Walpurgis Night: A Saint, Witches, and Pagan Beliefs in a Springtime Halloween for Scandinavia
Walpurgis Night is the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurgis, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Walpurgis Night falls on April 30th and is a traditional holiday celebrated in northern Europe and Scandinavia. It may surprise you to know this festival has nothing to do with the saint, instead, it is a spring celebration with striking similarities to Halloween.
Who Was Saint Walpurga?
Walpurgis Night is known alternatively as Saint Walpurga’s Eve, Walpurgisnacht, and Vappu. Saint Walpurga (known also as Valborg, Wealdburg, or Valderburger) was born around 710 AD, probably in the English Kingdom of Wessex. She became a member of the community at the Wimborne Abbey, Dorset, and was later summoned by Winebald, her brother, to serve as abbess at his double monastery of monks and nuns at Heidenheim, in modern day Germany. She died in 779 AD and was buried in Heidenheim. Around 870 AD, her remains were transferred to the Church of the Holy Cross at Eichstätt. As this occurred on May 1st, this date has become associated with the saint.
Saint Walpurga. (1535/1540) by Master of Messkrich. (Public Domain)
The celebration of Walpurgis Night has little to do with either Christianity, or Saint Walpurga. Instead, the origins of this festival may be found in the period before the arrival of Christianity in northern Europe. As the festival falls during the period when spring arrived, the pagans conducted rituals to welcome spring and ensure the fertility of the land.
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Witches and Walpurgis Night
For some reason, Walpurgis Night is also associated with witches. In German folklore, for instance, it is said that witches from all over the land would gather for a great sabbath on top of the Brocken (also known as the Blocksberg), the highest peak of the Harz mountain range. This notion was first recorded during the 17th century in Johannes Präetorius’, The Blocksberg Performance, a tome about the history and geography of the mountain and the region. It was, however, during the 19th and 20th century that the witches’ sabbath on the Brocken became popular in art and literature, most notably in Goethe’s well-known play Faust.
Lewis Morrison as "Mephistopheles" in Faust! – "The Brocken". Poster for a theatrical performance of Goethe's play showing Mephistopheles conjuring supernatural creatures on the German mountain, the Brocken (or Blocksberg), which according to the tale is the scenery for the Walpurgis night, from 30 April to 1 May. (Public Domain)
In line with the belief that Walpurgis Night was a night when witches and other evil entities were roaming freely around the land, certain practices were developed to keep them at bay. Thus, in Germany, on Walpurgis Night, people would dress up in costumes, and make loud noises. Additionally, to ward off these malevolent forces, people would also hang blessed sprigs of foliage from houses or barns, or leave offerings of bread with butter and honey (known as ‘ankenschnitt’) for phantom hounds.
“Walpurgisnacht. Der Aufbruch der Hexen” (Walpurgis Night. The Departure of the Witches) (1878) by Luis Ricardo Falero. (Public Domain)
Another typical activity carried out on Walpurgis Night is the lighting of bonfires, which, according to one tradition, was also a means of warding off witches. Another tradition states that the lighting of bonfires dates back to pre-Christian times. During that period, the pagan Germans would leave their livestock to graze around the spring equinox. In order to scare away wild animals, they would light bonfires, dance around them, and make much noise. When Christianity arrived, the bishops found that these activities were a little too pagan. Instead of banning it, however, the bishops decided to shift it to Walpurgis Night, so that it could be associated with the Christian saint.
A Walpurgis Night bonfire. (CC0)
Happy Walpurgisnacht! Happy Vappu!
Saint Walpurga was never associated with Scandinavia and Walpurgis Night originated in Germany, where she served as abbess for about half her life. Nevertheless, this festival spread to the north, and is today also celebrated in such countries as Sweden and Finland. Moreover, Walpurgis Night is an important holiday in these countries.
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A large Walpurgis Night celebration in Heidelberg. (Andreas Fink/CC BY SA 2.0)
In Finland, for example, Walpurgis Night is known also as Vappu, and is one of the country’s most important holidays. Although it was initially celebrated by the upper class, during the late 19th century it became popular amongst university students. Today, Walpurgis Night is celebrated by all segments of both Finnish and Swedish societies.
People at a Vappu picnic in Kaivopuisto, Helsinki, on 1 May 2008. (JIP/CC BY SA 3.0)
Top image: Detail of ‘Walpurgisnacht’ (Walpurgis Night) by Fritz Roeber. Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
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