a magic in and of itself. So, on this Walpurgisnacht, I ask you to remember, honor, and respect witches and their place in the world, in our imaginations and most importantly, in ourselves.

Resources

Raedisch, Linda. Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions and Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night. Llewellyn Publications, February 8, 2011
Cooper, John Michael. Mendelssohn, Goethe, and the Walpurgis Night. BOYE6, September 1, 2010
Jones, Prudence. A History of Pagan Europe. Routledge; Revised ed. edition, March 14, 1997
Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, Volumes I-III, 1883. Nabu Press September 13, 2010

Sarah Troop

Sarah Troop

Sarah Troop is the executive director of the Order of the Good Death and a museum curator. Her research and writing focuses on feminist death and the relationship between food and death.
Sarah Troop